Many foods appear in Haruki Murakami’s works, but eel is special among them. In “Kafka on the Shore”, Murakami has Satoru Nakata talk about how irreplaceable eels are.

“Eel is quite a treat. There’s something different about it, compared to other food. Certain foods can take the place of others, but as far as I know, nothing can take the place of eel.” (Kafka on the Shore, Ch.6)

Eel on the rice in a bowl (Tokyo Style)

In Norwegian Wood, Toru and Midori eat eel before watching the film. The eel represents the feeling of something special (and unusual) that exists in everyday life.

Hey, why don’t we go now and see a dirty movie?” Midori suggested. “A real, filthy S and M one.” We went from the bar to an eel shop, and from there to one of Shinjuku’s most run-down theaters for an adult triple feature. (Norwegian Wood, Ch.9)

Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku, Tokyo

Today, the 28th of July, is “Eel Day” this year, a summer tradition of eating eels. Due to the difference between the solar and lunar calendars, the date varies from year to year, but it is generally a day in late July or early August.

Cooking methods vary from region to region in Japan. In Tokyo, at least, the word “eel” simply refers to eel meat that has been steamed and then grilled, served on top of rice in a bowl or box (sometimes without rice). In western parts such as Osaka, eel is not steamed but just grilled and placed on top of rice; in Nagoya (the home of Tsukuru Tazaki), eel meat is cut into pieces and served on top of rice in a rice chest (I don’t know why).

The elegant Mimi in Kafka on the Shore is also fond of eel.

“Actually, Nakata’s very fond of tuna. Of course I like eel as well.” “I’m fond of eel myself. Though it’s not the sort of thing you can eat all the time.” “That’s true. You couldn’t eat it all the time.” The two of them were silent for a time, eel musings filling the passing moments. (Kafka on the Shore, Ch.10)

The above “eel musings filling the passing moments ” describes Nakata and the elegant Mimi pondering over eels, but this scene is much more suggestive than that description.

Motoyuki Shibata (1954-) is a scholar of American literature, now professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, who has translated and introduced to Japan the works of Paul Auster, Steven Millhauser, Stuart Dybek, and Rebecca Brown. Shibata is known as a friend of Murakami’s, and Murakami has contributed a number of articles to the magazine Monkey, which Shibata runs.

In 2004 (two years after the release of Kafka on the Shore), Shibata published ‘Nine Interviews; “Motoyuki Shibata and Nine Writers”, which includes interviews with Siri Hustvedt, Art Spiegelman, T.R. Pearson, Stuart Dybek, Richard Powers, Rebecca Brown, Kazuo Ishiguro, Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami.

In the interview by Shibata, Murakami presented his “Eel Theory”;

Murakami: I always say that a novel has to be a three-way discussion.
Shibata: Three-way discussion?
Murakami: A three-way discussion. I have an “eel theory”. There is me, the writer, and there are the readers. But a novel can’t be completed with just those two people. There needs to be an eel. Something has to be an eel.
Shibata: Huh.
Murakami: No, it doesn’t have to be an eel, though (laughs). It just happens to be eels, in my case. I don’t care what it is, but I like eels. That’s why I invite eels into the relationship between myself and my readers, and the three of us, me, the eels and the readers, sit down and talk about things. That’s how the novel comes to be.
Shibata: Is that the same as saying that it’s hard to write about yourself, so you should write what you think about croquettes?
Murakami: It’s the same. It could be croquettes, eels, fried oysters, anything (laughs). (laughs) I like croquettes and fried oysters as well.
Shibata: I was taken aback by the idea of a three-way discussion (laughs).
Murakami: That’s the kind of thing that’s necessary. But I don’t think there have been many existing novels with that kind of idea in them. There’s always been an exchange between the writer and the reader, and in some cases, the critics. But it often stuck, then ends up as “littĕra”. But when there are three, if the two of us don’t understand, we say, “Well, let’s ask the eel. Then the eel will answer us, and the mystery might get even deeper. (…)
Shibata: But in that case, what is an eel (laughs)?
Murakami: I don’t know, but for example, you can set it up as a third party, just like that. It could be something like a shared alter-ego. It’s a simple way of putting it. For me, I don’t want to say it too simply, and I want to leave it just as an eel.
(‘Nine Interviews; “Motoyuki Shibata and Nine Writers, 2004)

Our world is full of irrational beings that we take for granted in our everyday lives. If a writer misses them when representing the world in their story, they loses something essential. I think Murakami described it as an “eel”.

Eel on the rice in a box (Tokyo style)

By the way, the lamprey eel resembles an eel in appearance, but looks like it has eight eyes, hence the name “eel with eight eyes” in Japanese. It has a different flavour to eel and is not generally eaten, although it is served in some restaurants. (I have not personally eaten it).

In Japan, lamprey eel is known as an ingredient of nourishing tonic, which echoes the word Scheherazade. Come to think of it, Scheherazade was first published in MONKEY magazine in 2014, which Shibata presides over.

I was a lamprey eel in a former life,” Scheherazade said once” (Scheherazade, Men Without Women)