Haruki Murakami Accepting the Jerusalem Prize – by Emmett

In February, Japanese fiction luminary Haruki Murakami traveled to Israel to accept the Jerusalem Prize. Murakami had doubts about accepting the award, which honors the freedom of the individual in society, for good reasons. Israel had recently launched its overpowered offensive on the Gaza strip; he rightly felt ambivalent about the implications of being the new literary son of Israel. Before he decided to travel to Israel, he received the kind of advice that many artists hear when their work is suddenly brought into the political by their readership: don’t go, your work will be boycott, you will be choosing sides. Indeed, his attendance did spark all of these, including protests in Japan. However, Murakami’s speech found, in the turmoil of nations and ideas, an opportunity to put war-making nations in their place.

As he addressed the crowd in Jerusalem, he asserted that “the purpose of a story is to sound an alarm, to keep the light trained on the System in order to prevent it from tangling our souls in its web and demeaning them,” pitting himself against the system which had just bestowed upon him a $10,000 award. However, Murakami’s speech not only defended his decision to accept the controversial prize (for $10,000 can only help him do his job better) but also crafted an eloquent criticism of Israel:

“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.”

Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will do it. But if there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?
What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them. This is one meaning of the metaphor.

Israel had chosen Murakami as the author who best illustrates the individual’s struggle against the society and here the man was, doing just that. He is indeed right that works standing with the wall have little value; they forfeit to the power of the system and create nothing themselves.

Murakami seems aware of how thin the ice is he walks, yet he cannot resist poking a few holes. In his conclusion, he declares that “[t]he System did not make us: we made the System.” Yet, the next step would have been to acknowledge that power to unmake the system; however, that may be a step farther than the author means to take. The wall and the System are not universally given; they are not permanent. People built them and people can tear them down. What is most important is that he uses the power given to the artist by his audience to offer up a vision of the world to those who do not share it. In the end, it is not the artist who is the revolutionary, but the audience.

Read the full text of his speech here: http://www.47news.jp/47topics/e/93880.php


Filed under Books, Fiction, Inspiration!, Japan, Literature, News, Reading

2 responses to “Haruki Murakami Accepting the Jerusalem Prize – by Emmett

  1. Jamie Thomson

    Interesting topic. I thought his speech was well-written and his hardly obscure wall-egg reference to Israel’s “System” and the Palestinians will surely raise a few eyebrows.

    However, although I do respect Murakami’s continuous emphasis (throughout most of his work it seems) on sustaining “the individual’s soul” against a “System” that may quash it, I also feel that using Israel and Palestine in the same context was a bad choice.

    While it may strike a chord of hurrah from one side and a chord of distaste from another, I think if you dig deeper then it becomes to be a rather ill-timed and naive generalisation.

    First of all, I’m confused as to what Murakami’s “System” refers to. He’s talked about the lack of individualism in the Japanese work mentality that has brought lack of connection amongst the Japanese, something I personally agree with. Not only in Japan but in any labour environment one can see how bureaucracy and the human spirit he refers to are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Thus, any abuse or excessive use of the former would indeed leave little room for the “individual soul”.

    However, here there is no talk of Israeli bureaucracy drowning unique voices but instead of a large opposing force that is no match for the Palestinian eggs; a military might that should not be supported when the underdogs have a far better story to tell. This is my second qualm.

    It just seems to be a rather simple, stripped down point to be making when he is claiming to not support either side. First, one could argue that in fact Israel is not the wall but in fact the egg, fighting the opinion of over a billion Muslims that Israel shouldn’t exist. Surely that reverses the parties? Or how about radicals training young children to hate and to kill for purposes not of their own being a far more worrying System?

    I personally don’t have a stance on this conflict. Well, not one that I would be able to sum up in a speech and certainly not one that I was so sure about I could not only avoid being direct about it but I could use obscure metaphors to explain it for me.

    The point is, I feel Murakami, if he does have an opinion on this crisis should have either left his opinions at home or elaborated. Using this metaphor seemed just as pointless and counterproductive as if he had whipped out the chicken vs the egg argument.

  2. toranosuke

    Excellent, interesting post. Thank you for sharing this.

    While the comparison of the Israeli army to the “high wall” and the Palestinians to the “egg” may seem obvious, consider this:

    Israel is a tiny country in a region dominated by Arab-Muslim states, in a world where majority opinion is often stacked against it. If terrorist organizations and the Arab states and foreign people who support them are the “high wall”, Israel is the egg. Israel is the voice of change, the one opposing a larger, stronger, more well-entrenched enemy which represents an older and more widely spread System, i.e. network of terrorist activities and supporters.

    In light of the “individual’s struggle against society,” Israel being the only liberal Western-style democracy in the region, I think Israel represents the individual and his struggle to be accepted, or at least tolerated, in wider society. Israel stands for freedoms and liberties, for the rights of individuals to a greater extent than any Arab or Muslim state does.

    Regardless of his comments, how they were intended or interpreted, I applaud Murakami for going to Jerusalem and accepting the award; it was given for apolitical reasons, acknowledging his art and skill, and should be accepted in such a fashion. Regardless of his comments in accepting this, I think it a better move than boycotting a literary award granted by a first-world Western democracy on political grounds – had he done so, he would be the one introducing politics into this, not the Israeli arts/culture/literature committee.

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