Step into Haruki Murakami's surreal worlds in his new library in Tokyo

The wooden staircase forms the centrepiece of the Haruki Murakami Library at Waseda University.
The wooden staircase forms the centrepiece of the Haruki Murakami Library at Waseda University.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Haruki Murakami has held many identities in his 72 years of life: student, record store employee, owner of the jazz bar and coffee shop Peter Cat, radio DJ and - his claim to fame - best-selling and critically acclaimed author of surrealist Japanese fiction.

All these selves are brought to life at a new library at his alma mater, Waseda University, in Tokyo.

The Haruki Murakami Library - officially known as the Waseda International House Of Literature - opens this Friday. It spans six storeys, including one basement floor. Three storeys are open to the public, while the other three are for literature researchers.

Murakami fans can take a peek into the literary mind behind his stories - with their signature motifs of jazz and cats - at the library, which houses his oeuvre of novels in both the Japanese language as well as translated editions.

The writer, a music lover who has since 2018 helmed his own regular radio programme on Tokyo FM, has also donated his own expansive collection of vinyl records.

"To be honest, I wish a place like this could have been built only after I'm dead," he quipped at a news conference last Wednesday.

"I'd have wanted to rest in peace and have someone else take care of the library as I am sleeping. I feel a bit nervous seeing this while I'm still alive," he said to chuckles from the packed auditorium of media.

Despite his high international visibility, he is said to be camera-shy. Access to the news conference was laden with conditions - neither photos nor videos were allowed of the novelist outside the official photo session.

Murakami, decked in a slightly wrinkled navy summer blazer over a mustard T-shirt, khaki slacks and a pair of black Vans sneakers, appeared relaxed as he fielded questions about the library.

The idea of a facility dedicated to him came about in 2018, when he offered to donate his personal collection to Waseda University as he was fast running out of storage space at home.

He joked that he was never a good student and that his fondest memories of the university, where he enrolled in 1968 and studied theatre, were of not being in class.

It was only after he graduated in 1975 that he realised how much he missed learning, which he has come to believe is "no different from breathing" since people are constantly absorbing information.

His student years occurred during a turbulent era in Japan, with the late 1960s marked by nationwide sit-in protests among undergraduates over various political and civil disputes.

Fellow Waseda alumnus Tadashi Yanai, also 72, who had likewise enrolled in 1968 and read economics, donated 1.2 billion yen (S$14.7 million) for the library's construction.

Mr Yanai is now the billionaire owner of Fast Retailing, the parent company of Uniqlo.


A recreation of the personal study that novelist Haruki Murakami currently uses at the Haruki Murakami Library at Waseda University. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

At the press conference, he said he was an avid reader of his batchmate's work, fascinated by "the mind spaces he excavates in their familiar unfamiliarity".

The duo hope the library will become a springboard for literary and cultural exchanges globally. Murakami said it was important for students to learn from their professors, but added they should also dare to "pitch their own ideas and actually start something".

Mr Yanai lamented what he saw as Japan's waning cultural influence globally. He said Murakami, whose works are devoured internationally, can play a key role in growing Japan's clout, with the institution becoming a world-class research facility on not just the author but also literature and translation work that will act as a bridge for Japanese culture to the rest of the world.


A studio in The Waseda International House of Literature. PHOTO: AFP

The library's chief architect is the renowned Kengo Kuma, who designed Japan's Olympic Stadium and now lectures part-time at Waseda University.

His wooden aesthetic is prominent throughout the public spaces. Visitors entering the building are greeted by a three-storey wooden floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, with steps where they can sit and read.

On display are tiny white figurines that allude to Murakami's stories.

Another striking design element is a wood-and-metal tunnel-like passageway outside the building, which Mr Kuma said was inspired by how Murakami's protagonists often transcend boundaries between real and surreal worlds.


A tunnel-like passageway flanks two sides of the Haruki Murakami Library. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

The library will likely excite fans with its faithful recreation of Murakami's personal work space, right down to details such as the type of rug and the model of his table lamp.

Readers can dive into his rich bibliography, alongside a curated collection of global literary works, while listening to jazz music by the likes of artistes Billie Holiday and Miles Davis from his vinyl collection.

Other artefacts on display include a Yamaha grand piano that Murakami used when he was running Peter Cat before he published his 1979 debut, Hear The Wind Sing.

He became a breakout literary star with tragic romance novel Norwegian Wood (1987) and has since topped bestseller lists with titles such as the fantastical Kafka On The Shore (2002) and the epic 1Q84 (2009 to 2010).

Kafka On The Shore has been staged theatrically, including in Singapore in 2015, and stage props including a large neon-lit model of the planet Saturn are also showcased.

There is also a radio studio that supports live broadcasts as well as an exhibition space, where a show from this Friday to Feb 4 examines the role of literature in architecture and vice versa through Mr Kuma's construction of the library.


Ms Sawa Ishimaru and Ms Lucy Lin are among the three employees at the student-run cafe Orange Cat located at the basement of the Haruki Murakami Library. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

Another tribute to Murakami's Peter Cat years is the student-run cafe, Orange Cat, which serves a speciality "Murakami Blend" developed with Tokyo's artisanal Horiguchi Coffee.

Three undergraduates run the cafe, including literature major Sawa Ishimaru, 22, who is in her fourth year at the School of Culture, Media and Society. She told The Sunday Times that she was inspired to work at the cafe as she loves to read.