Back in the Summer of '69

Written in 1995. Book Report on Murakami Ryu's Novel 69 for Modern Japanese History.

The influence Japan has received from the West, especially America, is blatant to any person with knowledge of modern day Japan, and remains one of the most widely discussed topics in Japanese studies. Beginning with the Meiji Restoration's governmental restructuring and industrial development, which resulted in obvious movements towards becoming a Western-style power a century ago, this trend strengthened after World War II, and generations since then have become gradually more and more "Americanized". The Japanese and American youth of today have many similarities, because, in this age of mass media, culture is evolving quickly in both countries, and the increasing speed and ease of communication is allowing the cultures to grow in the same direction, thus becoming more similar. One obvious result has been a change in literature, evident in both countries, but much more striking in Japan. Of course literature remains somehow recognizably Japanese, but the settings, characters, and themes of the novels are ones which would be expected to be found in Western novels. A good example of a writer creating works of this sort can be seen in Ryu Murakami. Born in the early 50's and raised near an American Navy base in Sasebo in Kyushu, he was surrounded by images of America. In 1969, like countless other Japanese and American teenagers, he was listening to Simon and Garfunkel, dissatisfied with his government and society, and looking to have some fun. At the age of 35 he published the book 69 in which he presents a semi-autobiographical story through the character of Kensuke Yazaki and his involvement in the counter-culture and anti-establishment movements of the late 60's and early 70's, while at the same time dealing with the issue of American influence on Japan.

The story centers around the barracading of Sasebo's Northern High School and the organization of a film/play/concert festival by Ken and his friends. Entering the year 1969, Ken was already viewed as peculiar by his classmates for being in a band, attempting to stage an anti-US military play at school, and, as a member of the newspaper club, publishing material without faculty permission which were banned and confiscated. For his next escapade, Ken wanted to make a movie with his friend Iwase, but their first attempts to save money to buy a camera were thwarted by Ken's ubiquitous short-sightedness when he took a cute girl out to lunch. Looking for a frontman to gather support for their event, Ken sought out Adama, a good-looking and charismatic classmate, who he and Iwase thought would be helpful in organizing the festival and making a movie. Ken won Adama's interest and friendship by showing him a poem by Rimbaud and aweing him with talk about literature; in truth, though, Ken's seeming knowledge was nothing more than a front he had created "to seduce women".

Another classmate who Ken wanted to recruit was Kazuko Matsui, Northern High's most attractive student, as the female lead in the movie. One day while talking with her, Ken began rattling off his anti-Vietnam War speel, evidently trying to impress her, to which she commented that she really thought she could understand the feelings of the students who were demonstrating and barracading schools on TV in protest of the war. Thinking he needed to get her attention to get her to be in the movie (and/or to get her to date him) and that she liked men who barracaded schools, Ken decided that he and his friends would have to graffiti and barracade Northern High.

Ken gathered support from the Northern High chapter of the Joint Campus Action Committee, forming a new dissident group called Vajra, and they executed his plan late on July 19th, the night before summer vacation began. After they finished barracading the school, one of the boys from the Committee was stupid and, acting suspicious on his way home, got caught by the police. He was more than willing to talk to the investigators, resulting in all of them being discovered and confined to their homes for several months. On the day he came back to school, Ken met Kazuko in the hall and made a date for after school to talk about her appearing in the movie. However, the plans were scrapped when it was announced that all of the girls in the high school would be practicing after school for the upcoming National Athletic Meet. Angry that his date with the beautiful Kazuko had been broken up for such a stupid reason, Ken organized a rally with the third year students protesting the practice (on the grounds that it interfered with studying for college entrance exams). Although before the rally the teachers had been spiteful towards him for the defacation of the school, after it they were so tired of him that they left him entirely alone. This, however, was not the only positive result of the barracading and rally, as he had managed to win Kazuko over to star in his movie, and to be his girlfriend. Unmonitored and riding on a wave of notoriety, Ken and his friends soon began preperations for their festival, which they dubbed the "Morning Erection Festival". The festival was a huge success, gathering all of his friends together, as well as hundreds of people he'd never met before. It also served as a big punctuation mark on the end of the eventful year of 1969.

Throughout the story, Murakami seems to be pushing one central idea: spontaneity, or at least youthful energy, cannot (and should not) be contained. This can be seen in Ken's rejection of the Japanese establishment, embodied by the educational system, which he views as a factory, or sorting house, that takes children and turns them into domesticated, well-trained animals. Ken and others like him cannot reach their potentials while trapped in the machinations of this system, and his struggles to break free result in reactionary conflicts with school authorities. Ken's will to be an individual is so strong that it carries others with him. Iwase, a bottom-of-the-class nobody when Ken met him, eventually sees that he is only following in the footsteps of Ken and Adama, and breaks off from the Morning Erection Festival to do his own thing: write poetry. Adama, although he had been at the top of his class, found himself after befriending Ken, and within a short time became fluent in the literature and authors which Ken only gave lip-service to.

One vivid image used to illustrate the need for adolescents to be free to be themselves can be seen in the releasing of the chickens at the end of the book. During the preparations for the festival, Ken had read an article about a Velvet Underground concert and their use of animals on the ballroom floor to represent the chaos in today's world. Ken decided that he would need a similar prop when his band played at the festival, but realized that the only animals he could really get his hands on were chickens. Traveling with Adama out to the country-side farm of man Adama knew, Ken was able to buy a dozen chickens very cheaply from a farmer, due to the fact that they had all gone crazy from being trapped in sardine-like conditions, and would no longer move, let alone lay eggs. Adama, depressed by the sad state of the chickens, suggested they release them in the wilderness after the concert. The book ends with a headline which ran in a local paper some years after, "WILD SUPERCHICKENS.. TEN METERS IN A SINGLE BOUND!" The message, evidently, is that although the majority of chickens don't mind being herded around and cramped into uncomfortable living situations, the ones who can't take it are eliminated. If these same chickens are set free, however, they can accomplish amazing things.

The book is also ripe with examples of American influence on Japan, such as jazz clubs, the Woodstock-modeled Morning Erection Festival, and the folk-life festivals associated with anti-war protesting. In response to a question in an interview with Tokyo Journal, regarding America's influence on him, and whether the influence on Japan is positive or not, Murakami said "It's not a question of negative or positive. I simply liked American culture, films, music, novels. But Japan's a hysterical country. . . It's just too easy to become a rightist - or a slave of American values." This is easy to see today, with, on one hand, questionably sane political activists promoting the return of the emperor to power, and on the other, young Japanese embracing American culture unquestioningly and reformers preaching societal institutional reworking based on American models.

Already in 69 Ken could find many examples of right-wing nationalists and of America-worshipers. The one regret Ken had over the barracading of the school was that it had given the teachers and students something to rally around. The morning after, when Ken arrived at school to see what he and his friends had accomplished, the entire faculty and student body were scrubbing away at the graffiti with paint thinner and going at the barracade with wire cutters and brute strength. One young boy (who, by the way, later entered Keio University, joined the Communist activists group, and was thrown in jail), the vice president of the student council, had been kneeling over a big red "KILL!", crying as he scrubbed away at the paint. Seeing Ken, he ran up to him and grabbed him by the collar, begging him to say he hadn't been responsible. Ken was thrown off guard by the intense reaction to the graffiti:

I couldn't figure out how he could be so upset. Somebody paints slogans on the walls of your school - is that something to start blubbering over? What was it to him, a holy shrine? People like this were dangerous, though. Very naive. It was people like this who had murdered and tortured and raped in Korea and China. People like this cried over graffiti, but it was nothing to them if one of their classmates started sucking sailors dicks as soon as she graduated from junior high.

Confused by the boy's ability to believe so strongly in something without noticing the real world around him, Ken shook him off and walked away.

The end of this quote refers to a girl named Chiyoko who had a crush on Ken during their second year of junior high, and wrote him a love letter saying she liked the author Hesse, who Ken had mentioned during class. Ken, interested in another girl, never replied, but a few years later saw Chiyoko, hair dyed red and face caked with makeup, walking arm in arm with a black sailor. Evidentally there was a house near Ken's where some navy groupies lived, where he occasionally saw them having sex with American servicemen, and he assumed Chiyoko had drifted from Herman Hesse to whoring. Another example of an America-lover was Adachi, owner of Four Beat, a local jazz bar. The bar attracted many servicemen, and occasionally they would perform; whether it be a black man who could pass as Chet Baker playing trumpet or a small group harmonizing blues tunes. The owner's entire life was maintaining this little America-away-from-America, and sometimes, when really wasted on alcohol or drugs, he would start sobbing and whimper "Shit, why wasn't I born black?"

Ken, regarded by his teachers as a low-life trash, is an imaginitive youth seeking new experiences who, like many bright Japanese adolescents, is held back by the society and educational system in which he is trapped. Ryu Murakami, though, emphasizes that answers to Japan's problems are neither to be found by blindly accepting American answers nor by attempting to more strongly enforce Japanese traditional resolutions. Indeed, as Murakami states, "We've lost our sense of direction. What should Japan do next?.. We have to - and I am desperately trying to - find some sense of our own value and perspective. DJs say 'Hi Everybody!' in English. People dress like rappers just because they think they look cool.. We can't express ourselves through Kabuki these days, but that doesn't mean we should try to express ourselves through rap. We need new ways to express ourselves, and that's difficult." Japan, with the clear sense of direction a century ago, took on Westernization in bottoms-up fashion; today, with th path less clear, Japanese society seems to be advancing randomly in the same toss-your-head-back, all-in-one-gulp fashion. Contemporary Japanese writers, such as Ryu Murakami with his attacks on social institutions and misguided social trends, are attempting to remind the Japanese where they've been and point out to them where they should go in the future.