An unforeseen proxy war is escalating over world-famous author Haruki Murakami’s first new full-length novel in four years, Killing Commendatore (Kishidancho Goroshi). In the book, one of Murakami’s characters expresses his doubts about the number of victims of the Nanjing Incident in 1937 which occurred under the Japanese military’s occupation of China during the Fifteen-Year War. Many people have taken to the internet to voice their anger with the character’s pronouncements, while there are many others who support Murakami, claiming that a novel is not meant to be a historical monograph.
Published in two volumes, Killing Commendatore is a runaway bestseller, having already sold some 1.38 million copies. The book is the story of a strange event which befalls a portrait painter whose wife suddenly walks out on him. Over the course of the tale, Murakami shines a light on the protagonist’s negative wartime memories.
The controversy surrounding the book stems from a few lines in the second volume by a mysterious character named “Menshiki.” While talking about another character’s past, Menshiki mentions the Nanjing Massacre, and explains to the protagonist that, among other things, the Japanese military massacred most of the citizens of Nanjing, along with most of the soldiers there who had already surrendered: “A staggering number of citizens were caught up in the fighting and killed…This is an ineradicable fact. Some people say that as many as 400,000 Chinese died in the massacre, while others say it was 100,000.”
China claims that the Nanjing Incident claimed 300,000 victims, though recent research in Japan has suggested that this number is greatly exaggerated, with some even saying that what happened in Nanjing was not even notable enough to rise to the level of an “incident.”
In the midst of this ongoing historical research, author Naoki Hyakuta took to Twitter on February 24—the date Murakami’s new book went on sale—to sarcastically forecast that “[The parts about Nanjing] will make Murakami’s book a bestseller in China. The Chinese are likely to champion Murakami for a Nobel Prize if for no other reason than that they can now say tell the world that even Japan’s most popular contemporary novelist is admitting to the ‘Nanjing Massacre’.”
There has also been no end to the comments online: “Murakami’s number is bigger even than China’s 300,000.” “Show us the evidence.” Conversely, not a few were taking a wait-and-see approach, saying, “We shouldn’t conflate a novel with a work of historical investigation,” and “This is about nothing more than lines spoken by a fictional character.”
The outcry over the dialogue has spread to China as well. On March 4, the Japanese-language version of the Renmin Ribao website reported that the blog run by the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall praised Murakami for squarely confronting history: “There are more people agreeing with Murakami than criticizing him…for facing up directly to history.”
Ritsumeikan University emeritus professor Minoru Kitamura, a scholar of modern Chinese political history, expressed his anxiety about the incident: “It is unknown what the evidence could be for the claim of 400,000 victims. The figure is given by a character in a novel, to be sure. But simply by dint of Murakami’s authority as a world-renowned writer, there is the possibility that the Chinese will henceforth turn this tiny molehill into a gigantic mountain for political purposes.”
In a short story Murakami published in 2014 set in the Hokkaido town of Nakatonbetsu, one of the characters expresses his feeling that it is “normal” for people to throw cigarette butts out in the street. Some members of the town council protested this remark, and the town in the novel was subsequently given a fictitious name instead. As a source in the publishing industry says of Murakami, it is likely that this incident will also display his “power of social influence which goes beyond that of a single novelist.”