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The Author as Philosophy Teacher: Characterizing Epistemology in Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore

Because a serious work of literature must provoke the senses, agitate spiritual sensibility, and raise questions on the meaning of this and that, it ought to be conceived as a vehicle for philosophical discourse, alluring the reader into the world of linguistic and ideological tempestuality by playing with texture and (borrowing the term for the sixties art movement “Fluxus” meaning conceptual malleability,) the flux-ibility of text as reality, in the mind of the reader. In other words, beyond the physicality of the narrative arc, of interactions of characters, and the Aristotelian formula of story-telling, I believe engaging literature should present and next, possess the reader with metaphysical questions of the notions of beingness, Time and Space, Fate and Free Will, and phenomenology of existence, amongst others. It must do so to create in the reader-responder, the “swing of delight” of the cognitive beingness and must leave him/her with the thirst and hunger offered by the thematic temptations of Philosophy.

Two out of three plates of offerings in the Banquet of Abstract Thinking — Epistemology (Theory of Knowledge) and Ontology (Worldview) — might be worth savoring in one’s reading of a literary text borne out of the womb of Philosophy, be it Continental or Eastern. It is within this analytical framework that I discuss Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore as a “metaphysical novel”, specifically pointing out instances in which the author present teachable moments in Philosophy, particularly of Shinto-Buddhism.

Each character an epistemology

Haruki Murakami’s 467-page-49-chapter Kafka on the Shore is an elegant translated from the Japanese prose of a hero’s journey of a fifteen-year-old boy from Tokyo who left his home not knowing that he is to embark on a pre-determined complex journey of “self-actualization” which included “killing his father, sleeping with his mother and his sister,” a prophecy that came true reminiscent of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (pg. 199). Kafka Tamura, as he renamed himself, entered the battlefield of joy and suffering, of the Buddhist notion of samsara, of mediating the complex dilemma of Fate and Free Will, and resolving anger – these in an epic psychological drama of dream sequences of both deeply poetic-erotic and violent proportions (396-400). His quest is to break a curse of being in erotic love with his mother, Miss Saeki (438-444). After journeying through a web and labyrinth of mind-bending experiences as in Gilgamesh’s Enkidu, he resolved the issue of being abandoned by his mother by forgiving her.       

How is Kafka on the Shore a metaphysical novel that teaches Philosophy, deliberately?

In this metaphorical and semiotic novel, Haruki uses his characters to impact philosophical themes familiar to Chaos Theorists and Shinto Buddhists. By the former I mean the philosophy characterized by the thinking that life, the universe, and everything is a matrix of patterned randomness and that any insignificant change in one aspect can, albeit in a non-causal way, through Time and Space bring about major systemic changes. What exists is an “everchanging present” in a complex network and weltanschauung of cause and effect (pg. 286-287). In Shinto-Buddhism, which I contend primarily informs this novel, a similar theme could be discerned: of life as the existence of consciousness, of causal relationships, and a reason for the Universe’s interplay between Determinism and Free Will, and that there is a fine line between Reality and the Dream World. There is a blurry notion of Evil but for lack of a better word, “inner demons” or “The Demon Mara” or “dark energy shrouding the path to enlightenment manifested in anger and the attachments to things,” (pgs. 451-452) – these are taught by Murakami through the characters in the novel.

Epistemologically, the main character fifteen-year-old Kafka is a voice for sense perception,  discovery, and Enlightenment, as well as the will for a human being to be set free, Nakata the sixty-year-old idiot-savant the voice of the human being imbued by the spirit of Animism (he talks to cats and stones) (Chapter 10) and supernaturalism (he is a vehicle for prophecies), and twenty-five-year-old Hoshino (a truck driver who lectures Nakata on socialism and enjoys cigarillos, women, and liquor), a voice for Socialism and Epicureanism (pgs. 323-326), Oshima the transgendered thirty-five-year-old the voice for Liberal Humanist philosophy (he is a librarian who imparts great ideas and explains them to Kafka whenever he has the chance.) (pg. 181 and pgs. 315-316) These main characters of Kafka on the Shore embody the way human being acquires knowledge and impart them. The special character, a crow named “A Boy Named Crow” represents the powerful god-like inner voice symbolizing Fate and Determinism (pgs. 442 and 280-281), out to guide Kafka and to battle demons, at the end of the story (pgs. 431-434). Even a prostitute serving Hoshina spewed philosophical ideas, (quoting Henri Bergson and Hegel) when she was in the intense heat of serving her client (pgs. 273-274), by virtue of her role as a college student majoring in Philosophy, moonlighting as a hooker. Two characters were crafted from American popular culture: Colonel Sanders (pg. 271) and Johnnie Walker (pgs. 139-149); the fried chicken man and the whiskey guy, serving important roles in presenting the corporate capitalist epistemology slanted towards Pulp Fiction mannerisms, ala radical film-maker Quentin Tarantino’s Absurdist hyper-enhanced representation of characters (see Chapters 16 and 28).

In all these instances, Murakami uses all his characters as promoters of a variety of philosophical offerings, each as a strand of epistemology itself, a reservoir of how knowledge is acquired. Each character is not only memorable but a product crafted with such finesse’ that even challenging philosophical ideas get presented in a most naturalistic way by their actions and the predictability of how this and that person with this and that orientation would do and say. In other words, each of them embodies a strand of the theory of knowledge well, revealed gradually in his elegant way of creating the necessary suspense at end of each chapter, to have the reader savor the language style, and most importantly the philosophical trajectories of the story.

kafka 1

Kafka’s world an ontology

Naming oneself Kafka (pg. 32) evokes a philosophical aura of the world of the main character: of the absurd Man and how “God is dead” notion of life and the existential path one is to take will not only determine the end of the story but also perhaps, alter Fate. There is no higher power or a Moses-looking god as in many a monotheistic religion nor three-million-or-so pantheons and avatars of the manifestations of a monotheistic philosophy, such as Hinduism, in the world Murakami built. There is the world constructed out of the elegant bricolage of psycho-philosophy of consciousness. By this, I mean a world in which the inner and the outer self, if it is to be harmonizing and in a state of “boddhisatvic balance” ought to be a one in which the enlightened self understands the nature of the “inner labyrinth and outer labyrinth” one is in and how one’s existence is both a metaphor and the will to find meaning (pg. 416). Murakami is teaching the reader a basic lesson in Shintoism, I argue. Shintoism, though essentially a folk religion dear to the Japanese, has its influence in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, or the “Buddha Maitreya” if one studied the genealogy of the two-thousand-year-old Indian philosophy of human consciousness.

The characters are locked in this spiritual-psychological ontology, or the world view in which the universe is conceived as a place fluctuations and metamorphoses of beingness and nothingness, good and bad karma, silence and screams of consciousness, prison-house of language and freedom through death, and the core of these lie in the idea that the root of suffering is the attachment of things. Therefore, at the journey, Kafka’s “reincarnation and the arrival of enlightenment” and the coming of age as the “toughest fifteen-year-old” (pg. 467) lie in “forgiving” his mother-cum-lover, Miss Saeki, and concluding the journey he crafted as a runaway clueless about where he is heading. In the end, his mother, upon accepting his son-lover’s forgiveness (pg. 442), lets go of her memories by burning her three-binder-filled life-long writing (391-392), before allowing Death to take her, in her ultimate goal, whether conscious or not, of leaving this world of things and memories for good (pg. 395)

Ecstasy and the brutal torture and anything in-between is the domains of the control of the Ruler of the Kingdom of Dreamscape, in a world of Freudian Philosophical problematique addressed nightly (or whenever one falls asleep,) should the occasion of dreaming arise (pgs. 386-388). At times, the dreamer wished the dreams to be real and at times wishing otherwise. Either way, life, whether conceived as an illusion or otherwise must continue until the conclusion to the world of “being-in-this-world” as Heidegger terms it — of a world of meaning-making, and of being able to feel the dualism of Mind and Body, as the mathematician and philosopher Rene’ Descartes called it, — either way a conclusion must be reached. Where one goes when consciousness dissipates into Nothingness is a perennial topic of Philosophical and Theological discourses since Man began to love talking about his love for wisdom. That activity is called philosophy or “philos and sofia” or the love for wisdom.

But what is a dream and what is wide awakeness but two circles without boundaries merging and metamorphosing, and a phenomenon conceived and debated amongst philosophers, theologians, and of late cognitive scientists and chaos theorists. This theme is also a feature of the psychology of Shinto-Buddhism addressed in Murakami’s novel.

Conclusion and Reflection

In crafting Kafka Tamura’s world, Haruki Murakami created a set of characters that speak the language of Philosophy, particularly of Shintoism, a folk religion influenced by Buddhism, whose core ideas and premises are similar to the modern-day field of study called Chaos or Complexity Theory. Murakami lets his characters live and breathe, and preach Philosophy. They become important subtexts to the grand narrative of Epistemology and Ontology called Kafka on the Shore. I contend that Haruki Murakami attempts to teach Philosophy deliberately through this novel.

The challenge of doing a reading of any “metaphysical novel” is the ability to deconstruct the text, approaching it from a meta-cognitive and meta-literary perspective, as well as ultimately doing a meta-reading of it. Seemingly, one needs to be equipped with a repertoire of knowledge of philosophical ideas employed by the author to construct his/her prose or poetry or personal narrative. A meta-reading is different, in that merely enjoying what one is reading, of which the aim is to find pleasure in responding to the text. The challenge, especially of reading a work of literature that weaves in key issues and propositions in both philosophies of the Ancients and the Moderns, to both, find extreme pleasure and ecstasy in being absorbed in the eroticism of the philosophical discourse skillfully sculptured into the text, in the process of its creation. It is not enough for literature to merely pleasure and entertain and bring joy and comfort in all its glory of crafting happy endings in the entire scheme of this ideological construct called “poetic justice” much in the tradition of Shakespearean Comedies or the plot of the Ramayana or The One Thousand and One Nights, not enough. More is needed in this world shaped by the interplay between Fate and Determinism, of the randomness of chaos, and the Bergsonian notion of multiplicity and multi-dimensionality of perspectives.

More than the claim above, a piece of work should shatter perceptions, beliefs, and stab and would and even maim the reader by the use of powerful words, sentences, passages, and ultimately elegant prose that carpet bombs the reader’s consciousness, leaving him or her undergoing a reader-response-linguistic karma of sort in the process and in the aftermath of devouring the piece of work. The piece of work must then be a teacher of Philosophy, whose lessons not only resonate in the reader but also render him/her stark naked and left to die on the shore, on tempestuous midnight. But where do we find such a piece that can also be metaphysically addictive and joyfully fatal, and like the Law of Manu destroys, constructs, and sustains this ephemerality called “consciousness” or memories that is said to dissipate upon death? In Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, I’d say.

I end this brief essay with the words of Kafka Tamura’s inner guide, “A Boy Named Crow” who said at the beginning of the journey:

“… And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about. “(pg. 6)


Murakami, Haruki (2005). Kafka on the Shore. (New York: Vintage)

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DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.

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