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Just as Murakami uses fascinating storytelling to bend the minds of his readers, he also manages to write about topics that many cultures would find taboo and to make them deeply human and regular, understandable experiences. One specific chapter stood out for the language MurakaMenoi used to juxtapose the characters' belief systems, demonstrating a need to investigate the use of tone and labels when it comes to socially dividing issues. 


What do you think when you hear the word “feminism”? Might your opinion change depending on the person who says it or the way you read it in a sentence? Do you bristle at the sound of the word or are you proud that it is a part of your identity? Or do you simply feel no attachment to the word? Reading Kafka on the Shore made me realize how such defining terminology can be very arbitrary and not actually bring us toward our ideal of progress. “Feminism” has a strong connotation just as the words “woman,” “transgender,” or “queer” do. Note that I do not mean this in any negative way. On the contrary, I am trying to approach a delicate subject in a different way because often it is in playing with the unknown that true discernment can be reached. 


Labels are guiding principles that help us understand the nature of a being, rather than designing terms that shape reality. “To put a linguistic point on it,” says one of the main characters in Kafka on the Shore, “I am most definitely not a pathetic, historical example of a patriarchal male,” after two people imposed those words on him, trying to shape his reality. He then reveals he was born female but lives emotionally and socially as a man. Many of us would think, “ah yes, a trans man,” and then feel or think something related to that term. Instead, let us think of the neutral point of view from which Murakami approached the subject. Oshima, the character I am speaking of, uses his gender identity as a guiding principle, but nothing more. He is presented as a human. The emphasis is placed not on his gender but on his feelings and experiences. It is not that his story is normal or regular, nor that it is not questioned. It simply exists, free from judgment. There is no label forced upon Oshima to create a social divide, at least from the point of view of the storytelling and perspective in Kafka on the Shore. The focus is on what he has to say and who he is as a human being, not on what he is as a human being. 


To better understand the possibility of neutrality when we are all so familiar with employing elaborate terms and labels to categorize people, the introduction of “The Great Mirror of Male Love,” written and translated by Paul Schalow from Ihara Saikaku in 1689, gives a context to how it is possible to live in an unquestioned body with no defining identity. I quote, “Popular literature in premodern Japan did not depict male love as abnormal or perverse, but integrated into the larger sphere of sexual love as a literary theme. . . . Sexuality was simply another aspect of social life.” Murakami’s work plays with this idea by writing about racy subjects with a complicated, confusing, and unclear twist. The only option is to give up any previously held belief and just go along with it. The reader can reach clarity and think of the event as completely neutral while reading and then later apply that knowledge to reality to form an opinion.


When engaging in frustrating conversations, I urge you to approach the situation as if you lived in Saikaku’s time and male love was unquestioned, regular, and neutral. To approach the situation with a “free mind” and a neutral understanding, mull it over and then apply the knowledge to reality. I have noticed how many people, including myself, get angry or upset when it comes to issues regarding the differences between men and women. Regardless of what you believe those differences may be and whether they exist or not, I would like to focus on how a simple word or tone in a statement can make an opinion understandable or not for those who hold different beliefs. My grandfather is the king of the nuanced tone. Some days he will say something rather offensive but with a quality to the statement that calls people to engage in a productive discussion, not a debate. Other days, he will state something about the world with no invitation to ponder the validity of such a claim. I had just written a response to a feedback form for a class and asked him what he thought. He approved adding, “This is very telling of a female response, I can tell you value relationships and connection, which is a trait I would expect of a woman. A man might say something about the subjects he learnt in class and how that made him smarter.” I went on my day not really questioning the logic of his point, but thinking about how the words he used and the structure of his sentence could be the very thing that could put people up in arms, or the very opposite, bring people together in understanding. 


Instead of interpreting my grandfather’s remark as a definitive label of the differences between men and women, I understood it to be a guiding principle to think critically about how gender plays a role in connection and education. By comparing our belief systems from a neutral point of view, I realized that it was his tone and word choice that made his statement seem harsh and divisive, rather than the validity of his point. My grandfather had a very opinionated take on these differences, and I decided to hold a neutral ground so that I could engage in an exploratory fashion with his ideas. 


In Plato’s Meno, Socrates says, “If I do not know what something is, how could I know what qualities it possesses?” Is Plato correct? If you don’t know, how can you know? In a sense, but it is deeper than that. You acknowledge that you don’t know and search to learn as much as possible. Why is this? Well, one person cannot know everything in the world, and cannot know every struggle, but by reaching an understanding of a struggle, you can start to comprehend the qualities it possesses. As Oshima says in Kafka on the Shore, “Only people who’ve been discriminated against can really know how much it hurts.” No matter how much we try to approach subjects with an open mind, free from strong labels, it is true that something will always be missing. Finding the balance between Socrates’s words and Oshima’s words is the key, searching for understanding and recognizing that everyone has an individual experience. Let us stop forcing ourselves to understand complicated words and adopt them as our opinions and, instead, meet the person and engage with the idea so we can understand where they are coming from. As Oshima says, “What disgusts me even more are people who have no imagination. The kind T.S. Elliot calls hollow men.” Introspect and meet yourself free from labels. Find your imagination and discover where you are coming from, and then project that outwardly. 

Belief Systems



By Coralie Ahrenskeaff '24


“Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me” (181), writes Haruki Murakami in Kafka on the Shore. Although the story of Kafka on the Shore is captivating, I will leave you to read it on your own. Meanwhile, let us clear our minds of any thoughts about how “things should be” and open our minds to exploring different perspectives regardless of how uncomfortable they might make us. This is precisely what must be done to understand the extremes of different viewpoints around the world. 


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