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Internal Exodus
Novelist Murakami Ryu sees a dim future


Transformations: Japan changed before. It can happen again

The year is 2001. A CNN news crew in northern Pakistan finds a Japanese teenager in the midst of a band of Muslim guerrillas. In a TV interview, he declares: "There is nothing in Japan. It is a dead country." His words strike a chord with Japanese children his age. Across the country, middle-schoolers stop attending classes. They organize across the Internet, form a video image distribution agency named Asunaro that beams their message across the world, and start a variety of new businesses. Summoned to Parliament, the youngsters' leader tells stunned adults that Japan has everything but hope. Meanwhile, the yen collapses and the nation slips to the brink of bankruptcy. Asunaro moves to the northern island of Hokkaido where the kids establish an independent state.

That quickly summarizes Exodus in the Hopeful Country, the new novel by Murakami Ryu. The story caused a storm when it was serialized in 1998-99 in the Bungei Shunju monthly, partly because of its message, and partly because Murakami, who in novels from Coin Locker Babies to the recent Symbiosis Worm, has so often focused on issues before anyone else. Among the subjects he has recently tackled: teen violence and the dark side of the Internet.

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With Exodus, Murakami takes on Japan's post-Bubble Economy malaise. Not that he thinks middle schoolers are to become Japan's new leaders. "Elementary kids are too young and high schoolers are too close to adulthood," he explains. Other aspects of the book are more real. Says Murakami: "Adults have lost their confidence and kids have had to grow up for 10 years in a world with defeated adults, where no one talks about how society should be or even says, 'I want to do something with my life.'"

Murakami fears that Japanese youth are now under too much pressure, particularly from bullying in school. And life isn't much easier for them at home. But, he adds, it is often the weak who trigger major changes. "The first creatures who left the sea were actually weak, in danger of being eaten by bigger fish, so they came up on shore and eventually became the ancestors of land animals," he says. "The people who have the most power now can't do anything. The ones who are being hurt most will act to survive."

What about current efforts to revive Japan? They are too simplistic, Murakami reckons. Take information technology (IT). While a devotee of the Internet with numerous websites of his own, he doubts the government can put the entire country online the way it once engineered the switch from coal to oil. "Middle managers losing their jobs or killing themselves aren't going to be saved if they learn how to use a computer," he says. "Their problem is that they can't communicate outside of their old offices." But, he acknowledges, individuals who understand technology and can take in and communicate new ideas are increasing.

As Japan slowly changes, the country may lose the sense of "one-ness" it values so much. But Murakami does not want a new ideology of individuality. "The idea is to have a society of individuals who will uphold common rules." So can Japan change? "When I see young people with a lot of energy starting up their own ventures, I have hope," Murakami says. "But when I look at all the vested interests entrenched in power, I become hopeless." He is not alone.

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