TOKYO - Haruki Murakami's latest novel, "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage," has achieved a phenomenal success in Japan's lackluster publishing market, selling over 1 million copies in just the first seven days after its release on April 12.
Behind the triumph was a marketing tactic of restricting information about the book ahead of its release, which came three years after his previous book. This has apparently created a huge sense of anticipation among potential readers.
Some observers also say the novel's theme overlaps with the sense of loss widely felt among the Japanese after the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters.
Led by "Norwegian Wood," which sold about 11.16 million copies including paperbacks, all Murakami's major works have crossed the 1 million copy threshold.
Japan's book market has been in a deep slump with only one title having sold over 1 million copies last year -- "Kiku Chikara" (the power of listening) by essayist and TV personality Sawako Agawa.
In the past few years, only a few other titles accomplished the feat, including Naoki Hyakuta's "Kaizoku to Yobareta Otoko" (the man who was called a pirate) which won this year's Honya Taisho award chosen by bookstores.
Bungeishunju Ltd., the publisher of Murakami's latest work, initially did not disclose any information about the much-awaited novel. It slowly began to reveal tidbits, including the title and the themes of the novel, starting in mid-February. The tactic apparently stimulated readers' curiosity.
"We limited the information because we wanted people to read the work without prejudice. We learned from the tactic taken by Shinchosha Publishing Co. when it released '1Q84'," said Kotaro Kashiwabara, head of book promotion at Bungeishunju, referring to Murakami's previous novel released in April 2010.
Fans apparently responded to such "deprivation." Kunio Nakamura, who runs the Shinjuku cafe Rokujigen where ardent Murakami fans congregate, said he tried to imagine the contents of the novel when only its title was known prior to the release.
"There is an element of a game here, and the whole phenomenon surrounding the book felt like entertainment," Nakamura said.
Just after midnight April 12 when the sales embargo was lifted, some people were seen reading copies on a street outside the Tsutaya bookstore in the Daikanyama area of Tokyo. The Twitter social networking service was buzzing with fans' thoughts on the long-awaited story.
The novel has brought business to bookstores in northeastern Japan affected by the March 2011 disaster as well. Naoko Nishikiori, store manager of the Bookboy main branch in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, seemed delighted, saying that "many people came to the store to buy the book." The store fully reopened in February after its former building was washed away by tsunami.
But some small bookstores had trouble keeping their shelves stocked with the new book. A store manager at one such store in Tokyo said, "The book was sold out by the evening of the release date, but it was hard to get information on future shipments."
Megumi Ushikubo, a writer who specializes in marketing, commented on why people want to read the new release as quickly as possible. "If they get a new book by Mr. Murakami, who is also popular outside Japan, they can boast to their worldwide audience on Facebook the fact that they have already read it." She added, "It looks like many young people read it in order to have something in common to talk about with others."
The protagonist Tsukuru Tazaki is a 36-year-old working in a railway company. He was deeply hurt psychologically when he was rejected by four of his close friends during high school 16 years ago. In order to find out the reasons for his rejection, Tazaki travels to places including his hometown Nagoya in Japan and Finland with the hope of giving his life a fresh start.
"My impression (of the novel) was like it was post-'Norwegian Wood' and it was easy to read. It's great that the author did not make it a complicated piece of work but wrote it for a wide audience," said the cafe owner Nakamura. "It is also fitting for a time when everyone is feeling the subconscious sense of loss after the northeastern Japan disaster."
Literary critic Yoshinori Shimizu, who lives in the city of Nagoya which appears in the novel, said he was surprised how realistically the author depicted local people.
"Although it does not directly touch on the disaster, the 16-year time lapse in the story overlaps with the time gap between the Great Hanshin Earthquake (in 1995) and the northeastern disaster," Shimizu said.
"As a nuclear waste disposal site is being built in Finland, the author may have projected the issue of radioactive contamination on the sense of loss held by the protagonist who has lost his hometown," Shimizu said.
Many residents around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have been forced to evacuate and remain unable to return home.