reviewed by Jon Duelfer
I hope that in Denver (or some other faraway town) Kitaru is happy. If it’s too much to ask that he’s happy, I hope at least that today he has his health, and all his needs met. For no one knows what kind of dreams tomorrow will bring.
Whenever I finish a story by Murakami, I close it and have to take a deep breath. The feelings that he provokes are often strong and meaningful; they are beautiful and sad at once – showing us that only with time or loss can we understand what really matters to us.
If you are looking for another short story from Murakami, I’d recommend With the Beatles first and Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey second, both published in The New Yorker in 2020. His book, Killing Commendatore is just as memorable, if not more so, but definitely needs much more time to read.
In Yesterday, the narrator recollects the story as if it were a long time ago, and the passing of years have now given him time to contemplate. He looks back with both fascination and longing on the memory of a good friendship and the pain at losing it.
Tanimura, the story’s narrator, moved from the more rural, Kansai province of Japan, to Tokyo for the university. He now works in a coffee shop, part-time, while he goes to classes. Being so far away from home without knowing anybody, he befriends a fellow coworker: Kitaru.
Kitaru makes a distinct impression on Tanimura because he speaks in the same Kansai dialect as Tanimura. Curiously, it turns out that Kitaru is not actually from the Kansai province, but rather from Tokyo.
Tanimura is surprised at why-on-earth Kitaru would, first of all, learn the Kansai dialect, and second of all, why he would speak it during his day-to-day life in Tokyo. Kitaru responds that he fell in love with Osaka and the Tigers – the major league baseball team from the city – and wanted to immerse himself in the culture.
A detour for the good of Linguistics
As somebody who went to the university to study Linguistics (I now work as a Software Developer, but I am still a Linguist somewhere deep down), I was an absolute sucker for this story. The prevailing view throughout most of the countries in the world, and the languages that are stuffed within their arbitrary borders, is that there is a “standard” form to every language.
This is wrong. There is no such thing as a standard form of a language. Textbooks hope to summarize all the disparate forms of a language into an understandable and learnable form, but that doesn’t mean that’s actually the underlying structure.
Take, for example, the analogy of atoms. In our day-to-day lives, it certainly looks as if objects touch each other. The computer sitting on my desk definitely looks like it is sitting on the desk.
However, when we go deep into the world of atoms, we realize that the atoms that make up the computer and the atoms that make up the desk never actually touch. They propel each other, which makes the two objects individual objects. If the computer and the desk were to actually touch each other (e.g. the atoms of the computer were to merge with the atoms of the desk), our universe would be a completely different sort of place.
In the case of language, it certainly seems as if there is a “standard” form of our language (maybe the one on the TV, at school, or the workplace). But when we really look at language, especially with the help of historical analysis, we realize that essentially countless dialects exist that can be categorized by little changes or alterations in the form of speaking.
Take the most basic historical example: Latin. People call it a “dead” language because it’s not spoken anywhere today. But actually, it is: French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Romanian, etc. are all descendants of “dialects” of Latin. The “standard” Latin (e.g. the one that kids are taught in school), is not spoken today because it wasn’t really spoken by people other than in very specific contexts or geographies. The vast majority of Latin was comprised of “vulgar dialects” – those dialects that people actually spoke and which became the romance languages that live today.
A “standard” or central form is an arbitrary construction – typically referring to how people speak on the TV or in powerful cities (scholarly works works written in Latin or proclamations coming from Rome). In reality, that form is merely a sort of dialect as any other. It has its rules and categorizations, and to believe it’s the “standard” form of the language is to accept its socioeconomic dominance, not its scientific truth.
This is sometimes pragmatic for our day-to-day lives; learning the “standard” dialect allows us to work in jobs that people might question our intelligence based on our “rural” dialects. Have you never pinned somebody for speaking in a certain way? Many people will assimilate to the false “standard” in order to avoid these prejudices, or to simply reach a greater audience.
Back to Murakami
Although that was a bit of a detour, this is exactly what Murakami is alluding to in this short story. Kitaru refuses to fall into the trap that everybody must learn and speak the “standard” dialect. Instead, he decides to learn the dialect that interests him the most, eschewing the status that comes with his native, Tokyo-based dialect.
Kitaru’s friends, family, and girlfriend find this to be the most bizarre thing in the world. But this is what Murakami is trying to point out: why is it perceived as normal for Tanimura to pick up the Tokyo dialect while it is weird for Kitaru to pick up the Kansai one? Tanimura reflects on this:
There were a couple of reasons why, when I came to Tokyo, I totally gave up speaking the Kansai dialect. Until I graduated from high school, I spoke nothing but—in fact, I’d never spoken standard Tokyo even once. But all it took was a month in Tokyo for me to become completely fluent in this new version of Japanese. I was kind of surprised that I could adapt so quickly. Maybe I’m a chameleon and I didn’t even realize it. Or maybe my sense of language is more advanced than most people’s. Either way, no one believed now that I was actually from Kansai.
This thread continues when Tanimura is sitting with Kitaru and his girlfriend, and she tries to come up with a reason for why the Tokyo dialect is the “standard”:
“Maybe they are equal,” Erika insisted, “but since the Meiji Restoration the way people speak in Tokyo has been the standard for spoken Japanese. I mean, has anyone ever translated Franny and Zooey into the Kansai dialect?”
“If they did, I’d buy it, for sure,” Kitaru said.
I probably would, too, I thought, but kept quiet. Best to mind my own business.
Once we surpass the initial setting of the story – Tanimura meeting Kitaru and being fascinated by him – it continues to show how their relationship grows over time. Kitaru has already spent two years trying to pass the entrance exam to the university. His family wants him to go to a school with easier entry requirements, but he is stubborn. At the same time, he refuses to dedicate the time necessary to pass the exam.
Meanwhile, Kitaru’s girlfriend, Erika, advances through the university system just as Tanimura does. Curiously, Kitaru asks Tanimura to take Erika out on a date. Tanimura accepts, but approaches it much more as a friendly outing to satisfy his friend, rather than a romantic outing. Erika sees it as the same, not to mention, she is way out of Tanimura’s league – which he constantly repeats. They spend most of the time talking about Kitaru anyways.
It turns out that Kitaru refuses to have sex with Erika. They had been dating since they were young kids, and Kitaru simply doesn’t see her in a sexual way. Erika tells Tanimura that she is seeing somebody else at the university.
Sometime later, Kitaru doesn’t show up to the coffee shop for work. Tanimura attempts to contact him, but doesn’t hear from him again.
There are few short stories that move us, and I believe Yesterday is among the best of them. Murakami has become one of the best short story writers today, and I think his international fame speaks much more than my personal opinion.
Even with his global reach, there is something deeply intimate and personal about his writing. I find myself fitting perfectly into the shoes of the narrator, even though we may have nothing at all in common. The way Murakami can make you feel a part of the story is unique and impressive.
I recently made my way through his most recent short story collection, First Person Singular which has both With the Beatles and Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey, as well as Cream and Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova which all stood out considerably.