What is identity? It is who or what you are. Everyone has an identity, who they think they are and how they view themselves; and many perceive other peoples’ identities and make up in their mind what that perceived identity is. So each individual has two identities, the person they are through their own eyes and the person they are perceived as by others, similar to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Haruki Murakami in his book The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, tells the story of the title character and his battle with his identity. Oddly enough in one of Murakami’s other books, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, we are able to compare his own personal battle with identity with his fictional character’s battle. Eventually we come to see how similar Murakami and Tsukuru are. Both Murakami and Tsukuru have a set of lenses through which they view themselves, while their friends and family have a totally different perception of them. Needless to say, perceptions of yourself and others can sometimes be extremely wrong.
“Colorless…bland” (Colorless 13). “Empty” (273). Tsukuru Tazaki is an average man living an average life in Tokyo, Japan. His story begins with his name, which means “to make” (47). He lives alone, has a great job and meets a beautiful woman to be his companion, but he is still emotionally unsettled. These emotions that keep overwhelming him are the result of his four closest friends suddenly excluding him from their lives for no apparent reason. When his girlfriend Sara encourages him years later to reopen his wounds from the past and discover why he was so rudely brushed aside by his best friends, he embarks on a journey where he meets with three of these old friends, discovers he was accused of rape and is told that his accuser, one of his dearest friends was strangled to death. While in some ways he is able to rebuild a few burned bridges with his long lost friends, he remains forever marred by the emotional scars he received in his sophmore year of college.
One of Tsukuru’s friends is named Yoshio Oumi. His name means “blue sea” and he is referred to as Ao by his four closest friends (8). Back in high school, he was the athlete of the small group. He was strong and brawny with large features and could always be found on the ball field. Ao was always cheerful and would look people straight in the eye. Being very personable he would never forget a name or face and kept a positive attitude at all times. Oumi hasn’t changed much over the years and when Tsukuru meets with him, he is happy to see him and catch up. As it turns out Oumi became a successful car salesman, married a beautiful woman and has a three year old boy and a little girl on the way. Oumi is honest and his features can never hide what he is thinking (135). He is the one who let Tsukuru know at the very beginning that he was no longer welcome in the group and sixteen years later, he is the one who embraces Tsukuru, explains the complicated situation involving rape and murder and apologizes from the bottom of his heart.
Identity is one of the most important themes in this book, and we come to see that most of the characters perceive themselves in a completely different manner than the way their friends and family view them. For example, throughout his entire life Tsukuru has believed himself to be colorless and pallid (13). Looking at himself on a deeper level, Tsukuru thinks he lacks creativity and originality, disenchants people, and is on the same level as a “pathetic worm” (109). When talking to one of his friends Tsukuru proclaims, “I have no sense of self. I have no personality, no brilliant color. I have nothing to offer. That’s always been my problem. I feel like an empty vessel. I have a shape, I guess, as a container, but there’s nothing inside” (273). He cannot even come to terms with the fact that someone might say they loved him, either back in high school or in the present.
Sometimes the way a person perceives himself is different than the way others view him. Yoshio Oumi tells Tsukuru that while he felt like a colorless outcast, totally bland and insignificant Oumi viewed him as a role model, who had everything under control. He explains to Tsukuru, “In our group you were always the handsome one, the boy who made a good impression. Clean, neat, well dressed, and polite. You always made sure to greet people nicely, and never said anything stupid. You didn’t smoke, hardly touched alcohol, were always on time. Did you know that all our mothers were big fans of yours?” (144). Unbeknownst to Tsukuru, Oumi looked up to him. His mother loved him, he was handsome, talented, polite and smartly dressed. Yet even though Oumi perceived him this way he had no way of knowing exactly how depressed Tsukuru was about himself.
This difference of perception is important, because it shows us how deceptive perceptions of others actually are and how these perceptions can end up hurting the people you love most. As Tsukuru goes around meeting with his old friends, he discovers that they all knew he was wrongfully accused; they agreed that raping someone was not in his nature. Yet the one who accused him, who was also part of the group, was emotionally unbalanced. His friends therefore agreed that Tsukuru could handle exclusion in a more collected way. Their perception of him as strong and steady ruined the next sixteen years of his life, because Tsukuru actually saw himself as empty and pointless with no purpose or outstanding qualities. To be excluded from the ones he loved most nearly sucked the life out of him. For us it is important to realize that when we perceive others, we tend to treat them in a way that fits our perceptions of them. For example, if we view them as shy or quiet we might not talk to them much or even ignore them, even though occasionally those people might just seem shy around new people when they are really crazy and fun in everyday life. Or someone who is viewed as strong and collected, like Tsukuru, might be given more responsibilities or be forced to bear emotional burdens because he should be able to handle it, yet in reality that person is deeply depressed and can’t handle anything else. As a result, we might end up deeply hurting these people because of our false perceptions.
The author of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, Haruki Murakami, wrote about his own identity in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. He shares many of the same traits as Tsukuru. In fact when I read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki it was difficult to avoid comparing Tsukuru and Murakami and their emotional connection. In his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami explains in great detail his passion for long distance running and triathlons and compares it to his similar love for writing novels. He relates details of his past and his hopes and goals for the future. Murakami is extremely focused on attaining his goals and pushes himself through agonizing pain, knee problems, pulled muscles, cramps etc. unwilling to yield to anything. As he shares his experiences and stories, he also sheds light on certain aspects of his own personality and discloses clues about where his identity lies.
Contrary to what some may think, Murakami insinuates that he is also empty. He explains that he cannot picture anyone liking him on a personal level (What I Talk About 21). He ironically proclaims that he does not view himself as the brightest person in the world and doesn’t spend mass amounts of time pondering philosophical illusions (22). Replaceable, that is what strikes him most about himself, “One tiny piece in the giant mosaic of nature” (91). Murakami relates a story from when he was sixteen years old. He stripped down in front of a mirror and made a detailed list of every single physical deficiency (152). This made me wonder, where he places his value as a human being. Years later, he is still influenced by his physical deficiencies, and explains how his “debts far outweigh his assets” (153). Murakami proclaims, in a manner similar to Tsukuru, “I am struck by how pitiful and pointless this little container called me is, what a lame, shabby being I am” (153). Both Tsukuru and Murakami compare themselves to some form of vessel, with a definite shape, but no substance to fill them up.
In connection between Murakami and Tsukuru, it appeared that their individual identities were exceedingly similar. Murakami, when writing The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, seemed to draw from his own perceptions of himself and write Tsukuru as a reflection of himself. Both perceive themselves as empty vessels, pointless in the big scheme of life, and both despite these pitiful self perceptions are seen by others as strong, confident and purposeful.
We can relate this view of identity to ourselves. So often in life we are on one end or the other of this situation. We either view ourselves as insignificant, while others perceive and treat us differently, or we view people a certain way and categorize them by our own uncertain perceptions. Everybody has a certain perception of themselves, how they think other people view them, what they are worth in their own eyes and other people always have perceptions of everybody else. No matter how we see ourselves or think other people view us, they will normally have a different perception of you than you imagine. Sometimes this confusion with identities can cause people to get hurt. When people view you differently than you view yourself there is bound to be a mix up at some point, like when Tsukuru was excluded from his group of friends because he was viewed as the strongest.
One of my friends dealt with this mix up of perceptions first hand. She is a very cheery person, always happy and bouncing off the walls, a total extrovert. We always get together and talk about the deep problems with life and how we can solve them, and I don’t believe I have ever seen her cry or be affected by anything anyone said to her. So one day we were driving home together and she told me that she had been diagnosed with depression. She explained to me how often she was just overwhelmed with sadness and apathy for life and didn’t feel like being around anyone. As I sat there listening to her I tried to connect this with how I viewed her, but it didn’t match up. The person I perceived through my own lenses was always joyful and depression was not in her nature.
This news came as a tremendous shock to me, as I had only perceived her as eternally happy, it never occurred to me that she might be fighting depression. She is the type of person that comes across as very strong, so when bad things happen you assume she is fine, because you can’t see what is really going on inside. In the long run if she never told me about this depression I never would have known and I might have hurt her in some way. Perhaps by assuming she was happy when she was actually sad or speaking flippantly about something that she was battling in her own life.
In conclusion, perceptions of others and perceptions of yourself can often be wrong, harmful, degrading and misleading. Tsukuru and Murakami both viewed themselves as pointless and insignificant, which is a false perception because every living person has a purpose even if they haven’t found it yet. Tsukuru’s friends on the other hand saw him as polite, cheerful and in control, which turned out to be another false perception as Tsukuru was struggling to get by emotionally. Murakami explains how he does not view himself as being very smart and how he is insignificant and replaceable, while his readers, family, friends and fans all find him extremely intellectual and strong. Perceptions are often incomplete or totally wrong, the way we view ourselves is often more degrading than the way others see us, and sometimes others view us in much too positive light. So be careful how you choose to view yourself and others, for often incorrect perceptions can make a huge impact on your life.
Murakami, Haruki. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. London: Harvill Secker, 2014. Print.
—. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print.