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12 January 2015

Somehow it was entirely in keeping with the quiet public persona of the best-selling Japanese author Haruki Murakami that he should surprise his fans last week by announcing via his publishers Shinchosha that he would be taking questions from readers via email. Picking up where he left off on his website several years ago, Japan’s most famous author, who has sold millions of books and been translated into dozens of languages, is now inviting readers to ask any question they like on a special website, called Murakami-san’s Place that will open for two weeks from this Thursday afternoon.

Murakami – who is 66 today - has always had an uncomfortable relationship with fame. After the 1987 publication of his novel Norwegian Wood he said that he couldn’t eat in restaurants or go to the train station without being photographed. He is both prolific and private and yet success has only increased his public profile. His last book, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage sold a million copies in Japan in its first week.

By his own admission, Murakami’s life is one of almost monastic resolve and discipline that revolves around writing and running, with cats, cooking and music providing the entertainment. He submits to interviews when a new book is published but you get the sense that these are distractions from the job at hand. “I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself,” he once said. He has never been part of Japan’s literary establishment and a public appearance in Kyoto in 2013 was his first in Japan in nearly two decades. Occasionally he pops up internationally as he did at last year’s Edinburgh festival, where he revealed, among other things, that he loves ironing and dreams of sitting at the bottom of a well.

The announcement on the Shinchosha website provoked headlines that Japan’s top-selling writer was about to become an agony uncle. Cue many jokes about whether a reclusive writer was the man to resolve life’s knotty problems. In fact, the publishers say, you can ask him anything at all, whether it’s about books or baseball. And yet, would it be so bad if he were to focus on emotional problems? Murakami is frequently referred to as a surrealist – with the misleading suggestion that he only deals in fantasy - and yet he is also a realist who writes about matters of the heart with clarity and directness. His global sales and the devotion of his fans show just how much his writing resonates with readers.

And now he wants to connect with those readers again in person.

Staff at Shinchosha are unsure how Murakami’s answers will appear but seasoned Harukists will take the lack of detail in their stride. On the website, there is a brief handwritten sign-off from Murakami: I await your questions, Haru. It’s an offer not to be missed, a chance to communicate with one of the world’s greatest living novelists.

Fiona Wilson is Monocle’s Asian bureau chief.

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