Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

  “I’m really sorry to call you at this hour,” Tsukuru said. “But I had to talk to you.”

  “This hour? What time is it?”

  “Almost 4 a.m.”

  “Goodness, I’d forgotten such a time actually existed,” Sara said. Her voice sounded still half awake. “So, who died?”

  “Nobody died,” Tsukuru said. “Nobody’s died yet. But I just have something I need to tell you tonight.”

  “What sort of thing?”

  “I love you, Sara, and I want you more than anything.”

  Over the phone he heard a rustling sound, as if she were fumbling for something. She gave a small cough, then made a sound he took to be an exhalation.

  “Is it okay to talk with you about it now?” Tsukuru asked.

  “Of course,” Sara said. “I mean, it’s not even four yet. You can say whatever you want. Nobody’s listening in. They’re all sound asleep.”

  “I truly love you, and I want you,” Tsukuru repeated.

  “That’s what you wanted to call me at not quite 4 a.m. to tell me?”

  “That’s right.”

  “Have you been drinking?”

  “No, not a drop.”

  “I see,” Sara said. “For a science type, you certainly can get pretty passionate.”

  “It’s the same as building a station.”

  “How so?”

  “It’s simple. If there’s no station, no trains will stop there. The first thing I have to do is picture a station in my mind, and give it actual color and substance. That comes first. Even if I find a defect, that can be corrected later on. And I’m used to that kind of work.”

  “Because you’re an outstanding engineer.”

  “I’d like to be.”

  “And you’re building a specially made station, just for me, until nearly dawn?”

  “That’s right,” Tsukuru said. “Because I love you, and I want you.”

  “I’m fond of you, too, very much. I’m more attracted to you each time we meet,” Sara said. Then she paused, as if leaving a space on the page. “But it’s nearly 4 a.m. now. Even the birds aren’t up yet. It’s too early to think straight. So can you wait three more days?”

  “Alright. But only three,” Tsukuru said. “I think that’s my limit. That’s why I called you at this hour.”

  “Three days is plenty, Tsukuru. I’ll keep to the construction completion date, don’t worry. I’ll see you on Wednesday evening.”

  “I’m sorry to have woken you.”

  “It’s all right. I’m glad to know that time still keeps on flowing at four in the morning. Is it light out yet?”

  “Not yet. But it will be in a little while. The birds will start chirping.”

  “The early bird catches the worm.”

  “In theory.”

  “But I don’t think I’ll be able to stay up to see that.”

  “Goodnight,” he said.

  “Tsukuru?” Sara said.


  “Goodnight,” Sara said. “Relax, and get some rest.”

  And with that, she hung up.

  Shinjuku Station is enormous. Every day nearly 3.5 million people pass through it, so many that the Guinness Book of World Records officially lists JR Shinjuku Station as the station with the “Most Passengers in the World.” A number of railroad lines cross there, the main ones being the Chuo line, Sobu line, Yamanote line, Saikyo line, Shonan–Shinjuku line, and the Narita Express. The rails intersect and combine in complex and convoluted ways. There are sixteen platforms in total. In addition, there are two private rail lines, the Odakyu line and the Keio line, and three subway lines plugged in, as it were, from the side. It is a total maze. During rush hour, that maze transforms into a sea of humanity, a sea that foams up, rages, and roars as it surges toward the entrances and exits. Streams of people changing trains become entangled, giving rise to dangerous, swirling whirlpools. No prophet, no matter how righteous, could part that fierce, turbulent sea.

  It’s hard to believe that every morning and evening, five days a week, this overwhelming crush of human beings is dealt with efficiently, without any major problems, by a staff of station employees that no one would ever accuse of being adequate, in terms of numbers, to the task. The morning rush hour is particularly problematic. Everyone is scurrying to get to where they need to be, to punch their time clock, and no one’s in a great mood. They’re still tired, half asleep, and riding the bursting-at-the-seams trains is physically and emotionally draining. Only the very lucky manage to find a seat. Tsukuru was always amazed that riots don’t break out, that there are no tragic, bloody disasters. If a fanatical band of terrorists did happen to target one of these jam-packed stations or trains, it would be lethal, with a horrific loss of life. For the people working on the rail lines, and the police, and, of course, the passengers, this remained the one unimaginable, nightmare scenario. And there was no way to prevent it, even now, after such a nightmare actually did take place in Tokyo in the spring of 1995.

  Station employees bark out endless announcements over the loudspeakers, a repetitious tune marking train departures plays constantly, the automated wickets silently input a huge amount of information from all the rail cards, tickets, and train passes they scan. The long trains, their arrivals and departures timed down to the second, are like long-suffering, well-trained farm animals, systematically exhaling and inhaling people, impatiently closing their doors as they rush off toward the next station. The crowds surge up and down the stairs, but if someone steps on your foot from behind and your shoe comes off, good luck ever retrieving it. The shoe is sucked into the intense rush-hour quicksand, where it vanishes forever. The person who suffers this fate has a long day ahead, clomping around on one shoe.

  In the early 1990s, before Japan’s bubble economy burst, a leading newspaper in the U.S. published a large photo taken on a winter’s morning of rush-hour commuters in Shinjuku Station (or possibly Tokyo Station—the same applies to both) heading down the stairs. As if by agreement, all the commuters were gazing downward, their expressions strained and unhappy, looking more like lifeless fish packed in a can than people. The article said, “Japan may be affluent, but most Japanese look like this, heads downcast and unhappy-looking.” The photo became famous.

  Tsukuru had no idea if most Japanese were, as the article claimed, unhappy. But the real reason that most passengers descending the stairs at Shinjuku Station during their packed morning commute were looking down was less that they were unhappy than that they were concerned about their footing. Don’t slip on the stairs, don’t lose a shoe—these are the major issues on the minds of the commuters in the mammoth station during rush hour. There was no explanation of this, no context for the photograph. Certainly it was hard to view this mass of people, clad in dark overcoats, their heads down, as happy. And of course it’s logical to see a country where people can’t commute in the morning without fear of losing their shoes as an unhappy society.

  Tsukuru wondered how much time people spend simply commuting to work every day. Say the average commute was between an hour and an hour and a half. That sounded about right. If your typical office worker, working in Tokyo, married with a child or two, wanted to own his own house, the only choice was to live in the suburbs and spend that much time getting to work and back. So two to three hours out of every twenty-four would be spent simply in the act of commuting. If you were lucky, you might be able to read the newspaper or a paperback in the train. Maybe you could listen to your iPod, to a Haydn symphony or a conversational Spanish lesson. Some people might even close their eyes, lost in deep metaphysical speculation. Still, it would be hard to call these two or three hours rewarding, quality time. How much of one’s life was snatched away to simply vanish as a result of this (most likely) pointless movement from point A to point B? And how much did this effort exhaust people, and wear them down?

  But these were not issues that Tsukuru Tazaki, a railroad company employee tasked with designing stations, needed
to worry about. It wasn’t his life. Let people live their own lives. Each person should decide for himself how happy, or unhappy, our society might be. All Tsukuru had to think about was what might be the safest and most efficient way to keep this massive flow of people moving. For a job like this, reflection is not required, as it simply calls for accurate, tested, best practices. He was no thinker or sociologist, but a mere engineer.

  Tsukuru Tazaki loved to watch JR Shinjuku Station.

  When he went to the station he would buy a platform ticket from the machine and go upstairs to the platform between Tracks 9 and 10. This is where express trains on the Chuo line came and went, long-distance trains to places like Matsumoto and Kofu. Compared to the platform for commuters, there were far fewer passengers, fewer trains arriving and departing. He could sit on a bench and leisurely observe what went on in the station.

  Tsukuru visited railroad stations like other people enjoy attending concerts, watching movies, dancing in clubs, watching sports, and window shopping. When he was at loose ends, with nothing to do, he headed to a station. When he felt anxious or needed to think, his feet carried him, once again of their own accord, to a station. He’d sit quietly on a bench on the platform, sip coffee he bought at a kiosk, and check the arrival and departure times against the pocket-sized timetable he always carried in his briefcase. He could spend hours doing this. Back when he was a college student he used to examine the station’s layout, the passenger flow, the movements of the station staff, writing detailed observations in his notebook, but he was beyond that now.

  An express train slows down as it pulls up to the platform. The doors open and passengers alight, one after another. Just watching this made him feel calm and content. When trains arrived and departed right on schedule, he felt proud, even if the station wasn’t one his company had helped to construct. A quiet, simple sense of pride. A cleaning team quickly boards the train, collecting trash and turning the swivel seats around so they all neatly face forward. A new crew, wearing hats and uniforms, boards and briskly runs through a checklist. The destination sign is replaced, along with the train’s designated number. Everything proceeds smoothly, efficiently, without a hitch, down to the second. This is Tsukuru Tazaki’s world.

  At Helsinki Central Station he had done the same thing. He got a simple train schedule, sat down on a bench, and, sipping hot coffee from a paper cup, watched the long-distance trains arrive and depart. He checked their destinations on a map, and where they’d come from. He observed the passengers getting off the trains, watched others rushing toward their respective platforms to board more trains, and followed the movements of the uniformed station employees and train crews. As always, doing this calmed him. Time passed, smoothly, homogeneously. Other than not being able to understand the PA announcements, it was no different from being in Shinjuku Station. The protocol for operating a railway station was pretty much the same throughout the world, the whole operation reliant on precise, skillful professionalism. This aroused a natural response in him, a sure sense that he was in the right place.

  On Tuesday when Tsukuru finished work it was after eight. At this time of night he was the only one left in his office. The work he had left to do wasn’t so urgent that he needed to stay late to finish it, but he was meeting Sara on Wednesday evening and he wanted to complete any leftover tasks before then.

  He decided to call it a day, switched off his computer, locked up important disks and documents in a drawer, and turned off the light. He left through the company’s rear entrance, saying goodnight to the security guard he knew by sight.

  “Have a good night, sir,” the guard said to him.

  He thought of having dinner somewhere but wasn’t hungry. Still, he didn’t feel like going straight home, so he headed for JR Shinjuku Station. This evening, too, he bought coffee at a kiosk. It was a typical muggy Tokyo summer night, and his back was sweaty, but still he preferred hot black coffee, the steam rising off it, to a cold drink. It was just a habit.

  As always, on Platform 9 the final night train bound for Matsumoto was preparing for departure. The crew walked the length of the train, checking with practiced, diligent eyes that everything was in order. The train was not as sleek as a Shinkansen bullet train, but Tsukuru liked the plain, no-nonsense trains, these familiar E257 models. The train would proceed to Shiojiri along the Chuo line, then run on the Shinonoi line to Matsumoto, and arrive in Matsumoto at five minutes till midnight. Until Hachioji it was still in an urban area and had to keep the noise down, but after that it ran through the mountains, where there were many curves, so it never could get up to the maximum speed. For the distance involved, the trip took a long time.

  There was still some time before the train opened its doors for boarding, yet passengers were hurriedly buying boxed dinners, snacks, cans of beer, and magazines at the kiosk. Some had white iPod headphones in their ears, already off in their own little worlds. Others palmed smartphones, thumbing out texts, some talking so loudly into their phones that their voices rose above the blaring PA announcements. Tsukuru spotted a young couple, seated close together on a bench, happily sharing secrets. A pair of sleepy-looking five- or six-year-old twin boys, with their mother and father dragging them along by their hands, were whisked past where Tsukuru sat. The boys clutched small game devices. Two young foreign men hefted heavy-looking backpacks, while a young woman was lugging a cello case. A woman with a stunning profile passed by. Everyone was boarding a night train, heading to a far-off destination. Tsukuru envied them. At least they had a place they needed to go to.

  Tsukuru Tazaki had no place he needed to go.

  He realized that he had never actually been to Matsumoto, or Kofu. Or Shiojiri. Not even to the much closer town of Hachioji. He had watched countless express trains for Matsumoto depart from this platform, but it had never occurred to him that there was a possibility he could board one. Until now he had never thought of it. Why is that? he wondered.

  Tsukuru imagined himself boarding this train and heading for Matsumoto. It wasn’t exactly impossible. And it didn’t seem like such a terrible idea. He’d suddenly gotten it into his head, after all, to take off for Finland, so why not Matsumoto? What sort of town was it? he wondered. What kind of lives did people lead there? But he shook his head and erased these thoughts. Tomorrow morning it would be impossible to get back to Tokyo in time for work. He knew that much without consulting the timetable. And he was meeting Sara tomorrow night. It was a very important day for him. He couldn’t just take off for Matsumoto on a whim.

  He drank the rest of his now-lukewarm coffee and tossed the paper cup into a nearby garbage bin.

  Tsukuru Tazaki had nowhere he had to go. This was like a running theme of his life. He had no place he had to go to, no place to come back to. He never did, and he didn’t now. The only place for him was where he was now.

  No, he thought. That’s not entirely true.

  At one point in his life he did have a place he needed to go to. In high school, he had his heart set on going to an engineering college in Tokyo and majoring in railroad station design. That was the place he needed to go. And he studied hard to make sure he could do so. His academic advisor had coolly warned him that with his grades, he had only a 20 percent chance of getting into that school, but he’d done his best and somehow surmounted that hurdle. He had never studied so hard in his life. He wasn’t cut out for competing with others for rank and grades, but given a set goal he put his heart and soul into it. He exerted himself beyond anything he’d ever imagined, and the experience was a new, and precious, discovery for him of his own capabilities.

  As a result, Tsukuru left Nagoya and ended up living alone in Tokyo. In Tokyo he longed to return to his hometown as soon as he could, even if only for a short time, to see his friends again. At that point Nagoya was the place he needed to go back to. He shuttled back and forth between two different places for a little over a year. But then, without warning, the cycle was broken.

  After this, he no l
onger had a place to go, or a place to which he could return. His house was still in Nagoya, his mother and eldest sister still living there, his room the same as he’d left it. His other older sister was also living in the city. Once or twice a year he made an obligatory visit and was always warmly received, but there was nothing he needed to talk to his mother or sister about, and being with them never brought back any nostalgic feelings. What they sought from him was the Tsukuru of old, a person he had left behind and no longer needed. To revive that person, and present him to his family, necessitated that he play a role that made him uncomfortable. The streets of Nagoya now felt remote and dreary. There was nothing there he wanted, nothing that called up even a hint of warmth.

  Tokyo, meanwhile, was just the place he happened to end up. It was where he had attended school, where his job was located. Professionally it was the place he belonged, but beyond that, the city meant nothing to him. In Tokyo he lived a well-ordered, quiet life. Like a refugee in a foreign land, not making waves, not causing any trouble, being ever cautious so that his residence permit was not revoked. He lived there as if he were a refugee from his own life. And Tokyo was the ideal place for someone seeking a life of anonymity.

  He had no one he could call a close friend. A few girlfriends entered his life along the way, but they hadn’t stayed together. Peaceful relationships followed by amicable breakups. Not a single person had really climbed inside his heart. He had not been seeking that sort of relationship, and most likely the women he went out with hadn’t desired him that much either. So they were even.

  It’s like my life came to a halt at age twenty, Tsukuru Tazaki thought, as he sat on the bench in Shinjuku Station. The days that came afterward had no real weight or substance. The years passed by, quietly, like a gentle breeze. Leaving no scars behind, no sorrow, rousing no strong emotions, leaving no happiness or memories worth mentioning. And now he was entering middle age. No—he still had a few years to go before that. But it was true that he was no longer young.

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