Murakami wrote his characters against the backdrop of the 1960 Anpo Protests. These protests were mostly student led and came about fifteen years after World War II, when the United States and Japan began to negotiate the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan in 1960. In Japan, the treaty is known as anpo for short (hence, Anpo protests).
The treaty committed the United States to defending Japan if Japan was ever attacked. In return, Japan had to provide local army forts and bases for the United States military. The people of Japan were greatly unhappy with this agreement as they saw the United States, the victor of the war, turning Japan into an occupied state for an indefinite period of time. This unrest resulted in the Anpo protests, as the postwar generation of Japanese college students saw the treaty as rife with inequality.
Hiroe Saruya wrote a dissertation entitled “Protests and Democracy in Japan: The Development of Movement Fields and the 1960 Anpo Protests” in which she delved deeper into the Anpo protests. She found that despite the treaty only centering on foreign issues between the two governments,
“the protestors’ demands covered a wide range of issues, from anti-revision of the treaty and abolishment of the treaty, to broader questions of anti-imperialism and democracy” (Saruya 73).
Saruya calls these protests a “forgotten history” (vi) as they are rarely taught in schools or mentioned in Japan because the treaty is still in effect.
While there were minor revisions due to the Anpo protests, ultimately the treaty was never abolished. It is curious that Murakami chooses to set his characters, already grappling with identity, in a time that has largely been left out of the spotlight.
Murakami, a recluse who rarely gives interviews, alludes to his reasoning in an interview with Simon Houpt in 2008.
“’In Japan after the war, after 1945, people were working so hard, and the people believed the world is getting better, we are getting richer, and the richer we become, we thought, the happier we become,’ he offers… ‘Now, we are not so sure we are getting better. I think things are almost the same around the world, in America, Canada, Europe. The younger generation is happier than the older generation. So that is what I mean when we are in chaos, more or less’” (Houpt).
According to Houpt, it is these “seeds of a generational turnaround explored in Norwegian Wood.” Murakami sets his characters in a history rife with questions involved with a desperate search for what it means to be human in post-World War II Japan, creating a time in which younger people felt a deep sense of unease with their national identities. It is entirely possible that all of the death and devastation left behind by the war is what trickles down to the characters Toru, Naoko, and Midori. As all three grapple with death and loss, so does their entire generation.