Being Futsu

“I’m just an ordinary guy, living an ordinary life.” – Haruki Murakami

It is basically impossible for anyone living outside of the Japanese culture sphere to understand the pathos, defiance, and resignation associated with the word “futsu” – or “ordinary” in English translation. Haruki Murakami, an odds-on favorite for the Nobel Prize for Literature, has spent his entire career writing about “futsu”, but still has not quite communicated how much this seemingly unexceptional word is central to his universe.

Imagine a distant cousin suddenly appeared at your place with the intention of recruiting you as a volunteer campaigner for his favorite political candidate, say Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, and his favorite candidate is far from your political ideal. He enthusiastically extols the virtues of his candidate and  the great future for your country his candidate will inevitably bring. You can only see faults in the man your cousin sees nothing but greatness. He says you will be participating in a great moment in history. Not eager for a confrontation, you say “Well, I’m just an ordinary guy.”

In this context, by saying “ordinary” you are saying that you are not interested in becoming a part of greater history in the way your cousin sees it. In effect, you are saying “Yeah, whatever.” You would rather remain disconnected.

Joseph Heller described his character Major Major as “Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.” This might as well be the description of Murakami’s futsu main character. “Futsu” also means average, mediocre, unimpressive, lacking distinction; a cog in the wheel destined to be worn out, discarded, and forgotten; a pebble in a beach of pebbles; an insignificant blip in the universe.

Yet, Murakami’s characters, like all Japanese people who profess to be futsu, are extraordinary. His main character has unique perspectives, so much so that he weeps at the sight of a taxidermic display of a whale’s penis. He never fails to find a magically helpful woman to accompany him. He navigates the Tokyo cityscape like a gentle breeze between the skyscrapers.  Japan is a nation of exceptional people all, at some level, accepting their lot of being futsu. Very few people believe themselves to be “special”. Most do not even think it is a virtue to be special.

Etymologically, “futsu” means “common” or “acceptable”, as in “common language” or “acceptable currency”. “Futsu” is the marking trait of lingua franca and legal tender. It is the character that gives something its universal currency in the world; its acceptability. If you are not “futsu”, you have no currency.

So, by saying that you are “futsu”, you are saying that you are an ultimately expendable cog in the wheel, but also standard currency; a cog that fits. Thus, by extension, when you say that you have no interest in taking a larger role in shaping history, you are not only rejecting your cousin’s candidate and his political views in particular, but also the very idea of being “special”.

“The nail that sticks out gets hammered in” as the infamous Japanese saying goes. Japanese people have a natural aversion to special-snowflake-ism to the point that they see virtue, and hold pride, in the proactive rejection of individuality. What is not special fits better. And what fits better works better. Joseph Heller’s Major Major was an anomaly. Murakami’s “ordinary” character is a pebble in a sea of ordinary pebbles all of which are proudly – if a little sadly – ordinary, each rejecting its significance in history in its own detached way. Murakami’s pebble is stranded among them, sometimes struggling to stay in the dredge.

That is why there is a sense of denial when Murakami’s character insists that he is an ordinary guy living an ordinary life. None of his characters are corporate drones. Few of them even commute to work. There is never a description of one wearing a necktie or a suit.

Murakami is not the only Japanese writer whose works center around “futsu” characters. In fact, almost every contemporary Japanese writer takes his/her own perspective at the “futsu” existence. It is an oxymoron to say that “futsu” is an extraordinary word, but it is. It encompasses an entire culture and reflects life philosophy. You could probably not fathom modern Japanese literature without some understanding of it.

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