Even though his mother tongue dominates only one country, Murakami's sensitive tales of the absurdities and loneliness of modern life have struck a powerful global chord.
In an attempt to understand the sensation, translators of his work from 13 countries ? although not the hermetic novelist himself ? gathered in Tokyo this weekend, proof that Murakami transcends national cultures.
American novelist Richard Powers said that in the United States, Murakami "is considered among the few truly important international writers".
"How can the same writer be a runaway bestseller in Italy and Korea, a cultural phenomenon in Turkey and the object of highest literary respect in countries as different as Russia and China?" Powers asked the symposium at the University of Tokyo.
A Kafka-esque look at the 21st century
Despite the anti-Japanese backlash in communist China over war memories, Murakami speaks to a generation discovering the ups and downs of capitalism, said Lai Ming-chu, a Taiwanese who has translated more than 30 Murakami works into Chinese.
Murakami pulls fans for the opposite reason in the former Soviet Union, said Russian translator Dmitry Kovalenin: He offers a voice to a nation "submerged like the Titanic" after the communist collapse.
His fan base is so wide that both a cafe in Kiev and a cannabis-laced cocktail at a Moscow bar have been named after Murakami, Kovalenin said.
In France, 'Kafka on the Shore', Murakami's story of a self-doubting boy and dim-witted old man who gravitate across Japan, has sold 48 000 copies since its release in January, even though "usually French people wouldn't buy a book with a Japanese name on the cover," said its translator, Corinne Atlan.
Later this year, Murakami will be awarded the Frank Kafka literature award in Prague whose last two recipients both won the Nobel Prize shortly afterward.
Refugees of global capitalism
Murakami (57) the son of a Buddhist monk in the western city of Kobe and former owner of a Tokyo jazz bar, began writing only in his 30s when, watching a baseball game, he had an epiphany that he could pursue fiction.
In a country fabled for "salaryman" company workers and groupthink, Murakami has conjured up solitary, introspective characters wrestling with their places in the world and enthralled by the discovery of the new.
His style is equally fresh, packed with references to pop culture ? from The Beatles to Kentucky Fried Chicken. His use of direct, accessible language is often likened to J.D. Salinger, whose 'Catcher in the Rye' Murakami translated into Japanese.
'Norwegian Wood', Murakami's sexually frank 1987 novel of a man's fleeting romance with a traumatized young woman, made him a celebrity in Japan, leading him to temporarily resettle in the United States, where he is now again spending a year.
"His style may sound Western to a Japanese reader. But while it would seem easy to put his work into English, the difficult part is to preserve that foreignness so the core does not disappear," said Jay Rubin, the US translator of 'Norwegian Wood' among other Murakami works.
For Powers, Murakami is like his characters, "neither wholly Japanese nor wholly Americanised, nor does he participate in any other group identity".
"Murakami's books understand the terrifying disorientation of late ? globalising capitalism and our status as refugees inside it," Powers said.
Sensitivity, reality and fantasy
Such disorientation is witnessed in Murakami's fantastical scenes. His stories include a giant frog inviting a salaryman into an epic battle and a sky that suddenly rains mackerels and leeches.
Powers said Murakami lets readers imagine "just what links might unfold between these two worlds of banal realism and underground phantasmagoria".
And in those two worlds lie characters of a deep humanity.
"Many Danish men say that when they read Murakami they feel they are the main character," said Danish translator Mette Holm.
"And I can relate to the main character as well," she said. "I enjoy his sensitivity. For me that's the reason for his popularity."