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  • Writer's pictureEffy Lindström

Lessons in Empathy from Murakami's "The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day"

collage art of a young Junpei with his father

“The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day” is a short story within a short story–a kind of neo-Surrealist nesting doll–configured by Japan’s most acclaimed literary export, Haruki Murakami. (Read it here.)


In the story proper, protagonist Junpei is–like so many young men–doing his best to live according to his father’s doctrine, issued spontaneously and without explanation in the budding writer’s teenhood. 


“Among the women a man meets in his life,” his father pronounces one day, “there are only three that have real meaning for him.” For good measure, his father clarifies that Junpei will become involved with “many women” throughout his life, but he will be “wasting his time” outside of the confines of that prophesied trinity.


This number, of course, seems as arbitrarily imposed as the reasoning behind it, but Junpei’s father is remote and inscrutable, so he dares not question him. He simply accepts the edict as incontrovertibly true and lives his life accordingly.


A watercolour illustration of Junpei at age 31

As a result, Junpei arrives at age thirty-one with “a kind of nose for convenient”–i.e., easily discardable–partners. After all, there is, after his mother, only room enough for two significant female relationships in his life. Given this finite supply of meaning, he cannot inscribe it onto just any relationship, leading him to unceremoniously ghost any woman who nominally perturbs him.


In the wake of this series of “pale, indecisive relationships” with the opposite sex, and approaching middle age, Junpei meets a woman five years his senior, Kirie, and develops a casual sexual relationship with her. She is attracted to him because he is a creative (albeit a not-so-successful one), and he, in turn–maybe for the first time–becomes deeply curious about how she spends her days.


Yet in a Rumpelstiltskin-like twist, Kirie will not outright disclose her profession; instead, she calls upon Junpei to employ his self-professed skills of authorly observation to determine what she does for a living.


This relationship marks a watershed moment for Junpei on two counts: first, he experiences an unwelcome role reversal when Kirie admits she doesn’t want a “serious relationship”. Secondly, upon sharing the plot of his work-in-progress short story–something he normally develops on his own–Kirie challenges him to take the piece in a completely different direction.


close-up photo of the kidney-shaped stone in the stream

This is where the story-within-a-story comes in. Originally planned to be a “tranquil, psychological” work of realism, the short story centres upon a female doctor who is having an affair with an older, married colleague. One day, she discovers a curious kidney-shaped stone in a stream, and takes it to her office to use as a kind of anatomy-themed paperweight.


This opening, in truth, is as far as Junpei had choreographed the plot, as he has been stymied by writer’s block for “some days now”. In fact, he hadn’t even considered what his heroine looks like, but resolves that she is “quite attractive” when asked.


It is in the heat of this moment of pillowtalk–which, it bears reminding, follows his first brush with rejection–that Junpei feels compelled to make up the rest of the story on the spot. In this way, the narrative unexpectedly veers into the world of magical realism, with the kidney-shaped stone inexplicably turning up in a new location in the doctor’s office every time she arrives there.


Why? Junpei does not know, so his more experienced partner advises him: “You know, Junpei, everything in the world has its reasons for doing what it does.” This, she says, includes everything from meteorological phenomena to random stones; we simply don’t take notice until we are made to take notice.


What we find out is that the world is not filled with inert objects, but rather entities with their own agency and motives. Just as we see them, and act upon them, they “rock [us]” and “know us very well. From top to bottom.”


In the face of all this, one can only “take them in”, “survive”, and “deepen”.


Photo of Junpei with Kirie

This worldview shakes Junpei on multiple levels. In terms of his art, it causes him to think deeply about the motivations of a “character” that he once considered to be an inanimate object, and a kind of psychic collaboration unfolds. From afar, doing whatever elusive job she does, Kirie seems to be “propelling the story” forward into uncharted Surrealist terrain.


It is within this context, then, that the doctor discovers the kidney-shaped stone wriggling within her lover—a stowaway with which she develops a telepathic, obsessional relationship. Try as she might to understand it, the kidney-slash-stone sojourns every night to lands unknown, each time reemerging in a new place in her office.


And even when she tries to cast the kidney-shaped stone into the sea upon breaking up with her coworker, it turns back up in her office, exactly as it always had.


This absurdist fable mirrors Junpei’s own burgeoning sense of empathy for women. Like the kidney-shaped stone, women were once mere objects to him, leading solipsistic existences that started and ended when he was present. He never took a substantive interest in their lives, which is why it was so easy for him to get rid of them. Because they held no meaning, they simply stopped existing for him when he left them (temporarily or permanently).


But now, Kirie’s revelation colours the world of women with newfound activity and, yes, meaning. When she abruptly cuts contact, like he did to so many women, he wonders about the mysterious life she leads, and how it fits into his. Where did she go when she left his bed? And had she been Number Two of the all-obliterating Three?


Ultimately, Junpei discovers the answer to both questions when he, in a taxi, happens to hear a radio interview with a woman who seems to be Kirie. As it turns out, she is the owner of a window-washing company that specialises in skyscrapers in the Tokyo metropolitan area. 


What’s more, she is a famous daredevil performer who walks tightropes between high rise buildings, using only a pole in her hands for balance. This is how she “gets her kicks”, the taxi driver comments.


illustration of Kirie walking a tightrope between buildings in Tokyo

Granted, Junpei is not sure if this is truly Kirie, or simply a "weird chick" (as the cabbie puts it) who sounds exactly like her. But it hardly matters. For the first time, the enormity of women’s interior and professional lives becomes apparent to Junpei. Even if Kirie isn’t an internationally known adrenaline junkie, she could have been. Any of them could have been.


But until that moment, Junpei never took notice. He was too absorbed in grimly observing his countdown of meaningful female relationships.


The spell of his father’s proto-meninism finally broken, Junpei comes to a paradoxical realisation: that Kirie was indeed Number Two, and that the rules of baseball do not apply to male-female relationships. Instead of staving off his “three strikes”, Junpei must “[decide] in [his] heart to accept another person completely. And it always has to be the first time and the last.”


a landscape illustration of a silhouetted Kirie on a tightrope between skyscrapers in Tokyo

At once, Kirie–like the blackish-red stone she inspired–is no longer an object. She is a fully realised being: one who is living and breathing, rather than merely flesh-shaped, and one whose attractiveness coexists with her independent will.


And he, like his fictional doctor, must decide how to react to this–how to “survive” and “deepen” from it.


Ultimately, Junpei learns a sobering lesson about object permanence. Like his protagonist, he can set Kirie down like a paperweight, but she will not stay there when he leaves, idly fulfilling some rote, predetermined function. Instead, she will continue to live her life–and how–when he is not around.


Upon realising this, the story and the story-within-a-story merge in a final addendum–a masterful and quintessentially Murakamian feat of literary alchemy. Here, Junpei’s doctor symbolically returns to her office and finds that the kidney-shaped stone has gone, never to return.


Just as it could come back of its own accord, it also has the power to leave forever. We all do.


the kidney-shaped stone resting on some files in the doctor's office


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