In Japan, God Isn’t Dead–But He Might Be Cold

Haruki Murakami writes strange tales about parallel universes, towns filled with talking cats, entrances to other worlds hidden at the bottoms of wells, and dark rooms populated by creatures that you MUST NOT look at. He also references the militarized Japan of the early 20th century and the devastating aftermaths of the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway the same year. And he writes about jazz. And classical music. And running.

And sometimes all these things are in one book.

Murakami is a superstar author in Japan, with midnight launch parties for his novels filling Japanese bookstores with hordes of fans panting to snap up his latest work. Here in the West, I and the rest of his devoted non-Japanese fans are forced to cool our jets while we wait months–or years–for the translations of his newest books to hit the shelves.

The mysterious nature of Murakami’s narratives attracts me in a powerful way–I enjoy stories that take place in liminal spaces, in places that can’t be found on a map, but that are quite real to the characters wandering around in them. So it’s very intriguing that the most recent English translation of a Murakami novel contains a small mystery of a different kind, involving wordplay, a fairly famous quotation, and Carl Jung.


Murakami’s giant novel 1Q84–published in Japanese in 3 volumes between 2009 and 2010 and in a single English volume in 2011–moves its characters in and out of two parallel timelines–one taking place in the Tokyo of 1984 and the other unfolding, amidst mysterious “Little People,” disturbing sex and violence, and beings split into two physical entities, in a place/time that the protagonist calls 1Q84; the Q, she says, stands for “question.” And she–and we, the readers–do have many questions about that alternate world. (The title itself is a bit of bilingual wordplay: the Japanese word for “nine” is pronounced “kyu”–like the letter “Q.” In Japanese, the title is pronounced ichi kyu hachi yon–“one nine eight four.”)

Near the story’s end (don’t worry, no spoilers here), a trained killer is philosophizing with the person he is about to assassinate, and he tells a story that invokes Carl Jung, whose theories and archetypes Murakami frequently references in his books. The killer explains that Jung, with his own hands, built a small stone castle on his property in Switzerland. And over the door to this structure, the renowned analyst inscribed the following quotation: COLD OR NOT, GOD IS PRESENT. The killer continues:

“I don’t know much about God. I was raised in a Catholic orphanage and had some awful experiences there so I don’t have a good impression of God. And it was always cold there, even in the summer. It was either really cold or outrageously cold. One or the other. If there is a God, I can’t say he treated me very well. Despite all this, those words of Jung’s quietly sank deep into the folds of my soul. Sometimes I close my eyes and repeat them over and over, and they make me strangely calm. ‘Cold or Not, God is Present.’”

Touching words, perhaps, coming from a hardened fellow who finds meaning in a quotation from a long-dead man of science.

But here’s the thing: The quotation is wrong.

I’ve always loved the story of Jung erecting that castle–Bollingen Tower, it’s called. He inscribed its outer walls with a number of quotations, and the one chiseled over the door is in Latin; it reads:



It means “Bidden or not bidden, the god is present.” Another way to translate it is “Called or not, God is present.”

Called. Not Cold.

Jung's Bollingen Tower, where the Latin quotation is inscribed above the door

Jung’s Bollingen Tower, where the Latin quotation is inscribed above the door

I was understandably startled when I read the passage, and its mistranslation of the Latin quotation, in 1Q84. I kept turning pages, thinking that at some point, the character would learn of his error, and it might prove to be a poignant moment when he would have to revisit his fondness for the altered line. But that never happened. The book ended; the mystery remained unexplained.

I was mystified. Murakami is an erudite, worldly author. Could the mistake have been made by his translator? I discussed it over dinner with my Japanese friend Toshimi, who had introduced me to her favorite author in the first place. She fetched the English and Japanese versions of the novel and looked up the passage in the Japanese volume. “It’s not a mistranslation from the Japanese,” she reported. “Murakami uses the word tsumetai–‘cold.'”

Huh. Could the writer have misheard the quotation at some point and thought that “cold” was the correct word? Not likely, we decided. Given the author’s fascination with Jung and his theories and archetypes–and given also Murakami’s mastery of English (he has translated The Great Gatsby, among other books, into Japanese), it’s just not possible that the famous writer doesn’t know the correct translation of the Vocatus line.

So we have a small, real-life mystery, courtesy of the author who writes large, mysterious novels. I’ve searched for an explanation in online reviews and articles, but I’ve come up emptyhanded. A couple of sites mention the mystery, but offer no explanation except to assume that it was a mistranslation from the Japanese. And I haven’t found any comments from the author on why he did what he did.

My theory: I think Murakami read or heard the quotation translated into English at some point and noticed the resemblance between the words “called” and “cold,” especially when pronounced with a Japanese accent. Japanese doesn’t have that “aw” sound, so “called” sounds just like “cold” when pronounced by a Japanese speaker. In fact, the two words are spelled and pronounced exactly the same way when written in Japanese katakana, the syllabary used to write out foreign words. They are both spelled as コールド  (which sounds like kourudo). Given the Japanese love of puns and wordplay (just look at the book’s title again), I think he purposely created the character’s story around the mistranslation to add a layer or two of complexity to an already complex story. One could argue that the mistranslation is sad: a quotation that has calmed an unfortunate man in the midst of a painful life is not real–it’s meaningless. He has been drawing sustenance from a mistake. Or, looked at from another angle–from a parallel universe, if you will–one could argue that Murakami has added a layer of hopefulness to his story: the quotation as remembered may be meaningless, but the character has imbued it with meaning. And that imbued meaning has become the important thing, the thing that sustains him.

Life is like that, Murakami might be saying. Maybe there’s no intrinsic point to our existence; maybe it’s all nasty, brutish, and short–but we have the power to give it meaning. To make it count. To think we hear “Cold or not, God is present” and to make that nonsensical axiom into a source of comfort. I like this possibility best of all.

Of course, his Japanese readers would have an extra layer to peel away before they could get this meaning–they would have to know the Latin quotation and know the correct English translation before they could recognize the English pun at play. This seems like a fiendishly twisted path to the author’s ostensible message.

But keeping in mind what Haruki-san puts his characters through in his beautiful, violent books, it might not be outside the realm of possibility for him to put his readers in a bit of a puzzle, as well.

Tower Image: By (site (avec accord)) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons