As his plane arrives at Hamburg Airport, Toru Watanabe hears the Beatles' song "Norwegian Wood" played over the speakers, bringing back an intense and painful memory, a scene from 18 years ago in 1969 when he was 19 years old. As he walks through a large empty meadow with Naoko, a girl he loved, she tells him a story about a mysterious well hidden in the grasses into which people had occasionally fallen into and died in. Naoko says that she isn't afraid that Toru would fall in and knows that she too would be safe so long as she stayed with him; they share this intimacy, but when Toru suggests to Naoko that she relax herself, Naoko is hurt and explains that she can't relax because she is doing all she can to not fall apart. However, as the two walk into a forest they reconcile and Naoko asks two wishes of Toru: that he know how much she appreciates his coming to visit her, and that he remember her. Toru earnestly promises at the time, but then later remarks on how the passing of time made his memory fade of her—though it also allowed him to write about her.
There is a certain peculiar sensation that one gets when reading a Murakami story that makes one think, "Oh, this is a Murakami story, isn't it?" for better or worse, and indeed already in the first chapter of Norwegian Wood certain features that comprise his distinctive style make their appearance. The story begins almost immediately with the issue of memory, with Toru remarking that he has arrived in Germany "again" and implying that he has heard "Norwegian Wood" many times before, though never with such intensity as he does in the external time frame, 18 years after the main story (1). The perspective of this 37-year-old Toru reveals to the reader that he is writing the novel from his memories, and though it only makes a few more appearances in the rest of the novel, not even returning at the end to close to frame as it were, the sense that everything, especially Naoko and Toru's love for her, has already been lost remains an important background.
"Where could we have disappeared to? How could such a thing have happened?" Toru asks this of his memory of the scene in the meadow, from which he and Naoko, formerly the sole focus of his attention, have inexplicably disappeared (4). He considers the question from a kind of passively accepting and yet painfully sensitive personality. He thinks, "Someday, I suppose, the shadows will be swallowed up in darkness. There is no way around it,” responding to a dismal thought with a simple and modest perseverance (5). Likewise, for him the project of writing is more an acceptance of fate than a rebellion against it; although he cannot change it, he wishes to understand why the tragic events of his past and his personality: "It just happens to be the way I'm made. I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them" (5).
The main enigma he faces is Naoko, whose later suicide, although not yet explicitly described, is already evident in the general sense of loss that pervades the first chapter. Moreover, despite Toru's simple and almost glibly optimistic assurances to Naoko, there is a strong sense that all will in fact turn out quite badly; that Toru acknowledges the futility of remembering Naoko indicates that their relationship too was doomed to fail. "'I guess I don't really understand you yet,' I [Toru] said. "I'm not all that smart. It takes me a while to understand things. But if I do have the time, I will come to understand you—better than anyone else in the world ever can" (9). In a way reminiscent of Holden Caulfield, Toru (and many other of Murakami's lonely male protagonists) describes himself to reader as an unexceptional young man, belying his exceptional emotional sensitivity. As Midori will remark upon first meeting Toru, what seems to him to be modest and normal is in fact a distinctive quirk, a sense of the strangeness of the world that sets him apart as a character from most.