In 1967, the 17-year-old Toru was living in Kobe as a quiet high school student, with Kizuki and Kizuki's girlfriend, Naoko, as his only friends. Although Kizuki was always the charismatic center of their group of three, one day in May he inexplicably committed suicide by gassing himself in his car. In order to escape and forget the trauma, Toru decided to leave his hometown for a university in Tokyo after graduating; he eventually comes to realize from the pain that death is inseparable from life. As a laidback student studying drama, Toru moves into a dormitory controlled by right-wing leaders where he shares a room with an eccentric geography student, who was nicknamed "Storm Trooper" by the dormitory because of his obsession for cleanliness and order. After coincidentally meeting Naoko in the middle of May 1968, the first time the two had seen each other since Kizuki's funeral almost a year ago, Toru goes on a long walk with her, chatting with her and making her laugh by telling funny stories about his roommate. The two make plans to meet again.
Norwegian Wood tends to be considered apart from the rest of Murakami's novels for the noticeable lack of the author's trademark surrealist imagery and bizarre, almost magical happenings—instead, there is a strongly mundane sense of reality. Nowhere is this sense of a life lived so normally and realistically as to suggest autobiography as evident as in the descriptions of university life in Tokyo in the turbulent years at the end of the 1960s. When Toru first moves into the dormitory in 1968, a year before the mass student protests, politics already lingers over the whole place, although in the somewhat ridiculous form of the dorm head and student, both of whom Toru satirizes, raising the national flag every morning.
Toru demonstrates some of his characteristic sensitivity in reflecting on this practice: "I did not know why the flag had to be taken down at night. The nation continued to exist after dark, and plenty of people worked the whole night through…it seemed unfair to me that such people were denied the protection of the flag. Or maybe it didn't matter all that much and nobody really cared—aside from them. Not that I really care, either. It was just something to cross my mind" (14-15). It first seems that he is polemicizing and taking a leftist political position, but then he discredits himself entirely and dismisses the potent thought, just as he does with so many other thoughts.
Whether the reader is supposed to take these thoughts sincerely or is instead meant to follow Toru's self-ironizing is far from clear; similarly, at the end of chapter Toru worries about becoming too serious about the topic of death while at the same time knowing that he cannot dismiss it. When he remarks, "Those were strange days, now that I look back at them. In the midst of life, everything revolved around death," the reader should think of two things: first, that it is far from a typical response to trauma to almost dismiss it as "strange"; and second, that as much as Toru explains himself to the reader, so is the exact nature of Naoko's pain hidden from us (25).