Haruki Murakami: Underground

Haruki Murakami
Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
Translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel
(2001, Vintage International, 366 pages)

On Monday, March 20, 1995, a cool, clear spring morning, five members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult broke open plastic containers of sarin in several cars of the Tokyo Metropolitan Subway. Thirteen people were killed, dozens severely injured, and over 5,000 injured in an attack that shook the Japanese nation.

Perhaps Japan’s best-known novelist, Haruki Murakami was not in Tokyo that day but closely followed the news of the attack, as did people throughout the country and around the world. Angry at the extensive coverage by the Japanese media that focused on the perpetrators of the attack, Murakami felt a desire to draw attention to the victims. In Underground, Murakami, employing the method of oral historians like Studs Terkel, talks to victims of the attack. Only some of those interviews are included in this English version of what was a much longer Japanese original. In the subsequent The Place That Was Promised (included as part of the English edition of Underground), Murakami also spoke to some of the perpetrators.

Working systematically, Murakami was able to track down 140 survivors, only 40% of whom would be interviewed (many simply wanted to forget about the incident, or were fearful of retribution from Aum Shinrikyo members). Most of the profiles take the same shape – a short biographical sketch by Murakami, followed by a description by the person of her/his normal routine, details of what happened that day, any long-term effects they experienced, and occasionally some remarks on why this might have happened, what in Japanese society specifically or humankind generally could have lead to an event like this. Murakami states that he wanted “to recognize that each person on the subway that morning had a face, a life, a family, hopes and fears, contradictions and dilemmas – that that all these factors had a place in the drama.”

Over twenty times as powerful as cyanide – a drop the size of a pinhead can kill an adult – sarin was invented by German scientists in World War II, and was later used by Iraq against Iran and the Kurds. On that deadly Monday morning in Tokyo, the perpetrators, armed with plastic bags of sarin wrapped in newspapers, went onto prearranged trains during rush hour. They released the sarin by poking the bags with the pointed end of an umbrella. Once the gas was released, at the next stop they would flee the train and meet up with designated partners in getaway cars.

Traveling to work as usual that Monday, Kiyoka Izumi, a 26-year-old PR worker for an airline, suddenly started to have trouble breathing. People around her were coughing. Yet at first none of them had any idea that anything unusual was happening. But when she got to the station, the alarm was going off and there were obviously sick people all around her. Having had some emergency training, she started to help. But soon she felt so ill that she was taken to the hospital. A cough and high temperature lingered for weeks, but she eventually recovered.

The scene was similar from train to train. People would start to cough and become congested. Noses would run and eyes water. Most experienced dizziness and headaches. Some vomited. Their eyesight would start to fail, as everything turned dark or sepia-colored. A few would collapse, foaming at the mouth, or pass out altogether. Some were hospitalized immediately, but others, despite their symptoms, went to work, and only later sought medical help when they heard about the attacks or when their symptoms got worse.

Initially there was much confusion. One of the trains, on the Marunouchi Line, was allowed to continue on its route for an hour and forty minutes after the sarin packet was punctured and people, ultimately some 200 on that train alone, were being affected. Word was slow getting out, and nearby hospitals weren’t prepared. They were soon overrun, and most didn’t know how to treat sarin. Authorities came in for severe criticism in the days and months after the attack.

Assistant Stationmaster Issho Takahashi of the Kasumigaseki Station tried to clean up the sarin-soaked newspapers and plastic bags before their contents were known. As he and a coworker, Toshiaki Toyoda, were cleaning, they quickly showed symptoms. Takahashi later died. Toyoda recovered, but suffered from sudden, unexplained outbreaks of anger. For months afterward, many of the victims would experience nausea, or be overcome by headaches and fatigue. Short-term and long-term memory loss was common. People couldn’t sleep, or experienced repeated nightmares.

Many of the victims complained about the lack of interest from the people around them. Mitsuo Arima, a 41-year-old who works for a cosmetics company, put it this way with disarming honesty: “Oddly enough, I didn’t feel any sense of crisis. My reaction was, ‘Well, I’m okay.’ I’d been right at the epicenter, but instead of shuddering at the death too, I felt like I was watching a program on TV, as if it were somebody else’s problem … if someone had fallen down right in front of me, I like to think I’d have helped. But what if they fell fifty yards away? Would I go out of my way to help? I wonder. I might have seen it as somebody else’s business and walked on by. If I’d gotten involved I’d have been late for work…”

Naoyuki Ogata, 28, wasn’t affected by the sarin at first, but only developed symptoms as he was helping victims get transportation, mostly private cars and vans, to the hospital. “There were only a handful of people still on their feet, how could we not help?” His anger was directed not at the perpetrators of the attack, but at the lax and confused response by the government, the police and firemen, both during and after the attack: “…why hasn’t any treatment policy been established for posttraumatic stress disorder? Why hasn’t the Japanese government made an accurate assessment of the current health of the injured?”

Dr. Nobuo Yanagisawa, head of the School of Medicine at Shinshu University, was knowledgeable about sarin due to an earlier attack (the June 1994 attack by Aum in Matsumoto, in which seven people died and 500 were injured). He was able to send his findings to many of the facilities treating the affected. “The biggest lesson we learned from the Tokyo gas attack … was that when something major strikes, the local units may be extremely swift to respond, but the overall picture is hopeless. There is no prompt and efficient system in Japan for dealing with a major catastrophe. There’s no clear-cut chain of command.”

Practically everyone in the book is named, but one severely injured person, Shizuko Akashi, is identified by a pseudonym at the request of her family. A former grocery store employee, Shizuko was largely paralyzed and in a near-vegetative state. Her brother Tatsuo was interviewed at some length. Always close to his only sibling, Tatsuo continued to visit the hospital multiple times a week, even though it’s a two-hour round trip from his workplace. While Shizuko had recovered some functions and was able to speak short sentences, most of her memory is gone. But her strength of character remained. As Murakami tries to explain in language familiar from his novels, “There’s a strong will at work here, clearly seeking some objective. Focused, but very likely not on me, she’s after some ‘other’ beyond me. Yet that ‘other’ goes on a long journey and seems to find its way back to me. Please excuse this nebulous explanation; it’s merely a fleeting impression.” One of Shizuko’s main goals is to travel – to Tokyo Disneyland, a favorite of hers in years past. However, “For a fact, going to Disneyland would be a more difficult undertaking for her in practice than for us to travel to the ends of the earth.” Murakami sums up: “That evening when I visited the hospital, I’d wanted somehow to encourage her – but how? I’d thought it was up to me, but it wasn’t that way at all; no need even to think about giving her encouragement. In the end, it was she who gave me encouragement.” This portion of the book is among the most memorable.

Reactions after the attack took many forms. Yoshiko Wada, who became something of a media celebrity in Japan after the death in the attack of her husband Eiji, was pregnant when he died. “That was the hardest part. Going on walks, seeing a father carrying a baby on his shoulders was almost too much to bear; or overhearing a young couple’s conversation – I just didn’t want to be there.” She felt great anger toward the Aum Shinrikyo cult: “I’d like to kill Asahara [the cult’s leader] with my own two hands. If it were allowed, I’d like to kill him slowly and painfully.”

Others, though, like Kiyoka Izumi, had few feelings for the perpetrators. “What I really think about are those families that have to bear the tragedy, their suffering is so much bigger to me than any anger or hatred I might feel toward the criminals … even if those criminals get the death penalty, does that solve anything in the end? Perhaps I’m oversensitive when it comes to human mortality, but it seems to me that however heavy the sentence, there is nothing you can say to those families.”

Aum Shinrikyo described itself as a variation on Buddhism that would develop the follower through asceticism, meditation, yoga, spiritual training, and devotion to Aum’s leader, Shoko Asahara. But at some point around 1993, Aum Shinrikyo evolved into a more violent organization, creating its own Defense Ministry, making guns and poison gas, focusing more on martial arts, and torturing members for their transgressions. Supposedly, the sarin gas attacks were meant to bring about some sort of apocalypse that would bring down the Japanese government and install Asahara as the new emperor.

Some followers were genuine spiritual seekers, like Hiroyuki Kano. “Ninety-nine percent of the image that Aum followers have of Aum Shinrikyo is exactly this,” said Kano, “a way of looking at spiritual and physical phenomena, and a remedy or solution to these.” While participating in Aum, Kano had heard rumors of darker goings-on. But the spiritual quest he and the other members were on seemed much more important.

Astronomer and surveyor Hidetoshi Takahashi, an Aum member, said that “Most of the people arrested in the gas attack were absolutely devoted followers of the Leader who wouldn’t let any doubts they might have about Aum stop them doing exactly as they were told.” As he described the cult’s effect on its members, “No matter how much you resist and try to put a stop to things, the fact is that in a group like Aum your sense of Self steadily deteriorates. Things are forced on you from above and you’re continually attacked for not accepting the status quo, not being devoted enough, and inevitably your spirit is broken.”

In 2000 Aum removed Asahara as its leader, changed its name to Aleph, and vowed to respect the law. Many left the organization, but many also remained. Why? Murakami suggests that “in Aum they found a purity of purpose they could not find in ordinary society. Even if in the end it became something monstrous, the radiant, warm memory of the peace they originally found remains inside them, and nothing else can easily replace it.” Those that stayed involved were often forced to return to the outside world, taking what jobs they could to support themselves. Those who were known to be Aum members had great difficulty finding work, as they were held in great suspicion by society. However, as early participant Hajime Masutani put it, “No matter how dissatisfied you might be with Aum life it was preferable to life outside with its uncleanliness and attachments. Living with a group of like-minded people, it was psychologically easier to stay put.”

In the chapter “Blind Nightmare: Where Are We Japanese Going?” Murakami writes of his deep desire to understand what he calls, in the subtitle of the book, the “Japanese Psyche.” One of the ways he did this was to impose on himself several years of “exile,” living and writing in Europe and America. “I wanted to broaden my experience of other places, plant myself down, and write. By getting away from Japan – which stood a priori both to the Japanese language and to my own being – I forced myself to map out the various methods and postures I assumed, phase by phase, when dealing with the language and all things Japanese.” At the end of his exile period, within three months of one another in early 1995, came the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo gas attack. He saw them as similar, violent assaults on the Japanese consciousness.

The Aum Shinrikyo cult phenomenon had largely been shunned by the Japanese populace, but Murakami saw it more as “a distorted image of ourselves in a manner none of us could have foreseen … encounters that call up strong physical disgust or revulsion are often in fact projections of our own faults and weaknesses.” Members of the Aum cult subsumed their egos, their personal narratives, to the leader Asahara. And, as Murakami suggests, everyone does that to some extent: “Haven’t you offered up some part of your Self to someone (or something), and taken on a ‘narrative’ in return? Haven’t we entrusted some part of our personality to some greater System or Order? And if so, has not that System at some stage demanded of us some kind of ‘insanity’? Is the narrative you now possess really and truly your own? Are your dreams really your own dreams? Might not they be someone else’s visions that could sooner or later turn into nightmares?”


2 thoughts on “Haruki Murakami: Underground

  1. Pingback: Murakami: Absolutely on Music | Thirty-Two Minutes

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