Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami is a celebrated novelist, but Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche is a work of non-fiction about the 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subways carried out by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. In five separate locations, cultists simultaneously carried packets of sarin onto a subway. They each pierced their packet with the sharpened end of an umbrella and then left the subway. Twelve people died, and thousands more were harmed by the toxin.
Fans of Murakami’s novels may not be interested in this work, but they should hesitate before dismissing it from their “to read” list. In his essay “Blind Nightmare: Where Are We Japanese Going,” Murakami discusses why he set about writing this book. He explains how he lived abroad for much of his career but began to feel a duty to return to Japan, and he also explains how the attacks, carried out in a subterranean setting, spoke to his interests. As readers of Murakami’s fiction already know, his novels often feature wells, dark underworlds, and mirror worlds. Though Murakami does not discuss it, I found Noboru Wataya, the villain of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, strangely reminiscent of how the Aum interviewees spoke about their leader, Shoko Asahara.
Given the gravity of the subject, Murakami is careful to outline his goals and his process, and it’s worth looking at the structure of this book before discussing it further. Underground is not easily read as a historical narrative, like David McCullough’s acclaimed history of the first year of the American Revolution, 1776. Instead, it is largely inspired by Studs Terkel’s oral histories, such as Working and “The Good War.” Terkel explored society by interviewing regular people, as opposed to leaders or celebrities, and he presented their words, largely without analysis or commentary, as a representative history. Murakami’s book is therefore composed of interviews, though they were originally released in two parts. The first section, “Underground,” published in 1997, collates interviews with survivors of the attack. It was followed in 1998 by a second set of interviews, entitled “The Place That Was Promised.” In it, Murakami interviews several individuals who were a part of Aum Shinrikyo — some remained in the group, some still practice its spiritual teachings even if they’ve left the organization, and others are simply critical of the cult and its aims. These two sections were translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel, and they were released together in English in 2000.
The majority of the book is devoted to the survivors’ recollections in “Underground.” Read as a whole, what may be most remarkable is how similarly the interviewees respond to Murakami’s questions. They often explain the way their sight was limited or how they were confused by a bad smell. It is not unusual for them to find themselves thinking about the little things that led them to be on that train or in that station at that moment. In one instance, a bus is two minutes late, and those two minutes seem responsible for derailing a life. It’s enough to make one think seriously about the butterfly effect and how something that seems inconsequential can actually lead to permanent damage.
It seems that Murakami often asked the survivors what should be done to the murderers and their accomplices, and I was surprised by how the survivors often considered anger as something to be acknowledged but not built upon. Here is one response:
I didn’t feel anything like anger. Of course, it makes me angry to think of those who died. It makes me especially sad to think of the dead station attendants who carried out the sarin. If they hadn’t been there, I might have died too. But I don’t feel any personal hatred or bitterness toward the criminals. It feels more like I had an accident.
…of course you have to feel angry toward the criminals; but me, I probably feel a little different from everyone else who came to harm traveling in that car. Anger, yeah, but my symptoms were relatively minor, so mine is a more objective anger. It isn’t personal.
Perhaps the people that came forward were more likely to feel less emotional when reflecting on their experience. Regardless, it’s more than I think I’d be capable of if I found my life so altered because a group of people felt they could achieve enlightenment by trying to poison me.
The second set of interviews collected in “The Place That Was Promised” are more varied, and I was disturbed to realize that these are probably the more compelling interviews. For better or worse, it is very interesting to see why individuals choose to leave society or how they react to crimes carried out by a cult that they joined to live, for example, with greater spiritual purity. When asked if he felt he’d wasted the time spent in Aum Shinrikyo, one interviewee responds:
No, I don’t think it was a waste. I met a lot of people, shared some tough times. It’s a good memory for me. I was able to confront human weaknesses, and I think I matured. It might sound odd to speak of it as fulfilling, but there was a sense of adventure: we didn’t know what the next day would bring. When I was given some huge task to do, I felt uplifted because I could focus my energy on it and complete it.
The assigned tasks were often meant to encourage extreme self-discipline and loyalty, and one interviewee discusses people being hanged upside down until they screamed for mercy, only to bask in a sense of accomplishment afterward. While many of the interviewees are critical of Aum or Asahara, another struggled to reconcile the feeling that she was part of a meaningful movement with reports that the leaders of that meaningful movement killed random people using sarin gas.
I came to Underground as a fan of Murakami’s writing but also as someone who has never lived in Japan — nor have I made a point of studying Japan’s history and culture. Murakami and some of his interviewees view the attack as a puzzle about what it reveals about Japan. As one survivor says: “I already knew society had gotten to the point where something like Aum had to happen.” I found the interviews more interesting as a window into what it’s like for people to cope with the consequences of violence. The second set of interviews, meanwhile, help to explain what it is like to subscribe to a philosophy that also leads to the spread of violence to random innocents.
Underground may not be a very highly regarded book, as I rarely encounter it when I read interviews with Murakami or articles about him. Nevertheless, it’s the book I’d most like to hear him discuss if I met him. I expect that I’ll often recommend Underground, even if I also suspect that few people will choose to read it.