Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

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December 23, 2015

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The Sarin Gas Attack

On Monday, March 20, 1995 five members of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin, a poison gas, on the Tokyo subway system during the morning rush hour.

This was the first time the Tokyo transit system was the target of a terrorist attack. It’s still the most deadly attack that’s happened in Japan since World War II.

12 people died, 50 were severely injured and nearly 1,000 others suffered temporary breathing and eye problems from the gas. A lot of the people who died were Tokyo subway workers who tried to moved the packets of sarin gas off the trains before realized how toxic they were.

I asked my classmate Lisa Takagi about it. She’s from Tokyo. She said even now if people mention they’re in a yoga group, or taking a hippie or new age class it’s met with a bit of a skepticism because of the way people felt about the cult after the attack.

The Aum Shinrikyo cult has about 2,000 members still today. The religious aspect of the cult is syncretic – that means it mixes together – parts of Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, The Book of Revelations, Nostradamus’ Prophecies and yoga. Whatever the founder, Shoko Asahara, thought to be relevant. It started off as a yoga and meditation class in his one bedroom apartment, and less than ten years later ended up being tied up in extortion, weapons dealings, murder and this terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway.

Murakami’s Interviews

This is not Murakami’s normal work. He’s known for his surrealist fiction set in contemporary Japan with allusions to American pop culture.

This book is a series of interviews with people who were there the day of the attack. Murakami was critical of the media following the attack. He felt it sensationalized the lives of the people in the cult who led the attack and didn’t focus enough on the victims.

It the preface, he said his interest in writing the book was piqued while flipping through a magazine and in the letters to the editor section seeing a letter from a woman saying that her husband resigned from his job because he still suffered from aftereffects of the gas, but found his coworkers were unsympathetic.

Work culture in Japan also plays a bit part in this. You can see in Murakami’s interviews: a lot of the people were on their way to work when the attack happened, and a lot of them continued on to work despite vomiting or suddenly feeling sick or being unable to see right. In Japan, you’re expected to

In Japan, you’re expected to always show up to work, unless you’re dying. Even then, you should probably try and make it in. I  posted on Sunday this article about the normal 105-hour workweeks for Japanese lawyers.

So about a year after the attack happened, Murakami started looking up these interviewees who had been survivors of the attack. He says it was more difficult than he expected. For such a large event, most people were only referenced by their first or last name in media coverage and a lot of people he could identify wanted to move on with their lives and forget the tragedy.

Everything that appears in the book was first given the go-ahead by the interviewee. Nothing appears in print that they didn’t want.

This is interesting. In media here, we’re trained not to ask the subject of their pieces what’s okay to include, unless they’ve specifically stated that it’s off the record.  In fact, it’s usually frowned upon to let your subject have full control over the vetting of your writing because of the conflict of interest the interviewee has.

Obviously, people want to be able to shape their image and it’s up to the journalist to determine what the public should know and what’s relevant to the story.

Murakami takes prosaic jumps to craft a story that a normal reporter wouldn’t be able to. Statements like this one, interviewing a widow of a sarin victin:

“The real Yoshiko Wada (as opposed to the media invention) was bright, articulate, and smart. By “smart” I mean she chose her words carefully as she had chosen her way of life. Although I had never met her late husband, somehow I knew that anyone who had chosen her as a mate had to have been an all-right guy.”

This is Murakami appraising Wada’s character for the reader.  These are lovely and dangerous statements. They bring more light and life to the people than the official media interviews, but it’s a light seen by Murakami’s lantern. Through his filter. Even if it’s a very neutral filter, it’s still a filter.

That’s just Murakami’s approach. It’s not right or wrong, but it is worth remembering when you’re reading the book. If there’s one thing that reading Wuthering Heights has taught me, it’s to always know where your narrator’s coming from (hello, Nelly).

You can tell he’s a fiction writer at heart because he does take such care to bring people’s character through. Of course, you wouldn’t get away with in hard news writing, even for a feature piece.

It was funny reading at times because my brain wasn’t sure whether to look at this like a novel, or like an article. As an essay, long form non-fiction or journalism? Novelized reality? What was it?

The Book

Published in 1997, two years after the gas attacks, it was Murakami’s first non-fiction novel to be published in English. He has another one since, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” (2007).

I didn’t expect any surreal or whimsical plots, and I didn’t get any. It’s a credit to Murakami that he’s able to write such succinct non-fiction. He was able to interview 60 people to include in the book, from a range of demographics.

The book is a series of vignettes into everyone’s lives that day. Most of the interviewees are people caught in the subway who were exposed to the gas that day.

From a reading perspective, although the individual vignettes are interesting, it’s a hard book to stay with because there is no larger narrative structure.

Each ‘section’ of the book is based in a station where an attack took place, and the chapters are all interviewees from that station.

Because of the short chapters that are pretty identical in structure, it becomes monotonous after awhile, even if you’re really trying.

You feel like you owe the subject matter your attention – this is a crazy and horrible thing! And all the ‘characters’ are real people – no composites. But, the characters don’t stick around for more than their brief chapter, and after reading a few you kind of start to think (despite your best intentions), “Yeah, I get the idea.”

This publication included the original Underground text as well as a second part he did shortly after called ‘The Place That Was Promised‘ which is the same style of interview, but with Aum members. He did this to combat the criticism that Underground was too ‘one-sided’ (probably the journalistic critics). He explains this more elegantly in his second preface, but essentially he also wanted to see if the media has the Aum side of the story correct as well.

The Aum side delves more into the lives and philosophies of the cult members. It also switches up the format a bit. In the Underground section Murakami almost never inserts himself, but in the Aum section, he includes his questions as well as the the interviewee’s responses.

Despite Murakami’s original criticism that the media was putting too much focus on Aum, I actually found the second part of the book about people who had joined Aym more interesting. Murakami talks with them more about the lives leading up to joining Aum and how they came to be a part of it.

Some members of Aum had no idea these attacks were happening and viewed the association they were a part of as more of a spiritual lifestyle place. Others, obviously, were more insidious.

Overall, the book was really interesting and enlightening, but a slog because of the monotonous format. Still, absolutely worth reading.

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