Tag Archives: Tokyo Underground

On Haruki Murakami’s “Underground”

12 Sep
Murakami doesn't delve into non-fiction very often, so take the opportunity to check it out!

Murakami doesn’t delve into non-fiction very often, so take the opportunity to check it out!

Early on the morning of March 20, 1995, a small group of religious terrorists destroyed the tranquility and self-assurance of life in Japan with a deadly attack on the Tokyo Subway. Five members of Aum Shinrikyo, at the urging of their leader Shoko Asahara, punctured bags of liquid sarin in passenger cars during the morning commute. The result among the passengers was panic, loss of vision, seizures, thousands injured, and thirteen dead. These were Japanese citizens killing Japanese citizens in the worst attack on the country’s soil since World War II. The author Haruki Murakami, already famous, returned to Japan after years living in Europe and America to investigate the aftermath of the Tokyo Gas Attack, to learn who the Japanese are, and to find out what went wrong. The result is Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, a collection of lengthy interviews with sarin victims, remaining family members, and members of the notorious Aum Shinrikyo cult.

Murakami’s fiction style tends to be fantastical, fabulistic, highly symbolic–filled with images of dark spaces and disappearing characters. His voice is noticeably toned down in Underground, letting the victims weave a narrative without his influence. After an interview with a victim’s widow, Murakami laments the shortcomings of his words:

“My parting words were pretty lame–‘Please be healthy and happy’ or something like that–I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Words can be practically useless at times, but as a writer they’re all I have.”

The interviewees consist of members of every part of Japanese society–retail workers, company men, doctors–but the story remains: the gas attacks from that day in March made a lasting affect on everyone. It changed the ways people think. It changed the ways people travel (some victims won’t step on the subway again; I know I wouldn’t). One victim lost her memory and ability to speak. After something so horrific, recovery is a long road.

With five different points of origin, the sarin attacks  caused confusion all over Tokyo. First responders were swamped. The city's systems were overwhelmed.

With five different points of origin, the sarin attacks caused confusion all over Tokyo. First responders were swamped. The city’s systems were overwhelmed.

Then there is the prevailing question we’re left with: why? Why did Aum Shinrikyo attack innocent citizens? Why did Aum even exist? Why did this particular attack have such lasting, devastating affects on society? Murakami finishes Part One of the book with musings on just that:  “The Aum ‘phenomenom’ disturbs precisely because it is not someone else’s affair. It shows us a distorted image of ourselves in a manner none of us could have foreseen.” The members of Aum who participated in the Gas Attack weren’t foreigners waging war. They were Japanese. They existed in the same system as the people they killed and injured. But Murakami sees them as darker reflections of what is considered the moral or positive side of Japanese culture. On one hand, you have a culture based on financial success, familial stability, upward career mobility. On the other hand, you have the renunciates of Aum, who reject materialism, and ultimately rejected themselves in favor of the stronger ideals of their leader, Shoko Asahara.

The Aum cult leader, Shoko Asahara, was described by his followers as being powerful, charismatic, even prophetic. After the attacks, Asahara was arrested and sentenced to death. He is still awaiting his execution today. (Image from The Telegraph)

The Aum cult leader, Shoko Asahara, was described by his followers as being powerful, charismatic, even prophetic. After the attacks, Asahara was arrested and sentenced to death. He is still awaiting his execution today. (In Asahara, I see where Murakami drew his inspiration for his cult leader in the 2009 novel 1Q84.) (Image from The Telegraph)

In Part Two of Underground, Murakami interviews both active and former members of the cult. Many of them grew up feeling alienated from their peers or were drifters even in adulthood, and were drawn in by the confidence instilled in them by this new, powerful movement. People lacking proper egos or who have no egos, Murakami explains, give themselves over to the narratives of strong storytellers. The members of Aum found Asahara. Suddenly, Underground becomes almost a cautionary tale: how not to get sucked in by a cult. It makes you rethink your role as a member of your own society–who you have ostracized, who you push to extremes. I can’t imagine the heartbreak of family left behind or the trauma felt by the victims. Murakami spent months interviewing people and even he is left with a sense of wonder. The Tokyo Gas Attack is a break in narrative, in my book, and it is beyond my understanding, and that’s what makes this event and Murakami’s Underground, so tragic and so terrifying.

“Now a narrative is a story, not logic, nor ethics, nor philosophy. It is a dream you keep having, whether you realize it or not. … And in these stories you wear two faces. You are simultaneously subject and object. … It is through such multilayering of roles in our stories that we heal the loneliness of being an isolated individual in the world.”

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