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Notes on Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

Rashomon, the hallmark 1950 Kurosawa film, relates the same incident from 4 different perspectives. These perspectives are inconsistent with one another. Underground is perhaps a non-fiction edition of this genre.

In the wake of the media fallout of the 1995 gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system, which left 12 dead and thousands in need of medical treatment, the popular novelist Haruki Murakami noticed one perspective was oddly missing: the victims. At the time, sensationalist press focused entirely on the perpetrators: the Japanese new religion/cult Aum Shinrikyo.

In Underground, Murakami collects the testimony of about 30 survivors (and victims’ family) from 6 different trains on three different lines. Thus details about Aum are brisk and sparse. You just get to hear what it was like to be caught unawares in the midst of invisible sarin on the subway for your Monday morning commute.

The accounts often overlap, but the details get fuzzy, even contradictory. That’s the nature of testimony, but it’s also due to the hazing effects of sarin. Murakami is aware of this, but does his best to recount their stories as each individual experienced and/or remember them. So apart from the preface, couple-page descriptions of each perpetrator and sarin planting, afterword, and editorial decisions, Murakami’s voice is also sparse. With one other exception. Multi-paragraph character sketch epigraphs for each interviewee. (Maybe as a novelist he couldn’t help himself?) Although he makes occasionally interesting observations, these descriptions tend to be obtrusive, redundant, and clash with his aim to let the subjects speak for themselves, so I started skipping them. (They were helpful for skimming though.)

What emerges over the course of these accounts is a snapshot of Tokyo, 1995. More Tokyo, than ’95. A survey of the 9 to 5 (or later) daily grind of a country whose culture loves to work (or pretends to). I.e., post-industrial consumer capitalist yada-yada culture. The thing the Aum members say they joined Aum to get away from.

But the survey is conducted through human faces. You get an idea of who those strangers on the subway actually are. What kind of work they do. What early hour they get up for their commute. Hopes, forgotten dreams, disappointments. Mini-biographies of a few dozen random Tokyoites.

I mentioned routines. Some are meticulous. Some people leave at the exact same time every morning, get the exact same train, the same car, the same seat. This is where coincidence emerges. Coincidences, good and bad, always show up for events like this.

For some reason someone missed their usual train, and ended up gassed.

Or, for some reason they went to a different part of the train, and in retrospect, didn’t get the gas as bad as they would if they were in their usual spot.

Or they happened to do just the right thing to minimize the sarin damage, like took off their suitcoat or washed their face. Many didn’t even realize they were gassed until their symptoms got worse after making to work and hearing about the attack on TV. It’s almost comic as that scene plays out over and over. The stubborn resilience to get to work (and stay there) even if they are dying.

One survivor was sleeping, and it turns out this mitigated exposure because her eyes were closed and her breathing was steady.

It was one survivor’s birthday.

A few even knew or suspected it was sarin, because they happened to know about sarin, so they were able to respond accordingly.

There was an ex-subway worker, whose knowledge of the subway came in handy.

One survivor actually went to high school in Kyoto with the perpetrator who dropped the sarin bag on his train.

On the perpetrators’ side, despite an otherwise smooth execution, the attack could have been much worse had it not been for the low-grade of the sarin, and several bags failing to puncture.

There’s both reading-into these coincidences, and perplexity at the lack of meaning in such events. Then the usual existential eye-opening and reevaluating what matters most when you have a near miss.

The motif that accompanies coincidence is chaos. The result of total unpreparedness at the individual and institutional level. From the subway workers, to the first responders, to the hospitals, and the victims themselves. There are a few heroes, but many passersby, politely minding their own business, in Japanese fashion.

Another example of such indifference is how many try to completely ignore the sarin, even as they are getting gassed by it, as if, everything’s fine here.

“. . . lots of passengers got off, but there was no reaction whatsoever to my turning around to open the windows. No one said a thing, everyone was so quiet. No response, no communication. I lived in America for a year, and believe me if the same thing had happened in America there would have been a real scene. With everyone shouting ‘what’s going on here?’ and coming together to find the cause. Later the police asked me ‘Didn’t people start to panic?’ I thought back on it: ‘Everyone was so silent. No one uttered a word.’” – Ikuko Nakayama, survivor

If you’ve ever ridden a train in Japan, you know it’s akin to sitting in church. Not even a gas attack could disturb such crippling reverence. Less emphasis on the individual is often a strength of Japanese society, but such is the danger of group think.

“Ultimately, from now on I think the individual in Japanese society has to become a lot stronger. Even Aum, after bringing together such brilliant minds, what do they do but plunge straight into mass terrorism? That’s just how weak the individual is.” – Mitsuo Arima, survivor

 

Then we hear about the aftermath for each victim. Most recover, but still feel varying degrees of side-effects, some quite extreme. (I’m skimming over a lot of pain and tragedy here. A review is no replacement for reading the book, obviously.) Many modestly downplay the severity of their symptoms.

In a final analysis, how do they feel about Aum/the gas attack now? If they had been a passerby, would they have helped out, or minded their own business? If they had been in Aum and ordered to carry out the attack, would they have?

An array of responses and mixed emotions from bitter anger (give them all the death penalty, the trial is a farce) or stoic indifference (this is just something that happened to me, I don’t really think about Aum). Often, the angrier are among the less affected. Some feel surprised by their lack of anger. Or they feel something ‘beyond anger.’ Or there was initial anger, but it dissipated. Or the other way around, because of shock and in light of new information about Aum. Almost all feel frustration and upset by the media coverage.

As the subtitle suggests, the book offers insight into the Japanese psyche.

“We will get nowhere as long as the Japanese continue to disown the Aum ‘phenomenon’ as something completely other, an alien presence viewed through binoculars on the far shore. Unpleasant though the concept might seem, it is important we incorporate ‘them’, to some extent, within that construct called ‘us’, or at least Japanese society. Certainly that is how the event was viewed from abroad.” – Murakami

Precisely. But as a foreigner from the ‘outside’ looking in, it’s important not to fall into the same trap. To write off the gas attack as a footnote in Weird Japan. Just as this incident occurred within Japanese society, it also occurred within human society. The former is the point of the book, the latter is the point of this review.

But how does Japan view terror attacks abroad? With a similar distance, I think.

 “Of course, Tokyo is known as a safe city. The gas attack hasn’t changed my opinion of Japan; there’s no country in the world as safe as Japan. Wonderful! If all the world were like Japan, there’d be very little trouble.” – Michael Kennedy, (Irish) survivor

Some worry about this over-confidence in Japan’s safety record from terror attacks, foreign or domestic, as in this Japan Times article from a couple months ago, especially in regard to the 2020 Olympics. The gas attack wasn’t the only major terror incident perpetrated by or involving Japanese nationals post WWII. (Look up: Lod Airport Massacre, Japanese Red Army, Narita Airport bombing.) ISIS is no friend to Japan or its journalists.

(And as it turns out, sarin is the same chemical weapon Assad is accused of using on his own people in Syria.)

More than twenty years later, and terrorism of all sorts, including media terrorism, is still a thing. As troubling and misunderstood as ever, the war on this vague ideology has gotten us nowhere. Taking Murakami’s thesis to its logical conclusion, we need to stop viewing terrorism as something wholly other. It’s an internal threat no wall can protect us from. Beyond that, the answers aren’t so clear. But we must incorporate ‘them’, to some extent, within that construct called ‘us.’

This doesn’t mean condoning or resigning or self-deprecating or blind forgiveness or that there isn’t blame or condemnation in order. Nor does it deny doomsday religion provokes a serious problem for secular society. But,

“It’s all too easy to say, ‘Aum was evil.” Nor does saying, “This had nothing to do with ‘evil’ or ‘insanity’’ prove anything either.” – Murakami

Good luck riding the world of ‘evil-doers.’ Such thinking does little to understand or address the actual problem. Otherizing the problem is no help.

 

After Part 1 was published, Murakami realized that although the media hype was focused on the trials and personality cult of Aum, yet another side of the story was still missing. Ordinary, mid-rank Aum followers. So Part 2 consists of interviews with current and former Aum members. Fewer interviewees, but more in depth. As none were actually involved in the gas attack, the focus shifts away from that event to their personal journeys through Aum. Instead of an enigmatic view of the gas attack, you get an enigmatic view of Asahara (the cult leader) and Aum itself.

The problem or danger with Underground is the repetition and numbing to tragedy after reading a few dozen more or less parallel accounts back to back. (And the English translation only includes half the accounts published in Japanese.) Although Murakami was trying to provide a counter-narrative by shifting attention away from Aum in Part 1, the counterbalance of Part 2 really makes Underground work.

As he put human faces on the victims, so too he puts human faces on the cultists. What leads them to join the cult in the first place? Why did they stay? For they too were victims, undergoing physical torture and psychological abuse.

None of those interviewed knew about the gas attack before it happened. During the interviews they try to reconcile the real value they got (and still get) from Aum, varying degrees of disillusionment and denial, and logical rationale for maintaining some degree of belief in Aum.

Commenting on the fact so many Aum followers, including the perpetrators, were highly educated,

“The sad fact is that language and logic cut off from reality have a far greater power than the language and logic of reality.” – Murakami

(1995 was also the year the Unabomber published his manifesto.)

This quote impels the need for counter-narratives to challenge our internal consistencies. As such, Underground is not the right book to get an objective understanding of Aum, the cult leader Asahara, or the events of the gas attack itself. Instead you get something more valuable, more on target. Not a subjective view, but a palette of subjectivity. Like Roshomon, it’s not about which perspective is the most correct, it’s about the conglomeration, the contradictory whole.

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