Murakami underground

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(c) Vintage

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Events this year have possibly written the last page in one of the most traumatic and bewildering chapters in modern Japanese history.  The 6th and 26th of July saw the executions of 13 members of Aum Shinrikyo, described in its Wikipedia entry as both a  ‘Buddhist new religious movement’ and a ‘doomsday cult’.  Those executed included Aum’s founder and leader, Shoko Asahara.  They also included Masato Yokoyama, Yasuo Hayashi, Kenichi Hirose and Toru Toyoda, who on March 20th, 1995, released quantities of the exceptionally-toxic nerve agent sarin on Tokyo Underground’s Hibiya and Marunouchi Lines.  A fifth perpetrator, Ikuo Hayashi, released sarin on the Chiyoda Line, but he escaped execution and is under a life sentence because “he helped investigators when he confessed to his role in the gassing and because he showed deep remorse in court.”   

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The five cult-members’ modus operandi was crude – they dumped plastic bags of sarin on the floors of the underground trains and punctured them with the points of the umbrellas they were carrying, before bailing out at the next stops – but the consequences were devastating.  13 people died and at least a thousand other commuters and subway staff were injured.  This came at a time when Japan seemed particularly vulnerable, with the Kobe earthquake already having wreaked havoc in January that year and, more generally, the country undergoing stagnation after the ‘bubble economy’ had burst in the early 1990s.  (I can testify to the attack’s impact on Japan’s self-esteem and sense of order because I was living in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo at the time.  In fact, I’d been riding around those same Tokyo subway lines a week earlier, as I’d come south to attend a Rolling Stones concert at Tokyo Dome.  However, I’d made sure I was back in Sapporo for March 17th because an Irish mate there had invited me to a St Patrick’s Day party.)


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Originally published in 1997 and translated into English in 2000, Underground is an attempt to make sense of what happened in Tokyo that day by Japanese author Haruki Murakami – who in 1995 was seen as something of a wunderkind of modern Japanese literature, but these days is probably treated as a venerable man of letters.  To do this, Murakami interviewed more than thirty victims of the sarin attack – though as one of them gruffly asserts, “I’m not a sarin victim, I’m a survivor” – who were affected directly on the trains and in the stations or affected indirectly through the deaths of or injuries to loved ones. 

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No matter how weird his plots become, Murakami (in the English translations of his work at least) has always been a writer of unshowy and discrete prose.  Here, he reduces his authorial presence even further.  He provides a short biographical sketch of each person at the beginning of the interviews and during the interviews interjects with only very occasional questions.  As a result, the voices of the people who were on the receiving end of Aum Shinrikyo’s actions come through loud and clear.

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Incidentally, Murakami explains in his preface that his reason for conducting and publishing these interviews was because he believed the ordinary people who’d been put through the sarin ordeal had received insufficient attention: “The Japanese media had bombarded us with so many in-depth profiles of the Aum cult perpetrators – the ‘attackers’ – forming such a slick, seductive narrative that the average citizen – the ‘victim’ – was almost an afterthought.”

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From bookriot.com

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Murakami offers no comments, clarifications or interpretations of the stories told here, so that the book sometimes has a Rashomon-type quality in that we get differing, even conflicting accounts of the same incidents.  Occasionally, there’s a stirring and heartening story of someone stepping up to the plate and being heroic – an Average Joe worker in computer software maintenance who goes back to a platform to help a stricken platform attendant (in the process getting a worse dose of sarin poisoning that he would have otherwise), for example, or a PR worker and a young subway staff-member who bully a Tokyo TV camera crew into letting their van be used as an emergency ambulance to get some gravely-ill people to hospital.  (A common grievance heard in these interviews was the slowness of real ambulances in getting to the sites of the attacks.)

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Unsurprisingly, many interviewees express their rage at Aum Shinrikyo.  But there’s plenty of criticism too for the authorities, who were plainly unprepared for an incident of this nature – terrorist attacks were something supposed to happen in other countries, not in stable, peaceful Japan.  Also criticised is the Japanese media, who were often on the scene sticking cameras and microphones into people’s faces before they’d received medical treatment and who went into an unedifying feeding frenzy with their Aum Shinrikyo coverage during the weeks and months afterwards.

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Following Underground’s original publication, Murakami decided it was worth investigating the ‘attackers’ after all and he interviewed eight members and ex-members of Aum Shinrikyo for the Bungei Shunju magazine.  In the edition of Underground that I have, these magazine interviews have been inserted as a 90-page epilogue entitled The Place that was Promised.  The interviewees are varied in their opinions.  They range from those who have had the scales removed from their eyes – one runs a support group for people who have quit Aum, another eventually ‘ran away’ from the cult for fear of his life and a third confesses to having spied on them on behalf of the police – to at least one who still entertains the possibility that Asahara and his cohorts were the innocent victims of a set-up: “I’m not saying there’s no way he did it, but at this stage it’s too early to decide.  I won’t be convinced until all the facts are on the table.” 

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The accounts here have two depressingly common features, though I suspect that they won’t surprise experts who have studied the psychology and behaviour of cult members around the world.  First, if what they tell Murakami is true, they were jaw-droppingly myopic and self-deluding about what was going on around them.  One talks about how Aum members were punished for transgressions by being chained and hung upside-down and left hanging in great pain, but they’d interpret this as a necessary beneficial step in their spiritual development (“They’d suffer, be taken to the edge of death, and then be kindly told, ‘You did well.’  And they’d think, ‘I was able to overcome the trials given to me.  Thank you, O Guru!’”).  Another claimed to have been un-suspicious of the masses of elaborate chemical-plant equipment being installed in the Aum compounds, with their attendant, noxious stench.  (“It didn’t look like weapons.”)

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The other feature that’s depressing is the malaise that most identify in themselves before they got drawn into the world of Asahara’s dark cult: “…something was missing…”  “There always seemed to be a wall separating me from the rest of the world…”  “My lifestyle seemed increasingly pointless…”  “…I felt a deep alienation between my outer and my inner Self.”  This emptiness – which was no doubt exacerbated by the materialistic excesses of Japan’s bubble-economy years – is the common thread in nearly all the interviewees’ accounts of how they ended up in a religious organisation willing to cause the mass-slaughter of its fellow citizens as they innocently headed off to work one morning. 

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At the end of this compelling, exhaustive and emotionally exhausting book, Murakami voices his fear that if this emptiness in modern Japanese society isn’t addressed, horrors of a magnitude perpetrated by the Aum could happen again:  “…we need to realise that most of the people who join cults are not abnormal; they’re not disadvantaged; they’re not eccentrics…  They can’t find a way to express themselves, and bounce back and forth between feelings of pride and inadequacy.  That might very well be me.  It might be you.”

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