“The date is Monday 20 March, 1995. It is a beautiful clear spring morning. There is still a brisk breeze and people are bundled up in coats. Yesterday was Sunday, tomorrow is the Spring Equinox, a national holiday. Sandwiched right in the middle of what should have been a long weekend, you’re probably thinking “I wish I didn’t have to go to work today.” No such luck. You got up at the normal time, wash, dress, breakfast, and head for the subway station. You board the train, crowded as usual. Nothing out of the ordinary. It promises to be a perfectly run-of-the-mill day. Until five men in disguise poke at the floor of the carriage with the sharpened tips of their umbrellas, puncturing some plastic bags with a strange liquid…”
1995 was a particularly bad year for Japan: the economic bubble had just burst and the country suffered two major catastrophes – the Kobe earthquake and the sarin attack by the Aum Shinrikyo sect on the Tokyo subway system. Although the poison gas attack killed “only” 13 people, it affected thousands of commuters directly – many suffer from the health effects of sarin exposure until today -, and millions indirectly. Post-traumatic stress disorder is not just a medical expression, it is a condition that affects almost all aspects of life.
And that the perpetrators of the crime, a crime with no apparent reason, came from the center of the Japanese society was particularly shocking. The five men that released the sarin had high academic credentials, one of them was a famous surgeon.
The novelist Haruki Murakami just came back from abroad after a long absence when the sarin attack happened. Not only didn’t he, like more or less the whole world, understand how it was possible that something like this vicious attack could happen. He was also shocked by the “secondary” victimization many survivors had to face frequently by Japanese society, a lack of empathy and understanding from the side of many employers and colleagues, the icy atmosphere and the snide remarks many survivors had to hear when they were not able to perform their usual working routine as a result of the after-effects of the sarin poisoning.
Murakami finally decided to try to give the victims a voice and to interview them in the style of the famous interview books by Studs Terkel. It was difficult to convince many victims to speak out, to recall their memories and feelings. But as a reader I feel glad for Murakami’s persistence and the obvious great respect he has for the people he interviewed.
The book Underground contains 34 interviews mostly with subway commuters, but also with station attendants, a subway driver, two doctors and several relatives of victims. A short characterization of the person by Murakami and some remarks regarding the circumstances in which the interview was taken give each interview a similar structure. The survivors tell their story: their background, the commuting routine to work, what happened on that fateful morning and what were the affects of the poisoning. Also how they go on with their lives now – the interviews were taken a year after the event – and what their feelings are toward those who committed these crimes. Murakami lets them tell their stories with very little interfering.
Not surprisingly it must have been extremely painful for the survivors to retell their personal stories, but in most interviews there is also a moment of relief present to talk it over with someone that really listens and not for voyeuristic reasons like most Japanese media – in that respect most survivors had made very bad experiences with journalists and some TV stations.
A common element in the interviews is that the interviewed person tries to downplay his or her own sufferings. For most interviewees it is also important that Japanese society doesn’t forget about the victims and does some soul-searching why it all happened. On a more practical side, a better response by the public authorities to such an emergency is also an element that is important to some of the interview partners.
The gas attack is clearly one of those events that divide a life in a “Before” and an “After”. Life after the attack is not the same anymore for any of the survivors. They all suffer from more or less serious after-effects, most common failing eyesight, deterioration or loss of memory, physical weakness, permanent strong headaches, sleeping disorders, and others. Some of the survivors are permanently handicapped by the attack.
I asked myself several times how would I have reacted confronted with a catastrophe like this. There have been all kind of experiences by the survivors; strangers helping them to get out of the station or to a hospital; station attendants sacrificing their lives by removing the leaking sarin parcels; but also the extreme opposite:
“As I said, there were people foaming at the mouth where we were, in front of the Ministry of Trade and Industry. That half of the roadway was absolute hell. But on the other side, people were walking to work as usual. I’d be tending to someone and look up to see passers-by glance my way with a “what-on-earth’s-happened-here?” expression, but not one came over. It was as if we were a world apart. Nobody stopped. They all thought: “Nothing to do with me.”
In the second part of Underground, which was originally published later but is now part of the book, Murakami interviewed eight Aum members, some of them have dropped out in the meantime, but all of them still hold on to the “values” of the cult. Aum was – or better is, since it is still existing – a sect that was based on Buddhist thought, mixed together with the writings of Nostradamus, certain elements of Christianity, and a kind of elitist touch. According to a former Aum member, you had to be either a graduate from Tokyo University or a beautiful woman in order to advance in the hierarchy of the cult, the latter was referring to the “appetite” of Asahara, the founder and guru of the cult.
Sometimes, as a reader we can catch a glimpse of the great arrogance that seems to be a constitutive element of many of these cults: here are the enlightened, and there is the rest of the humans, and what happens to the latter is not really a concern for the elite, but frequently a source for remarks of a rather contemptuous nature.
Strange, but it seems that such cults offer a “product” that is attractive for a certain category of people. And Aum has still its worshippers, many of them in Russia and Eastern Europe; the same goes for similar cults like Osho, another psycho sect with a charismatic leader, a mind-control ideology with fascist elements, and a practical experience with a bio terror attack. Falun Gong shares also many features with Aum.
Not that I really understand why this Aum sect decided to poison so many innocent people after I read Murakami’s book. But the last interviews give us an insight in the paranoid world of cults: it starts with Yoga and ends with the extermination of people as if they are insects. And to learn that many of the former Aum members still don’t disconnect themselves completely from the ideas of this group made me shiver.
This is a very human, even noble book. Haruki Murakami – I am usually not a big fan of his books – gave the victims a voice and a face. I like his respectful approach in these interviews; he restored the dignity of the people who went through this terrible experience.
“I’m not a sarin victim, I’m a survivor,”
says one of Murakami’s interview partners. This is, despite the depressing topic of the book, a consoling statement. Fortunately all interview partners of the first part move on with their lives, as difficult as it may be for each single one of them.
Haruki Murakami: Underground, transl. by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel, Vintage Books, London 2003
see also Robert J. Lifton: Destroying the World to Save It. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999
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