Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche – Review

‘I knew it was an emergency, but to be honest it didn’t occur to me that it was anything really serious. I mean, what can happen? Japan’s a super-safe country, isn’t it? No guns, no terrorists, hardly anything like that.’

On the 20th March 1995, in five coordinated attacks, members of the cult movement Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas onto three different lines of the Tokyo subway during rush hour. These attacks killed twelve people and injured thousands more, with many still suffering from the after-effects to this day. Aware of a police raid scheduled at the cult’s headquarters on March 22nd, its leader Shoko Asahara planned the attack to hinder their investigations. In the raid that followed hundreds were arrested, many sentenced to prison for life, while thirteen of the senior Aum figures faced the death penalty. But, as Murakami explains, ‘ For many months thereafter, the media overflowed with “news” of all kinds about the cult. From morning til night Japanese TV was virtually non-stop Aum. The papers, tabloids, magazines all devoted thousands of pages to the gas attack. None of which told me what I wanted to know. No, mine was a very simple question: what actually happened in the Tokyo subway the morning of 20 March, 1995? […] What were the people in the subway carriages doing at the time? What did they see? What did they feel? What did they think?’.

Undergound is the novelist’s quest to answer these questions – unlike his usual work it is non-fiction, with part one consisting of his interviews with victims of the attack, while part two (added a few years later) contains his interviews with members and ex-members of the cult, in order to present a more balanced account. While the book had a very honourable premise, in giving a voice to some of the victims and their families, the first part of the book was a struggle to read at times, as it felt like the same story told from different perspectives. One thing that stood out in almost all of these accounts, however, and what I found the most shocking, was how calmly the passengers reacted to the situation. As one of the victims explained ‘No one seemed in any rush to get out of there. They were walking casually. It was more the station attendants who were yelling “Please walk faster! Get outside!” I couldn’t see any danger. No explosion or anything. The station attendants were all in a panic, but not the passengers. There were still a lot of people lingering in the station trying to decide what to do.’ As well as this, many of the victims still attempted to get to their places of work, despite suffering from the effects of the attack – either that or they would phone their employers to let them know they were going to be late. I can’t imagine such a reaction happening here!

‘We’d given up on [the Police and Fire department] by the time they arrived. I just wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t taken it upon ourselves to do something. […] At the hospital I saw some of the others who had helped me rescue people at Kodemmacho Station. Some were bedridden. We all inhaled sarin. I don’t want to keep quiet about this thig; keeping quiet is a bad Japanese habit. By now, I know everyone’s beginning to forget about this whole incident, but I absolutely do not want people to forget.’

Although the book’s content can be repetitive it is well structured, separating the three subway lines and their victims into sections, with each victim introduced before the interview to build a more full picture of them. In one of these introductions, Murakami states that ‘Words can be practically useless at times, but as a writer they’re all I have’, and I greatly admire what he has done with this book in using his words to interview the victims of the attack, as well as members of the cult who caused it. His brief essay in the second part of the book, as well as his Afterword, is thought-provoking in itself, having just read the testimonies of those who joined Aum. ‘What they all had in common,’ he states ‘was a desire to put the technical skill and knowledge they’d acquired in service of a more meaningful goal. They couldn’t help having grave doubts about the inhumane, utilitarian grist mill of capitalism and the social system in which their own essence and efforts – even their own reasons for being – would be fruitlessly ground down.’ He may not just be talking about members of the doomsday cult there, but you and I. Who can’t relate to that, wanting to be a part of something greater, not wanting to become just a cog in the machine?

One of the former members of the cult states that ‘I think the gas attack was a kind of catharsis, a psychological release of everything that had built up in Japan – the malice, the distorted consciousness we have.’ While I do not agree with this statement, I see their point about malice and a distorted consciousness. So many people in the subway stations that day walked past and chose not to help the victims, while those who did help would suffer from the sarin themselves, as it had soaked into the victim’s clothes or they breathed it in. Murakami’s interviews raise a lot of questions about the unreality of the situation, the mentality of ‘this can’t happen here’, as well as ‘we’ve put it behind us, it’s over, we need to move on’. It is as relevant now in this age of the ‘War on Terror’ as it was when it was first published in 1997, and it should be read so that this horrific attack, the worst of domestic terrorism in Japan to date, will not be forgotten.

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