Chris's Reviews > Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack And The Japanese Psyche

Underground by Haruki Murakami
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Feb 26, 09

bookshelves: japan, society
Read in February, 2009

On March 20, 1995, in the middle of the morning rush hour, the Aum Shinrikyo cult unleashed a terrorist attack on the subways of Tokyo. Five men on five different trains unleashed sarin gas in the subway system, which shut down most of the city, injured at least 5,000 people, and left 12 dead. It was the single worst attack on Japan since the end of World War Two, and it gripped the nation.

I remember hearing about this, but I don't remember giving it too much attention - I mean, when was I ever going to have to know much about Japan, right? In the light of our own terrorist woes in the US, I wish I had.

Haruki Murakami is best known for being a fiction writer. I've read a few of his books, and they're all really interesting. He has a very strange mind, and he's a good enough writer that he can often successfully avoid giving his characters names, something that still surprises me. This time, however, he decided to turn his hand to non-fiction, chronicling the events of what was a shocking blow to his home country.

In his introduction to this book, he explains why he decided to write it. Like many people, he heard about the attacks while he was living abroad, and thought, "Oh, that's terrible." And then he tried to put it out of his mind. But it wouldn't stay there. A woman had written a letter to a magazine about her husband. He had been on the subway that morning, and had been injured by the sarin. His injuries had impaired him to the point where he had been forced to quit his job. Not only because of the physical effects of being gassed, but also because he had become an outcast at work. People would look at him and whisper about the "weirdo" who had been on the subway that day. He was, probably, a reminder of what people wanted to forget. He had, by no will of his own, become an outsider, and that pressure led him to quit his job - what Murakami calls a "double violence." First by the sarin, then by Japan.

From that point, Murakami took to wondering what really happened to people that morning. Not what the newspapers and TV said, but the stories of the people who had actually been on the trains.

So he began taking interviews. Of the hundreds he contacted, he got a total of 60 people to agree to talk to him. This is definitely a huge difference between Japanese and Americans. After September 11th, I'm sure people were falling all over themselves to tell their stories, or to talk about their dead friends and relatives.

In Japan, people were eager to forget. They didn't want this nosy journalist stirring things up again. It's easier to put things in the past, to say, "It can't be helped" and go on with one's life.

Fortunately for us, Murakami got some people to talk, and for that we have this book.

He divides the stories into subway lines and stations, and it's interesting to see how peoples' stories are slightly different at times, where one interviewee and another interacted. He gives the histories of people, and provides a narrative of what was happening to people on that morning - where they were going, what they were doing and thinking, and how they felt. Some people thought they were sick, others thought that some kind of cleaning fluid had splashed. A few guessed that it was an attack.

Some of the best stories come from the station personnel. So far, my experience with the guys in the uniforms who run the stations is that they all say "Arigatou gozaimas" whenever you put your ticket through the gate. These guys, though, had to take charge of a subway system that was under attack by an odorless, invisible weapon, without knowing who had done it or why. Unlike firemen or policemen, these guys had to deal with a situation for which they had likely never been trained.

The civilian stories are also fascinating, as they tell how they tried to help, and they vented their frustration with the lack of help. They talked about what they were thinking as the symptoms set in - dimming of vision, nausea, lack of coordination.... One interesting commonality is how many people kept trying to go to work. They put down their symptoms to any number of garden-variety maladies - anemia, lack of a proper breakfast, general stress. Half-blind, unable to walk straight, many of them still made it to their workplaces, not knowing the danger they were in until they heard about sarin on the news.

Sarin is a nerve gas, originally designed by Nazis, it is one of the most powerful gasses out there. Iraq used it to great effect against Iran in the 80s, and could well still have some floating around. According to the translator's notes, a drop of sarin the size of a pinhead is enough to kill a person.

The cult members who set this thing off had liters of the stuff. Fortunately, they cut it with another liquid (and even pure sarin doesn't evaporate well) which cut its lethality. Somewhat.

Perhaps the tiny number of fatalities - 12 - were due to the lower potency of the gas. It certainly wasn't because the Tokyo or Japanese governments were any good at dealing with disasters. Interviews with doctors at local hospitals talked about the utter confusion that ensued after the attacks. None of them were briefed on the situation, they didn't know what kind of gas had been used, and therefore couldn't treat it properly. Worse yet, in some cases, they didn't even know it was a gas. In some hospitals, sarin victims were admitted to the emergency rooms, where the sarin in their clothes began affecting the ER nurses and doctors.

They figured it was probably cyanide. One doctor, who had happened to have been at a seminar on a previous sarin attack in Japan, recognized the symptoms of sarin poisoning and faxed the information around the city's hospitals, apparently a very unusual act by a doctor in Japan. Like many organizations in Japan, hospitals are loathe to share information without going through the proper channels, even in an event such as this. But this fits into the Japanese mind-set as well: to take such initiative is to invite criticism. Should the decision be the wrong one, it would bring shame down on everyone involved. Thankfully there were some people whose minds were more concerned with saving lives than saving face. Not enough, though. The Tokyo Bureau of Health didn't chime in until 5:00 PM, nearly eight hours after the attack.

One doctor claims that the only reason so few people died was because of the efforts of individual doctors and paramedics. The official organizations were more or less useless, much like they were after the Kobe earthquake in 1992.

However it happened, the death toll was kept low, but the effects lingered on. Sarin has long-lasting physical effects, weakening the victim for years to come. Even more, there were the psychological effects that come with any even of mass terrorism.

I saw an article in an Australian magazine which interviewed some people who had been photographed during the burning and destruction of the World Trade Center. None of them were happy, none of them were leading good lives. Months later, the attack still lingered in their minds and their lives, effectively continued on. The same was, and probably is, true in Japan after the Tokyo subway attack.

After the publication of the first edition, Murkami decided that he had a feww more interviews to do. It's one thing to know what happened to the victims, but one also has to wonder: Why would anyone do such a thing?

So he went to interview current and former members of the Aum cult, and find out why they joined, what attraction the cult held for them, and what they knew of the cult's plans. After the attacks, most of the Japanese media were treating Aum simply as "The Enemy," a faceless group whose members were, in the grand Japanese tradition, not individuals but simply facets of the whole.

Aum, under its leader, Asahara, worked like most cults do: They recruited people with doubts, misgivings and unreconciled views of the world. Many of the people Murakami interviewed were highly intelligent people who felt, from childhood, that the world they lived in made no sense to them. Others were lost, confused, who felt unhinged and disconnected. Such people are classic candidates for cults, and Aum took them in.

In Aum, they tell Murakami, there was no fear of responsibility, no worries about their choices for the future, because their future was preordained. If anything bad happened, it was just bad karma falling away. For some, Aum was just a new way to look at life, a new way to go through life that offered less uncertainty and pain than conventional life.

For others, though, it was a political movement. It was a group whose goals could be achieved by murder, both individual and mass. The interviews are interesting, because you can understand why the lifestyle of Aum might be attractive to people, if not very practical.

Murakami wanted to point out, by interviewing the Aum members, that this cult didn't appear out of nowhere. It arose in Japan, made up of Japanese men and women. It was a reaction to Japanese society, a signal of the illnesses that permeate it. It was not, and should never have been treated as, something separate.

There's not a lot of judgment in this book, as that was not Murakami's goal. He did what he set out to do - tell the stories of people who had been there, who had experienced the terrors of the sarin attack. It's always interesting to hear real stories, and always good.

One has to wonder, though.... Terrorism is not all bombs and airplanes and Arabs. These terrorists - and they do fit the bill - were people who looked like everyone else, men in suits, carrying briefcases and a newspaper-wrapped bundle each. No one would have given them a second thought.

Could this happen in America? Probably. We still haven't found whoever was mailing the anthrax around, at least not at the writing of this review. It would be very possible for a group of men to board the subways in New York at rush hour, gather their resolve, and unleash an attack at least as destructive as the World Trade Center attack was. And the answer isn't "More Security" - that's closing the barn doors after the horses have not only left, but they've started their own fertilizer reprocessing plant and planned to blow up the Kentucky Derby. The interviews in this book suggest that terrorism is a societal issue, not a security one. If we want to stop people from doing violence to us, we need to find out what drives them to do so. Remember: the majority of terrorist acts carried out in the United States were not done by al-Qaeda. They were done by Americans, just as the Tokyo attacks were done by Japanese.

No matter what our politicians and police tell us, we're never completely safe. Japan learned that in '95. We need to learn it as well.
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