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Underground by Haruki Murakami (translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel). (1/2)

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Title: Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche.
Author: Haruki Murakami (translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel).
Genre: Non-fiction, journalism, terrorism.
Country: Japan.
Language: Japanese.
Publication Date: 1997-1998.
Summary: It was a clear spring day, Monday, March 20, 1995, when five members of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo conducted chemical warfare on the Tokyo subway system using sarin, a poison gas twenty-six times as deadly as cyanide. The unthinkable had happened, a major urban transit system had become the target of a terrorist attack. In an attempt to discover why, the author talked to the people who lived through the catastrophe—from a Subway Authority employee with survivor guilt, to a fashion salesman with more venom for the media than for the perpetrators, to a young cult member who vehemently condemns the attack though he has not quit Aum. Through these and many other voices, Murakami exposes intriguing aspects of the Japanese psyche. And as he discerns the fundamental issues leading to the attack, a clear vision of an event that could occur anytime, anywhere, is achieved. Includes the essay Blind Nightmare: Where Are We Japanese Going? that explores the "us" versus "them" mentality with which the Japanese viewed the attack, and suggests way to reconcile what happened personally, and on a national level.

My rating: 8.5/10
My review:


♥ 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. "Bystander A" was glimpsed only in passing. Very rarely was any "lesser" narrative presented in a way that commanded attention. Those few stories that got thorough were contextualized into formulaic glosses. Our media probably wanted to create a collective image of the "innocent Japanese sufferer," which is much easier to do when you don't have to deal with real faces. Besides, the classic dichotomy of "ugly (visible) villains" versus the "healthy (faceless) populace" makes for a better story.

Once I'd discovered the real person, I could then shift my focus to the events themselves. "What was the day like for you?," "What did you see/experience/feel?," and, if it seemed appropriate, "In what way did you suffer (physically or mentally) because of the gas attack?" and "Did these problems persist?"

The degree of suffering inflicted by the Tokyo gas attack varied considerably from person to person. Some escaped with little actual harm; those less fortunate died or are still undergoing therapy for serious health problems. Many experienced no major symptoms at the time, but have since developed posttraumatic stress disorders.

I interviewed people even if they were virtually unaffected by the sarin gas. Naturally those who escaped with relatively slight injury had been able to return to everyday life more quickly, but they, too, had their own stories to tell. Their fears, their lessons. In this sense, I did not practice any sort of editorial "triage."

One cannot overlook someone simply because they exhibit only "minor symptoms." For everyone involved in the gas attack, March 20 was a heavy, grueling day.

Furthermore, I had a hunch that we needed to see a true picture of all the survivors, whether they were severely traumatized or not, in order to better grasp the whole incident. I'll leave it to you, the reader, to lend an ear, then judge. No, even before that, I'd like you to imagine.

The date is Monday March 20, 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 get 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 a man in disguise pokes at the floor of the car with the sharpened tip of his umbrella, puncturing some plastic bags filled with a strange liquid...

~~from Preface.

♥ I have no physical symptoms, but psychologically there's this burden. I've got to get rid of it somehow. Of course, when I first went back to work I was scared the same thing might happen again. It takes positive thinking to overcome fear, otherwise you'll carry around this victim mentality forever.

There were ordinary passengers who unfortunately lost their lives or suffered injuries just because they were traveling on the subway. People who are still suffering mentally or are in pain. When I consider their lot, I don't have the luxury to keep seeing myself as a victim. That's why I say: "I'm not a sarin victim, I'm a survivor." Frankly, there are some latent symptoms, but nothing to keep me bedridden. I'm just glad I survived.

♥ I try not to hate Aum. I leave them to the authorities. I've already gone beyond hatred. My hating them wouldn't help anyway. I don't follow the news reports on the Aum trials—what would be the point? I know what's what without looking. Going back over the circumstances won't solve anything. I've no interest in the verdict or the punishment. That's for the judge to decide.

MURAKAMI: What exactly do you mean, you know "what's what without looking"?

I already knew society had gotten to the point where something like Aum had to happen. Dealing with passengers day after day, you see what you see. It's a question of morals. At the station, you get a very clear picture of people at their most negative, their downsides. For instance, if we're sweeping up the station with a dustpan and brush, just when we've finished, someone will flick a cigarette butt or a piece of litter right on the spot where we've cleaned. There are too many self-assertive people out there.

There's an upside to passengers too. A guy around 50, always travels on the first train of the day, always used to greet me, he probably thought I'd died until I returned to the job. Yesterday morning when we met, he said: "Alive and well means you've still got things to do. Don't give up the fight!" It's such an encouragement just to get a cheerful greeting. Nothing comes of hatred.

~~Toshiaki Toyoda (52).

♥ My husband is really worried about me, maybe more concerned than I am. He says I was discharged from the hospital so quickly, perhaps I should have stayed longer. Whenever anything happens, he blames it on the sarin. I'm glad he's here for me. I wish we had more time to spend together, just the two of us. During our morning commute when we split up at the station, I think, "Oh, I don't want to go off alone." Since that day, we've never had a fight. We used to before, over anything. Lately I wonder, supposing we parted at the station after having a fight and something happened—what would I do?

~~Tomoko Takatsuki (26).

♥ In the end, people died and others suffered terrible aftereffects, so of course you have to feel angry toward the criminals; but me, I probably feel a little different from everyone else who came to harm traveling in that car. Anger, yeah, but my symptoms were relatively minor, so mine is a more objective anger. It isn't personal.

Maybe it sounds strange, but it's not like I don't understand all this religious fanatic stuff. I've always had a feel for that side of things. I don't want to reject it straight out. I've always enjoyed the constellations and myths from the time I was small, which is why I wanted to be a sailor in the first place. But when you start organizing and forming groups, I don't go in for all that. I have no interest in religious groups, but I don't believe taking that sort of thing seriously is necessarily all bad. I can understand that much.

But it's strange, you know, while I was in South America I was invited out to karaoke by someone from the Japanese Embassy in Colombia, then almost went back the next day to the same place, but I said, "No, let's try somewhere new." And that very day, the place got bombed. I remember thinking when I got back home, "At least Japan's a safe place," and the next day I go to work and the gas attack happens. (laughs) What a joke. But seriously, when I'm in South America or Southeast Asia, death is never far away. Accidents are commonplace to them, not like in Japan.

To be honest, the day after the gas attack, I asked my wife for a divorce. We weren't on the best of terms at the time, and I'd done my fair share of thinking while I was in South America. I had meant to come out and say my piece when I got home, when I walked straight into the gas attack. Still, even after all I'd been through, she would barely speak to me.

..My family had been in such a mess for so long, by then I didn't consider myself very important. Not that the possibility of dying wasn't real, but, had I died, I probably could have accepted it in my own way as just a kind of accident.

~~Mitsuteru Izutsu (38).

♥ The tests didn't show up anything out of the ordinary. I showed no sign of contracted pupils. I just felt sick. I was still wearing the same clothes. I was really suffering then, but I've gotten better over time. Luckily I was dozing off. That's what a detective told me. My eyes were shut, and my breathing was lighter and shallower (laughs). Just lucky, I guess.

~~Aya Kazaguchi (23).

♥ Since the war ended, Japan's economy has grown rapidly to the point where we've lost any sense of crisis and material things are all that matters. The idea that it's wrong to harm others has gradually disappeared. It's been said before, I know, but this really brought it home to me. What happens if you raise a child with that mentality? Is there any excuse for this kind of thing?

♥ I've worked in Tokyo for twelve years, I know all about its peculiarly settled ways. 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 (41).

♥ I know I don't appear to be in constant pain, but imagine wearing a heavy stone helmet, day in, day out... I doubt it makes much sense to anyone else. I feel very isolated. If I'd lost an arm, or was reduced to a vegetable, people could probably sympathize more. If only I'd died then, how much easier it would have been. None of this nonsense. But when I think of my family, I have to go on...

~~Kenji Ohashi (41).

♥ I was in the hospital six days and felt hardly any pain all that time. The sarin had been right there next to me, yet my symptoms were miraculously light. I must have been upwind of it. Air flows through a train car from front to back, so I'd have been in a real fix if I'd sat at the back, even if only for a few stops. I suppose that's what you call Fate.

Afterward I wasn't scared to travel on the subway. No bad dreams either. Maybe I'm just dull-witted and thick-skinned. But I do feel it was Fate. Usually I don't go in through the first door nearest the front. I always use the second, which would have put me downwind of the sarin. But that day and that day only I took the first door, for no special reason. Pure chance. In my life up to now I never once felt blessed by the hand of Fate—nor cursed either, just nothing at all. I've had a pretty dull, ordinary sort of life... then something like this comes along.

~~Soichi Inagawa (64).

♥ Considering I lifted the packets of sarin by hand, I'm lucky to get away with such minor symptoms. Or perhaps it had something to do with the direction of the wind in the tunnel. Probably it was all to do with the way I picked them up so that I didn't inhale the fumes directly, because there were others who picked up the stuff the same way at other stations and died. I'm a heavy drinker, and some of the guys at the office say that's what saved me. That it was harder for me to become intoxicated. Well, maybe.

♥ As for picking up the sarin packers, I just happened to be there at the time. If I hadn't been there, somebody else would have picked up the packets. Work means you fulfill your duties. You can't look the other way.

~~Sumio Nishimura (46).

♥ Her brother slowly pushes Shizuko's wheelchair out into the lounge area. She's petite, with hair cut short at the fringe. She resembles her brother. Her complexion is good, her eyes slightly glazed as if she had only just woke up. If it wasn't for the plastic tube coming from her nose, she probably wouldn't look handicapped.

Neither eye is fully open, but there is a glint to them—deep in the pupils; a gleam that led me beyond her external appearance to see an inner something that was not in pain.

♥ "Can you move your right hand a little for me?" I ask Shizuko. And she lifts the fingers of her right hand. I'm sure she's trying, but the fingers move very slowly, patiently grasping, patiently extending. "If you don't mind, would you try holding my hand?"

"O-eh [Okay]," she says.

I place four fingers in the palm of her tiny hand—practically the hand of a child in size—and her fingers slowly enfold them, as gently as the petals of a flower going to sleep. Softy, cushioning, girlish fingers, yet far stronger than I had anticipated. Soon they clamp tight over my hand in the way that a child sent on an errand grips that "important item" she's not supposed to lose. There's a strong will at work here, clearly seeking some objective. Focused, but very likely not on me; she's after some "other" beyond me. Yet that "other" goes on a long journey and seems to find its way back to me. Please excuse this nebulous explanation, it's merely a fleeting impression.

Something in her must be trying to break out. I can feel it. A precious something. But it just can't find an outlet. If only temporarily, she's lost the power and means to enable to it to come to the surface. And yet that something exists unharmed and intact within the walls of her inner space. When she holds someone's hand, it's all she can do to communicate that "this thing is here."

♥ It's not easy to associate "travel" with "Disneyland." Anyone who lives in Tokyo would not generally consider an outing to Tokyo Disneyland "travel." But in her mind, lacking an awareness of distance, going to Disneyland must be like some great adventure. It's no different, conceptually, than if we were to set out, say, for Greenland. For a fact, going to Disneyland would be a more difficult undertaking for her in practice than for us to travel to the ends of the earth.

Tatsuo's two children—eight and four—remember going to Tokyo Disneyland with their auntie and tell her about it each time they visit the hospital: "It was really fun," they say. So Disneyland as a place has become fixed in her mind as something like a symbol of freedom and health. Nobody knows if Shizuko can actually remember having been there herself. It may only be a later implanted memory. After all, she doesn't even remember her own room where she lived for so long.

Real or imaginary, however, Disneyland is a distinct place in her mind. We can get close to that image, but we can't see the view she sees.

"You want to go to Disneyland with the whole family?" I ask her.

"Ehf," says Shizuko perkily.

"With your brother and sister-in-law and the kids?"

She nods.

Tatsuo looks at me and says, "When she can eat and drink normally with her mouth instead of that tube through her nose, then maybe we can all drive together in Disneyland again." He gives Shizuko's hands a little squeeze.

"I hope that's very very soon," I tell Shizuko.

Shizuko gives another nod. Her eyes are turned in my direction, but she's seeing "something else" beyond me.

"Well, when you get to Disneyland, what ride will you go on?" Tatsuo prompts.

"Roller coaster?" I interpret.

"Space Mountain!" Tatsuo chimes in. "Yeah, you always did like that one."

Tht evening when I visited the hospital, I'd wanted somehow to encourage her—but how? I'd thought it was up to me, but it wasn't that way at all; no need even to think about giving her encouragement. In the end, it was she who gave me encouragement.

In the course of writing this book, I've given a lot of serious thought to the Big Question: what does it mean to be alive? If I were in Shizuko's place, would I have the willpower to live as fully as she? Would I have the courage, or the persistence and determination? Could I hold someone's hand with such warmth and strength? Would the love of others save me? I don't know. To be honest, I'm not so sure.

People the world over turn to religion for salvation. But when religion hurts and maims, where are they to go for salvation? As I talked to Shizuko I tried to look into here eyes now and then. Just what did she see? What lit up those eyes? If ever she gets well enough to speak unhindered, that's something I'd want to ask: "That day I came to visit, what did you see?"

But that day is still far off. Before that comes Disneyland.

~~Shizuko Akashi (31).

♥ Not long after we were under way, the smell came fuming up. I've heard sarin is supposed to be odorless, but not this. It was somehow syrupy sweet. I almost thought it was perfume, not unpleasant at all. If it had smelled really bad everyone would have been in a panic. Syrupy sweet—that's what it was.

♥ For a while I was scared to travel on the subway, but I had no choice so I forced myself. Even now I don't like it, but I have to. After experiencing something like that, the fear of going underground in a metal box and something bad happening is overpowering, but what choice does a salaryman have? There isn't any other way to get to work.

It makes me angry, furious, when I hear what that Aum gang have to say for themselves. Why did they have to indiscriminately kill totally innocent people for the likes of him [Asahara]? What am I supposed to do with all this rage?

~~Shintaro Komada (58).

♥ It wasn't a pungent smell. How can I explain? It was more of a sensation, not a smell, a "suffocatingness." I opened the windows to get some ventilation. This must have been between Myogadani and Korakuen. When the train stopped at both those station, lots of passengers got off, but there was no reaction whatsoever from anyone in 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, when the police asked me, "Didn't people start to panic?" I thought back on it. "Everyone was so silent. No one uttered a word."

The people who got off the train were all coughing on the platform.

♥ Hearing the reports on Aum, the more I learned about their background, I came to realize that there was no point in even giving them the time of day. At least now I've stopped yelling at the television screen. These people have a completely different ethic, they think differently from us, they totally believed in what they did; I just can't see there's any room for tolerance. They don't live in this world, they're from another dimension... once I realized that, I could contain my rage a little. Though of course, I still want to see them properly sentenced in court.

~~Ikuko Nakayama (in her 30s).

♥ Until then he had been involved with the cult's Automatic Light Weapons Development Scheme and had dirtied his hands in various illegal activities, but even he was shocked by the plan to release sarin on the subway. With his abundant knowledge of chemistry and having also participated in the secret manufacture of sarin at Satyam No. 7, he could easily imagine the tragic consequences of the plan. It was nothing short of random mass slaughter. And he was being asked to take part himself.

Naturally Toyoda anguished over the possibilities. To an ordinary person with normal human feelings, even entertaining the notion of such an outrageous act must seem inconceivable, but Toyoda could not criticize a command from his master. It was as if he'd climbed into a car that was about to plummet down a steep hill at breakneck speed. At this point he lacked both the courage and the judgment to bail out and avoid the coming destruction.

All Toyoda could do—and this is exactly what his colleague Hirose did as well—was adhere to the teachings ever more zealously, to crush all doubts; in short, to shut down his feelings. Rather than leaping out of a speeding car by his own will and judgment, then having to face the consequences, it was far easier just to obey. Toyoda steeled his nerves. Resolution, rather than faith, would see him through.

~~***

♥ "In the old days," he says, "I used to be very no-nonsense, but lately I've mellowed as a human being. At the office I try not to overextend myself, but rather underplay my role—like a lantern in broad daylight."

After the gas attack, Mr. Sugazaki was rushed to the hospital. His heart and lungs had stopped working. Both the doctors and his family had resigned themselves to the possibility that he was already gone, but after three days in a coma he miraculously came back to life. A true life-or-death struggle.

♥ Some of the victims are afraid to take the subway, even now. I was scared at first, too. The company thought I'd be reluctant to use the subway and told me to take the bullet train instead. They even offered to buy me a commuter pass, but I turned it down. I didn't want to be coddled, and I didn't want to run away, either. I went back to work on May 10, and from that very first day I took the exact same 7:15 Hibiya Line train that had been targeted in the gas attack. I even made sure I sat in the same car—the same seat. Once the train passed Kamiyacho, I looked over my shoulder and said to myself, "That's where it happened." At that moment I felt a bit queasy, but having gotten it over and done with, my spirits lifted. That wiped the slate clean of any anxieties.

~~Hiroshige Sugazaki (58).

♥ In Europe terrorism is more frequent, if not exactly common-place, but Japan up to now has had almost nothing like that. I studied overseas in France for a while and all the time I was there I remember thinking, "I'm so glad Japan's a safe place." Everyone said so: "We envy you Japan's safety record." And then to come home and straightaway this happens! Not only random terrorism, but with a chemical weapon like sarin—it was a double shock.

"Why?" was all I could think. Even with the IRA, I could at least see things from their side and maybe begin to understand what they hoped to achieve. But this gas attack was simply beyond all comprehension. I'm just lucky to get off with minor symptoms and no after-effects, though that's no consolation to those who lost their lives or still suffer from it. The dead are dead, of course, but there are surely more meaningful ways to die.

♥ After this experience we must make every effort to ensure that this prosperous and peaceful nation, built on the labors of previous generations, is preserved and passed on for generations to come. The most important thing for Japan at this point is to pursue a new spiritual wholeness. I can't see any future for Japan if we blindly persist with today's materialist pursuits.

There's another thing that has occurred to me since the gas attack: I've just turned 40 and up to now I've been living carelessly. It's about time I took control of myself, gave some deep thought to my own life. This is the first time I've ever had such fears. I've been concentrating on my career all these years, so I've never known real fear.

~~Kozo Ishino (39).

No doubt the gas attack came as a big shock to him. I don't know if he's completely over it. While an attack of this nature makes no distinction between Japanese and foreigners, I sympathize with Mr. Kennedy, caught up to incomprehensible circumstances in a foreign country where he didn't even speak the language.

Several weeks after this interview, he completed his contract with the riding school and returned to Ireland.


♥ Of course, Tokyo is known as a safe city. The gas attack hasn't changed mu 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.

I'm not easily frightened. There's not much I'm afraid of. Men like me grow old but never feel old—and that's often a danger (laughs). You think you can still do things. It was a frightening experience.

I'll tell you what's changed: I took a long, hard look at myself and I said, "Michael, what are you worrying about"?" Everyone worries about the smallest things in life and then something like this happens...

No, I didn't think much about the possibility of dying. Riding horses all my life, I was always flirting with death.

~~Michael Kennedy (63).

♥ What I find really scary, though, is the media. Especially television, it's so limited as to what it shows. And when that gets out, it really makes people biased, and creates an illusion that the tiny detail they focus on is the whole picture. When I was out in front of Kodemmacho Station, certainly that one block was in an abnormal state, but all around us the world carried on the same as ever. Cars were going by. Thinking back over it now, it was eerie. The contrast was just so weird. But on television they only showed the abnormal part, quite different from the actual impression I had. It just made me realize all the more how frightening television is.

~~Masanori Okuyama (42).

He gladly responded to my request to interview him. He wants to do his bit, as he put it, to prevent the gas attack from fading in people's minds.

..Am I scared? I'm a subway employee; if a subway employee was scared of the subway, he couldn't work. I may feel kind of uneasy, but I try not to think about it. What's happened has happened. I try to remember that the important thing is not to let something like that happen ever again. Likewise, I'm making an effort not to bear any personal grudge toward the criminals. Grudges don't do anyone any good. I'm horrified that colleagues of mine died. We're all like one big family here, but then what can we do to help their families? Nothing. We just can't let it happen again. That's the main thing. All the more reason why we can't forget this incident. I just hope that what I'm saying, when it gets into print, will help everyone remember. That's all.

~~Michiaki Tamade (43).

His quick wits were also in evidence when he saved a colleague who'd collapsed in front of Shibuya Station and took him to the hospital. And it's not easy to make clear judgements in emergencies like that.

"What's the good of asking someone like me with only mild symptoms?" he said initially, and was reluctant to be interviewed. "There are far more serious cases around. I'm nothing." No, I explained, it wasn't a question of how badly he was affected, it was his viewpoint—his experience—that mattered.

♥ After Hatchobori there was an announcement: "Some passengers have fallen ill. We will be stopping briefly at Tsukiji, the next station."

At Tsukiji there was another announcement: "One... no, two of the ill passengers have fainted." Like that, very real-time. Then it was: "Three passengers are down!" The conductor was in a panic. At first he seemed to be relaying information to the passengers, but gradually he got himself in a muddle. Then it was: "Hey, what is this?" The man was yelling into the mike.

I thought: "Uh-oh, sounds like trouble." But nobody seemed particularly distraught. If the same thing happened today, make no mistake, it'd be a madhouse.

♥ I was hardly affected, so my impressions of the gas attack are much the same as the majority of the public. Of course, I don't think that sort of thing should be condoned, but above and beyond that, well... Afterward the Subway Authority sent me a MetroCard pass. It was bad news for the subway, too, I guess.

~~Takanori Ichiba (39).

Perhaps it was this side of his character that made him remain so long in the danger zone to help the injured, when his subway train hit disaster at Kodemmacho Station. As a result he received a big dose of sarin gas and ended up as affected as the many he'd saved. He reserves any feelings of resentment for the emergency services that were so ill-prepared to help out in a crisis of this kind.

♥ It's incredibly packed. Sometimes you can't even get on. Crowded as it is, though, even more people squeeze in at Kitasenju. You're just squashed in like the filling in a sandwich. I'm talking physical harm. You feel like you'll be crushed to death, or suddenly your hip's thrown out of joint. You're all twisted out of shape and all you can think is, "It hurts!" You're just mangled up in the middle of all this, with only your feet in the same place.

It's quite literally a pain to commute like that every day. Come Monday morning I always think, "Maybe I won't go in today..." (laughs) But you know, even though your head's saying, "No way, I don't want to go!" your body just automatically sets off for the office.

♥ To tell the truth, though, I have my doubts about the police and fire department. Okay, they sprang into action in the beginning at Tsukiji, but even so they were just way too late in coming to help at Kodemmacho. We'd given up on them by the time they arrived. I just wonder what would have happened if we hadn't taken it upon ourselves to do something. Granted the local police might not have any experience, but they were practically useless. Ask them which hospital to go to, and that hasn't been established so they're on the radio for ten minutes. Just a simple question: "Which hospital?"

The police showed up only after the rescue operation was practically over. Then they began directing traffic for the one ambulance that arrived. I don't know what's wrong with Japan's standby disaster arrangements. After all those sarin gas victims in Matsumoto, they ought to have learned a lesson or two. They'd identified a link between Aum and sarin at that time. If they'd followed that up this whole gas attack wouldn't have happened, or at least I'd have come away with less serious injuries.

At the hospital I saw some of the others who had helped me rescue people from Kodemmacho Station. Some were bedridden. We all inhaled sarin. I don't want to keep quiet about this thing: 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.

And I'm going to continue to raise objections: why hasn't any treatment policy been established for posttraumatic stress disorder? Why hasn't the Japanese government made an accurate assessment of the current health of the injured? I'm going to fight this one.

~~Naoyuki Ogata (28).

♥ And next to a column a little way ahead toward the front of the train, there's a man lying faceup, his arms and legs twitching like he's about to breathe his last.

I set down my bag against the wall and held his legs to keep them from kicking, but I just couldn't control them, he was trembling so bad. His eyes were tightly shut. I stayed there for six or seven minutes, just holding him, but in the end he died, I know. He was the eleventh person to die. A Mr. Tanaka from Urawa, 53 years old—the same as me.

I'm not the sort to just pass people by. Something happens and I'm right there to lend a hand. People are always telling me, "You shouldn't go looking for trouble" (laughs). But I just can't look the other way. Close by a woman had collapsed too, and there were about ten people around her. You can't be too careful touching a woman, but man-to-man you can help out no questions asked. Anyway they were standing around her. I was crouching, so I could see her between people's legs. Her name was Ms. Iwata, 32 years old. She died two days later.

♥ I was this close to losing my life. Only three things saved me: (1) I smelled something; (2) I ran out of there; (3) some stranger found me and took me to the hospital long before the ambulance came. If it hadn't been for these three things, I'm sure I'd have died.

And thinking back on it now, I'm convinced that Mr. Tanaka, the man who died, said to me when I smelled gas: "It's too late for me, run!"

~~Michiru Kono (53).

By pure coincidence, Mr. Yamazaki had been at high school in Kyoto with the Aum High Command's Yoshihiro Inoue. He saw his old classmate's face on TV and recognized him immediately: "Hey, that's Inoue!" He and Inoue had never gotten along, and talking to him it's not difficult to see why. Mr. Yamazaki enjoys snowboarding, basketball, fast cars (though he says he's calmed down considerable of late), and is altogether the outgoing sporty type; he would have nothing in common with the dark, introspective, even poetic sensibilities of Yoshihiro Inoue. From the moment he met Inoue on the school bus he thought to himself: "This guy's off my list. Can't even talk to him." Ten years after that initial negative impression, far away in the subways of Tokyo, he was to be visited by a very unwelcome and horrific confirmation of these doubts. Strange are the encounters of a lifetime.

♥ When the train stopped in Tsukiji, the doors opened and—wham!—four people fell flat out from the car right behind mine. Straight out the door.

A station attendant came over, like they do when someone faints, but they were trying to lift up the people, which seemed odd. That's when the panic started. A station attendant was shouting into a mike: "Ambulance! Ambulance!" Then it was "Poison gas! Everyone off the train! Go to the ticket barrier and head straight above ground!"

I didn't run. I wonder why? I was kind of unfocused. I did get off onto the platform, thinking I ought to sit down. I wasn't really paying much attention. There were others who didn't run. There wasn't any announcement that the train wouldn't start again, but eventually everyone filed out. Only then did it strike me, "You mean I have to leave too?" And I stood up. I was about the last.

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. They were still a lot of people lingering in the station trying to decide what to do.

The people who'd collapsed didn't even twitch. Had they passed out? Were they dead? Some had their feet in the train and their bodies on the platform, and had to be dragged out. I still didn't sense any real danger. I don't know why. In retrospect that seems odd—why wasn't I afraid?—but then neither was anyone else.

♥ I don't remember how long it was before my work colleague found me, but I do remember being furious at all the people who pretended not to see me lying there. Assholes! How can human beings be so cold? Someone's in agony right there in front of them and they don't say a word. They just avoid you. If I'd been in their place, I'd have said something. If there's someone looking ill on the train I always say, "Are you okay? Want to sit down?" But not most people—I really learned that the hard way.

♥ I was in the same class as Yoshihiro Inoue at Rakunan High School in Kyoto. We never took any of the same courses, but we were in the same grade level. We took the same bus to school from Hankyu Omiya Station, so I got to know him fairly well. I good friend of mine took the same courses as Inoue, which is why we traveled together. I never got friendly with him.

And yet I still remember him extremely vividly. My first impression was that he was incredibly strange. Weird. Twisted. I disliked him from the start. That's why I never talked to him. You can tell whether you'll get along with someone from just a few words; well, I never got along with him. I'd listen to my friend's conversations with Inoue and I thought: "This guy gives me the creeps." I went to a school in Tokyo in my junior year, but I heard later from my friend that Inoue had been doing zazen in class, meditation for hours."

I had lots of friends. I was into bikes, and we'd all go out riding. I liked being outdoors, but Inoue didn't.

About two weeks after the gas attack, when they showed the Aum people in the papers and on TV, I saw his face and thought: "I've seen this character somewhere." I rang up my old school friend and he said, "Yep, it's Inoue, all right."

I was furious. I remembered the unpleasantness I had felt back in high school. I was just outraged. I'd changed high schools, but I still had some pride in the old place. I couldn't believe any graduate from Rakuman could do such a terrible thing. It was such a shock, a real letdown.

I'm still keeping an eye out for news of him. I just want to see what they'll do with him, how fart his so-called sincerity goes.

~~Ken'ichi Yamazaki (25).

..I couldn't think of anything to say. Words can be practically useless at times, but as a writer they're all I have..

♥ I told myself, "Control yourself." I had to see the funeral through; after that I didn't care. My in-laws were trying their hardest, after all, so I should. Like they say, the Buddha doesn't like to see weeping. But I just couldn't...

The baby moved inside me. As soon as I cried, it was rolling this way and that.

♥ I still have a few videos from ski trips, our honeymoon. You can hear his voice, so I'll play them for her when she gets a bit older. I'm so glad we took those videos. Even I'm starting to forget his profile. At first, I could still feel every part of his face in my fingers, but gradually it's all going away...

Forgive me... It's just that, without the body, it all starts to fade.

~~Yoshiko Wada (31). Wife of the late Eiji Wada.

♥ "He was an undemanding child." Comments to that effect were repeated over and over again in the course of the interview. Eiji had been a strong, independent young man who never caused his parent any worry. Not until the day his body was sent home without a word of explanation...

♥ Without thinking, I touched Eiji and they yelled at me.

How was I supposed to know you weren't supposed to touch him? I just couldn't help myself. Apparently Yoshiko touched him and they shouted at her, too. But to a mother, she's got to touch him and feel he's cold before she finally admits to herself, "It's too late." Otherwise nothing's going to convince her.

~~Kichiro Wada (64) and Sanae Wada (60). Parents of the late Eiji Wada.

♥ For sarin, however, there are two remedies—atropine and 2-Pam—both of which we've used before.*

* Sarin inhibits the action of cholinesterase, an enzyme produced by the liver, 2-Pam (Protopam or pralidoxime chloride) is a cholinesterase reactivator, also used as an antidote in cases of organophosphate pesticide poisoning.

♥ According to the data, there was no need to hospitalize patients with contracted pupils who could still walk and talk. Fine. People whose cholinesterase levels were normal did not need immediate treatment. That was helpful. If we'd had to take in everyone who came to us, we'd have been in a real fix.

MURAKAMI: Could you explain briefly about cholinesterase?

If you want to move a muscle, the nerve endings send out an order to the muscle cells in the form of a chemical, acetylcholine. It's the messenger. When the muscles receive that they move, they contract. After the contraction, the enzyme cholinesterase serves to neutralize the message sent by the acetylcholine, which prepares for the next action. Over and over again.

However when the cholinesterase runs out, the acetylcholine message remains active and the muscle stays contracted. Now muscles work by repeated contraction and expansion, so when they stay contracted we get paralysis. In the eye, that means contracted pupils.

The faxes from Matsumoto told us that a cholinesterase level of 200 or below meant the patient required hospitalization.

♥ MURAKAMI: So it was as if each medic team, each hospital was told, "You're on your own"?

Well, yes, in effect. Knowledge about sarin was inadequate. For instance, at one hospital the doctors and nurses examining and treating the patients began to feel dizzy. Their clothes were impregnated with the gas. They became secondary casualties. Even we weren't aware that we should have asked the patients to undress first thing. We just didn't even think about it.

~~Dr. Toru Saito (b. 1948).

♥ The biggest lesson we learned from the Tokyo has attack and the Matsumoto incident was that when something major strikes, the local units may be extremely swift to respond, but the overall picture is hopeless There is no prompt and efficient system in Japan for dealing with a major catastrophe. There's no clear-cut chain of command. It was exactly the same with the Kobe earthquake.

In both the Matsumoto incident and the Tokyo gas attack, I think the medical organizations responded extremely well. The paramedics were also on top of things. They deserve praise. As one American expert said, to have had five thousand sarin gas victims and only twelve dead is close to a miracle. All thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the local units, because the overall emergency network was useless.

~~Dr. Nobuo Yanagisawa (b. 1935). Head, School of Medicine, Shinshu University, Nagano Prefecture.

♥ High-flown excesses aside, the polemic put forth by the media was quite straightforward in structure. To them, the moral principle at stake in the gas attack was all too clear: "good" versus "evil," "sanity" versus "madness," "health" versus "disease." It was an obvious exercise in opposites.

The Japanese were shocked by this macabre incident. From every mouth it was the same outcry: "The sheer lunacy of it all! What on earth's become of Japan, when such mass insanity walks among us? Where were the police? It's the death penalty for Shoko Asahara no matter what..."

Thus, to a greater or lesser degree people all jumped onto the "right," "sane," "normal" bandwagon. There was nothing complicated about it. That is, placed alongside the likes of Shoko Asahara and the Aum cult, compared to the deeds they had done, the overwhelming majority of Japanese were indeed "right," "sane," and "healthy." It could hardly have been a more open-and-shut case. The media merely played along with this consensus and accelerated its force.

There were a few lone voices that bucked the trend. "Shouldn't the crime be punished as a crime, without all this talk of "goodness" or "sanity"?" they insisted, but were largely ignored in the general furor.

Only now, several years after the event, just where has this ramshackle bandwagon of mass consensus delivered us Japanese with "right on our side"? What have we learned from this shocking incident?

One thing is for sure. Some strange malaise, some bitter aftertaste lingers on. We crane our necks and look around us, as if to ask, where did all that come from? If only to be rid of this malaise, to cleanse our palates of this aftertaste, most Japanese seem ready to pack up the whole incident in a trunk labeled THINGS OVER AND DONE WITH. We would rather the meaning of the whole ordeal was left to the fixed processes of the court and everything was dealt with on the level of "the system."

Certainly the legal process is valuable and will bring to light many truths. But unless we Japanese adsorb those facts into our metabolism and integrate them into our field of vision, all will be lost in a mass of meaningless detail, court-case gossip, an obscure, forgotten corner of history. The rain that fell on the city runs down the dark gutters and empties into the sea without even soaking the ground. The legal system can deal with only one facet of the issue on the basis of the law. There is no guarantee that this will settle the matter.

..What alternative is there to the media's "Us" versus "Them"? The danger is that if it is used to prop up this "righteous" position of "ours" all we will see from now on are ever more exacting and minute analyses of the "dirty" distortions in "their" thinking. Without some flexibility in our definitions we'll remain forever struck with the same old knee-jerk realizations, or worse, slide into complete apathy.

A little while after the events, a thought occurred to me. In order to understand the reality of the Tokyo gas attack, no study of the rationale and workings of "them," the people who instigated it, would be enough. Necessary and beneficial though such efforts might be, wasn't there a similar need for a parallel analysis of "us"? Wasn't the real key (or part of a key) to the mystery thrust upon Japan by "them" more likely to be found hidden under "our" territory?

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 prospect might seem, it is important that we incorporate "them," to some extent, within that construct called "us," or at least within Japanese society. Certainly that is how the event was viewed from abroad.

♥ Asahara was running in Shibuya Ward, the Tokyo district where I was living at the time, and the campaign was a singularly odd piece of theater. Day after day strange music played from big trucks with sound systems, while white-robed young men and women in oversize Asahara masks and elephant heads lined the sidewalk outside my local train station, waving and dancing some incomprehensible jig.

When I saw this election campaign, my first reaction was to look away. It was one of the last things I wanted to see. Others around me showed the same response: they simply walked by pretending not to see the cultists. I felt an unnameable dread, a disgust beyond my understanding. I didn't bother to consider very deeply where this dread came from, or why it was "one of the last things I wanted to see." I didn't think it was all that important at the time. I simply put the image out of mind as "nothing to do with me."

Faced by the same scene, no doubt 90 percent of people would have felt and behaved the same way: walk by pretending not to see, don't give it a second thought; forget it. Very likely German intellectuals during the Weimar period behaved in a similar fashion when they first saw Hitler.

But now, thinking back on it, the whole thing seems very curious. There are any number of new religions out there proselytizing on the street, yet they don't fill us—or at least me—with an inexplicable dread. No, it's just "Oh, them again," and that's it. If you want to talk aberrations, then shaven-headed Japanese youths dancing around chanting "Hare Krishna" are a departure from the social norm. Still, I don't look away from Hare Krishnas. Why, then, did I automatically avert my eyes from the Aum campaigners? What was it that disturbed me?

My conjecture is this. The Aum "phenomenon" disturbs precisely because it is not someone else's affair. It shows us a distorted image of ourselves in a manner none of us could have foreseen. The Hare Krishnas and all the other new religions can be dismissed at the outset (before they even enter into our rational mind) as having no bearing on us. But not Aum, for some reason. Their presence—their appearance, their song—had to be actively rejected by an effort of will, and that is why they disturb us.

Psychotically speaking (I'll wheel out the amateur psychology once, so bear with me), encounters that call up strong physical disgust or revulsion are often in fact projections of our own faults and weaknesses. Very well, but how does this relate to the feeling of dread I felt in front of the train station? No, I'm not saying "There but for the grace of—whatever—go I. Under different circumstances you and I might have joined the Aum cult and released sarin gas in the subway." That doesn't make any sense realistically (or logistically). All I mean to say is that something in that encounter, in their presence, must also have been present in us to necessitate such active conscious rejection. Or rather, "they" are the mirror of "us"!

Now of course a mirror image is always darker and distorted. Convex and concave swap places, falsehood wins out over reality, light and shadow play tricks. But take away these dark flaws and the two images are uncannily similar; some details almost seem to conspire together. Which is why we avoid looking directly at the image, why, consciously or not, we keep eliminating these dark elements from the face we want to see. These subconscious shadows are an "underground" that we carry around within us, and the bitter aftertaste that continues to plague us long after the Tokyo gas attack comes seeping out from below.

♥ Autonomy is only the mirror image of dependence on others. If you were left as a baby on a deserted island, you would have no notion of what "autonomy" means. Autonomy and dependency are like light and shade, caught in the pull of each other's gravity, until, after considerable trial and error, each individual can find his or her own place in the world.

Those who fail to achieve this balance, like Shoko Asahara perhaps, have to compensate by establishing a limited (but actually quite effective) system. I have no way of ranking him as a religious figure. How does one measure such things? Still, a cursory look at his life does suggest one possible scenario. Efforts to overcome his own individual disabilities left him trapped inside a closed circuit. A genie in a bottle labeled "religion," which he proceeded to market as a form of shared experience.

♥ The faithful relinquished their freedom, renounced their possessions, disowned their families, discarded all secular judgement (common sense). "Normal" Japanese were aghast. How could anyone do such an insane thing? But conversely, to the cultists it was probably quite comforting. At last they had someone to watch over them, sparing them the anxiety of confronting each new situation on their own, and delivering them from any need to think for themselves.

By tuning in, by merging themselves with Shoko Asahara's "greater more profoundly unbalanced" Self, they attained a kind of pseudo-self-determination. Instead of launching an assault on society as individuals, they handed over the entire strategic responsibility to Asahara. We'll have one "Self-power versus the system" set menu, please.

Theirs was not Kaczynski's "battle against the system to attain the power process of self-determination." The only one fighting was Shoko Asahara: most followers were merely swallowed up and assimilated by his battle-hungry ego. Nor were the followers unilaterally subjected to Asahara's "mind control." Not passive victims, they themselves actively sought to be controlled by Asahara. "Mind control" is not something that can be pursued or bestowed just like that. It's a two-sided affair.

If you lose your ego, you lose the thread of that narrative you call your Self. Humans, however, can't live very long without some sense of a continuing story. Such stories go beyond the limited rational system (or the systemic rationality) with which you surround yourself: they are crucial keys to sharing time-experience with others.

Now a narrative is a story, not logic, nor ethics, nor philosophy. It is a dream you keep having, whether you realize it or not. Just as surely as you breathe, you go on ceaselessly dreaming your story. And in these stories you wear two faces. You are simultaneously subject and object. You are the whole and you are a part. You are real and you are shadow. "Storyteller" and at the same time "character." It is through such multilayering of roles in our stories that we heal the loneliness of being an isolated individual in the world.

♥ Such was the narrative offered by Aum, by "their" side. Stupid, you might say. And surely it is. Most of us laughed at the absurd off-the-wall scenario that Asahara provided. We laughed at him for concocting such "utter nonsense" and we ridiculed the believers who could be attracted to such "lunatic fodder." The laugh left a bitter aftertaste in our mouths, but we laughed out loud all the same. Which was only to be expected.

But were we able to offer "them" a more viable narrative? Did we have a narrative potent enough to chase away Asahara's "utter nonsense"?

♥ So, then, what about you? (I'm using the second person, but of course that includes me.)

Haven't you offered up some part of your Self to someone (or something), and taken on a "narrative" in return? Haven't we entrusted some part of our personality to some greater System or Order? And if so, has not that System at some stage demanded of us some kind of "insanity"? Is the narrative you now possess really and truly your own? Are your dreams really your own dreams? Might not they be someone else's visions that could sooner or later turn into nightmares?

♥ In most cases the descriptions were extremely real and highly visual.

Nevertheless, they were all, strictly speaking, just memories.

Now, as one psychoanalyst defines it: "Human memory is nothing more than a "personal interpretation" of events." Passing an experience through the apparatus of memory can sometimes rework it into something more readily understood: the unacceptable parts are omitted; "before" and "after" are reversed; unclear elements are refined, one's own memories are mixed with those of others, interchanged as often as necessary. All this goes on perfectly naturally, unconsciously.

Simply put, our memories of experiences are rendered into something like a narrative form. To a greater or lesser extent, this is a natural function of memory process that novelists consciously utilize as a profession. The truth of "whatever is told" will differ, however slightly, from what actually happened. This, however, does not make it a lie; it is unmistakably the truth, albeit in another form.

During the course of my interviews I endeavored to maintain the basic stance that each person's story is true within the context of that story, and I still believe so. As a result, the stories told by people who simultaneously experienced the very same scene often differ on the small details, but they are presented here with all their contradictions preserved. Because it seems to me that these discrepancies and contradictions say something in themselves. Sometimes, in this multifaceted world of ours, inconsistency can be more eloquent than consistency.

♥ For me, as a novelist, hearing all these people tell their "narratives"—told from "our" side, it should go without saying—had a certain healing power.

Eventually I stopped making judgements altogether. "Right" or "wrong," "sane" or "sick," "responsible" or "irresponsible"—these questions no longer mattered. At least, the final judgement was not mine to make, which made things easier. I could relax and simply take in people's stories verbatim. I became, not the "fly on the wall," but a spider sucking up this mass of words, only to later break them down inside me and spin them out into "another narrative."

Especially after conducting interviews with the family of Mr Eiji Wada—who died in Kodemmacho Station—and with Ms. "Shizuko Akashi"—who lost her memory and speech and is still in the hospital undergoing therapy—I had to seriously reconsider the value of my own writing. Just how vividly could my choice of words convey to the reader the various emotions (fear, despair, loneliness, anger, numbness, alienation, confusion, hope...) these people experienced?

♥ Whether from my own mind or the collective unconscious, they were a symbolic presence, or else represented danger pure and simple. Never to be disassociated from the dark, always just out of our field of vision. Yet there are times when even we children of sunlight may find comfort in the gentle healing embrace of darkness. We need the sheltering night. But under no circumstances do we venture further, to open that locked door leading down to the deepest recesses. For beyond unfolds the impenetrably dark narrative of the INKling world.

Thus, in the context my own narrative, the five Aum "agents" who punctured those bags of sarin with the sharpened tips of their umbrellas unleashed swarms of INKlings beneath the streets of Tokyo. The mere thought fills me with dread, no matter how simplistic. Yet I have to say it out loud: they should never have done what they did. Fore whatever reason.

~~Blind Nightmare: Where Are We Japanese Going?.
Tags: 1990s - non-fiction, 1st-person narrative non-fiction, 20th century - non-fiction, cults, cultural studies, essays, foreign non-fiction, interviews, japanese - non-fiction, journalism, medicine, mental health, multiple narrators (non-fiction), my favourite books, non-fiction, physical disability, religion, religion - buddhism, social criticism, sociology, translated, true crime
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