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

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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:


♥ Generally few attempts were made to check whether the statements made in the interviews were factually accurate or not, other than when they obviously contradicted known facts. Some people might object to this, but my job was to listen to what people had to say and to record this as clearly as possible. Even if there are some details inconsistent with reality, the collective narrative of these personal stories has a powerful reality of its own. This is something novelists are acutely aware of, which is why I regard this as fitting work for a novelist.

~~from Preface to Part Two: The Place That Was Promised.

♥ For me, studying meant gaining wisdom, but schoolwork was just rote memorization, things like how many sheep there are in Australia or something. You can study that all your want, but there's no way it'll make you wise. To me, that's what being an adult meant. To be able to have that kind of calm, that sense of intelligence. There was a huge gap between the image I had of what an adult should be and the actual adults around me.

You get older, gain knowledge and experience, but inside you don't grow as a person one little bit. Take away the outer appearance and the superficial knowledge and what's left is no better than a child.

I also had some major doubts about love. When I was around 19 I thought long and hard and came to the following conclusion: pure love for another person, and what people call romantic love, are two different things. Pure love doesn't manipulate the relationship to one's advantage, but romantic love is different. Romantic love contains other elements—the desire to be loved by the other person, for instance. If purely loving another was enough, you wouldn't suffer because of unrequited love. As long as the other person was happy, there wouldn't be any need to suffer because you weren't being loved in return. What makes people suffer is the desire to be loved by another person. So I decided that romantic love and pure love for a person are not the same. And that by following this you could lessen the pain of unrequited love.

♥ Especially philosophy books—I only read as few and couldn't stand them. I always thought philosophy was supposed to leave you with a deeper consciousness so you could finds a "remedy" to life's problems. To really understand the purpose of living, to find fulfillment and happiness, and to decide what your life's goals should be. Everything else was just a means to that end. But the books I read all seemed to be excuses for famous scholars for flaunt their linguistic skills: "Hey, look how much I know!" I could see right through this, and couldn't stand those books. So philosophy never did anything for me.

♥ I'm not much interested in things that can't be measured scientifically. What cannot be measured has no persuasive power, so whatever value it might have can't be transmitted to other people. If things that can't be measured acquire power, you end up with something like Aum. If you're able to measure things, you can exclude the potential danger.

MURAKAMI: Okay, but how much reality would these measurements have? And wouldn't they differ depending on your viewpoint? There's also the danger that data could be manipulated. You'd have to decide at what point your measurements are sufficient, not to mention the question of the reliability of the instruments used to do the measuring.

As long as the statistical structure you use is the same as that used in medical science, then it's okay. These symptoms mean this, this is how you treat them, that sort of thing.

MURAKAMI: I don't imagine you read novels.

No, I don't. Three pages is about the most I can manage before I give up.

MURAKAMI: Since I'm a novelist I'm the opposite of you—I believe that what's most important is what cannot be measured. I'm not denying your way of thinking, but the greater part of people's lives consists of things that are unmeasurable, and trying to change all these to something measurable is realistically impossible.

♥ MURAKAMI: What I'm getting at is that if you examine the history of science you can see that it has been manipulated in the name of politics and religion. The Nazis did this. There's been lots of sham science that in retrospect was misguided. And this has brought untold harm to society. Granted you're a person who closely gathers evidence, but most people, told by authority figures that something is "scientific," swallows it whole and go along with whatever they say. And to me that's very frightening.

♥ Life in Aum was much tougher than secular life, but the tougher it was, the more satisfying it felt; my inner struggles were over, for which I was grateful. I made a lot of friends, too—adults, kids, old ladies, men, women. Everyone in Aum was aiming for the same thing—raising their spiritual level—so we had lots in common. I didn't have to change myself to get along with others.

No doubts remained, because all our questions were answered. Everything was solved. We were told: "Do this, and this will happen." No matter what question we had, we got am answer straightaway. I was completely immersed in it [laughs]. The media never reports that aspect. They label it all mind control. But actually it isn't. That's just what they say to boost talk-show ratings. They don't even try to report the facts.

♥ Because the whole organization was so haphazard. It was like communism: if you made a mistake, you wouldn't get fired, and though we say we had "jobs" in Aum, it's not like we were drawing a salary or anything. I wouldn't call it irresponsible, exactly, there was just no sense of individual responsibility. Everything was sort of unclear and random. There was a sense that as long as your spiritual level was advancing, nothing else mattered. Most people in the secular world have a wife or family, so they have a certain sense of responsibility and work as hard as they can, but in Aum this was completely missing.

Say, for example, you're at a construction site and a steel frame has to arrive by tomorrow for work to continue. If it doesn't get there the person in charge just says, "Oh, that's right, I forgot about it." And that's the end of that. He might be scolded a little, but he doesn't care. Everyone has reached a stage where the harsh realities of everyday life don't affect them. Even if something bad happens, they just say it's bad karma dropping away, and everybody's happy. Making mistakes, getting yelled at—they just view these as so many personal impurities falling away [laughs]. They're pretty tough people when you think about it. No matter what happens, it doesn't bother them. Aum members looked down on ordinary people in the secular world. Like: "Look how they're all suffering, but we're not bothered."

♥ I'm still in Aum, because the befits I've received are so great. I'm trying to sort all this out, on an individual level. I still believe there are a lot of possibilities there. It requires a kind of logical reversal. There are hopeful elements, and I'm trying to clearly distinguish what I understand from what I don't.

I'm going to wait about two years, and if Aum is still in the same shape it is now, I plan to drop out. Until then I've got a lot to think over. But one thing is certainly true—Aum Shinrikyo doesn't learn from experience. It turns a deaf ear—no matter what other people say. It doesn't affect it a bit. Not sense of regret. It's like what Aum members say about the gas attack: "That was a mission for other people. Not me."

I"m not like that, since I think the attack was a terrible event. It should never have been carried out. So inside me this dreadful event is at war with all the good things I've experienced. People who have a stronger sense of the awful things that happened left Aum, those for whom the "good things" are stronger remain. I'm stuck somewhere in the middle. I'm going to wait and see.

~~Hiroyuki Kano (b. 1965).

♥ It was the first time I saw Shoko Asahara. I wasn't a member yet, so I wasn't allowed to ask him any questions. In Aum you have to rise up through the ranks if you want to do anything, and that cost money. Once you got to a certain level you were allowed to ask Asahara questions. A step up from that and you were given a flower garland. I saw this in Nagoya and thought it was pretty silly. Also Asahara was gradually being deified, which disturbed me.

I subscribed to the Aum journal Mahayana from the very first issue. In the beginning it was a good magazine. They took great care in presenting the experiences of actual believers, and had stories on "How I Became an Aum Member," using people's real names. I was impressed by their honesty. After a while, though, the magazine didn't focus on individual members but solely on Asahara, raising him higher and higher with everyone worshipping him. For instance, when Asahara was going anywhere believers would lay their clothes on the ground for him to walk. That's a bit much. It's scary—worship one person too much and freedom goes out the window. On top of that, Asahara was married and had as lot of children, which I found strange in light of the original tenets of Buddhism. He got around this by saying that he was the Final Liberated One and those kinds of things would not accumulate as karma. Of course no one really knew if he was or not.

~~Akio Namimura (b. 1960).

♥ People tried top find someone for me to marry. My parents even tried to set me up. And I did go out with a few women for a while. But all the time I knew that eventually I was going to renounce the world.

MURAKAMI: So you were already thinking about that?

Yes, I was. It was before I found out about Aum, but what I had in mind was more becoming a traditional renunciate. The image I had was of quietly retiring from the world at 60 and living a simple life.

♥ When I became a member I didn't have any personal problems or anything. It was just that, no matter where I found myself, I felt like there was a hole inside me, with the wind rushing through. I never felt satisfied. From the outside you wouldn't imagine I had any troubles. When I became a renunciate people would ask me, "What could possibly be troubling you? How could you have any problems?"

MURAKAMI: In everybody's life there are times when you feel pain, sadness, depression. Something that shakes you to the core. You never experienced anything like this?

Nothing extreme, no. Not that I can recall anyway.

In the summer I spent three days at the newly built headquarters at Mt. Fuji. But it wasn't until autumn 1989 that I began to get serious about attending the dojo. I'd go every Saturday night and return on Sunday. During the week I train on my own at home, especially when I got to the point where I received sakti-pat—I had to get in shape for that. The introduction of energy there is very delicate; you have to concentrate on training for it. I did asana [yoga], breathing exercises, simple meditation; there were three-hour courses and you had to get twenty units. As you continue to train you feel a transformation come over you. Your mental outlook grows more upbeat, more positive. You're like a new person.

..My consciousness had gone over to the other side and I couldn't get back. The Buddhist scriptures talk about it, how when you reach a certain point in your training this schizophrenic element appears. Inside me there was nothing certain I could rely on. Happily, I still had an awareness of where I was; if things had gotten any worse I might have become schizophrenic. I got more and more afraid. I had to cure that split personality at one stroke, but going to a psychiatrist wouldn't help. The solution lay in my training. So I became a renunciate. If there was nothing within me I could rely on, then the only thing to do was to give myself up to Aum. Besides, I'd always thought that someday I'd renounce the world.

♥ We'd construct a building only to have it torn down. The things we built weren't what was needed. It's just like a school festival. You work as hard as you can building a model, only to have it broken up as soon as the festival is over. So why do it? Because in the process of everyone working together you learn a lot: how to get along with others, various technical skills, all sorts of unseen elements. That's why you work as hard as you can, only to destroy it. In the midst of this communal labor you grow to understand your own mind better.

♥ MURAKAMI: What are your feelings about Asahara's level of responsibility?

If he is responsible then he must be judged according to the law. But as I said before, there is such a huge gap between the Asahara I have in my mind and the Asahara I see on trial... As a guru, or religious figure, he had something very genuine. So I'm reserving judgement.

Inside me, also, are many wonderful things I received since entering Aum Shinrikyo. Putting those aside, though, what is bad must be clearly seen as such, and that's what I'm trying to do now. Inside me. And, honestly, I don't know how things will develop or what the future holds for me.

♥ MURAKAMI: Esoteric Tibetan ascetic practice involves a one-to-one relationship between guru and disciple and aims at absolute devotion, doesn't it? But what about this, for instance: what started out as a wonderful discipline somehow begins to get strange along the way—in computer terms it would be like a virus infects the computer and its functions, which are then out of kilter. There's no third party to halt this process.

I don't know about that.

MURAKAMI: So there is a danger inherent in this, because it involves absolute devotion. This time you just happened not to be involved in the incident, but if we pursue the logic here, if your guru order you to commit po-a, it means you must do it, right?

But every religion gets implicated in that kind of thing. Even if, say, I was ordered to do that, I don't think I could have. Hm... which means, maybe I wasn't devoted enough [laughs]. I hadn't given over my entire self. Or to turn it around, you could say I was still weak. And I'm the type of person who has to be convinced of things before I can move on. Too commonsensical, I suppose.

MURAKAMI: So if you had been convinced, you might have carried it out? If they had said: "Mr. Inaba, you see, things are like this, and that's why wee have to commit po-a." If they'd persuaded you, then what?

Well, I don't know. It doesn't. Hm... it', well, hard to say.

♥ MURAKAMI: It's possible to view the Self as divided into surface and depth—an unconscious, something like a black box. Some people feel it's their mission to pry open that black box in search of the truth. This might be something close to the astral you discussed. ..I think human beings should both open that black box and accept it as it is, otherwise it may turn dangerous. When I hear the statements of those who were arrested, though, it seems they couldn't do this. They only analyzed things and left the intuitive part to someone else. Their way of looking at life became extremely static. So, when someone with great dynamism—an Asahara, for instance—tells them to do something, they can't refuse.

♥ But you have to understand that there are people who have nothing to do with this incident who are working as hard as they can for their personal growth, to reach salvation. Of course Aum did some terrible things, that's undeniable, but there are people being arrested for minor offenses and being intimidated who don't deserve that. For example, if I go out for a walk, the police will follow me. If I try to get a job, I'll be harassed. People who've left Aum facilities can't even find places to live. The media just puts out its one-sided view. No wonder we find it harder and harder to trust the secular world.

They tell us if we abandon our beliefs they'll accept us, but people who have taken vows have pure motives, they are, in a sense, emotionally weak. If they could stay at home, work as usual, and train to improve themselves, no one would say anything. But they can't, and that's why they enter the temporary, isolated state called renunciation. People like that have a resistance to the obstacles of the worldly life, to those problems.

The structure of Aum has changed quite a lot, in very basic ways. It might look like nothing's changed, but there's been an internal transformation. There's a move to return to the way it was at the beginning, where it began at the level of yoga. Having made the founder's child the new Leader, though, people might call that inexcusable and say we haven't learned a thing.

MURAKAMI: I'm not saying that, but if you don't publicly reflect on what happened and show remorse, if you just continue as if nothing has happened, no one is going to believe you. I don't think it's as simple as saying: "That's something other people did. The basic teachings of Aum are correct. We're victims too." There are dangerous elements within the essence of Aum, within the structure of your doctrine. Aum has the duty to say all this in a public statement. Do that, and no one would mind if you continued your own style of religious activities.

~~Mitsuharu Inaba (b. 1956).

♥ I often mentioned this to my friends, but they'd cut me off by saying, "You think that way because of your uncleanliness" or "That's karma," which means that whenever any doubts came to mind everything could be blamed on your own uncleanliness. Similarly, all good things were "Thanks to the guru."

MURAKAMI: That's a pretty efficient system. Everything's recycled or brought to a conclusion within the system itself.

I believed it was the path to follow in order to do away with the Self.

At first everyone who joined had very strong wills, but after living in Aum you'd lose that. No matter how dissatisfied you might be with Aum life it was preferable to life outside with its uncleanliness and attachments. Living with a group of like-minded people, it was psychologically easier to stay put.

♥ MURAKAMI: Around 1993 Aum became more violent. Did you sense this was happening?

I did. Sermons increasingly focused on Vajrayana Tantra and more people seemed worked up about the idea that Vajrayana Tantra was about to take place. I couldn't follow the doctrine that the means didn't matter. I didn't feel comfortable with it. Our training started to include some bizarre elements: martial arts became a large part of our daily routine, and I could feel the atmosphere changing. I gave a lot of thought to whether I could continue being in Aum.

..Our training started to include being hung upside-down. Anyone breaking commandments had their legs tried up in chains and they were hung upside down. It doesn't sound like much if you just describe it, but it's torture, plain and simple. The blood drains from your legs and it feels like they're about to be torn off. By breaking commandments I mean anything from breaking the vow of chastity by having relations with a girl, or being suspected of being a spy, or having comic books in your possession... The room where I worked at the time was directly below the Fuji dojo and I could hear these loud screams from above, real shrieks, people yelling, "Kill me! Put me out of my misery!"—the kind of barely human voice wrung out of someone in excruciating pain. Pitiful screams, as if the space there itself was warped and twisted: "Master! Master! Help me!—Ill never do it again!" When I hear them I just shuddered.

I couldn't work out what possible point it could have. But what's weird is that many of the people who were hung upside down like that are still in Aum. 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!"

♥ I was put in solitary confinement. I asked him why, but he didn't answer. That's when I began to wonder what was going on. Training was supposed to be all about reaching salvation, but now it had become a form of punishment.

The solitary-confinement cell was the size of one tatami mat. The door was locked. It was summer, hot all the time, but they had a heater going. I was forced to drink gallons of a special Aum drink in a plastic bottle and sweat it out in the heat. Like they were trying to rid me of something bad. Of course I couldn't take a bath and the grime dripped off me. No toilet, just a chamber pot inside my cell. My head zoned out and I couldn't think straight.

MURAKAMI: It's amazing you didn't die.

It would have been easier if I had, and frankly at the time I think I really wanted to. But you know, when people are put in situations like that they prove remarkably resilient. Most of the people in solitary were wavering in their faith or were no longer useful to Aum. We had no idea when they would let us out. So I told myself, "Okay, I'll use this to my advantage to do some serious training." Keep on complaining and you'll never get out. The only thing to do was think positively, put up with it, then move on.

Part of our daily training consisted of an initiation called Bardo Leading. They'd take you to another room, blindfold you, handcuff your hands behind you, and make you sit up straight. Then they'd bang on a drum, ring a brass bell, and scream in a loud, crazed voice something like "Train! Train! There's no turning back, so we have to do our best!"

One day, though, when they took me over, I was suddenly pinned down by Siha [Takahashi Tomita] and Satoru Hashimoto, and Niimi plugged up my nose and mouth. I couldn't breathe. "You think your superiors are fools, don't you?" they asked me. They were trying to kill me, but I used all my strength and was able to break free. "I've been doing my damnedest," I shouted, "so why are you doing this to me?>" Things settled down after that and I was able to go back to my cell, but I felt I was finished with Aum. How could they treat me like this, I thought, when I was doing my best?

Later I underwent what they called "Christ Initiation" a number of times. This was like an experiment using human beings. Whenever Niimi gave me drugs to take he looked at me like I was a guinea pig. "Drink it!" he said, his voice cold and detached. I saw Jivaka [Seiichi Endo] and Vajira Tissa [Tomomasa Nakagawa] come by to check out the solitary cells. My mind was messed up because of the drugs, but I recalled that quite clearly. They came to see our reaction to the drugs. I realized that the people in solitary were being used in drug experiments. We weren't worth much to them alive, so they must have thought that using us in human experiments was the only way we'd built up spiritual merit. That made me ponder long and hard where fate had led me.

"Can I just die like this?" I wondered. "A guinea pig in a human experiment? If that's my fate then the only way out is to return to the secular world. This is too inhuman, too terrible..." I was shocked, wondering where Aum had gone wrong.

After the drug initiation everyone was dead tired, so the door was left open for as time. I wasn't too zonked out by then so I prepared a change of clothes and after making sure the coast was clear, dressed and crept out of the building. There were guards, but I managed to give them the slip.

[Mr. Masutani borrowed the bus fare from someone he bumped into on the street and returned to his parents' home in Tokyo. A few months after this escape he learned that he had been excommunicated. The reasons given for this, he says, are groundless.]

So that's how I went back to living in the secular world—not because I wanted to live an ordinary life, but because I couldn't follow Aum any longer. The truth is I had nowhere else to go, so I went back to living with my parents. My family was so happy and said, "Thank goodness you're back!" but since I'd lived five years already with no emotional attachments to them it just didn't feel like a family anymore. I could never be satisfied with ordinary life; my parents couldn't understand this, however, so it all fell apart. We began to fight and I moved out.

♥ MURAKAMI: Of course, the individual is free to try to overcome desires and attachments and so on, but from an objective point of view it seems extremely dangerous to allow another, a guru, to take control of your own ego. Are there still many believers or ex-believers who don't recognize this?

I don't think many have thought about it properly. Gautama Buddha said, "The Self is the true master of the Self" and "Keep the Self an island, approaching nothing." In other words, Buddhist disciples practice asceticism in order to find the true Self. They find impurities and attachments, and attempt to extinguish these. But what Mr. Matsumoto [Asahara] did was equate "Self" and "attachments." He said that in order to get rid of the ego, the Self must be disposed of as well. Humans love the "Self," so they suffer, and if the "Self" can be discarded then a shining true Self will emerge. But this is a complete reversal of Buddhist teachings. The Self is what should be discovered, not discarded. Terrorist crimes like the gas attack result from this process of easily giving up on the Self. If the Self is lost, then people will become completely insensitive to murder and terrorism.

In the final analysis, Aum created people who had discarded their selves and just followed orders. Therefore enlightened practitioners in Aum, those most steeped in Aum doctrine, are not truly enlightened people who have mastered the truth. It's a perversion for believers who supposedly have renounced the world to run around collecting donations in the name of "salvation."

I don't believe that Mr. Matsumoto [Asahara] gradually turned strange. He had those ideas in mind from the start. What he did was push them forward in stages.

♥ MURAKAMI: Since you were a freshman in college you spent at least seven years in Aum. Do you feel like that time was lost to you?

No, I don't. I mistake is a mistake, but something of value comes from overcoming that. It can be a turning point in your life.

Some former Aum members have completely discarded the Aum experience and don't read the papers or watch any reports on it. They close their eyes to it, but that doesn't help you learn anything from your mistakes. It's like when you do badly in a test and you really examine where you went wrong. If you don't, the next time you'll make the very same mistake.

~~Hajime Masutani (b. 1969).

Talking to her, I could understand how Aum Shinrikyo was a kind of ideal place. She clearly found ascetic life far more fulfilling than living in ordinary society, where she could find nothing of any spiritual value. Aum was a kind of paradise.

Of course one could view a case like hers—a 16-year-old girl raised in Aum—as a kind of abduction or brainwashing, but I tend to feel, more and more, that having people like her in the world isn't such a bad thing after all. Not everybody has to line up with everybody else, jostling shoulder to shoulder, struggling to make a go of it in "this world," do they? Why shouldn't a few people be able to think deeply about things that aren't directly relevant to society? The problem lies in the fact that Aum Shinrikyo was one of the few havens for such people, and in the end it turned out to be corrupt. Paradise was an illusion.

As we said goodbye I asked her if talking with someone from "this world" for so long would cause some uncleanliness to rub off on her. Perplexed for a moment, she replied, "Logically, that's true." She's a very serious person. She offered me homemade bread, which was light and delici0ous.


~~Miyuki Kanda (b. 1973).

♥ Since it was so small, you were able to meet Shoko Asahara soon after you joined. He was different then, kind of wiry and muscular. Back then he walked with heavy, vigorous strides. You felt something amazing, something awesome in his presence. You could feel this sort of terrifying ability he had to see through everything at a glance. People said, "He's so gentle," but when I first met him he scared me.

♥ Originally in order to be a certified samana [renunciate] you have to donate 1.2 million yen and finish six hundred hours of standing worship, but as they were rushing to get the bookbinding plant up and running, they made an exception for me.

♥ I say things were calm, but actually human relations within the group were fragmented. Usually a leader of a division holds the rank of Master but I was just a swami, a lower rank. I felt pressure from above, at the same time as my subordinates tried to win me over to their viewpoints, so it wasn't easy. For example, in order to study the techniques we had to watch ordinary cartoons, but our leaders said we couldn't. But I had to watch some of them. People would confront me, saying: "The Master forbade this, so why are you watching it?" In other words, our Animation Division was split into two factions: one gave priority to improving the quality of our work, the other gave priority to our training. It got harder and harder to get things done.

Relations between the sexes weren't easy either. There were many cases of men and women getting too close and running off with each other, so Asahara warned in his sermons: "Female samana are not to approach men. Don't just keep your distance, but detest them." I was often singled out for criticism. At any rate it was a pretty brutal atmosphere.

♥ MURAKAMI: You were in Aum Shinrikyo for about six years. Do you ever feel you wasted that time?

No, I don't think it was a waste. I met a lot of people, shared some tough times. It's a good memory for me. It might sound odd to speak of it as fulfilling, but there was a sense of adventure: we didn't know what the next day would bring. When I was given some huge task to do, I felt uplifted because I could focus my energy on it and complete it.

I feel psychologically more at ease now. Of course I have the kinds of troubles ordinary people have, like being disappointed in love. So there are parts that aren't so easy. But hey—that's life. I feel I'm living like ordinary, everyday people now.

It took me a long time to reach this emotional equilibrium: about two years. After I left Aum I was completely lethargic. When I was there I had the strength that came from knowing I was a "practitioner of the truth," which gave me the strength to test myself to the limits. Now I have to use my own powers if I want to do anything. This hit me quite strongly after I left Aum and led to my depression. It wasn't an easy transition.

But what's different is that now I have confidence in myself. When I was in Aum I gained a lot of practical experience, and felt certain that even if things weren't working out there I'd be able to make it on my own. That was a major step for me.

I live in Tokyo now. What gets me through each day are my ex-Aum friends. We think alike, and it helps me know I'm not alone in this hard world.

~~Shin'ichi Hosoi (b. 1965).

♥ At Ishigaki they talked a lot about Armageddon. This was taught to people who'd been in Aum a long time, but people like me, lay members who still lived at home, weren't told the first thing about it. For lay followers who lived at home, what you were taught depended on the amount of money you donated. In my case, they just asked me to attend the seminar without explaining much. It cosy hundreds of thousands of yen. I withdrew my savings to pay for it. By that time I'd begun to wonder if I could go on living as I had been. To attend the seminar I had to ask for time off out of the blue. I made up some story. People were pretty annoyed.

When I got to Ishikagi at first I wondered what was going on, but after a while I thought the way they did things made life easier—they'd give the order and you just did what they said. No need to think for yourself, or worry about every little detail, just do what you're told. We did things like group breathing exercises out on the beach.

There was a kind of unspoken understanding that everyone should become a renunciate, and most of the people who attended did just that, myself included. When you take vows you have to leave home, leave your job, and donate all your money. If I'd been 20 I don't think I would have gone through it it, but at 25 I thought, well, enough's enough.

♥ My relatives have tried to arrange meetings with young men for me so I could find someone to marry. It's about time you got married," they tell me, but I think that people who were in Aum, which has committed such brutal crimes, shouldn't get married. Of course I never committed any crimes myself, I was just doing my own thing as best I could.

Sometimes that makes me sad, though. I dine out with friends or have a good time, but many days I don't do anything and just come back here by myself. When I saw the fireworks last summer—with crowds of people enjoying the show—and me all alone—it made me cry. I'm over that now, though.

There were a lot of very appealing people in Aum. Completely different from the people I've known in the outside world. Relationships in society are always so... superficial, but in Aum we all lived together in one place, almost like a family.

I love children. My younger sister's children are adorable, but for me to get married, have a family, children—it's difficult, having been a member of Aum. When I think about talking about my Aum background on a date, I don't think I could... A big factor has got to be the fact that my own family was so dysfunctional. People raised in happy families probably wouldn't join Aum.

~~Harumi Iwakura (b. 1965).

♥ When you're young you have all kinds of idealistic notions in your head, but coming face-to-face with the realities of your own life makes you see how immature you are. I felt very frustrated.

To free myself, to make a fresh start, I poked my nose into all sorts of things, hoping to find the energy I needed to live. Life is full of suffering, and the contradictions in the real world irked me. To escape these, I imagined my own sort of utopian society, which made it easier for me to be taken in by a religious group that espoused a similar vision.

When the Aum question comes up, people always start talking about relations between parents and children going sour, and family discord, but it can't be reduced to something so simplistic. Certainly one of the attractions of Aum lay in people's frustrations with reality and unrest of the family, but a much more important factor lies in apocalyptic feelings of "the end of the word," feelings all of us have about the future. If you pay attention to the universal feeling of all of us, all Japanese—all humankind, even—then you can't explain Aum's appeal to so many people by saying it's all based on discord in the family.

♥ MURAKAKI: Somehow the words "decline" or "collapse" seem to hit the mark more than "the end."

Maybe so, but remember that when I was at school Nostradamus's Prophecies became famous, and that sense that "The End Is Nigh" wedged itself deep into my consciousness through the mass media. And I wasn't the only one to feel like that. I don't want this to deteriorate into some simplistic theory about "my generation," but I feel very strongly that all Japanese at that time had the idea drilled into them of 1999 being the end of the world. Aum renunciates have already accepted, inside themselves, the end of the world, because when they become a renunciate, they discard themselves totally, thereby abandoning the world. In other words, Aum is a collection of people who have accepted the end. People who continue to hold out hope for the near future still have an attachment to the world. If you have attachments, you won't discard your Self, but for renunciates it's as if they've leaped right off a cliff. And taking a giant leap like that feels good. They lose something—but gain something in return.

Therefore the idea of "the End" is one of the axes around which Aum Shinrikyo revolved. "Armageddon's coming, so become a renunciate," they urged, "donate all your money to Aum"—and of course that became their source of income.

♥ MURAKAMI: There's one thing I don't understand. When I did my interview with victims of the gas attack, several of them told me that, based on their experience working for companies, if they had been in Aum and been ordered to release the sarin they might well have done it. But you were actually in Aum, yet say you'd have run away from it. Why is that?

Saying I'd run away might be less than honest. If I really search my heart I can say that if Murai had told me to do it, most likely I would have run away. However, if Yoshihiro Inoue had said to me, "Hidetoshi, this is part of salvation," and passed me the bag with the sarin in it, I would have been very perplexed. If he'd told me to come with him, I might have done so. In other words, it comes down to a question of ties between individuals.

Murai was my boss, but he was cold and too far above me. If he'd told me to do it I would have asked him why, and if he'd insisted and said, "It's a dirty job but it's for the sake of Aum and I really want you to do it," I like to think that I would have hidden my true feelings, said okay, and then, at the last minute, found a way to get out of it. Like [Ken'ichi] Hirose, who wavered and got off the train. I think I would have struggled over what I should do, but in the end would have found a way out.

But something about Inoue captivated me. He felt a strong sense of religious duty. If I'd seen him agonizing over the situation, I think I would have done anything to help out. He was a great influence on me. So if he'd pushed me, saying this was a mission only we could carry out, I might very well have gone along. I would have been operating on a different plane. What I mean is, in the final analysis, logic doesn't play a strong role in people's motivations. I doubt if the ones who did it were even capable of thinking logically when they were given the order to release the sarin. They didn't have the presence of mind, got caught up in events, panicked, and did what they were told. No one who had the strength to think logically about it would have carried it out. In extreme cases of guru-ism individuals' value systems are completely wiped out. In situations like that people just don't have the mental stamina to connect their actions with the deaths of many people.

♥ But you know, I think I'm a pretty stubborn person, a trait all Aum followers share. Thus stubborn insistence on things that don't really matter to anyone else as we press on with our mission. Also, focusing like that you get a sense of fulfillment. And Aum was able to take full advantage of this. That's why they made you train so hard. The harder the training, the greater the sense of fulfillment.

♥ No matter what special spin Aum might put on its idea of Armageddon, I don't think it can compete with the Christian idea of the Apocalypse. It's absorbed into the Christian idea. That's why you can't really explain these Aum-related incidents by looking only at the core of what makes up Aum—namely, Buddhism and Tibetan esoteric religion.

Earlier I said that I don't think that an apocalyptic vision is confined to myself as an individual; what I meant was that, whether you're Christian or not, we all inevitably bear the same apocalyptic fate.

MURAKAMI: To tell the truth, I don't really understand what you've been calling an apocalyptic vision. But I have the feeling that, if that vision is to have any kind of meaning at all, it has to lie in how you internally deconstruct it.

You're absolutely right, Apocalypse is not some set idea, but more of a process. After an apocalyptic vision there's always a purging or purifying process that takes place. In this sense 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. Not that the Aum incident got rid of everything. There's still this suppressed, viruslike apocalyptic vision that's invading society and hasn't been erased or digested.

Even if you could get rid of it at an individual level, the virus would remain on a social level.

MURAKAMI: You talk about society as a whole, but in the so-called secular world, ordinary people—by which I mean people who maintain a relative balance in their lives—deconstruct that kind of viruslike apocalyptic vision, as you put it, in their own way, and naturally substitute something else for it. Don't you think so?

Yes, it does come down to a process of deconstruction. Something like that has absolutely got to take place. Shoko Asahara couldn't deconstruct it, and lost out to apocalyptic ideas. And that's why he had to create a crisis on his own. The apocalyptic vision of Shoko Asahara—as a religious figure—was defeated by an even greater vision.

I've been trying hard to come to terms with these Aum-related incidents. I go to the trial as often as I can. But when I see and hear Asahara at the trial I feel as though he's making an idiot out of me. I get nauseated, and actually vomited once. It's a sad and dreary feeling. Sometimes I think it's not worth watching, but I still can't take my eyes off him. No matter how grotesque a figure Asahara appears, I can't just dismiss him. We should never forget that, if even for a short time, this person named Shoko Asahara functioned in the world and brought about these tragic events. Unless I overcome the "Aum Shinrikyo Incident" inside me, I'll never be able to move on.

~~Hidetoshi Takahashi (b. 1967).

♥ However, as I went thorough the process of interviewing these Aum members and former members, one thing I felt quite strongly was that it wasn't in spite of being part of the elite that they went in that direction, but precisely because they were part of the elite.

Perhaps the entity called Aum Shinrikyo resembles pre-World War II Manchuria. Japan established the puppet state of Manchuria in 1932, and in the same way, the best and brightest—the cutting-edge technocrats, technicians, and scholars—gave up the lives promised them in Japan and went off to the continent they saw as so full of possibilities. For the most part they were young, extremely talented, and well educated, their heads full of newly minted, ambitious visions. As long as they stayed in the Japanese state, with its coercive structure, they believed it was impossible to find an effective outlet for all their energy. And that's exactly why they sought out this more accommodating, experimental land, even if it meant jumping off the normal track. In that sense alone they had pure motives, and were idealistic, filled with a sense of purpose. As far as they were concerned, they were proceeding down the "proper path."

The problem is that something very vital was lacking. Now we can look back and see what was missing was a properly three-dimensional historical sense, or, on a more concrete level, an identity between language and actions. Such glib, prettified slogans as "The Five Races Living in Harmony" and "The Whole World Under One Roof" began to take on an independent existence, while in the background the inevitable moral vacuum that resulted was buried in the bloody realities of the time. In the end these ambitious technocrats were swallowed up in the terrible whirlwind of history.

Since the whole Aum Shinrikyo affair took placer so recently, it is still too early to pin down exactly what was lacking in this case. However, in a broad sense what I've said about this "Manchuria-like" situation can be applied to Aum: the lack of a broad world vision, and the alienation between language and actions that results from this.

I'm sure each member of the Science and Technology elite had his own personal reasons for renouncing the world and joining Aum. What they all had in common, though, was a desire to put the technical skill and knowledge they'd acquired in the service of a more meaningful goal. They couldn't help having grave doubts about the inhumane, utilitarian gristmill of capitalism and the social system in which their own essence and efforts—even their own reasons for being—would be fruitlessly ground down.

♥ Reading Ikuo Hayashi's notes, we are often forced to stop and think, and ask ourselves such simple questions as: "Why did he have to end up where he did?" At the same time, we're seized by a sense of impotence, knowing that there was nothing we could have done to stop him. You feel strangely sad. What makes you feel emptiest of all is the knowledge that it is those who should be most critical of our "utilitarian society" who use the "utility of logic" as a weapon and end up slaughtering masses of people.

But at the same time who would ever think, "I'm an unimportant little person, and if I end up just a cog in society's system, gradually worn down until I die, hey—that's okay"? More or less all of us want answers to the reason why we're living on this earth, and why we die and disappear. We shouldn't criticize a sincere attempt to find answers. Still, this is precisely the point where a kind of fatal mistake can be made. The layers of reality begin to be distorted. The place that was promised, you suddenly realize, has changed into something different from what you're looking for. As Mark Strand puts it in his poem: "The mountains are not mountains anymore; the sun is not the sun."

In order that a second, and a third Ikuo Hayashi don't crop up, it is critical for our society to stop and consider, in all their ramifications, the questions brought to the surface so tragically by the Tokyo gas attack. Most people have put this incident behind them. "That's over and done with," they say. "It was a major incident, but with the culprits all arrested it's wrapped up and doesn't have anything more to do with us." However, we need to realize that most of the people who join cults are not abnormal; they're not disadvantaged; they're not eccentrics. They are the people who live average lives (and maybe from the outside, more than average lives), who live in my neighborhood. And in yours.

Maybe they think about things a little too seriously. Perhaps there's some pain they're carrying around inside. They're not good at making their feelings known to others and are somewhat troubled. They can't find a suitable means to express themselves, and bounce back and forth between feelings of pride and inadequacy. That might very well be me. It might be you.

~~from Afterword.
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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