15
Sep
11

How the little details make the big picture: Haruki Murakami’s Underground

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

Last Sunday was the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Like any good patriot, I spent the day watching NFL. On ESPN NFL Countdown, between previews for the day’s games, former Jets coach Herm Edwards talked about where he was for the attacks.
The thing about a defining moment like 9/11 is how everybody has a history with it, a 9/11 story of their own. I heard about the attacks hours after they happened, since my high school didn’t think it appropriate to interrupt classes to inform the students. My friend Eric watched them happen live on TV, skipping classes to watch coverage. I’m sure you have your own.
Hearing people tell their own 9/11 stories on television on Sunday and talking to my friends about that day reminded me of a book I read a few months ago, Haruki Murakami’s Underground, a book about the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. The two attacks themselves aren’t really comparable, nor are their consequences, but what they left on the common person – the nightmares, fears, stress disorders – are strikingly similar.
This book takes an unconventional approach to remembering an urban terror attack. It’s an oral history of the attack, but it never gets into the why and how. It’s more about the what from that day: what happened before people got on the train, what happened when they started smelling a foul odor and what’s happened since.
Originally published in Japan as two different books, Underground has been translated, abridged end edited together for North American release. The first deals with those effected by the attack, the second on those involved with doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo. Both are compelling reading.
For the first book, author Haruki Murakami doesn’t speak to experts in terrorism, to officials from the police or Japanese SDF. He talks to the people who were on the ground – underground, as it were – that day. Their stories about the attack are all so similar they begin to sound like a chorus detailing the problems of their society: overcrowded trains, overworked subway staff and eventually, an overwhelmed emergency system.
Aum used sarin for the attacks, a gas 26 times as deadly as cyanide. The gas sent over 5,500 people to hospitals, shut down Tokyo’s busy subway system and overwhelmed hospitals, police and other emergency workers. Twelve people eventually died from the attacks. It was the second time Aum attacked using sarin, but it took authorities hours to realize what was happening, mostly thanks to a population bent on going to work; it not only made it harder to treat those already sick, but helped spread the poison with their soaked clothing.
Like Kurosawa’s Rashomon, the differences between each story are slight, but telling: in one memorable section, Murakami interviews three people involved in drove a sick man to a hospital – the sick man, a television reporter and her driver -and while each has the big parts of the story in common, the details change in each telling. As I learned back in J-School, memory is not a very reliable thing.
But what the stories have in common are stunning. So many of the details – crowded trains, subway gropers, long and unpaid overtime hours spent at work – repeat themselves over and over and over. Through sheer repitation, Murakami paints a picture not only of what went wrong that day, but of what’s wrong with his society.
The second half of the book is a stranger, more intrusive beast. Here, Murakami interviews people from Aum; some still active in the cults later form, others who left the sect at various points. These interviews are more fascinating than the first half, showing the inner workings of the cult and an inside look at those responsible for the attacks. More importantly, they show the kind of person drawn to Aum: young, disassociated from life, depressed.
The picture of Aum veers wildly depending on who’s talking: some talk about how the cult solved problems for them, others of how they were drugged with LSD, tortured and blackmailed by the cult. Take this account, from a girl who may have been involved with Aum leader Shoko Asahara:
Murakami: Was there any kind of reaction because you refused to have a physical relationship with Asahara?
Iwakura: I don’t know. I lost my memory… I underwent electroshock. I still have the scars from the electricity right here. I remember things up to the time I entered the Dubbing Division, but after that it’s a blank. I have no idea at what point, and for what reason my memory was erased. I asked people all around me but no one would tell me. All they’d say was “It seems you and a certain someone were getting to a dangerous point… It’s been erased so we can’t talk about it.”
All forced to live and work in closed communal communities, shut off from the outside world – and from dissenting thought. Asahara turned his cult against the outside, using paranoia, thuggary and brainwashing to keep them in line.
As a whole, Underground is a unique book, functioning as an oral history of both the attack and of the cult that carried it out. It’s a good book, but I think it’s a little specialized, too. Aum’s background and it’s previous attack are only briefly mentioned by the author (the translators have added a few notes) and readers may have to do a little research on their own to get a wider, more journalistic view of the attacks and their aftermath.
However remote the attacks may seem, Underground succeeds in it’s aim of showing the human side of the tragedy.  I found the experiences Murakami reports striking, especially as I read them over again for this review in light of the 9/11 anniversary. This is especially true when writes of the sensational journalism that followed the attack. “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.” By avoiding formulas, and focusing on the people, Murakami has created the definitive look at the attacks.
Recommended for anybody interested in the topic or in modern Japanese society and especially for fans of Murakami’s fiction.
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