JPRI Critique Vol. VIII No. 1 (January 2001)
Haruki Murakami and the Tokyo Gas Attack
by Murray Sayle

Most countries would need a lot to upstage a natural disaster that took 5,000 lives, but not Japan. The Great Kobe Earthquake of January 17, 1995, is already half-forgotten; the Sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, two months later, that killed twelve and put hundreds in hospital, has rarely been out of the Japanese media or consciousness since.

The subway attack was, so far, unique. It not only alarmed the five million or so daily users of the Tokyo subway and the inhabitants of other big cities around the world; worse, it roused memories of a brutal war, fire raids, and atomic bombs, the barbarous past a now peaceful and still prosperous Japan thought was gone forever. Yet surprisingly little has been written about the Tokyo subway horror. Japan has many able journalists, but none has seen fit to tackle in any depth their most sensational story since Hiroshima. Instead, a fashionable and commercially successful Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami, has written two books on the subject, Andaguraundo and Yakusoku sareta basho de, both big sellers in Japan, now translated into English and bound together as Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel (London: The Harvill Press, 2000, £20, 309 pp., not yet available in the United States).

Murakami seems out of his depth in trying to understand what the guru of the Aum Shinrikyo was all about, and why so many bright young people have followed him, some, quite possibly, as far as the gallows. But his effort is interesting just the same and gives us many clues to his own question: What exactly is going on in Japan?

Who is Murakami?

Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949, the only child of two lecturers in Japanese literature. As a form of rebellion, he says, he refused to read the Japanese classics. Instead, when his parents moved to the port city of Kobe, he discovered used-book shops stacked with American paperbacks. He mostly read hard-boiled detective stories by Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, later moving on to Scott Fitzgerald and Truman Capote. "They provided a small window in the wall of my room through which I could look out onto a foreign landscape, a fantasy world," he recalls.

Murakami was a teenager in the 1960's. By the time he was 25, in 1974, he was running a Tokyo jazz and coffee bar called Peter Rabbit and like a good host was listening to his customers, mostly a shade younger than himself. The last cause in which young Japanese have showed even a flicker of interest, "Crush the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty," ran out of steam with the treaty's renewal in 1970. With unemployment close to zero and hunger not even a memory, Japan's good times had started to roll, and Chandler's world-- jazz, coffee, hamburgers, wise-cracking babes, and fast cars-- seemed, thirty years late, to have come to earth in New Japan.

Murakami wrote nothing until he was 29, when his novel, Hear The Wind Sing, won a minor literary prize. Two years later he closed Peter Rabbit and has written full-time, with enviable, not to say astonishing financial success ever since. His 1987 novel Norwegian Wood (titled for the Beatles song that runs through the nameless narrator's head) sold four million copies in Japan, and several of his other string of hits have topped a million. Sales on this scale suggest sociological rather than literary forces at work. Murakami is one of the handful of writers who have made it big at a time of a pronounced generational changeover, usually after wars. His model, Scott Fitzgerald, hit a similar jackpot with the now unreadable This Side of Paradise (1920) about the lives of students at Princeton. Noel Coward did much the same with his plays I'll Leave It To You (1920) and The Vortex (1924).

The selling point of these commercial coups has been the same. Young people believe that their generation is special, utterly unlike any that went before, and they flock to buy a writer who speaks their own language. Their parents buy the books in an attempt to understand their offspring. Murakami's characters are all young. They have few names, or none-- in one story everyone including the cat is called Noboru Watanabe (i.e., John Smith). They have neither parents nor children and, if they work at all, it is in new un-Japanese trades like advertising and PR. They have no religion, family, or social concerns. Far from working for Honda, they drive a Mercedes Benz. Murakami's books have no coherent story lines, because young people never seem interested in how a situation will end, or a life will work out. Reality blurs, thoughts derail, scenes intercut, just like on TV (or in Chandler). Murakami has followed foreign fashion with the now dated spice-up for bland writing, "magical realism." Like the child in most of us, he has a thing about smoke-filled tunnels where, in one story, aliens called INKlings breed under Tokyo, no one above ground knowing they are there.

The Underground Gas Attack

Murakami thus stood where many another novelist has been, or would have liked to have been, before him-- rich, famous, bored, getting on for fifty, fast running out of material-- when, on March 20, 1995, an utterly uninventable event convulsed Japan, and incidentally showed up magical realism for what it is, bookish daydreaming. Murakami had taken no interest in the earthquake and conflagration that ravaged his boyhood home, Kobe, two months earlier. We can guess why: too boringly old-style Japanese, not magical enough. Aum Shinrikyo's nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in the morning rush hour was another story, all the more disorienting because it confirmed what Murakami was beginning to fear: that he really knew very little about his own country. Around 8 a.m. that morning five two-man Aum teams in business suits boarded different crowded trains, all timed to converge at Kasumigaseki, the deepest underground station and the hub of the Tokyo system, which also happens to be closest to parliament, police headquarters, and major ministries-- a scientifically efficient commando raid, at least in planning, on the control centers of the Japanese government.

Aboard the trains the fake businessmen, more terrifying in their ordinariness than any dreamed-up aliens, dropped parcels wrapped in newspaper, prodded them with the sharpened tips of umbrellas they carried (on a rainless day) and got off at the next stop. Within minutes Japanese and world TV, the realistic magic of our time, was showing scenes from a waking nightmare. People came stumbling out of the subway exits, retching, choking, and falling on the grass outside. Underground, some fought to get off the trains while others, fearful of being late for work, fought to get on. Above ground, emergency vehicles stalled in already clogged traffic. As in Hiroshima half a century earlier, no one knew what was causing all this, only that it was something out of science's latest shop of horrors. Gas of some kind, seemingly; but what? And why?

Fire crews in gas masks descended into the subway; then soldiers of the Ground Self Defense Force in capes and goggles to swab out the trains, the first time Japanese servicemen had been in harm's way in Tokyo since the 1945 fire raids. In a day of things never seen before, Japanese and then others learned how pathetically vulnerable our great cities, that seem so safe, are to high-tech assailants who know their chemistry.

By his own account none of this made much of an impact on Murakami, immersed in his then invariable daily routine of writing, jogging ten kilometers, writing, swimming, writing, and going to bed early. Only later, he recounts, he saw a letter in a magazine from a woman whose husband, injured in the subway attack, had not fully regained his energy, had been cold-shouldered by his boss and colleagues because he wasn't quite like them anymore, and felt obliged to resign. "How could Japanese society perpetrate such a double violence?" he asks, and soon after he decided to interview the survivors of the attack, with interesting results.

Unlike many celebrities who try journalism (one notorious example, Alexander Solzhenytsin, banished guests from his Russian TV talk show because they kept interrupting him), Murakami is a good listener who keeps his questions short and general. Nights behind the bar at Peter Rabbit probably helped. His resulting portrait of ordinary, workaday Japan breaks new ground and may point the way to the Emile Zola or John Dos Passos Japan has yet to produce-- perhaps even to Murakami himself.

Murakami takes us into a city of Japanese with jobs, kids, and debts, utterly unlike the empty characters of his fiction. He talks to clerks, shop assistants, computer engineers, printers, "office ladies"-- people with nothing in common except the need to get to work. He discovers spontaneous heroism and devotion to duty, very Japanese, among everyday, taken-for-granted people-- the assistant stationmaster at Kasumigaseki who died dragging the parcels of Sarin out of a carriage with his bare hands, a ticket collector fatally gassed helping victim after victim to safety. Murakami found no Aum sympathizers among the victims, who had barely heard of the cult and made wild guesses at what the motive of the attack might be: "people are too assertive in Tokyo these days," "children are not taught to respect human life," and similar explanations just as wide of the mark.

After the first dozen or so, the victims' accounts do get monotonous: strange smell, panic, confusion, vision slowly fading to black as the gas affects the optic nerves-- an eerie reprise of Murakami's sci-fi fantasies about dark tunnels under Tokyo but telling us nothing about Aum or its guru. The editors of Bungei Shunju , where this account was first published, seem to have thought much the same, and therefore invited Murakami to do a second set of interviews with members and ex-members of the Aum sect. These ran in the magazine in 1998 and make up the second half of the book.

Why Did They Do It?

This second part is far weaker but illuminating in its own way. The guru himself, Shoko Asahara, was already in prison, along with the rest of the Aum leadership, except for one who had been killed by a Korean hit-man, and were thus unavailable for interview. Two years late, Murakami could find only Aum small fry, defectors and backsliders, but even with them his self-effacing interview technique buckled, and he did more talking. He found it hard to believe that a religion supposedly teaching a reverence for life could so cold-bloodedly set about killing people. But Aum joined basic Buddhism to an apocalyptic vision, derived from Judeo-Christianity and Nostradamus, that current society must be destroyed before universal enlightenment can be achieved.

Entry-level Aum preached a basic, bare-bones Buddhism to the disillusioned young of Japan-- a doctrine that has been attracting seekers bored with sensual pleasure for 2,500 years, beginning with Prince Gautama Siddhartha, the future Buddha himself, and no doubt including some of the vapid characters of Murakami's novels. There is a spiritual vacuum, a hunger for something more meaningful than affluence in the current Japanese generation that remembers neither the false religion of wartime nationalism nor the grinding postwar struggle for a decent life. By his own account Murakami himself feels this hunger, hence his middle-aged turn to real life and its literary form, journalism. Many of the young seekers who came to Aum had scientific qualifications-- science being no more satisfying a religion than nationalism for those who need one.

The guru himself, however, had political ambitions; a lust for worldly power frustrated by his half-blindness and consequent semi-literacy. Declaring himself fully enlightened and thus free of all restraints, he sought out the scientists among his followers to put them in his inner command, where they listened transfixed as he described the monstrous conspiracy he alone had detected of Jews, Freemasons, the CIA, the British royal family, and the Japanese government, who had begun war on Aum by triggering the great Kobe earthquake, against whom Aum's only defense was a preemptive strike with nerve gas. Pathological doctrines jerry-built on a slender base of fact have misled many trusting young minds in our time, and not only in East Asia. Murakami is right to worry about the rumblings from the real, underground Japan he unknowingly stumbled across.

MURRAY SAYLE has been based in Japan since 1975. His account of the theology of Aum and of its guru Shoko Asahara, "Nerve Gas and the Four Noble Truths," was published in The New Yorker of April 1, 1996. A longer version of this review will appear in The Australian Review of Books for February, 2001.


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