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


title: Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Underground  [support an independent bookseller and buy at Strand]
by: Haruki Murakami
genre: nonfiction (interviews)
pages: 366
published: 1997, 1998, translated to English in 2000
source: my personal library

Murakami begins his short story collection, After the Quake, with the following quote from Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou:

“radio:…garrison already decimated by the Vietcong, who lost 115 of their men…

woman: It’s awful, isn’t it, it’s so anonymous.

man: What is?

woman:  They say 115 guerillas, yet it doesn’t mean anything, because we don’t know anything about these men, who they are, whether they love a woman, or have children, if they prefer the cinema to the theatre. We know nothing.  They just say…115 dead.”

One of the themes that pervades Murakami’s work is the examination of the individual and the search for their inherent humanity.  No character is either good or bad, but complex and multifaceted and capable of both great compassion and great indifference.  Given this, it didn’t surprise me that Murakami was drawn to examine the events and people involved in and affected by the Tokyo gas attack.

The book is actually two linked pieces collected in one place. The first 2/3 of the book, Underground, was published first separately, and is comprised of a series of meticulously transcribed interviews Murakami conducted with the victims and survivors of the 1995 sarin attack perpetrated by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult on the commuters on Tokyo’s bustling subway system. Murakami spent hours interviewing, transcribing and editing the testimony of those caught up in the terrifying events of the day, and really succeeds in creating a full, vivid picture of what transpired. Interview subjects range from commuters from various walks of life to the dedicated subway workers who handled the sarin as they did their best to protect the Japanese public from the mysterious invisible toxin. What I appreciated about Murakami’s interview style was the extreme care he took in both selecting his subjects and in recording their testimonies. He comes from the very human place of trying to make sense something that he knows really defies understanding, and approaches all involved with respect and humility.

The last third of the book, The Place That Was Promised, examines current (well, current when the book was first published) and former members of Aum. Murakami is correct in asserting that we can’t truly understand an event so complicated without attempting to look at it from all sides, even if (especially if) it’s uncomfortable. He interviews both cult members close to the Leader, Shoko Asahara, and those who had not yet worked their way up into his most trusted inner circle, to discern the impact of the cults horrific actions on members at all levels.  Many claim to have no knowledge that the attacks had been planned, but most admit that they believe in Aum Shinrikyo’s involvement.  What’s fascinating is the varied, complex feelings those interviewed still have of the cult and its teachings, and the narrative Murakami was able to pull together reflects this complexity.

In an era where the news media is all too focused on painting with the widest brush, with spinning a specific story as opposed to seeking out and sharing the full picture, it’s refreshing to read an account of events that aims at something higher though far more complicated: the truth.

Rubric rating:   9       I LOVE Murakami and hope that one of these days, he’ll take home the Nobel that he has absolutely earned 🙂


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