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Author Irene Kim Jun  
Date 2002  
Media Jade Magazine  
  Between the Covers

Haruki Murakami's nonfiction book, Underground, focuses on the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo cult gas attacks in Tokyo's subway. Even in this nonfiction genre, Murakami is so true to his surrealist writing style (see the September/October 2001 issue for review of Murakami's fictional work, A Wild Sheep Chase), that it is easy to forget that the nonsensical events that took place in Japan was not a product of a hyperactive, if not twisted, imagination. Underground was published as two books when first released in Japan. Part one was comprised of interviews with sarin victims (the poison used in the attack and described as "a nerve gas invented by German scientists in the 1930s as part of Hitler's preparation for WW II ...


Twenty-six times as deadly as cyanide gas, a drop of sarin the size of a pinhead is sufficient to kill a person") and their families. Part two was a collection of interviews with members and ex-members of the Aum cult. By bringing these two books together, startling similarities between the victims and the perpetrators slowly emerge and the distinct elements of the Japanese psyche is revealed. Murakami begins his book with a map of the Tokyo subway system. He organizes his book, as mentioned above, into two parts: victims and cult members. He further divides it into categories by subway lines and by the passengers who rode the poisoned trains. Though these passengers are a random sampling of the Japanese population at large, a theme becomes apparent, and that is the randomness of life. Understandably, these victims express a deep sense of regret. Their sorrow, however, is not for the actual act of terrorism itself. Instead, their regret stems from the realization that their bad fate could have been easily avoided had they not been on a toxic train.

One chapter opens with the headline "Looking back, it all started because the bus was two minutes early." Another victim recalls, "The night before the gas attack, the family was saying over dinner 'My, how lucky we are.'" Each victim uses "luck" to explain why they were "chosen" on Monday, March 20, 1995 and their feelings of helplessness to the capricious forces of nature and their resignation to it is felt. The members of Aum Shinrikyo are just as diverse as their victims. However, they, too, have many unifying traits. The first being that they all fall prey to the insanity of one "guru," Shoko Asahara. Five Aum leaders were ordered to drop bags of sarin wrapped in newspaper and pierce the bags with sharpened umbrella tips to release the noxious fumes. A second similarity is that many of Aum's followers are members of the intelligentsia.
Therefore, Murakami asks the question: "Is the Japanese educational system fatally flawed?" Murakami, in an afterward that adeptly analyzes his interviews, states that it is not the educational system that breeds lunacy. Rather, the impetus behind the madness is more innate. The members of the cult all chose to relinquish the comforts of the normal world to seek a more noble cause. In effect, each and every one of them became mini-martyrs, but for themselves. Murakami writes, "We shouldn't criticize a sincere attempt to find answers...Still...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." This statement caused me to wonder if Murakami also embraces the notion of this elusive and shifting reality. Even though this novel is a compilation of transcribed interviews, the "speaking" style of his nonfictional characters is very similar to his fictional ones and their outlook on life. There are other similarities between the victims and their terrorists, and perhaps this trait can be expanded to the general Japanese population. Both parties show a perverse stoicism that is almost unbelievable. Though something is clearly not right on the subway lines, reaction to the dramatic events is slow.

Even as passengers begin to faint, foam at the mouth, and eventually die, the passenger attempts to fulfill their morning goal, whether it is to go to work, lead a presentation, or run errands. Nothing, not even poisonous gas, can mentally derail them from what they had planned for the day. One man, though "in pain... still bought my milk as usual." The members of Aum, as well, suffered mental and physical torture to achieve their goal. Though many of them expressed the desire to leave the cult, most of them stayed in hopes of reaching the enlightenment that they craved and to fulfill the goal they set out to achieve. Underground is a book that I will need to read again to fully understand. Though upon first reading, the interviews seem like variations on the same theme, there are many nuances that I am sure were missed. It is truly a profound look into the Japanese psyche from people, victims and perpetrators alike, who were forced to quickly re-evaluate their motives for living
Author Tom LeClair  
Date May 2001  
Media Book Magazine  
  Colliding Worlds

Haruki Murakami is one of Japan's most popular and respected novelists, a writer who has been likened to Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. On the basis of Murakami's two new books—Underground, a nonfiction account of the 1995 poison-gas assault on the Tokyo subway by a religious cult, and Sputnik Sweetheart, a metaphysical novel about a missing woman—the comparison to DeLillo is apt. Like the author of Underworld, Murakami investigates terror and longing, even terror as a way to some longed-for spiritual other side. And like DeLillo, Murakami writes accessible works that eschew Pynchonian arcana.
Underground combines two of the author's earlier projects: a set of interviews with survivors of the sarin attack in Japan and later interviews with mostly former members of the religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo, that sent five men into the subway system with sharpened umbrellas to puncture plastic bags of deadly gas, killing twelve and injuring 3,000 or more others. Like a detective novel, Underground starts fast with murder and then slowly, methodically reveals the perpetrators.

The first interviews are with transit workers, several of whom risked their lives and damaged their health to save passengers. These early anecdotes are vivid (frothing mouths, utter mystification), appropriately different in perspective (no one comes to an agreement on the odor of sarin) and authentic in the interviewees' often limited verbal resources. Both early and later interviews detail the usually gradual and increasingly terrifying onset of symptoms&3151;a darkening of vision, difficulty breathing, nausea, overwhelming fatigue.
Novelist that he is, Murakami tries to individualize the speakers, but the few pages he allows each of the sixty concentrate on recall of actions. As the interviews accumulate, two common features of character emerge that surprise Murakami: how many people tried to work the day they were gassed and how many were ignorant about Aum, both before and after the attack. To answer lingering questions and to counteract media sensationalism, Murakami tracked down people who were once members of Aum. This section of the book is, oddly, more compelling than the survivors' narratives, partly because those stories of symptoms and escape become repetitive. The Aum speakers are highly individualized, often eccentric and obsessively articulate. They get more space and, I believe, are more interesting to the novelist than the victims.

Like Murakami, the cultists renounced the "salaryman" system of Japan and lived for and through fiction-making—in their case, the writings of their guru, Shoko Asahara, who invented a religion out of esoteric Buddhism, the prophecies of Nostradamus and his own charisma. As DeLillo has a character argue in Mao II, terrorists have replaced novelists in our time, possessing their power to affect a culture. While Murakami does little editorializing, it's clear that the intense religious longings of Aum members are set up against the existence of these underground, sleepwalking commuters who have sacrificed themselves to a packed and rushed world, where business has become a cult. Interestingly, Aum members gave themselves to an equally demanding cult that became a business—before they started killing people to hasten the end of the underground world.

One senses that the two worlds are closer in the jammed space and monolithic culture of Japan than in the United States, yet sarin survivors were amazed that terror could happen here. Murakami shows that his fellow citizens ignored evidence that no ground is safe. With the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Americans have our own incontrovertible evidence. Yet Underground may be a necessary reminder, as well as a fascinating and often moving cultural study, of how easily and abruptly one world can penetrate another.

Author Clay Risen  
Date 2002  
Media Flak Magazine  
  Colliding Worlds

Japanese writers have a tough time breaking into the American market, for no explicable reason. Shusaku Endo, despite grappling with themes such as faith, family and Christianity — themes hardly foreign to Western audiences — was never more than a blip on the screens of serious American and European critics. Kenzaburo Oe, despite winning the Nobel Prize, barely registers with even the most well-informed readers over here.

Haruki Murakami is intent on changing that. Murakami, already a prolific writer in his native language, has been heavily translated into English as of late, with the appearance of two short stories in the New Yorker over the last 6 months and the publication of two novels within a year — "Norwegian Wood" last year and "Sputnik Sweetheart" later this month. He recently held a writer-in-residence post at Princeton. He is outspoken about his love for all things American, and all his novels make heavy use of American pop cultural themes.

However, Murakami's latest effort — "Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche" — is not likely to help him in his quest. The book is a compendium of 42 first-person accounts of the attack, accounts ranging from station attendants, passengers and family members to various members of cult behind the attack, and they are delivered without interruption or authorial direction. At first interesting, the stories begin to run together, and completing the book could prove tedious for anyone but the most dedicated Nipponophile.

The gas attack was carried out on March 20, 1995 by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, a shadowy organization whose leader, Shoko Asahara, had declared a pre-emptive strike against what he saw as a materialistic society bent on destroying spirituality. Aum teams struck seven different subway lines, all of them by dropping bags of liquid sarin — a deadly nerve gas developed during World War I — wrapped in newspaper and then puncturing them with sharpened umbrella tips. 12 people died and hundreds were injured, many suffering long-term nerve damage. Dozens of Aum members were arrested and tried; four of the assailants were sentenced to death, along with three members of the leadership. Asahara is still in trial.
Murakami writes in the preface that the motivation to write "Underground" came from what he saw as the failure of the Japanese media to cover the story from the perspective of the Japanese public, preferring instead to focus on the weird world of the Aum cult. "The average citizen … was almost an afterthought," he writes. For him, such myopia is endemic of a culture afraid to admit its own neuroses; Murakami wants "Underground" to show that the attack wasn't some freak crime perpetrated by outsiders, but the result of forces working within Japanese society.

Murakami's interviews reveal a Japan populated by lonely, alienated people, people locked into a massive industrial society yet at the same time cut loose from family and tradition by the juggernaut of modernization that swept over the country in the post-WWII era. It is a theme that appears in most of his books, and its expression in these real-life accounts should gain Murakami respect as a social critic as well as a writer.

"Underground" gives a keen insight into a culture most Westerners are never able to penetrate. But to get there, one has to wade though dozens of personal accounts, accounts that at times vary only in the age and occupation of the narrator. By the fifth or sixth account of the Chiyoda Line attack (which often differ in no more than the occupation of the witness and minute variations in the individual stories), for example, the reader is begging for Murakami to step in, to break things off and get to the point.

Needless to say, "Underground" was read much differently in Japan; its resonance resembled the collection of the hundreds of personal accounts flowing from the Oklahoma City bombing. The attack was the kind of deep social wound that a book can do so much to salve, and yet is at the same time so complex, so bound up between personal disaster and social tragedy, that it is impossible for an outsider to insert himself. What comes across as drudgery to us is a form of bitter catharsis to the Japanese. "Underground" makes a good case for Murakami as the social conscience of modern, urban Japan. But it will do little if anything to improve his standing among American audiences.

Author Michael Anft  
Date 2001  
Media Baltimore City Paper  

Recently released in a beefed-up paperwork version, Underground, Murakami's treatise/oral history on the deadly 1995 sarin gas release in the Tokyo subway by a group of doomsday die-hards, added another writer to his pantheon of influences: Studs Terkel. Dealing with a theme familiar to readers of his fiction--the lives of the alienated and unconnected--Murakami tackled one of the most horrifying events in post-Nagasaki Japan in 1997 when he started writing up interviews with survivors of the Tokyo gas attack. Those oral histories led to the first version of Underground, a harrowing if hardly surprising account of the pseudo-Buddhist cult Aum Shinrikyo's murder of 11 riders and attendants and the injuring of as many as 5,000.
Aum members, who believed not only in the apocalypse but in their power to help bring it about, were not represented in Murakami's original book on the subject. In the paperback release, subsequent interviews with cultists are included, much to the book's credit. While the dozens of talks with victims show a range of responses--from anger at their attackers to a surprising amount of forgiveness--they become redundant, no matter how we might feel for their debilitating symptoms and ongoing nightmares.

But the author's Q&As with Aum "renunciates" reek of a misguided intelligence and imagination given life by a homicidal charlatan, the group's leader, Shoko Asahara. Murakami asks many of the hard questions of his culture--Did its utter conformity lead to an annihilative backlash in the form of Aum? Are the Japanese capable of truly seeing Aum for what it is, a reaction to a consumerist country that has buried the issues of individuality and spirituality?--and answers a few of them. After researching how a massacre of Japanese troops led to slaughter by their superiors during an invasion of Mongolia in 1939, Murakami writes: "I was struck by the fact that the closed, responsibility-evading ways of Japanese society were really not any different from how the Imperial Japanese Army operated at that time."
The central, underlying (and unspoken) metaphor of Underground, however, is the herd instinct. While Aum perpetrators have either been sentenced to capital punishment or sent to jail for life, millions of people daily crowd into sardine-can-jammed subway cars--just as their counterparts to the West do--without asking, "Why?"
Author Justin Wintle  
Date June 17 2000  
Media Independent Newspaper  
  Behind the Death Trip of a Subway Sect

What did Shoko Asahara intend when members of his Aum "Supreme Truth" sect released sarin gas on several trains in the heart of Tokyo's underground system one Monday rush-hour in March 1995? Did he mean to shake Japan out of its materialist torpor? Was he endeavouring to fulfill the dictates of a hybrid vision, germinated during a trip to India and exposure to the more arcane elements of Tibetan Buddhism, later finessed by an obsession with hi-tech processes? Had he some ultimate political objective in mind, having failed to gain a seat in the Diet? Or was it the personal revenge of a half-blind, obese but preternaturally gifted outsider shunned by his peers during adolescence?
Asahara's reticence during his trial has shed little light on his motivation. Most Japanese believe he was insanely evil, period. Nor do many non-Japanese subscribe to any other explanation. Although it happened in Tokyo, the sarin attack is disturbingly applicable to any modern metropolis. It could have been London, New York, Paris; anywhere that a mass-transit system encloses citizens with limited exit routes. All it takes is one charismatic nutter, a quorum of disciples, a bit of science, some energetic fund-raising, and we're all dead.

Tokyo got off lightly. Although 5,000 suffered symptoms ranging from short-term discomfort to permanent vegetative disability, and although the emergency services proved ill-prepared, there were only 12 fatalities. Given sarin's toxicity, the casualties should have been far greater. But it had been suspended in a slow-releasing solution to give Asahara's henchmen time to get away.

No re-crafting of the statistics can reduce the collective trauma Japan experienced. Aum had already used sarin once before; police were well aware that the burgeoning crypto-Buddhist sect was being manipulated by a clique that resorted to intimidation, kidnapping and murder. Something should have been done to stop Asahara, but wasn't. As a result, Japan's much-vaunted stability was rudely challenged.

For the sinister and barmy details of Aum, readers can go to The Cult at the End of the World, by David E Kaplan and Andrew Marshall (Hutchinson). Haruki Murakami, then internationally acclaimed novelist, pursues different angles. Returning to Japan after a sojourn in America, he realised that the Aum atrocity could not be readily brushed aside as an aberration. He sensed that there were good reasons why it had occurred in Japan. Subtitled "the Tokyo gas attack and the Japanese psyche", Underground is not so much an attempt to investigate a particular madness as to explore its context.

Brilliantly, Murakami's account is in the main composed of the victims' narratives. The reader is treated to an extraordinary cross-section of Tokyo citizenry, as it recalls the fateful day it boarded the doomed carriages. The composite result is not just an impressive essay in witness literature, but also a unique sounding of the quotidian Japanese mind. Besides the pity of 60-odd derailed lives, what comes across are the common cultural denominators One image summarises them: an elderly, stricken survivor determined to continue to work, albeit on hands and knees, his pupils contracted, groping forward in disciplined obedience to the national ethos.

Murakami edges us one stage further. His final interviewees are lesser members of the sect itself. Oddballs all, they too have endured the treachery of Aum's leadership. All they wanted was something other than the narrow conformity of Japanese life. But the more conformist a society, the greater the dangers of marginalisation. Despite its veneer of democracy, Japan sometimes transpires as a sort of voluntary totalitarianism. In the living past it has experienced nuclear attack and the endgame of its venture into Manchuria, presided over by the divine Emperor Hirohito.

As a cult leader, Asahara accrued a similar divinity, and his means of extermination was, like the atom bomb's, largely invisible. In the context of such a matrix - the ulterior object of Murakami's painstaking collage - his lunacy begins to make awful sense.