Interviews


Break on through
The elusive Murakami

Up from the Underground
The healer
The Outsider
The human cost

Roll over Basho
Murakami is seeking new style
Mizumaru Ansei

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The Human Cost
     
     
  1997
  asiaweek.com

 

MORE THAN TWO YEARS AFTER IT SHOCKED THE WORLD by killing 12 people and injuring another 5,000 in a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, the Aum Shinrikyo cult has managed to slip back into the shadows. Only the slug-paced trial of leader Asahara Shokou -- plus those of some of his followers for unrelated offenses -- draws media attention these days. But that doesn't mean the doomsday disciples have abandoned their aims.

 
 

 

A new police report says the cult has been rebuilding. It is now up to 500 fulltime devotees -- compared with 1,100 at the time of the gassings -- and 5,000 other followers (10,000 previously). It opened a new center in downtown Tokyo in May, bringing the number nationwide to 26. It is raising funds in a number of ways, including running a discount computer store. The movement, the police report says, "still shows dangerous signs and requires close monitoring." Egawa Shoko, an investigative reporter who has shadowed the cult's activities, says: "It is still a destructive force."

 

But what of its victims and their families? Since the March 20, 1995 attack, they have been viewed as little more than statistical evidence of Aum's viciousness and evil ambition. But each represents a mini-drama -- a tale of an innocent life wrecked. Take, for instance, the case of supermarket worker Akashi Shizuko:

The night before the attack, she had eaten at a noodle shop with her family. Her brother recalls: "When we had dinner together, we thought, 'This is what happiness is all about, isn't it?' Everyone gets together, eats and chats. It is a tiny happiness, such a modest joy. But it was destroyed the next day." Akashi, a happy-go-lucky 31-year-old, was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was on the Marunouchi subway line, heading for a sales-training session, when the cult's goons struck.

 
 

 

The effects of the sarin left her with severe brain damage. Today, she has recovered enough to pronounce her name and move her arm, but she cannot walk or eat unaided. She has almost no recall of her life before the attack. "I wish she had died," her mother said at the time.

Akashi's story springs from one of more than 60 interviews conducted for Underground, a book by popular Japanese novelist Murakami Haruki. In a year of intimate discussions with survivors, families of victims, eyewitnesses and others, he fleshed out press reports into a poignant history of a fateful day. The interviewees included office workers, doctors, a lawyer and subway employees. Many used their real names; some asked for pseudonyms.

 

The author prefaces their stories with his own description of how the day had begun: "March 20, l995. It is an early spring morning, nice and clean. The wind is still cold and people on the streets are wearing coats. Yesterday was Sunday and tomorrow is the Vernal Equinox, a national holiday. So it is a day in between. But you couldn't take it off for various reasons. So you get up at the usual time, wash your face, change your clothes and head for the station. It is an uncharacteristic morning, one of the unidentifiable days of your life -- until five Aum devotees stick the sharpened points of their umbrellas into plastic bags containing a strange liquid."

Murakami, 48, says he wrote the book to balance press coverage of the incident. "I had been frustrated by the few reports on victims, in sharp contrast to the flood of information about the Aum Shinrikyo," he told Asiaweek. "I felt I had to find out the other side of the story." He learned a lot more than he was comfortable with.

 
   
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