Underground by Haruki Murakami

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Since the war ended, Japan’s economy has grown rapidly to the point where we’ve lost any sense of crisis and material things are all that matters. The idea that it’s wrong to harm others has gradually disappeared. It’s been said before, I know, but this really brought it home to me. What happens if you raise a child with that mentality? Is there any excuse for this kind of thing?

It’s strange, you know, back in the hospital with everyone around me in a blind panic, I didn’t feel in the least horrified. I was so calm and collected. If someone had made a joke about sarin, I wouldn’t have cared in the least. That’s how little it meant to me. That summer I began to forget that there had even been a “Tokyo gas attack.” I’d read something in the newspaper about a lawsuit for damages and I’d think, “Ah yes, that again,” as though it had nothing to do with me.

It was a clear spring day, Monday, March 20, 1995, when five members of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo conducted chemical warfare on the Tokyo subway system using sarin, a poison gas twenty-six times as deadly as cyanide. The unthinkable had happened, a major urban transit system had become the target of a terrorist attack.

In an attempt to discover why, Haruki Murakami, internationally acclaimed author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and arguably Japan’s most important contemporary novelist, talked to the people who lived through the catastrophe—from a Subway Authority employee with survivor guilt, to a fashion salesman with more venom for the media than for the perpetrators, to a young cult member who vehemently condemns the attack though he has not quit Aum. Through these and many other voices, Murakami exposes intriguing aspects of the Japanese psyche. And as he discerns the fundamental issues leading to the attack, we achieve a clear vision of an event that could occur anytime, anywhere. Hauntingly compelling and inescapably important, Underground is a powerful work of journalistic literature from one of the world’s most perceptive writers.

This isn’t a perfect look at Japanese Death Cults or even the Sarin Subway Attack of 1995. It is basically a series of interviews. First with the victims of the attack, the survivors, the families, the doctors and scientists. The few who would actually talk about it. That was part of the purpose of this book. Japanese culture was quiet about the attack. The government would prefer to move past mistakes. The survivors too just wanted to move past their second victimization. 

But here it is the end of summer, and my head is still killing me. The company still lets me go into work, but I’ve been relieved of my managerial responsibilities. My boss says that a high-stress workplace would be bad for me physically, but the result of this special treatment is that it’s extremely hard for me to perform like a businessman in his prime. I’m grateful they want me to take it easy, and after the gas attack I did work harder than usual.

Not wanting to inconvenience the company, I kept my headaches a secret and, well, overworked, but I’m not the type of person who can just sit idly by.

The interviews with those on the subways when the sarin gas was released became aftre a while very repetitive. I found myself losing track or more accurately resorting to going numb with the horror of it all. The second half when the cult members are interviewed was an improvement as here Murakami at times manages to dig in and ask some pointed questions.

%d bloggers like this: