Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche - Haruki Murakami (2003)


“An Old Man Awake In His Own Death”

by Mark Strand

This is the place that was promised
when I went to sleep,
taken from me when I woke.

This is the place unknown to anyone,
where names of ships and stars
drift out of reach.

The mountains are not mountains anymore;
the sun is not the sun.
One tends to forget how it was;

I see myself, I see
the shore of darkness on my brow.
Once I was whole, once I was young …

As if it mattered now
and you could hear me
and the weather of this place would ever cease.


When I wrote Underground I made it a point of principle to avoid reading any of the reports in the media about Aum. I put myself as much as possible in the same situation the victims of the attack found themselves that day: taken totally unaware by some unknown, deadly force.

For this reason I deliberately excluded any Aum viewpoint from Underground. I was afraid it would only throw the book out of focus. Above all I wanted to avoid the kind of wishy-washy approach that tries to see the viewpoint of both sides.

Because of this, Underground was criticized by some as one-sided, but I had, after all, intentionally set up my camera at one fixed spot. What I was after was a book that brought one closer to the interviewees (this doesn’t always mean one is on their side, however). I wanted a book that made you feel what these people felt, think what they thought. That isn’t to say I was totally oblivious to the social significance of Aum Shinrikyo.

After Underground was published, and various repercussions from the events had settled down, the question “What was Aum Shinrikyo?” welled up inside me. After all, Underground was an attempt to restore a sense of balance to what I saw as biased reporting. Once that job was over, I had to wonder whether we were receiving true and accurate accounts of the Aum side of the story.

In Underground, Aum Shinrikyo was like some unidentified threat—a “black box” if you will—which suddenly, from out of nowhere, made an assault on the everyday. Now, in my own way, I wanted to try to pry open that black box and catch a glimpse of what it contained. By comparing and contrasting those contents with the viewpoints gathered in Underground I hoped to gain an even deeper understanding.

I was also motivated by a strong sense of fear that we had still not begun to deal with, let alone solve, any of the fundamental issues arising from the gas attack. Specifically, for people who are outside the main system of Japanese society (the young in particular), there remains no effective alternative or safety net. As long as this crucial gap exists in our society, like a kind of black hole, even if Aum is suppressed, other magnetic force fields—“Aum-like” groups—will rise up again, and similar incidents are bound to take place.

Before I began working on The Place That Was Promised I felt uneasy; now it is finished I have an even stronger sense of foreboding. It wasn’t always easy finding victims of the gas attack willing to be interviewed and, for different reasons, it wasn’t an easy task finding Aum Shinrikyo members, or even former members, to interview. What sort of criteria could one possibly use to choose interviewees? How could you come up with a representative sample? And who could say it was truly representative? I was also worried that, even if we could find such people and listened to what they had to say, it would turn out to be just a lot of religious propaganda. Would we be able to interact in any meaningful way?

The editorial staff of the magazine Bungei Shunju, where these interviews were first published, found the Aum members and former members for me. In general the interviews follow the same style and format as the ones in Underground. I decided to be as indulgent as possible over each one, letting the interviewees take as much time as they wished to respond. Each interview lasted three or four hours. The tapes were transcribed and the interviewee was asked to go over the manuscript. They could omit parts that, upon reflection, they didn’t want to see in print, and add statements they thought were important that they had forgotten to make at the time of the interview. When I had their final go-ahead, the interview was published. As much as possible I wanted to use their real names, but it was often a condition of the interview that no indication would be given when a pseudonym was used.

Generally few attempts were made to check whether the statements made in the interviews were factually accurate or not, other than when they obviously contradicted known facts. Some people might object to this, but my job was to listen to what people had to say and to record this as clearly as possible. Even if there are some details inconsistent with reality, the collective narrative of these personal stories has a powerful reality of its own. This is something novelists are acutely aware of, which is why I regard this as fitting work for a novelist.

Yet the interviews in Underground and those collected here do not follow the exact same format. This time I often interjected my own opinions, voiced doubts, and even debated various points. In Underground I tried to keep myself in the background as much as possible, but this time I decided to be a more active participant. Sometimes, for instance, the conversation began to swerve too much in the direction of religious dogma, which I felt was inappropriate.

I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert on religions, nor a sociologist. I am nothing more than a simple, not very refined novelist. (This is not false modesty, as many will testify.) My knowledge of religion is not much above the level of a rank amateur, so there was little chance I’d be able to hold my own if I got into the ring to debate doctrine with some devout religious believer.

This was my concern when I began these interviews, but I decided not to let it hold me back. When I didn’t understand something, I just went ahead and exposed my ignorance; when I thought that most people would not accept a certain viewpoint, I challenged it. “It might hold a certain logic,” I’d say, “but your average person wouldn’t buy it.” I’m not just saying this to defend myself or show how bold I am. I wanted to take the time to clarify basic terms and ideas—to say, “Wait a second. What does that mean?”—rather than simply nodding my head and letting a lot of technical terms fly by.

At a commonsense, everyday level, we were able to get our points across, and I feel I was able to understand the basic ideas the interviewees tried to convey. (Whether or not I accept them is another story.) This was more than enough for the type of interview I was conducting. Analyzing the interviewee’s mental state in detail, evaluating the ethical and logical justifications for their positions, etc., were not the goals I laid out for this project. I leave deeper study of the religious issues raised, and their social meaning, to the experts. What I’ve tried to present is the way these Aum followers appear in an ordinary, face-to-face conversation.

Still, talking to them so intimately made me realize how their religious quest and the process of novel writing, though not identical, are similar. This aroused my own personal interest as I interviewed them, and it is also why I felt something akin to irritation at times as well.

I have an abiding anger toward the Aum Shinrikyo members involved in the gas attack—both those who are under arrest and those who were involved in other ways. I have met some of the victims, many of whom continue to suffer, and I have personally seen those whose loved ones were stolen from them forever. I’ll remember that for as long as I live, and no matter what the motives or circumstances behind it, a crime like this can never be condoned.

However, opinion is divided over the extent to which the entire Aum Shinrikyo organization was committed to the gas attack. I will leave any judgment here to the reader. I did not undertake these interviews with present and former members of the cult in order to criticize them or denounce them, nor in the hope that people would view them in a more positive light. What I am trying to provide here is the same thing I hoped to convey in Underground—not one clear viewpoint, but flesh-and-blood material from which to construct multiple viewpoints; which is the same goal I have in mind when I write novels.

As a novelist, I will be sifting through what remains within me, bit by bit, investigating, putting things in order as I pass through the time-consuming process of shaping this into narrative form. It’s not the sort of thing that takes shape easily.

These interviews were published in monthly installments in Bungei Shunju from April to October 1997, and were published serially under the title Post-Underground.