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

Part II. THE PLACE THAT WAS PROMISED

“I’m still in Aum”

Hiroyuki Kano (b. 1965)

Mr. Kano was born in Tokyo, but soon moved to a neighboring prefecture where he grew up. In college his health declined and he began attending classes at a yoga training center run by Aum. After just twenty-one days Shoko Asahara advised him to become a renunciate, which he did five months later.

At the time of the gas attack Mr. Kano was a member of Aum’s Ministry of Science and Technology, where he was involved mainly in computer-related work. Until the attack, his six years in Aum had been wonderful and fulfilling and he had made many friends.

Though he has not officially left-Aum, he no longer lives communally with the other members, and keeps his distance from them. He lives alone in Tokyo, doing computer work at home, while still following his own regime of ascetic training. He is deeply interested in Buddhism, and his dream remains to construct a theoretical framework for Buddhism. Many of his friends have left Aum. At 32, he wonders what the future has in store for him.

Our interview lasted a long time, but not once did he mention the name Shoko Asahara. He avoided referring to Asahara directly, using the terms “leader” or “guru,” or, once as I recall, “that person.”

In elementary school I was healthy, taller than the other kids. I loved sports and was into all kinds of things. But in junior high I stopped growing and now I’m a little bit shorter than average. It’s like my physical development responded to my emotional state, and went downhill along with my health.

I was a pretty good student, but I felt a kind of resistance to the whole idea of studying. For me, studying meant gaining wisdom, but schoolwork was just rote memorization, things like how many sheep there are in Australia or something. You can study that all you want, but there’s no way it’ll make you wise. To me, that’s what being an adult meant. To be able to have that kind of calm, that sense of intelligence. There was a huge gap between the image I had of what an adult should be and the actual adults around me.

You get older, gain knowledge and experience, but inside you don’t grow as a person one little bit. Take away the outer appearance and the superficial knowledge and what’s left is no better than a child.

I also had some major doubts about love. When I was around 19 I thought long and hard and came to the following conclusion: pure love for another person, and what people call romantic love, are two different things. Pure love doesn’t manipulate the relationship to one’s advantage, but romantic love is different. Romantic love contains other elements—the desire to be loved by the other person, for instance. If purely loving another was enough, you wouldn’t suffer because of unrequited love. As long as the other person was happy, there wouldn’t be any need to suffer because you weren’t being loved in return. What makes people suffer is the desire to be loved by another person. So I decided that romantic love and pure love for a person are not the same. And that by following this you could lessen the pain of unrequited love.

MURAKAMI: It seems to me an overly logical approach. Even if they experienced unrequited love, most people wouldn’t carry the idea that far.

I suppose so. But since I was about 12 I’ve always approached things in a philosophical way. Once I started thinking about something I’d sit there for six hours. For me, to “study” something meant precisely that. School was just a race to gain the most points.

I tried talking with my friends about these things, but got nowhere. Even my friends who were good students would only say something like, “Wow. Pretty amazing stuff you come up with,” and that’d be the end of it. The conversation would hit a dead end. I couldn’t find a single person who wanted to talk about the things that I cared about.

MURAKAMI: Most adolescents, when they worry about those kinds of things, really get into reading books. To find some helpful advice.

I don’t like reading. When I read something I just see what’s wrong with the book. Especially philosophy books—I only read a few and couldn’t stand them. I always thought philosophy was supposed to provide you with a deeper consciousness so you could find a “remedy” to life’s problems. To really understand the purpose of living, to find fulfillment and happiness, and to decide what your life’s goals should be. Everything else was just a means to that end. But the books I read all seemed to be excuses for famous scholars to flaunt their linguistic skills: “Hey, look how much I know!” I could see right through this, and couldn’t stand those books. So philosophy never did anything for me.

There was one other reality I came to ponder when I was in the sixth grade. I was staring at a pair of scissors in my hands and the thought suddenly struck me that some adult had worked very hard to create them, but that someday they would fall apart. Everything that has form will eventually fall apart. Same with people. In the end they die. Everything’s heading straight for destruction and there’s no turning back. To put it another way, destruction itself is the principle by which the universe operates. Once I reached that conclusion I started to look at everything in a very negative way.

For instance, if my own life is headed toward destruction it doesn’t matter if I become prime minister or end up just one of the homeless, right? What’s the point of struggling? The horrible conclusion I came to was that if suffering outweighs joy in life, it would be much wiser to commit suicide as quickly as possible.

There’s only one way out, namely the afterlife. That’s the sole remaining hope. The first time I heard that expression “afterlife” I thought it was stupid. I read Tetsuro Tanba’s book What Happens After Death? just to see what kind of idiotic things were written in it. I’m the kind of person who has to pursue an idea to the bitter end once it takes hold of me. I’m not the type to just think, “What the hell, it’ll work out somehow.” I have to clearly differentiate what I understand from what I don’t. The same holds true for studying. For every new thing I learn, ten more questions will pop into my head. Until I can answer those, I can’t go on.

Anyway, Tanba’s book was worthless, but he mentioned Swedenborg’s work, which I read and was amazed by. Swedenborg is a famous scholar, a physicist of Nobel Prize caliber, but after he turned 50 he became like a psychic and wrote down a lot of records of the afterlife. I was struck by how extremely logical his work was. Compared to other books on the subject, everything fit together logically. The relationship between his premises and his conclusions was utterly convincing and believable.

I thought I should look a bit further into the afterlife, so I read a lot of material on near-death experiences. I was bowled over. The testimonies were strikingly similar. These were actual testimonies with the people’s real names and photographs. “They can’t all be conspiring to tell the same lie,” I thought. Later on I learned about the Law of Karma, and it was like a veil had lifted, and many of the doubts and questions I’d had since I was little were solved.

I also learned that the basic Buddhist tenet of impermanence is the same as the idea I had about the law of the universe tending toward destruction. I’d always looked at this in a more negative way, but this made it very easy for me to get into Buddhism.

MURAKAMI: Did you read books about Buddhism as well?

Not real studies of Buddhism. The ones I read didn’t seem very direct in their approach. I couldn’t discover the “remedy” I was searching for. They talked about various sutras, but never got to the heart of the matter, the part I really wanted to find out about. Records of people’s actual experiences had more of what I was looking for.

Of course, there were parts I couldn’t believe. I don’t know why, but for some reason I was convinced I could distinguish which parts of people’s stories could be believed and which parts couldn’t. Call it experience, or intuition. Anyway, I had a strange confidence that I could do this.

MURAKAMI: It sounds to me like you exclude everything that goes against your own theories or feelings. There are many things in the world that run counter to ones viewpoint, that challenge one’s cherished ideas, yet I don’t get a sense that you tried to engage with these.

Ever since I was in elementary school I hardly ever lost an argument to an adult. I know it’s not true, but the adults all seemed like idiots to me. Now I regret having thought this way. I was immature then. If I brought up a certain point, I knew, I’d lose the argument, so I’d make a detour around it. That way I never lost. I got a bit big-headed.

I got along with my friends okay. I’d adjust whatever I said to fit the person I was talking to. I always knew just the right thing to say at any point to smooth things over. So I had a lot of friends. I lived that way for about ten years, enjoying entertaining my friends. But when I got home and was alone I wondered what my life would be like if I continued this way. In the final analysis I didn’t have a single friend who was interested in the same things I was.

I didn’t take the entrance exams for college, but went instead to an electricians’ school. I studied engineering, but that wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I still wanted real wisdom. One ideal I had was to scientifically systematize Eastern philosophy.

Take biophotons, for example, the light that living things give off. If you compiled detailed statistics on the relationship between that and illness, you might be able to discover the physical properties involved. For instance, there must be some physical properties you could discover by connecting biophotons and the movements of the heart. This is something I believe from my experiences with yoga.

MURAKAMI: So it was very important for you to be able to measure the amounts of the force or to be able to map it visually.

That’s right. If you systematize things this way, your arguments will ring true. In this sense modern science is an amazing system. In Aum, too, there are many valuable parts. I want the meat of it to remain. Aum’s finished as a religion. It has to be theoretized as a natural science.

I’m not much interested in things that can’t be measured scientifically. What cannot be measured has no persuasive power, so whatever value it might have can’t be transmitted to other people. If things that can’t be measured acquire power, you end up with something like Aum. If you’re able to measure things, you can exclude the potential danger.

MURAKAMI: Okay, but how much reality would these measurements have? And wouldn’t they differ depending on your viewpoint? There’s also the danger that data could be manipulated. You’d have to decide at what point your measurements are sufficient, not to mention the question of the reliability of the instruments used to do the measuring.

As long as the statistical structure you use is the same as that used in medical science, then it’s okay. These symptoms mean this, this is how you treat them, that sort of thing.

MURAKAMI: I don’t imagine you read novels.

No, I don’t. Three pages is about the most I can manage before I give up.

MURAKAMI: Since I’m a novelist I’m the opposite of youI believe that what’s most important is what cannot be measured. I’m not denying your way of thinking, but the greater part of people’s lives consists of things that are unmeasurable, and trying to change all these to something measurable is realistically impossible.

True. It’s not that I believe all these things that can’t be measured are worthless, it’s just that the world seems filled with unnecessary suffering. And the causes of suffering are increasing—uncontrollable desires are causing people to suffer. The appetite for food, for instance, or sex.

What Aum did was reduce that type of psychological stress, and by doing so increase each individual’s power. Ninety-nine percent of the image that Aum followers have of Aum Shinrikyo is exactly this—a way of looking at spiritual and physical phenomena, and a remedy or solution to these. The organization or some eschatological philosophy, or whatever is just an image of Aum created by the media. I didn’t know anybody who cared about Nostradamus’s Prophecies. Nobody’s going to be convinced by something like that.

What I really want to do is scientifically systematize Eastern philosophical ideas such as transmigration and karma. If you visit India you’ll find that people there believe these things intuitively, they’re an integral part of their daily lives, but in advanced countries we live in an age when it’s necessary to put these on a theoretical basis in order for people to understand and accept them.

MURAKAMI: Before the war some Japanese believed the Emperor was a deity, and they died for this belief. Is this acceptable to you? That things are fine as long as you believe in them?

If that were the end of it, that would be okay, but if you consider the afterlife, it’s better to live a Buddhist life.

MURAKAMI: But that’s just a question of different objects of belief—whether you believe in the Emperor or in Buddhist transmigration.

But the results are different. What you attain after death if you believe in the Emperor is not what you get after death believing in Buddhism.

MURAKAMI: That’s just what Buddhists say. People who believed in the Emperor thought that if you died for him your soul would rest in Yasukuni Shrine and find peace. So you’re saying this is okay?

That’s why I’m so concerned about a method to prove Buddhism mathematically. That method doesn’t exist yet, which is why we get into these sorts of debates. There’s nothing more I can add.

MURAKAMI: So if a method was found to measure the Emperor theoretically you wouldn’t mind this?

Correct. As long as this was beneficial to that person after death, I wouldn’t mind.

MURAKAMI: What I’m getting at is that if you examine the history of science you can see that it has been manipulated in the name of politics and religion. The Nazis did this. There’s been lots of sham science that in retrospect was misguided. And this has brought untold harm to society. Granted you’re a person who closely gathers evidence, but most people, told by authority figures that something is “scientific,” swallow it whole and go along with whatever they say. And to me that’s very frightening.

I just think our present situation is frightening. But people in the world today are suffering needlessly. That’s why I’m trying to think of ways this can be avoided.

MURAKAMI: By the way, how did you come to join Aum Shinrikyo?

I read a book about easy meditation you can do at home and when I tried it something very weird happened to me. I didn’t practice it all that seriously, but when I attempted to purify my chakras, my chi [life force] got that much weaker. What you’re supposed to do when you purify your chakras is simultaneously strengthen your life force. But I didn’t. And my chakras were out of balance. I felt like I was burning up one minute, freezing cold the next. My energy level was way down, and I was always anemic. It was a dangerous situation. I couldn’t eat anything and I lost a lot of weight. I felt sick whenever I attended classes at college, and I couldn’t study at all.

Around that time I went to the Aum dojo at Setagaya. They explained my situation to me and told me right then and there how to treat it. I tried the breathing exercises they taught me, and I couldn’t believe how quickly I got better.

For two months after that I didn’t go to the dojo very much, but then I started going regularly, doing volunteer work, folding leaflets and stuff. Soon after that there was a “Secret Yoga” session where you could talk directly to the Leader [Shoko Asahara], and I asked him what I should do about my poor health. “You need to become a renunciate,” he told me. It was like he saw the real me at a glance. People were amazed because he’d never said that to anyone before—so I felt I had no choice but to leave school and become a renunciate. I was 22.

There were very few people who started out as renunciates. It’s rare. But I was so weak I couldn’t walk properly and I was sure if things continued as they were I wouldn’t be able to live a normal life. “You don’t fit this transient world,” I was told [by Asahara], and I certainly agreed—no need to convince me of that. We didn’t really have a conversation, he just came out with it. He usually didn’t say anything, but would be able to tell a lot about a person just by looking at his face. Like he knew everything about you. That’s why people believed in him.

MURAKAMI: Of course, one might suspect that before he met a person he’d have a file on him, with all kinds of data.

Sure, that’s possible. At the time, though, it didn’t seem like that. I became a renunciate in 1989, and at that time there were only about two hundred renunciates. At the end I think there were about three thousand.

When he was kind to you, that man [Asahara] was kinder than anyone I’ve ever met. But when he was angry, he was the scariest person in my life. The difference was so marked just talking to him made you convinced he was somehow inspired.

It was tough on me being told to become a renunciate. I didn’t want to worry my parents, and I hated the idea of new religions. I explained things to them as best I could but they cried a lot, which upset me. My parents aren’t the type to argue, they just cry. My mother passed away not long after this, which hurt terribly. She had a lot of stressful things happen to her around then, and this business with me might have been the last straw. My father probably thinks I’m the one who killed her. I’m sure he does.

[Not long afterward, there was an election for the Lower House of the Japanese Diet, and Aum Shinrikyo had several candidates. Mr. Kano was convinced that Asahara would be elected. Even now he finds it hard to believe that almost no one voted for him. Many followers think the election was rigged. After this, Mr. Kano was assigned to the Construction Division of Aum and worked on Aum facilities at Naminomura in Kumamoto Prefecture.]

I was in Naminomura about five months, where I worked as a long-distance truck driver. I drove all over Japan gathering materials. It wasn’t so bad. At the construction site you’d be working under the intense sun, so compared to that driving a truck was a breeze.

Life in Aum was much tougher than secular life, but the tougher it was, the more satisfying it felt; my inner struggles were over, for which I was grateful. I made a lot of friends, too—adults, kids, old ladies, men, women. Everyone in Aum was aiming for the same thing—raising their spiritual level—so we had lots in common. I didn’t have to change myself to get along with others.

No doubts remained, because all our questions were answered. Everything was solved. We were told: “Do this, and this will happen.” No matter what question we had, we got an answer straightaway. I was completely immersed in it [laughs]. The media never reports that aspect. They label it all mind control. But actually it isn’t. That’s just what they say to boost talk-show ratings. They don’t even try to report the facts.

I went back to the Mt. Fuji headquarters after Naminomura and worked with computers. Hideo Murai was my superior. I had some things I wanted to investigate, and Murai said, without much interest, “Just go ahead.” He was doing all he could to carry out orders from above.

MURAKAMI: When you say “from above” you mean Asahara?

Yes. Murai was trying to suppress his own ego as much as possible. The last thing he cared about was someone below him coming up with an idea. But he didn’t mind it if we had something we wanted to investigate on our own.

My position was “assistant master,” the highest rank you could attain below the Aum leadership itself, something like the head of a section in a company. Not all that impressive, really. I had nobody directly below me. It was like I was working on my own, with no restrictions. I knew a lot of people like that. If you believe the media reports, everyone was under strict control like they were living in North Korea, but actually many people were free to do what they wanted. And of course we were free to come and go. We didn’t have our own cars, but we could borrow one whenever we wanted.

MURAKAMI: But later on there was systematic violence—the murder of the lawyer, Mr. Sakamoto, and his family, fatal beatings, the Matsumoto incident. Didn’t you have any inkling that these things were taking place?

There seemed to be more activity than usual, secretive, suspicious goings-on. But no matter what I might have seen, I’m sure I would have stubbornly insisted first and foremost that the personal benefits of what we were doing outweighed anything bad. I couldn’t believe all the reports in the media. However, since about two years ago [1996], I’ve started to think that maybe those kinds of things really did take place.

I was sure that there was no way our group could hide something like the Sakamoto affair for so many years. Because the whole organization was so haphazard. It was like communism: if you made a mistake, you wouldn’t get fired, and though we say we had “jobs” in Aum, it’s not like we were drawing a salary or anything. I wouldn’t call it irresponsible, exactly, there was just no sense of individual responsibility. Everything was sort of unclear and random. There was a sense that as long as your spiritual level was advancing, nothing else mattered. Most people in the secular world have a wife or family, so they have a certain sense of responsibility and work as hard as they can, but in Aum this was completely missing.

Say, for example, you’re at a construction site and a steel frame has to arrive by tomorrow for work to continue. If it doesn’t get there the person in charge just says, “Oh, that’s right, I forgot about it.” And that’s the end of that. He might be scolded a little, but he doesn’t care. Everyone has reached a stage where the harsh realities of everyday life don’t affect them. Even if something bad happens, they just say it’s bad karma dropping away, and everybody’s happy. Making mistakes, getting yelled at—they just view these as so many personal impurities falling away [laughs]. They’re pretty tough people when you think about it. No matter what happens, it doesn’t bother them. Aum members looked down on ordinary people in the secular world. Like: “Look how they’re all suffering, but we’re not bothered.”

MURAKAMI: You were involved with Aum for six years, from 1989 to 1995. Did you have any problems or doubts during that time?

I felt gratitude, fulfillment. Because even if something painful happened, they would explain the meaning of it to me in great detail. As you advanced to a higher stage, everyone was amazing. Fumihiro Joyu is a good example, but there were many people like him who were just as eloquent. Something in Aum definitely operated on a different level from the secular world. The higher up you advanced, the less sleep you needed; lots of people only slept three hours a day. Hideo Murai was like this. Spiritual power, discernment—these higher-ups were pretty astounding in everything.

MURAKAMI: Did you have times when you could meet Shoko Asahara and talk to him directly?

Yes, I did. In the past, when there were fewer followers, people often went to him with silly problems—like the fact that they were always feeling sleepy, etc., but as the organization grew we didn’t have as many opportunities. We couldn’t approach him on a one-to-one basis anymore.

I went through many kinds of initiations. Some of them were pretty hard. The one they called “Heat” was really bad. They involved drugs, too. I didn’t know it at the time but it was LSD. You take that and it’s like only your mind is left. You have no sense of your body, you’re face-to-face with your deepest subconscious. Not an easy thing to confront, believe me. You feel completely listless, like this is what it must be like after you die. I didn’t know I was doing drugs—I just thought it was a medicine that made me more inward to help me in my ascetic training.

MURAKAMI: But it appears some people experienced some pretty bad trips and ended up with deep emotional scars.

That’s when the dose is too strong, and when other methods didn’t work. There was a division in Aum called the Medical Ministry, run by Ikuo Hayashi, but it was a pretty random affair. I think that if they’d done it more scientifically, there wouldn’t have been any problems. You have to remember that in Aum there was the idea that you should be given all types of tough challenges and overcome them. With the drugs, though, a bit more consideration would have helped.

MURAKAMI: In March 1995, when the gas attack occurred, where were you and what were you doing?

I was in my room at Kamikuishiki alone, using my computer. I had Internet access and I often read the news that way. We weren’t supposed to, but I just went ahead anyway. Occasionally I went out, bought a newspaper, and passed it around to others. If you were found out they’d warn you, but it was no big deal.

So I was on the Internet reading the news flashes when I learned about the incident in the Tokyo subway. But I didn’t think Aum was involved. I didn’t know who did it, but I was certain it wasn’t Aum.

After the attack Kamikuishiki was raided. We thought that members of the Science and Technology Ministry would all be arrested on trumped-up charges and it looked like it was best to get out, so I took a car and drove around while the police searched the place. I was certain it wasn’t Aum.

Even after he [Asahara] was arrested, I didn’t feel any anger. It seemed unavoidable. Aum followers believe that anger is a sign you are still spiritually immature. Instead of getting angry, we thought it was more virtuous to see deeper into the reality of a situation, then consider what actions to take.

We talked about what we should do, and we all agreed that as much as possible we should continue our training. We certainly didn’t have any tragic sense of being driven into a corner or anything. Inside Aum it was like the eye of a hurricane, very calm.

I began to suspect Aum was the real culprit only after people were arrested and confessed. They were almost all friends of mine from long ago. Still, for the average Aum follower, whether they did it or not is beside the point; what was important was whether you would continue your ascetic training. How you developed your inner Self was more important than whether or not Aum was guilty.

MURAKAMI: But the teachings of Aum Shinrikyo went in a certain direction, resulting in these crimes where many people were killed or injured. How do you feel about this?

You have to understand that that part—Vajrayana Tantra—is clearly differentiated from the rest.*

Only those people who have reached an extremely high stage practise Vajrayana. We were told over and over that only those who have completed the Mahayana stage can carry that out. We were many levels below that. So even after the gas attack we didn’t question the training or activities we were involved in.

MURAKAMI: Setting aside the question of high or low stages, Vajrayana is an important part of Aum doctrine, so it has great significance.

I can understand your saying that, but from our standpoint it was pie in the sky—completely unconnected with what we normally did or thought. It was just too far away. There were tens of thousands of years’ worth of things you had to accomplish before you reached that level.

MURAKAMI: So you felt it had nothing to do with you? For the sake of argument, though, let’s say that your level shot way up to the level of Vajrayana, and you were ordered to kill someone as part of your path to reach Nirvana. Would you do it?

Logically, it’s a simple question. If by killing another person you raised him up, that person would be happier than he would have been living his life. So I do understand that path. But that should only be done by someone who has the ability to discern the process of transmigration and rebirth. Otherwise, you’d better leave it alone. If I’d been able to perceive what happens to a person after their death, and help them rise to a higher level—then maybe even I would have been involved. But there was no one in Aum who had risen that high.

MURAKAMI: Yet those five people did it.

But I wouldn’t have. That’s the difference. I couldn’t take responsibility for that kind of action. It scares me, and there’s no way I could do it. Let’s make one thing very clear. A person who cannot discern the transmigration of another does not have the right to take their life.

MURAKAMI: Was Shoko Asahara qualified to do that?

At the time I think he was.

MURAKAMI: But can you measure that? Do you have any objective proof?

No, at the moment I don’t.

MURAKAMI: So having him judged by our society’s laws, no matter what judgment is handed down, is unavoidable?

Right. I’m not saying that everything about Aum is correct. I just feel there’s a lot of value in it, and I want to use it somehow to benefit ordinary people.

MURAKAMI: On a very commonsense level, though, ordinary people were murdered. If you aren’t able to work that into the equation who will listen to you?

That’s why I don’t think we can talk about it in the framework of Aum anymore. I’m still in Aum, because the benefits I’ve received are so great. I’m trying to sort all this out, on an individual level. I still believe there are a lot of possibilities there. It requires a kind of logical reversal. There are hopeful elements, and I’m trying to clearly distinguish what I understand from what I don’t.

I’m going to wait about two years, and if Aum is still in the same shape it is now, I plan to drop out. Until then I’ve got a lot to think over. But one thing is certainly true—Aum Shinrikyo doesn’t learn from experience. It turns a deaf ear—no matter what other people say. It doesn’t affect it a bit. No sense of regret. It’s like what Aum members say about the gas attack: “That was a mission for other people. Not me.”

I’m not like that, since I think the attack was a terrible event. It should never have been carried out. So inside me this dreadful event is at war with all the good things I’ve experienced. People who have a stronger sense of the awful things that happened left Aum, those for whom the “good things” are stronger remain. I’m stuck somewhere in the middle. I’m going to wait and see.