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


“Each individual has his own image of the Master”

Mitsuharu Inaba (b. 1956)

Mr. Inaba is still an active member of Aum Shinrikyo. He lives with several other Aum members in a two-story apartment building in Tokyo. It’s difficult to rent anywhere if you’re in Aum, but the landlord of this particular place was very understanding: “If you have no other place to stay as you make the transition back to normal life, then go ahead.” Cockroaches seem to spring up wherever Aum followers live, and during our interview I saw quite a few of them crawling across the tatami mat. This must be a worry for the landlord. Neighbors are aware they’re in Aum and give them the cold shoulder.

Mr. Inaba was born in Hokkaido in 1956. He seems to have been a quite ordinary child, but according to him he was always brooding over the meaning of life. This tendency is present in many Aum believers. His intellectual pursuits took him from philosophy to Buddhism, then to Tibetan Buddhism, and finally to Aum Shinrikyo. An elementary and junior high teacher, he became a renunciate at 34. At the time of the gas attack he belonged to the Aum Defense Ministry and worked maintaining Cosmo cleaners. *

Now he scrapes by tutoring once a week. Life is hard. “Do you know any students you can introduce to me?” he asks with a smile. He’s a very serious, calm person, and I imagine he’s a good teacher. He lights up when he recalls teaching the children of renunciates inside Aum.

In his room there is a small altar with a photograph of Master Asahara and one of His Holiness Rinpoche, the new leader of Aum.

I didn’t want to be a teacher, but according to my mother, that was the only path open to me [laughs]. I spent two years after high school studying for the college entrance exams before I got in. One whole year I was ill. I had some sort of philosophical struggle going on in me, a period of great discontent. I went to the hospital and it turned out my blood pressure was 180. After this I stayed at home to get better. I took medicine to lower my blood pressure. I was the kind of person who broods over things, and is too sensitive to his surroundings. By “philosophical struggle” I mean that I realized I had to do certain things in a certain way, and knowing I couldn’t manage it made me hate myself. I was young and hardheaded.

I majored in elementary education in college, with a concentration in educational psychology. I chose the elementary level because I like children. Still, I was plagued by the question of what I should do with my life. I had the notion that there were things the children would teach me. I would both teach, and be taught at the same time.

I graduated from college and found a job in an elementary school in Kanagawa Prefecture. It wasn’t so hard for me to leave home. I was used to moving, and was sure I could make friends no matter where I went.

I was put in charge of my own class from the very first year. Forty kids to a class, and it wasn’t easy in the beginning, believe me. It totally occupied me for a while. Actually it was a lot of fun. I was a teacher for a total of ten years, and the five or six years I was in elementary school were the best. I got on well with the parents, too. We’d get together sometimes to sing, eat homemade cakes, and so on. I never had any bad experiences with the rest of the staff.

People tried to find someone for me to marry. My parents even tried to set me up. And I did go out with a few women for a while. But all the time I knew that eventually I was going to renounce the world.

MURAKAMI: So you were already thinking about that?

Yes, I was. It was before I found out about Aum, but what I had in mind was more becoming a traditional renunciate. The image I had was of quietly retiring from the world at 60 and living a simple life.

When I was in college I was really into Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, but gradually my interests turned to Eastern thought, especially Zen. I read all kinds of Zen books, and did the kind of do-it-yourself practice called “lone wolf Zen.” But I couldn’t bring myself to follow the ascetic aspects. So next—chronologically, about the time I got my job—I started to get interested in esoteric Shingon Buddhism, particularly Kukai. I climbed Mt. Koya, did a pilgrimage around Shikoku during summer vacation, visited Toji Temple when I went to Kyoto—that sort of thing.

People put down Japanese Buddhism as “Funeral Buddhism,” saying all it’s concerned with is conducting funeral ceremonies, but I think you should look at it in a more positive way, at its staying power over many centuries. Surely within those traditions there’s got to be some place where authentic Buddhism is practiced. I didn’t pay much attention to the so-called new religions. No matter how wonderful they might be, I thought, they had at most a history of thirty or forty years. I’d stick to Shingon Buddhism.

After four years teaching in elementary school I was asked all of a sudden if I would move over to junior high.

I was about four years into teaching at the junior high when I came across some Aum books. The bookstore carried a small magazine called Mahayana, which I bought and read. This was when it first came out, maybe the fourth or fifth issue. There was a special section devoted to esoteric yoga, which I didn’t know much about. I wanted to learn more.

One Sunday a colleague of mine and I went to Shinjuku to buy some teaching materials. We took the Odakyu Line on the way back, and near Gotokuji Station there was an Aum dojo in Setagaya. We had some time to spare, so I thought I’d just drop by. Joyu happened to be giving a talk entitled “The Po-a Gathering.” Po-a here meaning the raising of one’s spiritual level.

I was really impressed by what he said. It was so clearly stated—the way he used metaphors, for instance. It was very appealing, especially to young people. After the sermon he took questions, and his answers were extremely precise, each one perfectly tailored to the person who asked it.

A month later I joined. I made it very clear it was for three months or half a year, just for me to check it out. It was about 3,000 yen to join, and yearly fees were 10,000 yen, quite cheap. Once you join you receive these periodicals, and can attend all the sermons. Sermon meetings were divided into those for the general public, those for lay followers, and those for anyone who had taken vows. I went to the dojo once or twice a month.

When I became a member I didn’t have any personal problems or anything. It was just that, no matter where I found myself, I felt like there was a hole inside me, with the wind rushing through. I never felt satisfied. From the outside you wouldn’t imagine I had any troubles. When I became a renunciate people would ask me, “What could possibly be troubling you? How could you have any problems?”

MURAKAMI: In everybody’s life there are times when you feel pain, sadness, depression. Something that shakes you to the core. You never experienced anything like this?

Nothing extreme, no. Not that I can recall anyway.

In the summer I spent three days at the newly built headquarters at Mt. Fuji. But it wasn’t until autumn 1989 that I began to get serious about attending the dojo. I’d go every Saturday night and return on Sunday. During the week I trained on my own at home, especially when I got to the point where I received sakti-pat—I had to get in shape for that. The introduction of energy there is very delicate; you have to concentrate on training for it. I did asana[yoga], breathing exercises, simple meditation; there were three-hour courses and you had to get twenty units. As you continue to train you feel a transformation come over you. Your mental outlook grows more upbeat, more positive. You’re like a new person.

The members at the dojo were sober, resolute types. The masters and the instructors were all quite sincere and appealing. However, the way they responded to people from the outside—how shall I put it?—I think they could have done a better job. It’s like when a student graduates and gets his first job and he’s overly serious about it. He still doesn’t have any experience in society. Aum gave the same strong impression of immaturity—of students who know nothing about the world.

In order to become a renunciate I’d have to leave my teaching job. I met with the principal and told him I’d like to finish in March, at the end of the school year. I also talked it over with my “elder brother” in Aum. He told me, “There’s no need to rush. Wouldn’t it be best if you worked for another year, fulfilled your obligations, and then took vows?” I worried about it, but decided I’d work for another year.

However, as I continued my training I got immersed in astral, my subconscious began to emerge, and my sense of reality grew faint.*

When that happens you’re supposed to be apart from the world. It would have been all right if my subconscious had emerged during the summer vacation, but this happened just before. At its worst, when I was teaching a science class I couldn’t for the life of me remember if I’d already mixed the chemicals in the experiments or not. My sense of reality had vanished. My memory became hazy and I couldn’t tell whether I’d actually done something or only dreamed it.

My consciousness had gone over to the other side and I couldn’t get back. The Buddhist scriptures talk about it, how when you reach a certain point in your training this schizophrenic element appears. Inside me there was nothing certain I could rely on. Happily, I still had an awareness of where I was; if things had gotten any worse I might have become schizophrenic. I got more and more afraid. I had to cure that split personality at one stroke, but going to a psychiatrist wouldn’t help. The solution lay in my training. So I became a renunciate. If there was nothing within me I could rely on, then the only thing to do was to give myself up to Aum. Besides, I’d always thought that someday I’d renounce the world.

I talked with the principal again and told him I wanted to leave after all. For a teacher to resign his post in the middle of a school year is a major problem. He was very understanding and he let me go on sick leave until the end of the holidays. But I ended up sort of forcing them to let me go. I didn’t even say goodbye to any of my colleagues. I’m sure that caused some problems for the school. Most likely people thought I was totally irresponsible.

I became a renunciate on July 7. I contacted my parents and they came to see me while I was on sick leave. They were livid. I tried everything I could to persuade them but we got nowhere, no matter what I said. My parents didn’t mind me being interested in Buddhism, but to them Aum Shinrikyo was beyond the pale. I explained that it might appear that way, but Aum was based on a firm foundation of Buddhist teaching. For someone on the outside, though, their reaction was only to be expected.

“Come back home right now,” they said. “You have to choose between coming home or going over to ‘them.’” I agonized over my decision. If I were to go home to Hokkaido I would just continue living the same old life I’d been living. Nothing would be solved. I thought that getting deeper into Buddhism was the only solution. So I became a renunciate. But I did agonize over it.

I had one good friend among my fellow teachers who’d come over just about every day with some beer. “You’re not really going, are you?” he asked. He pleaded with me, tears in his eyes. But I was about to embark on something I’d been seeking since I was a child, so all I could tell him was, “I’m sorry. It’s something I have to do.”

After I took vows I went straightaway to Naminomura in Aso to do construction work. The roof of the Aum facility was just about finished. It was hard work, but engaging—different from anything I’d ever done before. It was invigorating, like using a different part of my brain. Afterward I went back to Mt. Fuji, where I did various jobs, and then went to work constructing Satyam No. 2 at Kamikuishiki-mura. They call the period just after you become a renunciate “Building up Spiritual Merit.” It consists mainly of menial jobs with a bit of ascetic training. Compared with when I was teaching, I didn’t have to worry about human relationships or responsibilities. Like when you’re a new employee at a company, you just do what the people, above tell you to do. Psychologically, it’s a great relief.

Still, I was uneasy. “If this doesn’t work out,” I wondered, “then what?” I was over 30, after all. There was no turning back, so I had to train all the harder. Can’t rely on anyone else. I’d chosen this life for myself, and if I couldn’t gain something valuable from it, then leaving the world would only lead to misery.

The next year [1991] in September, I went back to Aso. This time I was part of the “Children’s Group” and taught the children of renunciates. There were about eighty kids altogether. I was in charge of science. Other people taught Japanese, English, various subjects. Most of them were former teachers. We developed a curriculum and ran things pretty much like a real school.

MURAKAMI: Did your teaching have a lot to do with religious education?

Well, in Japanese classes they used Buddhist scriptures as their main text, but science doesn’t have much to do with doctrine. I had trouble teaching science from an Aum viewpoint, and I asked the Founder [Asahara] for advice. “Since science and the lay world are one,” he said, “you should do whatever you wish.” “Are you sure it’s all right?” I asked [laughs].

So it was easy for me. I’d tape programs from TV and use them as our text. It was fun. I taught the Founder’s children, too, and sometimes he told me how much they were enjoying school. I only taught for about a year and then my ascetic training began.

As far as religious matters were concerned, the Master was—no doubt about it—a man of considerable power. I’m absolutely convinced of that. He was outstanding at adapting his sermon to his audience, and he had an enormous amount of energy. A long while after this I was transferred to what was called the Defense Ministry, where I worked installing and maintaining Cosmo cleaners, air filtration and cleaning equipment. Because of this I visited the Master’s home twice a week. I was also in charge of maintaining the cleaner in the Master’s own car. I had many chances to talk to him directly, and he said many thought-provoking things. I could feel he was trying as hard as he could to consider what was best for me, best for my development and growth. There’s a huge gap between that image of him and the picture you get at his trial.

In court people say, “The Master’s orders had to be obeyed absolutely.” From my own personal experience, however, many times when I didn’t agree with an order I’d suggest an alternative and he’d change his mind, saying, “All right. Let’s do it that way, then.” If you stated your opinion, he’d adjust things so you’d be satisfied. So at least for me, he didn’t seem to be forcing people to do things.

MURAKAMI: He might have acted differently depending on the type of order, and the type of people he was ordering about.

I have no idea. It’s a mystery. Each individual has his own image of the Master.

MURAKAMI: What did the Master—Asahara—mean to you personally? You can call him a guru or mentor, but it seems to me each believer had a slightly different image of him.

For me the Master was a spiritual leader. Not a prophet or anything, but the person who would provide the final answer to Buddhist teachings. The one who would interpret it for me. With Buddhism you can read the original scriptures all you want, but they’re just words on paper. No matter how deeply you study scripture by yourself, well, I wouldn’t exactly call it do-it-yourself Buddhism, but you do end up with your own skewed interpretation. What is critical is to progress, step by step, through proper training, to a correct understanding. After you’ve progressed one step, you stop and take stock and realize the progress you’ve made. It’s a repetition of this. And you need a teacher who can guide your training in the right direction. It’s the same as when you study math. In order to reach a certain level you have to trust what the teacher is telling you and do what he says. You learn one formula first, then another. Like that.

MURAKAMI: But sometimes you reach a point where doubts arise in your mind about whether your teacher is correct. For instance, are you convinced about things like Armageddon or the Freemasons?

I think part of what is said about the Freemasons is true, but I don’t swallow it whole.

MURAKAMI: At some point the character of Aum Shinrikyo began to change. Violent elements came to the surface. They manufactured guns, developed poison gas, tortured people: Did you have any inkling that this change was taking place?

Not at all. It was only later I found out. When I was inside Aum I had no idea. Though I did start to feel that pressure from the outside was growing stronger. And there were more people who felt ill, or whose health started to decline. This might be a problem if I say this, but there were spies who infiltrated the organization.

MURAKAMI: Did you know directly who the spies were?

No. But we were under surveillance by plainclothes police, and I’m certain that several spies had infiltrated. Though I can’t prove it.

Society is convinced that, from start to finish, the gas attack was the work of Aum—but I wonder. It’s clear Aum was the principal agent in the crime, but it seems like other people, other groups, were involved in aspects of it. There would be major repercussions if this surfaced, though, so someone’s keeping it under wraps. Of course, it would be difficult to prove anything.

MURAKAMI: It would be difficult. But let’s get back to life inside Aum. Was it entirely peaceful?

No, there were problems. For instance, the first time I went to Aso, I couldn’t believe how inefficient everything was. We’d construct a building only to have it torn down. The things we built weren’t what was needed. It’s just like a school festival. You work as hard as you can building a model, only to have it broken up as soon as the festival is over. So why do it? Because in the process of everyone working together you learn a lot: how to get along with others, various technical skills, all sorts of unseen elements. That’s why you work as hard as you can, only to destroy it. In the midst of this communal labor you grow to understand your own mind better.

MURAKAMI: Maybe the plans were just sloppy to begin with.

That might well be [laughs]. But what can you do? You just have to accept it. Businesses in Japan are more or less the same, aren’t they?

MURAKAMI: But no business would build a dam only to turn around and destroy it.

No, they probably wouldn’t go that far.

MURAKAMI: Did anybody complain about these inefficient ways?

Some people spoke up, some didn’t.

For a time I worked in the Science Group under Murai on the development of the Cosmo cleaner. A giant air-cleaning machine, in other words.

In connection with Cosmo cleaners, I was transferred to the newly formed Defense Ministry in 1994. Really something, isn’t it? The name [laughs]. From construction to science to the Defense Ministry. I didn’t take it all that seriously. I never thought we were trying to create our own state or anything.

I worked in Cosmo-cleaner maintenance. We made about sixty giant cleaners you attached to the sides of buildings. These developed into indoor Cosmo cleaners and activated Cosmo cleaners. We were in charge of maintaining them all. Truth be told, maintaining them was harder than building them. There were always problems—fluids leaking, faulty motors.

MURAKAMI: Cosmo cleaners were used at Satyam No. 7, weren’t they, where the sarin plant was located?

I wasn’t allowed in there. If I had been, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. On the day of the gas attack, I was at Satyam No. 2 in Kamikuishiki, waiting for the police raid. At that point we already knew they would be forcing their way in to investigate. A few media people were there, too, I think. But by 9 A.M. the police still hadn’t come, so I thought, “Today’s not the day,” and went back to work. I turned on the radio and heard about something out of the ordinary happening in the Tokyo subway. We weren’t supposed to listen to the radio, but I did anyway [laughs]. I talked to the colleague next to me about it. “They’ll be blaming Aum, too,” we decided. The police raid burst into our place two days later.

MURAKAMI: Mr. Inaba, do you admit now that one faction of Aum did indeed carry out the gas attack?

I do. There are some parts I can’t fully fathom, but since the people involved have confessed and are on trial, I believe that’s what happened.

MURAKAMI: What are your feelings about Asahara’s level of responsibility?

If he is responsible then he must be judged according to the law. But as I said before, there is such a huge gap between the Asahara I have in my mind and the Asahara I see on trial … As a guru, or religious figure, he had something very genuine. So I’m reserving judgment.

Inside me, also, are many wonderful things I received since entering Aum Shinrikyo. Putting those aside, though, what is bad must be clearly seen as such, and that’s what I’m trying to do now. Inside me. And, honestly, I don’t know how things will develop or what the future holds for me.

Generally people have the impression that Buddhism and Aum are completely different. Some people just simply classify Aum as a kind of mind control, but that’s far too simplistic. For me, it’s something I staked my whole life on during my twenties and thirties.

MURAKAMI: Esoteric Tibetan ascetic practice involves a one-to-one relationship between guru and disciple and aims at absolute devotion, doesn’t it? But what about this, for instance: what started out as a wonderful discipline somehow begins to get strange along the way—in computer terms it would be like a virus infects the computer and its functions, which are then out of kilter. There’s no third party to halt this process.

I don’t know about that.

MURAKAMI: So there is a danger inherent in this, because it involves absolute devotion. This time you just happened not to be involved in the incident, but if we pursue the logic here, if your guru orders you to commit po-a, it means you must do it, right?

But every religion gets implicated in that kind of thing. Even if, say, I was ordered to do that, I don’t think I could have. Hmm … which means, maybe I wasn’t devoted enough [laughs]. I hadn’t given over my entire self. Or to turn it around, you could say I was still weak. And I’m the type of person who has to be convinced of things before I can move on. Too commonsensical, I suppose.

MURAKAMI: So if you had been convinced, you might have carried it out? If they had said: “Mr. Inaba, you see, things are like this, and that’s why we have to commit po-a.” If they’d persuaded you, then what?

Well, I don’t know. It doesn’t. Hmm … it’s, well, hard to say.

MURAKAMI: What I’m trying to understand is what place is given to the Self in Aum Shinrikyo doctrine. In your training, how much do you leave up to your guru, and how much do you decide for yourself? I’m still not clear on this, even after listening to you.

In reality the Self can never be totally independent. There will always be some kind of intervention from outside. It’s affected by environmental factors, experiences, patterns of thought. So it’s not clear how far the pure Self extends. Buddhism begins with the realization that the Self that you believe is your Self is not the true Self. So Buddhism is perhaps the furthest you can get from mind control. It’s closer to Socrates’ idea that the wisest man knows he lacks wisdom.

MURAKAMI: It’s possible to view the Self as divided into surface and depth—an unconscious, something like a black box. Some people feel it’s their mission to pry open that black box in search of the truth. This might be something close to the astral you discussed.

Meditation is a method to reach the deepest part of your self. From a Buddhist perspective, deep within the subconscious lies each person’s essential sort of distortion. And that’s what it cures.

MURAKAMI: I think human beings should both open that black box and accept it as it is, otherwise it may turn dangerous. When I hear the statements of those who were arrested, though, it seems they couldn’t do this. They only analyzed things and left the intuitive part to someone else. Their way of looking at life became extremely static. So, when someone with great dynamism—an Asahara, for instance—tells them to do something, they can’t refuse.

I’m not exactly sure I can grasp what you’re saying, but I think I know what yoy’re getting at. It’s essentially the difference between wisdom and knowledge.

But you have to understand that there are people who have nothing to do with this incident who are working as hard as they can for their personal growth, to reach salvation. Of course Aum did some terrible things, that’s undeniable, but there are people being arrested for minor offenses and being intimidated who don’t deserve that. For example, if I go out for a walk, the police will follow me. If I try to get a job, I’ll be harrassed. People who’ve left Aum facilities can’t even find places to live. The media just puts out its one-sided view. No wonder we find it harder and harder to trust the secular world.

They tell us if we abandon our beliefs they’ll accept us, but people who have taken vows have pure motives, they are, in a sense, emotionally weak. If they could stay at home, work as usual, and train to improve themselves, no one would say anything. But they can’t, and that’s why they enter the temporary, isolated state called renunciation. People like that have a resistance to the obstacles of the worldly life, to those problems.

The structure of Aum has changed quite a lot, in very basic ways. It might look like nothing’s changed, but there’s been an internal transformation. There’s a move to return to the way it was at the beginning, where it began at the level of yoga. Having made the Founder’s child the new Leader, though, people might call that inexcusable and say we haven’t learned a thing.

MURAKAMI: I’m not saying that, but if you don’t publicly reflect on what happened and show remorse, if you just continue as if nothing has happened, no one is going to believe you. I don’t think it’s as simple as saying: “That’s something other people did. The basic teachings of Aum are correct. We’re victims too.” There are dangerous elements within the essence of Aum, within the structure of your doctrine. Aum has the duty to say all this in a public statement. Do that, and no one would mind if you continued your own style of religious activities.

Ever so slowly, incompletely, we’re trying to come up with a kind of interim report. It doesn’t completely sum up everything, but the media will never publish it anyway. If we made mistakes, well, we want people to point these out. But the Buddhist establishment won’t have anything to do with us, and remains silent.

MURAKAMI: Isn’t that because you always stick to your own vocabulary and way of phrasing things? You have to speak in ordinary terms, ordinary logic, like you’re holding a normal conversation. If you make it sound like you’re talking down to people, nobody’s going to listen.

Yes, it’s very difficult. But what would happen if we did speak in an ordinary way? [laughs] Since the media has made these one-sided attacks on us, no one would believe us, or they would just react in disgust. No matter what we say, when it appears in the media it’s always distorted. There’s not a single media outlet that would transmit our true feelings. No one comes like you have to really listen to us.

If you boil it all down, though, you arrive at the question of how critical the Founder [Asahara] is to this, and his real motives haven’t been revealed. As far as the gas attack goes, I think everything leads back to that. It’s asking a lot for us to explain the whole affair in a way that everyone would understand.

I’m still a member of Aum, but the people who have left Aum don’t think Aum is 100 percent bad, and those who remain don’t think it’s 100 percent correct. There are lots of people wavering. So it’s not like the media reports it, that the remaining members are all dogmatic believers. Most of the really dogmatic devotees of Asahara have left.

Every member is deeply troubled. Some people who’ve left have come to me for advice, and we’ve talked about this. I think I’ve gained a little breathing space now, but there was a time when all I could think about was whether I’d be able to adjust to life outside.

At the moment I’m earning my living teaching children in their homes. The members here live as a community, helping each other out. The guys I live with are out working on construction sites. When they heard you were coming they wanted to meet you, but they couldn’t very well skip work [laughs]. Everyone’s just doing odd jobs. The guy next door, for instance, is a truck driver. He’s been doing it for quite some time. Of course if his company heard he was an Aum member no one would hire him, so he keeps it a secret at work.

Other than rent I hardly spend anything. I don’t watch TV. Meals are provided. No luxury items. Utilities take up a bit. We can get by on about 60,000 yen. College students use about 100,000 yen a month, don’t you think? All of us are living like this, just scraping by.

The media says Aum is involved in all kinds of business deals, but that’s not true. Of course the Aum-related company Aleph, Inc., is still in business, but since the police are interfering, it’s not easy to keep it going. Some renunciates are old people who can only work from home, and some are ill. We have to take care of them. Everyone has to work to make sure they can be fed and housed. So there isn’t a lot of room to maneuver as far as money is concerned.

MURAKAMI: How are the Aum children you taught?

They’ve all gone back to the secular world and attend normal schools. Since you can’t raise children on a part-time job, their parents have all stopped being renunciates and are working full-time. I imagine it must have been hard for them to find work. I really don’t know much about how the kids are doing. In many cases they were forcibly separated from their parents.

Our way of teaching doesn’t involve hitting or any kind of violence. Our basic approach is to talk things through and use logic to persuade people. As renunciates, we have to follow our precepts strictly, or else what we say won’t be very convincing. It’s like telling someone not to smoke while you’re sitting there puffing away. Who’s going to believe you? Children watch how adults act very closely. Some of the Aum children were taken to juvenile homes, and I imagine the people there must have had their hands full [laughs].