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


“This was like an experiment using human beings”

Hajime Masutani (b. 1969)

Mr. Masutani was born in 1969 in Kanagawa Prefecture. His family was “very ordinary,” but he began to feel alienated from them, and they ended up barely speaking. He had no interest in sports or school, but loved drawing.

In college he studied architectural design. He didn’t have much interest in religion until some new religions contacted him. Aum Shinrikyo was the most attractive, and he became a member.

Just before the gas attack, he criticized some of Aum’s policies and was put in solitary confinement in Kamikuishiki. He felt in danger and ran away. For this Aum excommunicated him.

He likes to approach everything logically. Although critical of Aum teachings, he thinks highly of some of it. During his training he had several mystical experiences, but has little interest in “the supernatural,” eschatology, or conspiracy theories about groups like the Freemasons. When still a member he disliked the fact that Aum was moving in these directions. Nevertheless, he found it difficult—until his life was threatened—to leave Aum.

He hides the fact that he was a former member and lives alone, working part-time. We talked for many hours and he truly opened up to me.

I never felt any major frustration or difficulties in my life, really. It was more like something was missing. I was really into art, but the idea of spending my life painting pictures, making some money from them, had no appeal. In college, I happened to come across a book about Aum in a bookstore, and it really grabbed me. “Maybe instead of painting,” I thought, “living a religious life will help me get closer to the reality inside me.”

I was a freshman in college at the time, traveling alone in the Kansai region, when I heard there was an Aum dojo in Kyoto, and dropped by. It took place inside a rented building and was very spartan—even the altar was simple. It wasn’t like some religions that spend money in a flashy way. It had integrity. The people wore simple clothes, too. Mr. Matsumoto was there and I was able to hear him preach.*

To be honest, I couldn’t understand what he was getting at [laughs]. I was tired from the journey and kept dozing off. But I did feel a strong thread running through his sermon, and got the impression it was quite profound. I think I approached things with an artist’s intuition, relying on emotions rather than logic.

After the sermon we were invited to stay if we wanted to talk. I was able to talk one-to-one with Hideo Murai, who was said to have reached salvation. He didn’t have any holy atmosphere about him, and just struck me as an ordinary Aum follower. After we talked about the body and other things, he rather abruptly said: “Well, how about joining?” Later on, I realized that was one of Aum’s standard tactics. Usually people who go to these kinds of places are lacking something or seeking something, but the dojo seemed pleasant enough, and being asked to join like that, out of the blue, I just went with the flow and filled out the application forms. It cost 30,000 yen to join, and I didn’t have the money on me at the time, so I paid after I got back to Tokyo.

For a while I went to the Setagaya dojo, but spent most of my time distributing Aum leaflets. Instead of training, we had to build up merit. At the dojo they had maps dividing Tokyo into various sections and we’d be told what area to cover that day. We’d drive over there at night and they’d say, “You’re covering this neighborhood,” and off we’d go. We’d walk around, sticking leaflets in people’s mailboxes. I took the job seriously. I had a sense of accomplishment whenever I finished, enjoying the physical activity involved. Also I believed that if we racked up spiritual merit, the guru [Asahara] would impart energy to us.

MURAKAMI: So distributing leaflets was more fun for you than going to school?

The direction of my life had changed. No matter how much I studied architectural design and found a good job, that’s all there’d be. I came to think it was more meaningful to persist in spiritual training and to eventually reach enlightenment.

MURAKAMI: So at this point you had already lost interest in ordinary life and had shifted to a more spiritual goal?

That’s right.

MURAKAMI: People who agonize over fundamental issues usually go through a sort of set pattern: reading all sorts of books when they’re young, discovering different philosophies and choosing from them a system of ideas. But you didn’t do this. You let your mood carry you along and just went straight into Aum.

I was young. Aum started to play a greater role in my life. For the most part I stopped attending classes, failed to pick up some credits I needed, and knew I’d be held back a year. It was just at this delicate stage that Mr. Matsumoto [Asahara] suddenly said: “You should become a renunciate.” So I thought it was a good idea.

This was during what they call “Secret Yoga.” Mr. Matsumoto [Asahara] would be sitting there, flanked by several of his senior disciples, and you’d sit facing them and get personal advice or make a confession or something. In those days ordinary believers could talk face-to-face with him. This was the period when Aum was trying to increase its members so it could expand, and I think he was just trying to boost the numbers rather than carefully considering my case. The staff also told me that “The reason you aren’t able to cope in the secular world is because of the ‘karma of renunciation.’” Soon afterward I became a renunciate. This was in 1990. I was among the first. At the time I was steeped in Aum and didn’t hesitate. When the guru says “renounce the world” that’s what the disciple’s supposed to do. I believed Mr. Matsumoto [Asahara] was the person who could answer any question I had. I trusted him.

When I was a believer, before I became a renunciate, I participated halfheartedly in the election campaign. The guru wanted us to, so I did what I could, but I had no interest in the election. I questioned everything we did, like even. then I wasn’t in sync with what was going on [laughs]. For me enlightenment was uppermost, and anything else was wasted effort. Even if enlightened practitioners tell you something is correct, there might well be something in it you can’t yet grasp. Aum followers tend to think that way. You don’t understand something, but there’s still some profound meaning in it.

My family was opposed to my taking vows but they’ve never mattered much to me. I left college, moved out of my apartment, threw out all my possessions, and went to live at the Aum headquarters at Mt. Fuji. We were limited to what we could bring with us—only two suitcases of clothes.

After that I was sent to Naminomura at Aso. Since I’d studied architectural design, I was transferred to the building site, though all I’d done in college was drafting. They selected me over some physically stronger people, so I thought there might be some mistake. “Are you sure that’s right?” I asked. And they said, “Just go anyway,” and that’s what I did. In the end I was a laborer for just one day and told my superior Naropa [Fumihiko Nagura] that I couldn’t continue. I just didn’t have the physical stamina. So I was transferred to the Home Economics Division. I prepared meals and was in charge of collecting laundry. It took quite a while to get used to life there, but doing the tasks assigned to me by the guru was an act of devotion, so I did my best.

The work at Aso was so hard a lot of people left. I thought it was too late to return to society, so I stayed put. I must say, though, that I did have a sense of accomplishment working there. We followed the “Aum Diet” and every day consisted of very old rice and boiled vegetables. Live that way for a while and visions of the food you’d like to eat pop into your head, but I tried to create a Self that wouldn’t be tempted by them. I was pretty much a vegetarian to begin with and the diet didn’t bother me too much. I felt light and free from all the attachments in the world that can delude you.

Let’s see … how long was I at Naminomura? We didn’t have calendars so there was no sense of the days passing. I must have been there quite some time. We completed several buildings. If you live such a simple, unvarying life for so long, shut off from the outside, small irritations start to appear. A great conflict arose in me between those and my desire for salvation.

I was called back to Mt. Fuji to join the Animation Division. By then Aso was no longer the center of Aum activities and had become a kind of backwater, so I was happy to leave. In the Animation Division I drew pictures for cartoons. It was pretty crude stuff. We used animation to explain how Mr. Matsumoto [Asahara] had supernatural powers. Him hovering in the air and so on. A real film would have been convincing, but no one would be convinced by a cartoon. The final product was awful. Around this time I had more opportunities to be with Mr. Matsumoto [Asahara]. I found myself growing more mistrustful of him and of Aum.

After this I did all sorts of jobs and finally Shoko Asahara ordered me to concentrate on training. It involved study and meditation and was spiritually fulfilling in part, but very strenuous. Other than time out to eat and go to the toilet we had to sit there the entire day. We even had to sleep sitting up. We studied for a certain number of hours, and then took a test. This went on day after day.

I must have done that training for about half a year. My sense of time is vague, so I’m just guessing … Some people did it for years. You have no idea when you can leave. The guru decides. I was kept in training for a long time, then sent back to work, then back to train …

MURAKAMI: Was Asahara the one who decided when you advanced to the next level? Like, “Tomorrow you’ll move on to the next stage”?

That’s right, but I never advanced at all. I didn’t even get a holy name.

MURAKAMI: But you did it for a long time and worked hard at it. Why didn’t you advance?

Aum was very realistic about granting salvation to those who had contributed a lot to the organization. Of course people’s spiritual levels were a factor, but how much you donated really made a difference. For men, their educational background was often the key. Tokyo University graduates were quickly raised to a higher level of salvation, or given a more important job, or made a leader. For women it depended on how attractive you were. No kidding. Not much different from the secular world (laughs).

I don’t think I was of much use to Mr. Matsumoto [Asahara]. Up to a certain point I was sure my failure to advance was due to my lack of effort, but at the same time I thought that maybe everybody else felt the same way, namely that Tokyo University graduates seemed to enjoy special favor from the Master.

I often mentioned this to my friends, but they’d cut me off by saying, “You think that way because of your uncleanliness” or “That’s karma,” which means that whenever any doubts came to mind everything could be blamed on your own uncleanliness. Similarly, all good things were “Thanks to the guru.”

MURAKAMI: That’s a pretty efficient system. Everything’s recycled or brought to a conclusion within the system itself.

I believed it was the path to follow in order to do away with the Self.

At first everyone who joined had very strong wills, but after living in Aum you’d lose that. No matter how dissatisfied you might be with Aum life it was preferable to life outside with its uncleanliness and attachments. Living with a group of like-minded people, it was psychologically easier to stay put.

MURAKAMI: Around 1993 Aum became more violent. Did you sense this was happening?

I did. Sermons increasingly focused on Vajrayana Tantra and more people seemed worked up about the idea that Vajrayana Tantra was about to take place. I couldn’t follow the doctrine that the means didn’t matter. I didn’t feel comfortable with it. Our training started to include some bizarre elements: martial arts became a large part of our daily routine, and I could feel the atmosphere changing. I gave a lot of thought to whether I could continue being in Aum.

Not that it mattered much what I thought, since Mr. Matsumoto [Asahara] was convinced this was the shortest path to our goals. If that’s the case, there’s not much you can do. Either you stay or leave.

Our training started to include being hung upside down. Anyone breaking commandments had their legs tied up in chains and they were hung upside down. It doesn’t sound like much if you just describe it, but it’s torture, plain and simple. The blood drains from your legs and it feels like they’re about to be torn off. By breaking commandments I mean anything from breaking the vow of chastity by having relations with a girl, or being suspected of being a spy, or having comic books in your possession … The room where I worked at the time was directly below the Fuji dojo and I could hear these loud screams from above, real shrieks, people yelling, “Kill me! Put me out of my misery!”—the kind of barely human voice wrung out of someone in excruciating pain. Pitiful screams, as if the space there itself was warped and twisted: “Master! Master! Help me!—I’ll never do it again!” When I heard them I just shuddered.

I couldn’t work out what possible point it could have. But what’s weird is that many of the people who were hung upside down like that are still in Aum. They’d suffer, be taken to the edge of death, and then be kindly told “You did well.” And they’d think, “I was able to overcome the trials given to me. Thank you, O Guru!”

Of course if they carried it too far, you’d die. They never told us, but that’s how Naoki Ochi died. Finally they started drug initiation. Everyone thought it was LSD. You had visions and things, but I wasn’t convinced it was a means of reaching salvation. There were rumors about someone dying during training, or someone planning to escape, being caught, and things done to him, but rumors in Aum always remained just that, and there was never any way to confirm them. Our ability to distinguish right from wrong was being eroded.

There were rumors, too, that spies had infiltrated Aum, and they used lie detectors to try to root them out. They called this an initiation, too, and everyone in Aum had to take a lie-detector test. I thought it was strange, because wouldn’t the guru, who was supposed to know everything, be able to tell at a glance who the spies were? Aside from this I was once questioned about my best friend, who’d been placed in solitary confinement. I was given a polygraph test and asked all sorts of questions, including some unpleasant ones I couldn’t accept. Afterward I asked the higher-ups, “Why do you have to ask such things? They’re pointless.” They were obscene questions that dealt with personal, private matters. Learning the answers wasn’t going to get them anywhere. But I must have annoyed the higher-ups. Right afterward Tomomitsu Niimi told me: “You’re being transferred. Pack your things now.” I was put in solitary confinement. I asked him why, but he didn’t answer. That’s when I began to wonder what was going on. Training was supposed to be all about reaching salvation, but now it had become a form of punishment.

The solitary-confinement cell was the size of one tatami mat. The door was locked. It was summer, hot all the time, but they had a heater going. I was forced to drink gallons of a special Aum drink in a plastic bottle and sweat it out in the heat. Like they were trying to rid me of something bad. Of course I couldn’t take a bath and the grime dripped off me. No toilet, just a chamber pot inside my cell. My head zoned out and I couldn’t think straight.

MURAKAMI: It’s amazing you didn’t die.

It would have been easier if I had, and frankly at the time I think I really wanted to. But you know, when people are put in situations like that they prove remarkably resilient. Most of the people in solitary were wavering in their faith or were no longer useful to Aum. We had no idea when they would let us out. So I told myself, “Okay, I’ll use this to my advantage to do some serious training.” Keep on complaining and you’ll never get out. The only thing to do was think positively, put up with it, then move on.

Part of our daily training consisted of an initiation called Bardo Leading. They’d take you to another room, blindfold you, handcuff your hands behind you, and make you sit up straight. Then they’d bang on a drum, ring a brass bell, and scream in a loud, crazed voice something like “Train! Train! There’s no turning back, so we have to do our best!”

One day, though, when they took me over, I was suddenly pinned down by Siha [Takashi Tomita] and Satoru Hashimoto, and Niimi plugged up my nose and mouth. I couldn’t breathe. “You think your superiors are fools, don’t you?” they asked me. They were trying to kill me, but I used all my strength and was able to break free. “I’ve been doing my damnedest,” I shouted, “so why are you doing this to me?” Things settled down after that and I was able to go back to my cell, but I felt I was finished with Aum. How could they treat me like this, I thought, when I was doing my best?

Later I underwent what they called “Christ Initiation” a number of times. This was like an experiment using human beings. Whenever Niimi gave me drugs to take he looked at me like I was a guinea pig. “Drink it!” he said, his voice cold and detached. I saw Jivaka [Seiichi Endo] and Vajira Tissa [Tomomasa Nakagawa] come by to check out the solitary cells. My mind was messed up because of the drugs, but I recall that quite clearly. They came to see our reaction to the drugs. I realized that the people in solitary were being used in drug experiments. We weren’t worth much to them alive, so they must have thought that using us in human experiments was the only way we’d build up spiritual merit. That made me ponder long and hard where fate had led me.

“Can I just die like this?” I wondered. “A guinea pig in a human experiment? If that’s my fate then the only way out is to return to the secular world. This is too inhuman, too terrible …” I was shocked, wondering where Aum had gone wrong.

After the drug initiation everyone was dead tired, so the door was left open for a time. I wasn’t too zonked out by then so I prepared a change of clothes and after making sure the coast was clear, dressed and crept out of the building. There were guards, but I managed to give them the slip.

[Mr. Masutani borrowed the bus fare from someone he bumped into on the street and returned to his parents’ home in Tokyo. A few months after his escape he learned that he had been excommunicated. The reasons given for this, he says, are groundless.]

So that’s how I went back to living in the secular world—not because I wanted to live an ordinary life, but because I couldn’t follow Aum any longer. The truth is I had nowhere else to go, so I went back to living with my parents. My family was so happy and said, “Thank goodness you’re back!” but since I’d lived five years already with no emotional attachments to them it just didn’t feel like a family anymore. I could never be satisfied with ordinary life; my parents couldn’t understand this, however, so it all fell apart. We began to fight and I moved out.

MURAKAMI: Before that, in March 1995, there was the gas attack. What are your feelings about that?

At first I didn’t think Aum had done it. They preached about Vajrayana Tantra, of course, and the atmosphere within Aum had taken a bizarre turn, but I couldn’t imagine they’d go so far as to use sarin. We’re talking about a group that wouldn’t even kill a cockroach. When I was still in Aum I often heard from the staff how the Ministry of Science and Technology had made some comical blunder, so I couldn’t imagine them carrying out something this complex. The media reported it as definitely the work of Aum, but Aum and Fumihiro Joyu denied any connection with it. At first I was inclined to believe them. As the investigation continued, though, some facts emerged that contradicted Aum’s claims, and I had my doubts. I reread my diary and it seems that it was around August of that year [1995] that I began to feel alienated from Aum. After that I was convinced that Aum carried out the attack.

Although I ran away from Aum because I could no longer agree with it or carry out its wishes, I couldn’t readjust to secular life. Aum’s stance of trying to overcome worldly attachments still struck me as more laudable than ordinary society. I began to reconsider what Aum—which I had devoted myself to—was all about. Trying to establish what was good about it, and what was wrong.

After leaving home I worked in a convenience store and did part-time jobs to get by. I stay in touch with my friends from Aum days, and we get together. Some of them still fully support Aum, and some admit that the gas attack was wrong, but think Aum doctrine is still sound. As many viewpoints as there are people. Even so, there are very few who have severed all ties to Aum and are living according to secular values.

I have no more interest in Aum, and am leaning now toward primitive Buddhism. All the people who’ve left Aum have incorporated some religious aspect into their lives.

MURAKAMI: Of course, the individual is free to try to overcome desires and attachments and so on, but from an objective point of view it seems extremely dangerous to allow another, a guru, to take control of your own ego. Are there still many believers or ex-believers who don’t recognize this?

I don’t think many have thought about it properly. Gautama Buddha said, “The Self is the true master of the Self” and “Keep the Self an island, approaching nothing.” In other words, Buddhist disciples practice asceticism in order to find the true Self. They find impurities and attachments, and attempt to extinguish these. But what Mr. Matsumoto [Asahara] did was equate “Self” and “attachments.” He said that in order to get rid of the ego, the Self must be disposed of as well. Humans love the “Self,” so they suffer, and if the “Self” can be discarded then a shining true Self will emerge. But this is a complete reversal of Buddhist teachings. The Self is what should be discovered, not discarded. Terrorist crimes like the gas attack result from this process of easily giving up on the Self. If the Self is lost, then people will become completely insensitive to murder and terrorism.

In the final analysis, Aum created people who had discarded their Selves and just followed orders. Therefore enlightened practitioners in Aum, those most steeped in Aum doctrine, are not truly enlightened people who have mastered the truth. It’s a perversion for believers who supposedly have renounced the world to run around collecting donations in the name of “salvation.”

I don’t believe that Mr. Matsumoto [Asahara] gradually turned strange. He had those ideas in mind from the start. What he did was push them forward in stages.

MURAKAMI: So from the beginning he had the pian to go in the direction of Vajrayana Tantra? It wasn’t that somewhere along the way he became deluded and the direction of Aum changed?

There’s some truth in both. One element was there from the start, and as he surrounded himself with yes-men his sense of reality faded and delusions took over.

However, I think that, in his own way, Asahara was seriously considering the question of salvation. Otherwise, no one would have renounced the world to follow him. To some extent there was something mystical about it all. The same thing holds true for me—yoga and ascetic practice led to some mystical experiences.

MURAKAMI: Now Aum is attempting to continue with the same doctrines—minus Shoko Asahara and the Vajrayana Tantra. How do you feel about that?

Since nothing about Aum has changed, there’s a distinct danger that new crimes will occur—maybe not soon, but eventually. Also, people who remain in Aum have accepted the gas attack on a subconscious level, so they’re not aware of the dangers of carrying on the same teachings. All they think about are the good points of Aum and the benefits they’ve received.

When I think about the victims of the gas attack and those colleagues of mine who were directly involved in carrying out the crime, I want to grab the people who still believe in Aum and shout at them: “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”—but they’d probably just withdraw deeper into their shells. All we can do is slowly show them the truth and make them aware of it.

How I can come to terms with the secular world is a difficult question. I’ve had enough of belonging to organizations—I just want to try to make it on my own. A part of me wants to extinguish the desires within me, but all I can do now is take one step at a time under my own steam.

MURAKAMI: Since you were a freshman in college you spent at least seven years in Aum. Do you feel like that time was lost to you?

No, I don’t. A mistake is a mistake, but something of value comes from overcoming that. It can be a turning point in your life.

Some former Aum members have completely discarded the Aum experience and don’t read the papers or watch any reports on it. They close their eyes to it, but that doesn’t help you learn anything from your mistakes. It’s like when you do badly in a test and you really examine where you went wrong. If you don’t, the next time you’ll make the very same mistake.