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


“Asahara tried to force me to have sex with him”

Harumi Iwakura (b. 1965)

Ms. Iwakura was born in Kanagawa Prefecture. Fair, slim, and attractive, it’s perhaps easier to picture her if I say she is one of the “Aum beauties” we hear so much about. She smiled throughout the interview, was very attentive to her guest, and though not particularly eloquent, was quick to answer all the questions I put to her. She tends to dwell on small details, and gives the impression that deep down she’s a strong person.

After graduating from junior college she worked in an office, and spent most of her time and money having a good time. Gradually, though, she grew dissatisfied with playing around and found herself attracted to Aum Shinrikyo, which she happened to hear about. She resigned and became a renunciate.

For a long time she was one of Shoko Asahara’s “special people,” but something happened and she was given electroshock treatment and lost her memory. For a long time afterward she wandered in a state of almost complete oblivion, regaining her senses just before the Tokyo gas attack. For this reason her memories of Aum are fragmentary. Her recollections of her pre-and post-Aum life are clear, but she finds it impossible to fully account for herself during the two years she was in Aum.

She has no aftereffects, she tells me, but she’s determined never to have anything to do with Aum again. It’s “over and done with.” She doesn’t particularly want to recall this lost period, either. Originally when she read several of my interviews with other Aum followers in Bungei Shunju she thought, “Count me out.”

Now she works as a beautician and hopes to get more training, put aside some money, and open her own business. She lives simply, in an apartment that costs 30,000 yen a month. “Sweltering in the summer, freezing in the winter,” is how she describes it. “Thanks to Aum, though,” she says with a smile, “a simple life doesn’t bother me.”

I started working in 1985, when the economy Was still pretty good. You could go on company trips to hot springs and stuff like that, which I enjoyed. All I cared about was having a good time. I liked going out and though I wasn’t much of a drinker, I often went out drinking with friends. It’d get late and I’d ask my girlfriends to put me up for the night. On any given week I’d be sleeping over at someone else’s half the time.

On holidays I went looking for fun—Tokyo Disneyland, Toshi-maen Park, the usual places. Sometimes with other girls, sometimes with boyfriends. I went overseas, too, Paris and other places. I had a few boyfriends, but never once contemplated marriage. I just couldn’t handle it.

MURAKAMI: To other people it must have looked like you were enjoying life.

I suppose so, but I kept mulling over all kinds of things. Like, “I don’t have any special skills, nothing that makes me stand out from the crowd. I don’t even feel like I want to get married.…”

When I reached my mid-twenties, more and more of my friends started to get married, leave the company, and move away. I wasn’t as young as I had been. My lifestyle seemed increasingly pointless.

MURAKAMI: And it was about this time that you got attracted to Aum Shinrikyo? What was it exactly that made you join?

One day I wanted to get my hair cut. Usually I’d go to a place a friend ran, but that day I didn’t have enough time so I went to a beauty shop in the neighborhood. The price for a haircut was really cheap, so I went there a few more times after this, and one day a man who worked there happened to show me an Aum Shinrikyo pamphlet. “I’m thinking of becoming a member,” he told me, but my only thought was: “Whoa!—looks fishy to me.”

He taught me some purification techniques. Like, for instance, you drink water and then vomit, or you empty your stomach and then run a string inside your nose. I’d always been a little weak. I often get eczema. See? (shows her arm) I’ve got some right now. When I told him this he said, “Well, why don’t you give it a try?” So I did, and my eczema cleared up just like that. I tried it once and the next day—poof!—it was gone.

Also, I’d never had much of an appetite and could only manage half a child-size bowl of rice, but after trying these techniques I could down a huge bowl—which amazed my mother. My headaches disappeared, too, and my overall health improved.

“Wow—this is really something!” I thought. The man at the beauty shop said, “Why don’t you join when I do?” but I hesitated for a long time. He persisted and I started to think maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

MURAKAMI: At that time did you know Aum Shinrikyo was a religion and not just a yoga training group?

Yes, I knew that. This was when the election took place and they were wearing those elephant hats. But I wasn’t interested in doctrine, or whatever, or Shoko Asahara. All I felt was that since my health had improved it was probably worth taking the time and effort to check it out. I’m sure curiosity played a big part in it.

At first I went to a nearby dojo and talked to the enlightened practitioners there. I don’t remember what we talked about. It didn’t leave much of an impression. I wasn’t going there with any great expectations or anything. We just talked, and I filled it in.

MURAKAMI: And you just listened to their explanation of doctrine and things?

[Laughs] That’s right.

MURAKAMI: When you say you “filled it in” you mean you made an application there on the spot to be a member? So you just halfheartedly listened to what they said, and became a member without really under-standing their doctrine? The other people I’ve interviewed up to now all became members after struggling with lots of Big Questions, but in your case it seems as though you just dived in.

Hmm … It was pretty fast. When I joined they told me the entrance fee was 30,000 yen, with half a year’s membership fee 18,000 yen, for a total of 48,000 yen. I said, “Gosh—I don’t have that kind of money,” and the man who originally asked me to join said he’d put up half. Not like he was my boyfriend or anything. Yes, he was very kind. But I think he might have thought he’d earn merit for himself by getting me to join. I thought if I only had to pay half, then okay.

After I joined we had duties to perform: go to the dojo and complete a set list of chores. At first I didn’t feel like doing that. They’d ask you to come, but people who didn’t want to didn’t. But the man who originally invited me asked me over and over to go, and it was nearby, so I thought why not?

When I went to the dojo I saw renunciates in sweatshirts, all very calm, serene even, and I was taken with this way of spending time. It was a world light-years away from the noise and clamor of the company and commuting. I felt relaxed there. I’d sit there quietly, folding leaflets. I felt at ease doing that. It wasn’t hard at all. Everyone was kind, and the whole atmosphere was so peaceful. On my days off I’d go to the dojo, sometimes going straight from work, fold handbills, then go home. This went on for a while. Aum’s a twenty-four-hour operation, so I could go whenever I wanted.

At work a lot of people were having affairs with other people in the company. My father had had an affair and I couldn’t stand it. Going to the dojo after the office was like day after night. It was so calm there. I could be at peace, my mind a blank, and just fold handbills. I loved that feeling.

I became a renunciate after the Ishigaki Island seminar in April 1990, so it was just two months from the time I joined to the time I took vows.

At Ishigaki they talked a lot about Armageddon. This was taught to people who’d been in Aum a long time, but people like me, lay members who still lived at home, weren’t told the first thing about it. For lay followers who lived at home, what you were taught depended on the amount of money you donated. In my case, they just asked me to attend the seminar without explaining much. It cost hundreds of thousands of yen. I withdrew my savings to pay for it. By this time I’d begun to wonder if I could go on living as I had been. To attend the seminar I had to ask for time off out of the blue. I made up some story. People were pretty annoyed.

When I got to Ishigaki at first I wondered what was going on, but after a while I thought the way they did things made life easier—they’d give the order and you just did what they said. No need to think for yourself, or worry about every little detail, just do what you’re told. We did things like group breathing exercises out on the beach.

There was a kind of unspoken understanding that everyone should become a renunciate, and most of the people who attended did just that, myself included. When you take vows you have to leave home, leave your job, and donate all your money. If I’d been 20 I don’t think I would have gone through with it, but at 25 I thought, well, enough’s enough.

MURAKAMI: Did being in special surroundings like Ishigaki have any influence on your decision?

Hmm … That wasn’t the only reason; I think it was just a matter of time before I took vows. Even if that hadn’t happened then I was already leaning in that direction. Not having to think for myself or make any decisions was a big factor. Just leave it up to them, and since the order comes from Mr. Asahara, who’s enlightened, you know everything’s been well thought out.

I didn’t have much interest in doctrine itself, I mean I never reacted like, “Wow! This is fantastic!” or anything. I just thought it was great if all kinds of attachments could be eliminated. Do away with these and life would be easy, I thought. Attachments meaning things like your emotional attachment to your parents, a desire to be fashionable, hatred of others.

But once I entered Aum I found it was no different from ordinary society. Like someone would say, “So-and-so has a lot of hate inside him,” well—that’s no different from the backstabbing that goes on outside, is it? Only the vocabulary has changed. “Nothing here’s any different,” I thought.

Anyway, I left my job. I forced my company to accept my resignation. I made up some excuse—I wanted to study abroad or something. They tried hard to talk me out of it, but I thought, “Please don’t stop me,” and it wasn’t easy. I couldn’t tell them the truth, but I was determined to leave.

My mother never watches TV talk shows and had no idea about Aum. When I told her that becoming a renunciate meant we couldn’t see each other again, she cried a little. She had no idea. Though she’d thought it strange how my health and appetite had improved. “I suppose it’s time for me to cut the apron strings,” she said.

MURAKAMI: It sounds like she still didn’t really understand [laughs]. So how was life as a renunciate?

Some people wanted to see their parents or go home, but that didn’t bother me. I didn’t think, “This is great!” or anything, just that life in Aum wasn’t so bad.

I went to Naminomura at Aso and worked in the Home Economics Division. I cooked, did laundry. That was the first time I met Mr. Asahara. All of a sudden he said, “Come on over.” “Huh?” I thought, and went, and we talked, just the two of us, for about twenty minutes inside a prefab building there.

The feeling I got was amazing. He’d say something about me and he’d be right on target. I don’t know, it was just … What did he say? Like, “In the secular world you were doing this,” or “In the secular world you played around too much and used up your merit.” Later he said, “You’ve been out with many men.” That kind of thing. People told me it was special to be able to talk directly with him that way, but I just thought, “Really?”

MURAKAMI: Of course, if he looked into your background beforehand he could know quite a bit about you. What you did in the world outside, and so on.

I know that, but he was the Final Liberated One, and in that special atmosphere, with him very deliberately saying these things, I just had to think, “Wow. That’s something!” It really was. At first I was a bit scared, though. “You could never fool this man,” I thought. Life at Aso was hard. It was really cold, and the people around me seemed like oddballs, they were so self-centered. They had no common sense, and thought only of themselves. There were some people originally from the same branch as me who were relatively normal, and those were the ones I hung out with. Once I even told Mr. Asahara how I felt. “Don’t you think a lot of the people here are weird?” I asked. “That’s not true,” he replied.

In contrast, the people at the upper levels, the leaders, weren’t strange at all. They were great. I was really able to talk freely, in private, with Masters I was friends with. People might not like me to say this, but Eriko Iida, Tomomitsu Niimi, and Hideo Murai were, for me, good people. The people below were weird, though, by and large. We just didn’t hit it off.

I left Aso for Tokyo, and was doing clerical work at the Aum headquarters there when Mr. Asahara started phoning me almost every day. “How are you getting along?” he’d ask, and he’d give me advice on training to do in between work. That sort of thing. Nothing of any consequence. But it did make me happy to have him say those things. It wasn’t like he’d call just anybody. People told me it was because of merit I’d accrued in the past world, but sometimes the phone calls would totally stop and I’d think: “Why isn’t he calling?” That hurt. It seems strange to me now, but that’s how I felt at the time.

Once Mr. Asahara tried to force me to have sex with him. This was at Fuji when I was in the Dubbing Division. That’s where we’d use a machine to measure off so many meters of recording tape and make copies of sermons. Office work at the Tokyo headquarters was so superbusy I was lucky to snatch three hours’ sleep at night, and I wanted a more laid-back job, so I asked Mr. Asahara to let me change. I wanted a relaxed life—train half the day and then spend the rest of the time making copies of tapes.

I was able to get by without sleeping with him. I’m glad it turned out like that. Mr. Asahara had asked me to his room. Before then a couple of times he’d said some suggestive things to me. Like he’d call me and ask, “When was your last period?” “What the—?” I thought, then wondered, “Gosh—when was it, anyway?” “You’ll be undergoing a special initiation soon,” he said. I asked one of the veteran Masters about this. “Well, actually …” he said, and told me it meant having sex with Mr. Asahara.

Mr. Asahara used to go after me, but I’d get really uptight. Like this. (Hunches shoulders, stiffens her body.) He can’t see well, but he’s very intuitive. So he must have known I was pretty jumpy about it. If he touched me I’d get like this. He finally gave up. “Whew—what a relief!” I thought. For most followers, though, having a sexual relationship with him was something to be happy about, grateful even.

MURAKAMI: But you weren’t?

No. I hated the idea. Don’t get me wrong—I respected him as a guru. Depending on the circumstances he could change the way he talked 180 degrees—a lot of people were attracted by that. And he was very sensitive to language. But his role as a guru and the question of sex were two different issues, and I hated the idea. I could believe that those types of initiations took place, but the idea that Mr. Asahara was involved gave me the creeps. I don’t know how to put it exactly … It wasn’t the image I had of him.

MURAKAMI: Higher-ups in Aum must have known about Asahara’s sexual relationships with female samana, right?

One veteran Master told me that Ms. Iida and Ms. [Hisako] Ishii had both slept with him, and that she had as well. I didn’t think about whether that was good or bad, I was just impressed by how profound Tantra was.

MURAKAMI: Was there any kind of reaction because you refused to have a physical relationship with Asahara?

I don’t know. I lost my memory after that. I underwent electroshock. I still have the scars from the electricity right here. (Raises her hair to show her neck, where a line of white scars remains.) I remember things up to the time I entered the Dubbing Division, but after that it’s a blank. I have no idea at what point, and for what reason my memory was erased. I asked people around me but no one would tell me. All they’d say was, “It seems you and a certain somebody were getting to a dangerous point.” I couldn’t recall anything like that, so I’d press them to tell me more. “It’s been erased so we can’t talk about it,” they’d reply.

MURAKAMI: But there wasn’t anything in particular between you and the person they mentioned?

I don’t remember a thing. There was someone I liked very much who had been warned by Mr. Asahara, but the man people were mentioning was someone completely different, so I was confused. “Why him?” I thought.

Mr. Asahara was deadly serious about keeping up on all the gossip about relations between the sexes, and if couples were getting too close he’d try to break it up. He called me, too, saying, “Ms. Iwakura, haven’t you been breaking commandments with Mr. So-and-so?” He sounded confident he knew what was going on, but I had absolutely nothing to do with that person. “What!” I replied. “I haven’t done anything.” And he’d go, “Oh, really? I understand,” and hang up. It was pretty weird.

Anyway, my memory was erased, and when I came to myself it was already the beginning of the year of the gas attack [1995]. I’d gone into the Dubbing Division in 1993 and the two years after that are an absolute blank. Except I suddenly got a flashback of me working in an Aum-run supermarket in Kyoto. All of a sudden this scene came back to me. It’s summer, I’m wearing a T-shirt, and I’m sticking price tags on packets of ramen. Detergent boxes are lined up on a shelf. It was frightening. Where I was and what I was doing during that time, I have no idea.

Suddenly I woke up and I was in a sealed room in Kamikuishiki. Sealed rooms were originally places for Masters to use for training, but in my case it was more like a prison. The room was less than three feet by six feet, without even a peephole in the door. Good thing it was winter because in summer it would have been unbearable. The room was locked from the outside, and I was only allowed out to use the toilet or take a shower.

A person who’d become a renunciate after me was in charge of me and I asked her, “What’s going on here? I don’t understand what’s happening,” but she couldn’t tell me a thing. I saw a Master I knew and asked, “Why am I in here?” “It’s the karma of ignorance,” came the reply. “Animalistic karma has surfaced.” But I thought that was an absolute lie. That couldn’t be the reason they were treating me this way.

My suitcase was on the stairs and when I was getting some things I needed from it Mr. Murai happened to pass by. “You hanging in there?” he asked me, and I said: “I have no idea what’s going on.” He told me his room number and said, “I’ll have them leave your door unlocked tonight. Come over and we’ll talk.” But the person in charge of me said: “We can’t allow meetings.”

I decided I’d run off while in the rest room and somehow find Mr. Murai, but the guard caught me, we struggled, and my T-shirt got ripped. It was terrible. If they take me back I’m finished, I thought, and I screamed at the top of my lungs. Everybody rushed out, including Mr. Murai, who told me to come to his room. And that’s what I did.

In the past Mr. Murai was a very nice person, but now he was changed. He was very cold. All he said to me was, “Stop acting like this … pull yourself together.”

This was around the time the police raids were about to begin, and they couldn’t very well keep people in locked cells. I was moved to Satyam No. 6, then sent to the Fuji office. Mr. Asahara was on the verge of being arrested, so there wasn’t any real office work to do and I had it easy.

MURAKAMI: The gas attack occurred around then, with all the subsequent uproar. Did you believe that Aum had done something wrong?

No, I didn’t. I just thought the police had cooked up the whole thing as an excuse to confiscate more data about followers. I’d had some awful experiences, but I hadn’t lost faith in Aum. Of course I wondered what was going on, why Mr. Murai had become like a totally different person. I knew something was strange.

I left Kamikuishiki because all the enlightened Masters had been arrested, and the remaining Masters just started to give orders on a whim. When I saw this going on I thought, “That’s it. I’ve had enough.” With Mr. Asahara out of the picture, it was the end of the road. There wasn’t any problem about me leaving. I decided it was time, and left.

MURAKAMI: Were you afraid at all of returning to the outside world? Afraid that you might not be able to make it?

No, I never thought that. I knew I could make it. I went back to my mother’s house and stayed there for about a month. She was really concerned about me. “It was on TV every day,” she said, “and I was worried sick.” I saw the reports about the gas attack on TV and at first I just told everybody, “Don’t believe what you hear,” but after a while everybody who had left was giving the same testimony, and I began to think: “You know, it looks like Aum did do it.”

About a month after this, I decided I had to get a job. I knew it was hard for my mother. I felt sorry for her. She gave me 100,000 yen to tide me over, and I left home, and got a job as a maid in a hot-springs hotel. I was wondering how I could live on my own with all the heavy down payments on apartments you need in Japan, and came up with the idea of a hot-springs resort. I could work there and live free of charge.

At the job interview, of course, I kept my Aum background to myself and they hired me, but before long an officer from Public Security showed up and it all came out. The head of housekeeping told me not to worry about it—she wouldn’t let on, she promised—and I should just keep on working, but I felt awful. I worked there for seven months. The pay wasn’t good—about 200,000 yen a month. But tips helped out a lot. I slaved away every day hoping to get more tips. Once I got tipped three times in one day by the same guest. Often I got tipped when the guest first came and when they left. I saved money, got a driver’s license, and bought a car.

MURAKAMI: It sounds like you’re a very optimistic person, someone who takes action.

I didn’t have any choice. I did it because I had to. Looking back on it, I think I did a good job as a maid.

Now I’m working at a beauty salon. The police came here once, too. It made me so angry. I mean, my memory has been erased and I felt I was a victim. But after a while I started to think that I’m not a victim, but more on the culprits’ side. So I stopped being so cross with the police and began to tell them all I knew.

I’m quite healthy now, only my memory just won’t come back. I don’t have any contact with Aum people anymore. I don’t have any nostalgia for the time I was in Aum.

MURAKAMI: You were pretty friendly with some of the enlightened Masters. Do you think it’s possible they were involved in the gas attack?

I think if they were ordered to do it they probably would. Mr. Niimi in particular would definitely have done it. Ken’ichi Hirose I talked to occasionally, he’s a very simple person. How can I put it? I feel sympathy for them. It wasn’t the kind of atmosphere where you could disobey an order. It was more the feeling of “I’ll be happy to do it!”

MURAKAMI: At the trial many of the defendants testified that they wanted to disobey orders but were afraid they’d be murdered if they did, so they went along unwillingly. But actually it wasn’t like that?

Hmm—I wonder … Under the circumstances I think if they were chosen they would have happily gone ahead and done it.

MURAKAMI: You’re back in the secular world, working. In the past you had doubts about your life, thinking you had nothing you excelled at. Now how do you feel?

I just accept the fact that I don’t have any special talent. Before I entered Aum I couldn’t talk about my feelings, even to people I was close to. Now, though, I open up a lot more.

My relatives have tried to arrange meetings with young men for me so I could find someone to marry. “It’s about time you got married,” they tell me, but I think that people who were in Aum, which has committed such brutal crimes, shouldn’t get married. Of course I never committed any crimes myself, I was just doing my own thing as best I could.

Sometimes that makes me sad, though. I dine out with friends or have a good time, but many days I don’t do anything and just come back here by myself. When I saw the fireworks last summer—with crowds of people enjoying the show—and me all alone—it made me cry. I’m over that now, though.

There were a lot of very appealing people in Aum. Completely different from the people I’ve known in the outside world. Relationships in society are always so … superficial, but in Aum we all lived together in one place, almost like a family.

I love children. My younger sister’s children are adorable, but for me to get married, have a family, children—it’s difficult, having been a member of Aum. When I think about talking about my Aum background on a date, I don’t think I could … A big factor has got to be the fact that my own family was so dysfunctional. People raised in happy families probably wouldn’t join Aum.