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


“No matter how grotesque a figure Asahara appears, I can’t just dismiss him”

Hidetoshi Takahashi (b. 1967)

Mr. Takahashi was born in 1967 in Tachikawa City in the Tokyo area. He studied geology in the College of Science at Shinshu University, and went on to graduate school, majoring in geodetic astronomy. He has always loved observing the heavens through a telescope. The gas attack was a major shock to him and he left Aum. He has appeared on TV to criticize Aum, and has published a book—Return from Aum—in which he discusses at length how he came to join the cult and why he left it.

While he was a student Mr. Takahashi had a chance to speak to Shoko Asahara when he gave a lecture at Shinshu University. Afterward, Yoshihiro Inoue urged him to join and he did. But grad-school work took most of his time and he grew apart from Aum and eventually left. Still, he found himself unable to concentrate on his studies, so once again he joined Aum, this time as a renunciate. It was just before the Matsumoto incident in May 1994.

In Aum he was assigned to the Ministry of Science and Technology under Hideo Murai. He was ordered directly by Asahara to develop computer software for predicting earthquakes. The data from this software was able to predict the Kobe earthquake of 1995 and Asahara praised him for his efforts.

He speaks very clearly and logically—a characteristic shared by many followers and former members of Aum—and unless something is logical, he isn’t convinced. Certainly if one looks at things this way, our world does appear to be an illogical place plagued by contradictions and confusion, a hard place to live in.

Now he works for a surveying company and lives an entirely ordinary life. He vows to spend his whole life trying to answer the question “What was Aum?” So, even now, when time allows, he goes to court to observe the trials.

At college I felt a deep alienation between my outer and my inner Self. I was a cheerful, enthusiastic person with lots of friends, but once I was alone in my room, I was engulfed by loneliness and there was nobody I could share that world with.

I’ve been that way since childhood. I remember always going inside the closet when I was a child. I didn’t want to see my parents, and even in my own room I didn’t feel like I had my own space. When you’re a child it feels like your parents are always interfering. For me the only place to escape to and find peace was the closet. Granted it’s a strange habit, but alone there in the darkness I could feel my consciousness grow razor sharp. It’s just you alone, face-to-face with yourself in the dark. In a sense, then, I was drawn to something like the Aum retreats since I was little.

In junior high I liked to listen to progressive rock. Pink Floyd’s The Wall, for example. Definitely not the sort of music I’d recommend unless you want something to bring you down [laughs]. I found out about Gurdjieff through King Crimson. Their guitarist Robert Fripp was a follower of Gurdjieff. After he got into that his music changed drastically. I think much of my outlook on life was influenced by that kind of music.

At high school I was into sports, basketball and badminton, but after entering college I felt I had to draw a line between myself and society. I was what we call a “Moratorium Person”: someone who doesn’t want to grow up. Our generation grew up after Japan had become a wealthy country and we viewed society through this lens of affluence. I just couldn’t adjust to the “adult society” I saw outside. It seemed warped to me somehow. Wasn’t there some other way to live your life, some other way of viewing the world? During my college days I had a lot of free time, and was preoccupied with these questions.

When you’re young you have all kinds of idealistic notions in your head, but coming face-to-face with the realities of your own life makes you see how immature you are. I felt very frustrated.

To free myself, to make a fresh start, I poked my nose into all sorts of things, hoping to find the energy I needed to live. Life is full of suffering, and the contradictions in the real world irked me. To escape these, I imagined my own sort of utopian society, which made it easier for me to be taken in by a religious group that espoused a similar vision.

When the Aum question comes up, people always start talking about relations between parents and children going sour, and family discord, but it can’t be reduced to something so simplistic. Certainly one of the attractions of Aum lay in people’s frustrations with reality and unrest in the family, but a much more important factor lies in apocalyptic feelings of “the end of the world,” feelings all of us have about the future. If you pay attention to the universal feeling of all of us, all Japanese—all humankind, even—then you can’t explain Aum’s appeal to so many people by saying it’s all based on discord in the family.

MURAKAMI: Hold on a second. You really think all Japanese have a vision of the end of the world?

It might be hard to generalize and say that all of them do, but I think inside all Japanese there is an apocalyptic viewpoint: an invisible, unconscious sense of fear. When I say that all Japanese have this fear I mean some people have already pulled aside the veil, while others have yet to do so. If this veil were suddenly drawn back everyone would feel a sense of terror about the near future, the direction our world’s heading in. Society is the foundation stone for people’s lives, and they don’t know what’s going to happen to it in the future. This feeling grows stronger the more affluent a country becomes. It’s like a dark shadow looming larger and larger.

MURAKAMI: Somehow the words “decline” or “collapse” seem to hit the mark more than “the end.”

Maybe so, but remember that when I was at school Nostradamus’s Prophecies became famous, and that sense that “The End Is Nigh” wedged itself deep into my consciousness through the mass media. And I wasn’t the only one to feel like that. I don’t want this to deteriorate into some simplistic theory about “my generation,” but I feel very strongly that all Japanese at that time had the idea drilled into them of 1999 being the end of the world. Aum renunciates have already accepted, inside themselves, the end of the world, because when they become a renunciate, they discard themselves totally, thereby abandoning the world. In other words, Aum is a collection of people who have accepted the end. People who continue to hold out hope for the near future still have an attachment to the world. If you have attachments, you won’t discard your Self, but for renunciates it’s as if they’ve leaped right off a cliff. And taking a giant leap like that feels good. They lose something—but gain something in return.

Therefore the idea of “the End” is one of the axes around which Aum Shinrikyo revolved. “Armageddon’s coming, so become a renunciate,” they urged, “donate all your money to Aum”—and of course that became their source of income.

MURAKAMI: But there are lots of other religious groups that have used an apocalyptic vision as their selling point. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, the Branch Davidians at Waco. What makes Aum different?

Robert Jay Lifton has said that there are many cults that have an apocalyptic creed, but Aum is the only one that marched straight toward it as part of their program.* That makes sense to me.

Even now there’s an element about Aum, its driving force and direction, that I can’t fully understand. It had such tremendous energy, and pulled in so many people—including me, of course. But how did it do this?

When I was at college many new religions tried to convert me, but in terms of grappling with the direction the world had taken, seriously formulating a religious worldview, searching earnestly for a lifestyle that fit this view, and then rigorously putting it into practice, Aum stood out head and shoulders above the rest. Aum was the most amazing group of all. I really admired them for the way they practiced what they preached. Compared to them, other religions were resigned, cozy, comfortable, passive. Aum training was very, very tough. Their religious view—that you must transform your own body before you can transform the world—had a hard-hitting realism. If there’s any chance for salvation, I thought, it has to begin like this.

To give you an example, with the shortage of food in the world, if only everyone, bit by bit, reduced their consumption the way the Aum diet does, then this food problem would be solved. Not by increasing the supply, but by changing the body, because Aum people eat only a tiny amount of food. If mankind is going to live in harmony with the earth, we’ve reached the age when we have to start thinking in this way.

MURAKAMI: That reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slapstick, in which the Chinese shrink themselves to half their usual size in order to solve the world’s food shortage.

That’s kind of funny. Actually I joined Aum twice. The second time I could already sense the violence that overshadowed Aum. The very first day back I thought: “Uh-oh. I’ve made a big mistake.” Aum wore a cheerful mask at the branch offices, since the people there were all still living ordinary lives. But go to Kamikuishiki where it was just renunciates, people who have discarded everything, and you could already feel this urgent sense of desperation.

When I joined I was put to work straightaway making Cosmo cleaners. Aum was already claiming that it was being attacked from the outside with sarin gas, and Cosmo cleaners were designed to reduce the toxicity. Just prior to my taking vows the Leader gave a sermon. “I’ve been hit with poison gas,” he told us, coughing and coughing. He was as limp as a rag doll, and his face was all dark. It seemed tremendously real. “I can only last another month,” he said, “and at this rate Aum will be destroyed. Before this happens, I want those who believe in me to gather around me. All of you will serve as my shield.” It was a powerful sermon. It forced lay followers to question their faith: here is the Leader in such dire straits and you’re just sitting around? How can you call this faith? All at once about three hundred people took vows, and I was one of them, caught up in this wave. Things started to look strange to me when I was forced to undergo what they called “Christ Initiation.” All the followers were made to take drugs. Any way you look at it, the whole thing was carelessly done. Using drugs in the name of religion, in order to enter some elevated state, is suspect in itself, but even supposing you accept it as a legitimate means, at the very least you’ve got to do it in an organized fashion. What they gave us was something close to LSD, I suspect, and for almost everyone it was their first such experience. Some people went crazy and were just left to their own devices. That really troubled me. Even if the Leader had planned this as a method of elevating our spiritual state, the way it was handled left a lot to be desired.

I felt a great deal of resistance to this whole “Christ Initiation,” and after I went through it I struggled with whether or not I should leave Aum. It was such a shock it drove me to tears. “What the hell do they think they’re doing?” I wondered. It wasn’t just me—even a few of the leadership wavered over this initiation, some of the enlightened practitioners who hung on Asahara’s every word. It felt like Aum was starting to fall apart.

I think I joined Aum as a kind of adventure. You have to be a bit forgiving of a system organized to open up an entirely unknown world for you—when in Rome, and all that—so I did accept that system. On the one hand I wanted to adjust to the Aum lifestyle and plunge ahead, while a part of me took a step back and watched it all with a sober eye.

So anyway, after this “Christ Initiation” I had too many doubts about Aum and I couldn’t do the work I was assigned. I couldn’t easily swallow the doctrine of Vajrayana. There weren’t any other followers I could express my doubts to, and the Leader was too high up for me to talk to him directly. Even if I did say to someone I thought Aum was into some questionable things, I’d just get a stereotypical response: “Mr. Takahashi, all we can do is follow Aum.” I decided I had to talk to one of the leaders if I wanted to get anywhere.

While all this was going on Mr. Niimi, Eriko Iida, and Naropa [Fumihiko Nagura] asked me to see them, and as another kind of initiation they tied me up and yelled all kinds of things at me: “Why can’t you follow the life we lead in Aum?” “You’re neglecting your training, aren’t you?” “You’re not devoted to the Guru!”

Thinking this was a good opportunity, I decided to bring up some of the doubts I’d been having. “Hold on just a second here,” I said. “I have a lot of problems with what’s going on in our church, and that’s why I can’t put everything I’ve got into our activities.” I explained what I’d been feeling and Iida said: “We all feel the same way, but the only path for us is to follow the Guru.”

I took it a step further: “You don’t know all that much about the Guru, so how is it you can follow him? I believe in the Guru, too, but without really knowing who he is, I can’t just follow him blindly.” No matter how much I pressed them, the answer was always the same: “All we can do is believe him, and follow him.”

I can’t tell you how disappointed I was. Someone like her [Eriko Iida]—a Mahamudra enlightened practitioner whom everyone respected—and that’s all she could say? “And you call yourself an enlightened practitioner?” I asked her. If this was all I was going to hear, then questions were a waste of time. I decided to ask my superior at the Ministry of Science and Technology, Hideo Murai, but he didn’t respond at all. Total silence. My last resort would have been to ask the Leader himself. I decided to give it up and quietly devote myself to my training.

Yoshihiro Inoue was the only person I felt spiritually close to in Aum, and I wanted to question him about all this, but he was off on some secret work and I couldn’t contact him. The upshot was I spent several months in turmoil.

A year after I joined Aum, Murai ordered me to collect seismology data, but with all the uncertainty about the direction Aum was taking and the general confusion, I knew I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on work. I had no idea where Aum was going, so I just asked Murai point-blank: “There seems to be a hidden side to Aum. What’s your take on it?” At the time I was involved in some astrology work which put me closer to the Leader and I was able to see the daily comings and goings of the higher-ups. It was like—how should I put it?—as if their activities were all hidden behind a veil or something. The person who held the key to this hidden region was Mr. Murai, so I came right out and asked him. I couldn’t say it face-to-face, so I asked him over the phone. He was silent for a while, then he said: “I’m disappointed in you.” At that instant I knew that my life in Aum was over.

I don’t consider Aum’s crimes simply reckless behavior. Of course part of it was reckless, but there was a religious viewpoint pervading those actions. That’s what I want most to learn about. Probably only Asahara and Murai can explain it fully. The other followers were mere pawns, but not these two—they gave the orders, and decided things with a clear vision of their goals. The opponent I was really struggling against, standing up alone to, was the very motives of those two people.

Most of the people arrested in the gas attack were absolutely devoted followers of the Leader who wouldn’t let any doubts they might have about Aum stop them doing exactly as they were told. Compared to them, Toru Toyoda could still think for himself. Whenever I voiced doubts about Aum, he’d actually give it some thought. Then he’d say, “Okay, but Hidetoshi, the world is already in Armageddon, so it’s a little too late for that.”

I knew Toyoda quite well, as we entered Aum around the same time; after he took vows he was promoted to the leadership overnight. He rose up that fast. That’s how Aum used him. “I really don’t understand all that’s going on in Aum myself,” he told me, “but since I’m in the leadership now, I’d better behave like a leader.” When I heard this I thought: “Wow, he has it tough, too. Even worse than I do.” This was still before the gas attack. I was his driver for a while.

MURAKAMI: If Murai had told you to release the sarin, would you have disobeyed?

I think so, but there’s a trick to doing it. The people who carried out the crime were put in a position where they were caught off guard by the orders and couldn’t escape. They’d gather in Murai’s room and suddenly the leaders would broach the topic, telling them: “This is an order from the top.” An order from the top—that was like a mantra in Aum. The people who carried out the crime were chosen from among the strongest believers. “You’ve been specially chosen,” they were told. The leaders appealed to their sense of duty. Faith in Aum meant total devotion.

That’s why I wasn’t chosen to commit the crimes. I was still at the bottom of the heap and hadn’t yet reached enlightenment. In other words Aum didn’t trust me enough.

MURAKAMI: There’s one thing I don’t understand. When I did my interviews with victims of the gas attack, several of them told me that, based on their experience working for companies, if they had been in Aum and been ordered to release the sarin they might well have done it. But you were actually in Aum, yet say you’d have run away from it. Why is that?

Saying I’d run away might be less than honest. If I really search my heart I can say that if Murai had told me to do it, most likely I would have run away. However, if Yoshihiro Inoue had said to me, “Hidetoshi, this is part of salvation,” and passed me the bag with the sarin in it, I would have been very perplexed. If he’d told me to come with him, I might have done so. In other words, it comes down to a question of ties between individuals.

Murai was my boss, but he was cold and too far above me. If he’d told me to do it I would have asked him why, and if he’d insisted and said, “It’s a dirty job but it’s for the sake of Aum and I really want you to do it,” I like to think that I would have hidden my true feelings, said okay, and then, at the last minute, found a way to get out of it. Like [Ken’ichi] Hirose, who wavered and got off the train, I think I would have struggled over what I should do, but in the end would have found a way out.

But something about Inoue captivated me. He felt a strong sense of religious duty. If I’d seen him agonizing over the situation, I think I would have done anything to help out. He was a great influence on me. So if he’d pushed me, saying this was a mission only we could carry out, I might very well have gone along. I would have been operating on a different plane. What I mean is, in the final analysis, logic doesn’t play a strong role in people’s motivations. I doubt if the ones who did it were even capable of thinking logically when they were given the order to release the sarin. They didn’t have the presence of mind, got caught up in events, panicked, and did what they were told. No one who had the strength to think logically about it would have carried it out. In extreme cases of guru-ism individuals’ value systems are completely wiped out. In situations like that people just don’t have the mental stamina to connect their actions with the deaths of many people.

No matter how much you resist and try to put a stop to things, the fact is that in a group like Aum your sense of Self steadily deteriorates. Things are forced on you from above and you’re continually attacked for not accepting the status quo, not being devoted enough, and inevitably your spirit is broken. I was somehow able to hold out, but a lot of people who entered at the same time ended up broken.

MURAKAMI: All right, but what if Shoko Asahara himself ordered you—“Takahashi, I want you to do it”—what would you have done?

I think I would have stood up to him. If he’d been able to give me a reasonable explanation, I would have listened. But if he couldn’t, I would have kept asking questions until I was convinced. That alone would have excluded me from the job. I’d spoken my mind in front of him before, and he told me I’m a very straightforward type of person. I don’t think either Shoko Asahara or Hideo Murai would have been able to move me because they never opened up to me.

MURAKAMI: Hold on. A moment ago you used the expression “in extreme cases of guru-ism,” so this implies that you yourself were outside this system, right? If the essence of faith in Aum Shinrikyo is guru-ism, isn’t that a logical contradiction?

As I mentioned before, when we went through the “Christ Initiation” I started to have serious doubts about Aum’s methods. I was completely disillusioned at the gulf between believers and the Leader.

MURAKAMI: Then what kept you in Aum? There was Shoko Asahara, doctrine, and your fellow believers. Which of the three was it?

I had almost nothing left. I placed all my faith in Inoue. I was lonely in Aum, isolated. They made me do research on astrology in the Ministry of Science and Technology, something I wasn’t interested in at all. There was no way I wanted to see scientific data about the movements of the stars used for some dubious enterprise like fortune-telling. One constant theme in Aum was the desire for supernatural power, but I can’t understand the mentality of people who are into that. To me, it’s a complete waste of time.

To get back to your question, why did I stay? I’d already abandoned everything else. When I entered Aum I burned every photo album I owned. I burned my diaries. I broke up with my girlfriend. I threw everything away.

MURAKAMI: But you were barely 20 years old. You could have started again. Don’t take offense, but at that age there wasn’t all that much to abandon, was there?

Well, I’m sure it wouldn’t seem like much … [laughs] But you know, I think I’m a pretty stubborn person, a trait all Aum followers share. This stubborn insistence on things that don’t really matter to anyone else as we press on with our mission. Also, focusing like that you get a sense of fulfillment. And Aum was able to take full advantage of this. That’s why they made you train so hard. The harder the training, the greater the sense of fulfillment.

When I joined Aum and took vows, I was drunk on the sense of having discarded the world, though I question whether it was actually my own will that led me to take vows. Maybe I just wanted to believe that. The gas attack brought me to my senses and I left Aum. Things I’d thought were mystical became illusions that vanished without a trace. It’s like you’re sleeping soundly and someone yells “Fire!” and suddenly you find yourself out on the street. That was the way it felt. I’ll be grappling with these Aum incidents for the rest of my life. I don’t want them to fade into the background.

MURAKAMI: I’d like to ask you once more about the idea of the end of the world. Is the Apocalypse that Aum talks about the same as that of Judaism and Christianity? The idea of the millennium is a Western concept, after all, and Nostradamus has nothing to do with Buddhism.

No matter what special spin Aum might put on its idea of Armageddon, I don’t think it can compete with the Christian idea of the Apocalypse. It’s absorbed into the Christian idea. That’s why you can’t really explain these Aum-related incidents by looking only at the core of what makes up Aum—namely, Buddhism and Tibetan esoteric religion.

Earlier I said that I don’t think that an apocalyptic vision is confined to myself as an individual; what I meant was that, whether you’re Christian or not, we all inevitably bear the same apocalyptic fate.

MURAKAMI: To tell the truth, I don’t really understand what you’ve been calling an apocalyptic vision. But I have the feeling that, if that vision is to have any kind of meaning at all, it has to lie in how you internally deconstruct it.

You’re absolutely right. Apocalypse is not some set idea, but more of a process. After an apocalyptic vision there’s always a purging or purifying process that takes place. In this sense I think the gas attack was a kind of catharsis, a psychological release of everything that had built up in Japan—the malice, the distorted consciousness we have. Not that the Aum incident got rid of everything. There’s still this suppressed, viruslike apocalyptic vision that’s invading society and hasn’t been erased or digested.

Even if you could get rid of it at an individual level, the virus would remain on a social level.

MURAKAMI: You talk about society as a whole, but in the so-called secular world, ordinary people—by which I mean people who maintain a relative balance in their lives—deconstruct that kind of viruslike apocalyptic vision, as you put it, in their own way, and naturally substitute something else for it. Don’t you think so?

Yes, it does come down to a process of deconstruction. Something like that has absolutely got to take place. Shoko Asahara couldn’t deconstruct it, and lost out to apocalyptic ideas. And that’s why he had to create a crisis on his own. The apocalyptic vision of Shoko Asahara—as a religious figure—was defeated by an even greater vision.

I’ve been trying hard to come to terms with these Aum-related incidents. I go to the trial as often as I can. But when I see and hear Asahara at the trial I feel as though he’s making an idiot out of me. I get nauseated, and actually vomited once. It’s a sad and dreary feeling. Sometimes I think it’s not worth watching, but I still can’t take my eyes off him. No matter how grotesque a figure Asahara appears, I can’t just dismiss him. We should never forget that, if even for a short time, this person named Shoko Asahara functioned in the world and brought about these tragic events. Unless I overcome the “Aum Shinrikyo Incident” inside me, I’ll never be able to move on.

* Vajrayana is very similar to conventional Buddhism, with the crucial difference that it offers followers a “fast path” to salvation instead of the slow path like the Mahayanas. This faster path is also interpreted by some as condoning murder as an aid to liberation. [Tr.]

* Hayao Miyazaki is a successful manga cartoonist, animator, and director. His films include Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, Princess Mononoke, and Porco Rosso. [Tr.]

* Soka Gakkai is a lay Buddhist association that embraces the philosophy and teachings of Nichiren, a thirteenth-century Japanese Buddhist sage and scholar. There are more than ten million members of Soka Gakkai in Japan and seventy-six worldwide organizations that make up Soka Gakkai International. [Tr.]

*Yuta is a southern-island term for a kind of shaman. [Tr.]

* Fumihiro Joyu was a senior member of and spokesman for Aum Shinrikyo. In 1997 he was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of forgery and perjury and was released in December 1999. He has since rejoined the cult. [Tr]

* Cosmo cleaners: air filtration equipment designed by Aum members to thwart poison gas attacks, among other things. [Tr.]

* In English the word “astral” is an adjective, but in Japanese it often appears as a noun. It still refers to some kind of ethereal existence beyond the physical. [Tr.]

* Shoko Asahara’s real name is Chizuo Matsumoto. [Tr.]

* Eleven days after the gas attack, the Tokyo police chief Takaji Kunimatsu was shot dead outside his apartment by an unidentified assailant who escaped on a bicycle. [Tr.]

 A few days after Takaji Kunimatsu was murdered, the Aum science minister Hideo Murai was stabbed to death. He may have been assassinated by Aum members because he knew too much. [Tr.]

* Robert Jay Lifton is the author of Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism (Metropolitan Books, 1999). [Tr.]