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




Two men were assigned to drop sarin gas on the Ikebukuro-bound Marunouchi Line: Masato Yokoyama and Kiyotaka Tonozaki.

Yokoyama was born in 1963 in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo. He was 31 at the time of the attack. A graduate in Applied Physics from Tokai University Engineering Department, he took employment with an electronics firm, only to leave after three years and take vows. Of the five perpetrators, he somehow makes the least lasting impression. There are no revealing details about his character; his name hardly even comes up in other cult members’ testimonies. Quiet by nature, he probably never spoke much. He was an undersecretary at Aum’s Ministry of Science and Technology. Along with Hirose, he was one of the key figures behind their clandestine Automatic Light Weapon Manufacturing Scheme. It was they who devotedly “offered” Asahara their finished rifle on New Year’s Day 1995. (Yokoyama has up to now—January 1997—refused to testify in court concerning the gas attack.)

Tonozaki is an equally nondescript fellow. He was born in 1964 in Aomori Prefecture in the far north. After graduating from high school he had a series of odd jobs, then took vows in 1987. He belonged to Aum’s Ministry of Construction.

En route to Shinjuku Station, in a car driven by Tonozaki, Yokoyama stopped to buy a copy of Nihon Keizai Shimbun [a Nikkei newspaper] and wrapped two packets of sarin in it. Initially Tonozaki had bought a sports tabloid, but Yokoyama argued instead for a general-interest paper. Before getting out of the car, Yokoyama put on a wig and fake glasses.

Yokoyama boarded the 7:39 Ikebukuro-bound Marunouchi Line train departing from Shinjuku, taking the fifth car from the front. As the train slowed down approaching Yotsuya Station, he poked several times at the packet of sarin on the floor of the car with the sharpened tip of his umbrella. Yet only one packet was punctured, and then only once. The other packet remained intact. If both packets had split, the casualties on this train would have been even worse.

Yokoyama got off at Yotsuya and washed the sarin liquid from the umbrella tip in a rest room by the exit. Then he got into Tonozaki’s waiting car.

At 8:30 A.M. the train reached the end of the line at Ikebukuro and started to head back in the opposite direction. Perhaps because the sarin packet was slow to release its contents there were few casualties at this point. At Ikebukuro Station all the passengers were evacuated and the empty train searched, but somehow the station attendants failed to dispose of any suspicious objects.

At 8:32 the train left Ikebukuro Station as the Shinjuku-bound A801. Almost immediately several passengers began to feel physically uncomfortable. A passenger who got off three stations later at Korakuen reported a suspicious object on board and at Hongo-sanchome, the next station, subway staff boarded the train, removed the sarin packets, and did a quick cleanup inside the car. By now Tsukiji Station on the Hibiya Line was in complete uproar.

While a large number of casualties were taken off, the sarin-contaminated car nonetheless continued as normal to Shinjuku Station, where it arrived at 9:09. Then—and this is hard to believe—the train was sent back again in the other direction as the 9:13 Ikebukuro-bound B901. It was 9:27 before they finally stopped the train at Kokkai-gijidomae Station, whereupon all passengers were evacuated and the train was put out of service. It had kept running for a good hour and forty minutes after Yokoyama punctured the sarin packet.

This brief account may give some idea of the confusion at Subway Authority Central. Although they knew that a suspicious object had been sighted on board train B801, and knew that it had caused numerous casualties, not one person thought to take the train out of service at any point.

No deaths resulted, but two hundred people were left in serious condition.

March 21, 1995. Expecting a crackdown investigation, Yokoyama and Hirose attempted to escape. Hisako Ishii gave them 5 million yen “running capital” and provided them with a car. For a time, the two drifted through various hotels and sauna bathhouses around Tokyo before finally being arrested.*

“What can that be?” I thought
Shintaro Komada (58)

Mr. Komada had always worked at a major city bank when, aged 50, he was transferred to an affiliated real-estate firm. When he reached the retirement age of 53 he stayed on as an employee (not that Mr. Komada looks even close to retirement age). At present he runs one of their art-gallery businesses. With no prior experience, he has developed a taste for the gallery business in his six years on the job. He enjoys cars, and drives his wife to museums on holidays.

The very image of a banker, he strikes me as the serious type: the hardworking, clean-living family man. And he seems just as earnest about his “second career.” As he himself says, he’s “patient by nature.” This unfortunately meant that he patiently sat near the packets of sarin even after he began to feel ill—“Only a little farther to my station,” he thought—thereby incurring serious injuries. What saved him, he says, was that he was sitting “upwind” from the sarin packets. Otherwise he’d have been a lot worse.

I commute from Tokorozawa by the Seibu Line to Ikebukuro, then on the Marunouchi Line to Ginza, and from there on the Hibiya Line to Higashi-ginza. It takes an hour and twenty minutes. The trains are always crowded. The Seibu Line is particularly bad. It’s an exhausting haul from Ikebukuro to Ginza, so I wait a couple of trains for an empty one. I hate fighting for a seat, so I make sure I’m at the head of the line. I usually get on at the frontmost door of the second car.

Ikebukuro is the end of the line, so when a train arrives all the passengers get off. The morning of the gas attack very few passengers got off. Some days are like that, though, so I didn’t pay it any attention.

Once all the passengers are off, the station attendants check around inside. Just to make sure no one’s forgotten anything. If there’s nothing, then it’s “All aboard.”

It’s such a terrible, terrible shame that the person who did the check that day where I got on was a part-timer, not a fully fledged station attendant: a young kid wearing a vest. There are lots of those student part-timers in the mornings. They wear Subway Authority vests instead of the usual green uniform. There was a parcel wrapped in newspaper by the corner of the right-hand seat, directly in front of me. I saw it with my own eyes. “What can that be?” I thought, but the station attendant just let the passengers on without doing a thing. He must have seen it too, though he’d never admit that. If only he’d removed the thing there and then, there would have been far fewer injuries. It’s a real shame.

Be that as it may, the train left with the packets still on board. I just consider myself lucky that I didn’t head straight to where the sarin was, but took a seat to the left instead, so I wasn’t sitting “downwind.” After two or three minutes, the train pulled out.

First of all someone vomited, and I thought, “It has to be that crumpled newspaper by the corner at the door.” The newspaper and the space around it were sopping wet. Whichever way you look at it that station attendant not disposing of something he had obviously seen went against all common sense. Not long after we were under way, the smell came fuming up. I’ve heard sarin is supposed to be odorless, but not this. It was somehow syrupy sweet. I almost thought it was perfume, not unpleasant at all. If it had smelled really bad everyone would have been in a panic. Syrupy sweet—that’s what it was.

The train carries on—Shin-otsuka, Myogadani, Korakuen—and around Myogadani lots of people are beginning to cough. Of course, I’m coughing too. Everyone has his handkerchief out over his mouth or nose. A very odd scene, with everyone hacking away at the same time. As I recall, passengers started getting off at Korakuen. As if on cue, everyone was opening the windows. Eyes itching, coughing, generally miserable … I didn’t know what was wrong with me, it was all so strange, but anyway I went on reading my newspaper like always. It’s a long-standing habit.

When the train stopped at Hongo-sanchome, five or six station attendants came on board. Like they’d received word and were standing ready, “Ah, yes, here it is.” They picked up the parcel with their bare hands. By now the floor was soaked with sarin, but all they did was remove the parcel and maybe give the floor a quick wipe. The train was soon under way again. At Ochanomizu another five or six station attendants got on and gave the floor a once-over with rags.

From here on I’m really coughing, so bad that I can scarcely read the newspaper. “Only a little farther to Ginza,” I tell myself, “just hold on for the rest of the journey.” Already I can’t keep my eyes open. By Awajicho, I’m thinking to myself, “Something dreadful’s happened,” but I still hang on until Ginza. Somehow I just about hold it together by shutting my eyes. I didn’t have a violent headache or fits of vomiting or anything like that, but my head was in a fog.

It was around the time we reached Ginza that I noticed the car interior was pitch black when I opened my eyes, as if I was sitting in a cinema. I felt dizzy when I got off at Ginza, but somehow I managed to totter up the stairs, clinging to the handrail, aware that I might fall over any second.

Ordinarily I would have transferred to the Hibiya Line, but I heard an announcement: “Due to an accident, the Hibiya Line is temporarily delayed.”

“It’s happened there, too,” I thought. “Whatever it is. It’s not just me.”

One thing I want you to understand: if the pain had been really bad or I’d been vomiting or I suddenly went blind, I’d have been off that train in a flash, but it wasn’t like that. It spread through my body quite slowly, so that by the time we reached Ginza I was in á terrible state. I’ve never had any major illness or been hospitalized. I’ve always been healthy. Maybe that’s why I put up with it for so long.

The train kept going, even after I got off. They should have stopped it at Hongo-sanchome or Ochanomizu. The passengers were so panic-stricken, how could they not have known something was desperately wrong? After all, half an hour before I caught that train, Kasumigaseki Station was already in complete chaos. They knew they had a crisis, they should have just stopped the train and taken off all the passengers. They could have reduced the injuries. It was a serious oversight. Complete communication breakdown.

Anyway, I crawled up the stairs. I knew I had to get myself out of there or I was dead. By then I was overcome by a sense of absolute dread. I finally managed to get above ground and I knew I had to get myself to a hospital quick. I thought I’d walk to my hospital in Ginza, but it was a good distance away. If I had gone by the main avenue I might have just fallen flat on my face, so I took the backstreets: slowly, slowly, weaving like a drunk. It’s so dark and hazy outside, all the while I hear ambulances and fire engines, sirens and bells. People are scrambling about. I remember thinking: “I’m in serious trouble.”

I went to the office and asked one of my coworkers to accompany me to the hospital. “Come with me,” I said. “I can’t see to walk.” There were two or three people with similar symptoms at the hospital. I told the nurse at the reception desk, “I can’t see,” but all she said was, “Well, this isn’t an eye clinic.” No comprehension whatsoever. But others came in in the same condition and soon enough the television’s blaring out details on the victims’ symptoms. Slowly but surely the hospital realized it had a crisis on its hands. They made makeshift beds out of the reception area sofas and began administering blood transfusions. Pretty soon there were faxes coming in with medical information.

After that I was shifted to another hospital where I stayed four nights. Little by little my eyes got better, and by the second day I could see things fairly normally, only I had a tremendous pain in my forehead and temples. I could hardly sleep at all. I’d keep waking throughout the night, getting only two or three hours’ rest. I resigned myself to thinking I might never return to work at this rate. All the news I was hearing was bad. Three or four people had died or had become vegetables.

Two days after being discharged I was commuting to work again, and I assure you, I was in no shape to be back at the office! I felt lethargic and tired easily. I couldn’t remember anything. Even in the monotonous day-to-day routine, I’d think, “How’d that go again?” But strange and upsetting as it all was, I had no proof it was due to the sarin. I was still nervous about the whole thing. I was uneasy about going anywhere by car. Was it really all right to be driving?

For a while I was scared to travel on the subway, but I had no choice so I forced myself. Even now I don’t like it, but I have to. After experiencing something like that, the fear of going underground in a metal box and something bad happening is overpowering, but what choice does a salaryman have? There isn’t any other way to get to work.

It makes me angry, furious, when I hear what that Aum gang have to say for themselves. Why did they have to indiscriminately kill totally innocent people for the likes of him [Asahara]? What am I supposed to do with all this rage? I’d like to see the whole lot tried, sentenced, and done away with as quickly as possible.

“I knew it was sarin”
“Ikuko Nakayama” (in her 30s)

She made it absolutely clear from the outset: no name, no address, no age. She wanted me to obscure any identifying details. She is still extremely wary of Aum followers, especially as she lives in close proximity to an Aum training center. There could be trouble if she were traceable, she says.

She’s thirty-something and married, with no children. After university she worked at an ordinary office job for a while, then left to become a housewife. Recently, however, she became qualified to teach Japanese to foreigners. She enjoys the work and finds it challenging.

Among all the sarin victims I interviewed, she was one of the very few who, in the midst of the crisis, entertained the idea that it might be sarin. Whereas most people were dragged into confusion and nightmare not knowing what was happening, Ms. Nakayama was that rare individual who actually recognized the symptoms early on: “Contraction of the pupils! It must be sarin!” Talking to her, I was struck by her calm and rational manner, her cautious insights. Her powers of observation and memory are equally impressive, and no doubt make her an extremely competent language teacher.

She refuses to accept the world of Aum Shinrikyo, which differs so radically from her own. “It’s not fear, exactly,” she says, but whatever it is, it seems it will take a little more time for her to be free of it.

Last March when the gas attack took place was very busy for me, with classes four or five days a week for about ten hours. In fact, that was the reason I was gassed by sarin.

My student that day worked in a company in Otemachi, which I get to on the Marunouchi Line. The class started at 9:00. Yes, rather early, but many of them want to get the lesson finished before office hours.

That morning I left home around 8:00, and took the 8:32 subway train from Ikebukuro Station. That way I’d be right on time for the 9:00 class. Get off at Otemachi, up the stairs, perfect.

Ikebukuro Station is the end of the Marunouchi Line, so empty trains sit waiting to depart on either side of the platform. That day the train was waiting on the left-hand side, with a lot of people on board already. People were lining up on the right-hand side, but that train still hadn’t arrived. I decided I’d still be in time if I waited for the next train. They usually come in at two- or three-minute intervals. I felt a little run-down, so I wanted a seat.

The train pulled in, and I got on at the first door of the second car and sat on the right-hand side. The train started moving toward Shin-otsuka. Trains in Japan are quiet in the morning, right? The passengers hardly say a word. Quiet as it was, though, there were a lot of people coughing. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “everyone’s coming down with colds!”

Well, the Marunouchi Line gradually heads above ground after Shin-otsuka: Myogadani, Korakuen … at Myogadani Station, the exit’s at the Ikebukuro end of the platform, so not many commuters get off at that station. Only that day, strangely enough, a lot of people got off. “That’s odd,” I thought, but I didn’t pay much attention.

People were still coughing away like before, and the car interior looked awfully bright—or what I took at the time to be brightness, though thinking back on it later, it was yellow, or rather a light pearl tinged with yellow. I’ve fainted from anemia before, and it was like that. You’d have to have experienced it yourself.

Gradually it began to feel suffocating inside. It was a new car, so I thought the smell had something to do with the new materials or glue or something. So I turned around and opened the window. But no one else was opening their windows. I paused, then opened another.

I’ve always had a weak respiratory system, I get terrible sore throats and coughing when I catch a cold. Maybe that’s also why I’m so sensitive to synthetics. It was still March and not warm outside, but I couldn’t bear not to open the windows. I didn’t see how the other passengers could put up with that strange smell. No, not strange …

It wasn’t a pungent smell. How can I explain? It was more of a sensation, not a smell, a “suffocatingness.” I opened the windows to get some ventilation. This must have been between Myogadani and Korakuen. When the train stopped at both those stations, lots of passengers got off, but there was no reaction whatsoever from anyone to my turning around to open the windows. No one said a thing, everyone was so quiet. No response, no communication. I lived in America for a year, and believe me, if the same thing had happened in America there would have been a real scene. With everyone shouting, “What’s going on here?” and coming together to find the cause.

Later, when the police asked me, “Didn’t people start to panic?” I thought back on it: “Everyone was so silent. No one uttered a word.”

The people who got off the train were all coughing on the platform. I could see them through the train window.

After Korakuen it got more and more suffocating, the yellow tone more and more intense. I began to think, “I’ll never make it to work today.” Still, I thought, I should do my best to get there. So I stayed on the train, though I decided to switch to another car once we reached Hongo-sanchome Station. By then the car had really emptied out, vacant seats here and there. Which is truly unheard of! Usually the trains are packed at this hour of the morning.

I decided to exit by the middle or rear door. I couldn’t stand it anymore. Suddenly I saw this man wearing a policeman’s uniform and white gloves enter the car one door ahead of me, lift up a newspaper-wrapped object with both hands, like this, and carry it out. A station attendant on the platform brings out a plastic bin and in it goes. Two or three station attendants were rushing back and forth. This all took place just as I was stepping out of the car. The image of the policeman’s white gloves and how he lifted up the newspaper bundle is etched on my mind even now.

The train was stationary for a long time. I moved two cars back. The car was practically empty, you could count the passengers on one hand. I felt absolutely awful. My eyes were twitching, like muscular convulsions, though they didn’t hurt, but everything was yellow.

Only three people got off at Awajicho: a woman in her twenties, a man in his fifties, and me. Strange as it must seem, when I got off I thought, “This has to be sarin. My pupils are contracted, aren’t they?” As part of my job, I read the newspaper thoroughly every day and watch the news without fail. I knew about the Matsumoto incident, which is when I first encountered the term “pupil contractions.”*

Oddly enough, I was extremely calm. I knew it was sarin. Faced with a critical situation of unknown origin, I must have mobilized my entire stockpile of knowledge.

There were only three of us on the platform: me, the young woman, and the middle-aged man; which is unheard of for a Marunouchi Line platform at that hour! The woman sat down on a bench, her face in her hands, pressing a handkerchief to her mouth as if in pain. The man kept repeating, “Something’s wrong, something’s wrong,” and wandering about the platform; then saying, “I can’t see! I can’t see!” (I heard later that he became completely paralyzed, but I don’t know that for a fact.)

“This is insane,” I said. “We have to get to a hospital.” I somehow helped the woman up and, together with the man, we headed for the station office. The station attendant seemed flustered, but he did try to call an ambulance. The trouble was no one at the emergency number would pick up the phone. Now, that was scary. Only then did I feel real fear. Everything I’d believed up until then just crumbled.

From that moment on it was total chaos. Which is to say, the train we traveled on was later than the rest of the “sarin trains,” so by then the other stations were already in a panic. Our Marunouchi Line train had already been to Ikebukuro and back with the sarin on board.

One thing still bothers me, though. At Ikebukuro Station, when they clean the train and close the doors, they always inspect inside the cars. The station attendants check to see if anyone has left anything behind. Could they have accidentally missed it? If only they’d looked around more thoroughly.

There was no getting through to the emergency services over the phone, so the station attendant decided we’d better just walk. The hospital was only a two- or three-minute walk from the station. A young station attendant escorted us there. It was a good thing we got off the train when we did. If we’d gotten off at Hongo-sanchome, we’d have been with the sarin packets in a tightly enclosed space, which would have been disastrous.*

I took several months off work after the gas attack. I had trouble breathing. My job involves talking a lot, so that presented real problems. Of course, I was furious. As I said before, it was fairly obvious that Aum were the culprits … But to tell the truth, stronger than any anger now is the feeling that I just don’t want to remember anymore. Between the time I was hospitalized and the time I was sent home I wanted to know everything that had happened; I was devouring the news on TV, but now I can’t stand it. I’ll change the channel. I don’t ever want to see another image of the gas attack. Out of anger, out of consideration for those who were sacrificed and those who still suffer. Even now when a report touches on the gas attack, something tightens in my chest. I swear, I never want anything like this to happen ever again.

Hearing the reports on Aum, the more I learned about their background, I came to realize that there was no point in even giving them the time of day. At least now I’ve stopped yelling at the television screen. These people have a completely different ethic, they think differently from us, they totally believed in what they did; I just can’t see there’s any room for tolerance. They don’t live in this world, they’re from another dimension … once I realized that, I could contain my rage a little. Though of course, I still want to see them properly sentenced in court.

The question I hate being asked most of all is: “Do you have any aftereffects?” I’m getting on with my life in the belief that I’m fine, with no medical problems to speak of; though this is virtually a first in medical history, so that does leave uncertainties. I just can’t bear anyone asking me that. Although my dislike of being asked if there are aftereffects might itself be a kind of aftereffect.

Somewhere in me there must be a wish that everything that happened could be banished to another dimension, to just hide it away somewhere. If it were possible, to banish it from the face of the earth …

If this were only half a year later, I’d probably have refused to be interviewed. But now being interviewed, thinking back on it, I realize I haven’t traveled on that route since. Hongo-sanchome is one of my favorite places, but I haven’t once been back. Not that I’m scared … it’s just a problem for me.

* Masato Yokoyama was sentenced to death in September 1999. He is appealing the sentence. Kiyotaka Tonozaki was sentenced to life imprisonment and is appealing the sentence. [Tr.]

* On June 27, 1994, sarin gas was released in a neighborhood of Matsumoto, central Japan, killing seven people and injuring hundreds more. For months after the incident, the Matsumoto police singled out one of the victims, Yoshiyuki Kouno, as their prime suspect. The media dubbed him the Poison Gas Man and he received hate mail and threats against his life (while his wife lay in hospital in a vegetative state). Eventually the blame shifted to the Aum cult and Japanese officials, newspapers, and TV stations publicly apologized to Mr. Kouno. [Tr.]

* Ms. Nakayama was hospitalized for five days in Emergency Care receiving specialized treatment.