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

Part I. UNDERGROUND

TOKYO METROPOLITAN SUBWAY: HIBIYA LINE

TRAIN A738S

“Some crazy’s probably sprinkled pesticides or something”
Takanori Ichiba (39)

Mr. Ichiba works for a clothes designer. I may not be up on the workings of the fashion industry, but I did recognize the name of the boutique run by his company in the upmarket Aoyama district of Tokyo. Come to think of it, I’d even bought a tie at one of their stores. After the interview, I bought a pair of rust brown chinos from the bargain table—and I assure you, if it’s something I’d buy, they can’t be all that radical as fashions go. Their line tends more toward casual traditional wear—what we Japanese call “soft trad.”

For some reason, people who work in fashion look young. Mr. Ichiba is in his early forties now, but his face is still youthful. He’s not the type to go gently into middle age, but then very likely his profession demands it of him to look—and feel—young, or else. He speaks softly and has a pleasant smile.

Not that he’s a dreamer or anything; he’s very sharp. On hearing the announcement over the PA at Tsukiji Station, he immediately made the connection: “Could this have something to do with that Matsumoto incident?” His quick wits were also in evidence when he saved a colleague who’d collapsed in front of Shibuya Station and took him to the hospital. And it’s not easy to make clear judgments in emergencies like that.

“What’s the good of asking someone like me with only mild symptoms?” he said initially, and was reluctant to be interviewed. “There are far more serious cases around. I’m nothing.” No, I explained, it wasn’t a question of how badly he was affected, it was his viewpoint—his experience—that mattered.

I’m from Kumagaya in Saitama [about two hours northwest of Tokyo]. I went to work for a clothing manufacturer as soon as I graduated from school, then soon moved to my present company. It was your typical “one-room setup,” what was then called a “condominium company.” A small operation, with only about ten employees. Though we’re much bigger now.

Starting a company is easy, and it’s not uncommon for such a venture to grow into a big operation. It all depends on the abilities, the vision of the designers and owners themselves. On the other hand, if that vision slips, then the whole thing goes wrong. With precision machine manufacturing there’s an accumulation of technical know-how, so short of some grievous error nothing’s ever totally ruined. But you can’t stockpile vision and creativity—they’re more perishable, like fresh fruit. Making it big is no guarantee of success. There have been lots of companies that made it big, only to disappear.

I’ve been with my company for thirteen years, and seen it grow just like that. We now have our own direct retail outlets, with about 350 employees. My section is Business Planning: we deal with the “making” end, the actual production. Our office is in Hiro-o [southwest central Tokyo].

I live to the east in Edogawa Ward; my train station is Nishi-kasai. I got married ten years ago and bought a condominium. I like living in that old part of town. I can relax there.

March 20 coincides with our spring fashion sales peak, which keeps us pretty busy. Those happy-go-lucky people who can take a long weekend are a world apart from us. We had our weekly Monday morning meeting, same as ever, starting around 8:45. That’s forty-five minutes earlier than usual, which is how I ran smack into the gas attack.

I changed at Kayabacho from the Tozai Line to the Hibiya Line for Hiro-o, but didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary while I was on the train. I was in the middle, probably the sixth car. After Hatchobori there was an announcement: “Some passengers have fallen ill. We will be stopping briefly at Tsukiji, the next station.”

At Tsukiji there was another announcement: “One … no, two of the ill passengers have fainted.” Like that, very real-time. Then it was: “Three passengers down!” The conductor was in a panic. At first he seemed to be relaying information to the passengers, but gradually he got himself in a muddle. Then it was: “Hey, what is this?” The man was yelling into the mike.

I thought: “Uh-oh, sounds like trouble.” But nobody seemed particularly distraught. If the same thing happened today, make no mistake, it’d be a madhouse. As for myself, for a moment I remembered the Matsumoto incident. Not that I went so far as to think it was sarin or anything, but the thought of the Matsumoto incident did carry associations of “scattering poison.” The thought did cross my mind: “Some crazy’s probably sprinkled pesticides or something.” I didn’t know anything about Aum then, however. Wasn’t it a little later before Aum was implicated?

We were told to leave the station by the rear exit, there being some kind of disturbance toward the front of the train. Everyone was well behaved and slowly walked back toward the exit. I was wary, so I put a handkerchief to my mouth just in case, but no one else did. I felt like the only one who sensed any danger.

I was curious what was going on, however, so while people were still lining up at the exit, I looked at the TV monitor at the very end of the platform and saw someone lying unconscious. As I was looking, though, a station attendant shouted at me: “What do you think you’re doing? Just get outside!”

When I reached the surface I saw quite a number of people squatting down, rolling over, sprawled out. They were all rubbing their eyes. I decided I had to see what was going on for myself. I couldn’t just walk off and leave them. So I went up on a footbridge for a better view of the whole scene. So much for my meeting.

Soon an ambulance came, blocking off the traffic on the opposite street. They put up a big tent and carried the injured in on stretchers one after another. Eventually a crowd of onlookers gathered and squeezed me off the bridge, so I left.

After that I took the Ginza Line to Shibuya, hoping to catch a bus to Hiro-o. Good thing I remembered the bus, which I sometimes take. But the bus terminal was more crowded than usual, probably because there was no Hibiya Line. That’s when I spotted a young colleague—24 or 25—leaning against a railing, and a woman from the office trying to hold him up. She didn’t know anything about the trouble on the Hibiya Line at the time, however, and just thought it was anemia or something, which isn’t uncommon in the morning. She was rubbing his back, saying, “You okay? You okay?” He’d apparently taken the Tozai Line, then changed to the Hibiya Line, same as me.

“What happened?” I asked, but all he could say was, “In the subway …”I knew, however, how many people had collapsed at Tsukiji, so it came to me in a flash: “This is no mild case of anemia. This is serious.” We had to get him to a hospital quick. So I went straight to a phone booth and dialed 119, but all I got was: “All of our ambulances are out on call at the moment and cannot come to you. Please remain where you are.” They were all at Tsukiji and Kasumigaseki.

So I went to the police post in front of the subway station to try to get some kind of help, but word still hadn’t reached the police there; when I rushed in spouting off about an “incident in the subway” the officer had no idea what I meant and simply couldn’t be bothered. I realized this wasn’t going to work, so I decided to hail a taxi and take him to the hospital myself. The woman and I held him up between us and told the cabdriver to go to the Red Cross Hospital in Hiro-o. That was the closest.

My colleague was in pretty bad shape. He couldn’t stand. He was in pain and could barely utter a word. He was in no condition to tell us what had happened. If I hadn’t passed by, I doubt anyone would have done the right thing for him. People would have had no idea. And it would have been difficult for the woman to drag him to the taxi rank on her own.

We were the first sarin victims at the Red Cross Hospital. People there were practically shouting, “We got our first one!” It didn’t occur to me at the time that I might be affected too. My nose was running, but I just thought I’d caught a cold. I wasn’t aware of any other symptoms. Once he was with the doctors I called his parents to explain what had happened. Getting a call through wasn’t easy, and it was after 2:00 before his parents made it to the hospital. By then the place was packed with sarin victims. People were spilling out into the corridors, all of them on IVs.

I’d been there since the morning and soon got to know all the nurses. One of them said, “You might as well get tested yourself,” and I thought, “Why not?” so I had myself examined. Here I’d been in hospital half the day and still hadn’t had a single test… Well, sure enough, my pupils were contracted, though so slightly that things didn’t look any darker. Still, I got myself hooked up to an IV for an hour, just in case.

I remember a carpenter who’d cut his finger came dashing into the hospital all covered in blood, only—poor soul—he couldn’t get anyone to so much as look at him. It was like, “Can’t you see we’re treating sarin victims here?” I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. He looked a lot worse all bloody like that.

After the IV I went back to the office. My nose was still running, but that didn’t matter at work. Afterward I went home as usual. I’d been traveling in a different car from the one with the sarin, so I got off lightly. I’d only been examined as an afterthought, once I’d taken my colleague to the hospital, and for that I got my name in the newspaper.

My young colleague is no longer with our company. He left a year ago, but it was nothing to do with the gas attack. He was fine by then. I don’t know what’s become of him since.

I was hardly affected, so my impressions of the gas attack are much the same as the majority of the public. Of course, I don’t think that sort of thing should be condoned, but above and beyond that, well … Afterward the Subway Authority sent me a MetroCard pass. It was bad news for the subway, too, I guess.

“We’ll never make it. If we wait for the ambulance we’re done for”
Naoyuki Ogata (28)

Mr. Ogata works in computer software maintenance. I met with quite a few people in computer-related work in the course of compiling this hook. According to Mr. Ogata, “There are lots of software companies along the Hibiya Line”—for reasons unknown. Mere coincidence?

Common traits among those in the software industry seem to be: (1) “they’re extremely busy;” (2) “they change employment frequently.” Mr. Ogata, however, has worked steadily for the same company since he graduated from school. This is quite exceptional in his field and he is much admired by his peers. Long-term employment or not, he’s as busy as the next man. Not that any salaryman I talked to ever said, “Oh, we’re on easy street. Loads of free time.”

Just for the record, the people in computers I’ve met were never “nerds.” Mr. Ogata is an average clean-cut, articulate young man—he had just turned 30 when I met him, but he hardly looked it—and a useful member of society.

Perhaps it was this side of his character that made him remain so long in the danger zone to help the injured, when his subway train hit disaster at Kodemmacho Station. As a result he received a big dose of sarin gas and ended up as affected as the many he’d saved. He reserves any feelings of resentment for the emergency services that were so ill-prepared to help out in a crisis of this kind.

I was born in Adachi Ward [north Tokyo], and have always lived in the same place. Officially it’s Tokyo, but it’s almost all the way to Saitama. My parents, sister, and I all live together. Another sister is already married and has moved out. My work keeps me busy. I have lots of responsibility, so I work myself into a frazzle. I’ve complained to my boss for I don’t know how long, but he doesn’t listen. When the work piles up, I’m at it twelve, thirteen hours a day—that’s par for the course. I work overtime, but I don’t claim too much or my boss complains. But if I didn’t do overtime, the work would never get finished.

So why are we so busy? Intercompany competition, I suppose. Lately whenever I go somewhere on business, there are always two or three other companies in on the act too. You can’t sit around twiddling your thumbs. Weekends I just sleep, or maybe visit friends. I’ve got two computers at home and I use them for work, too. That’s right. On my days off. I don’t want to, but there’s simply no end to the work. I’d never get it done otherwise (laughs). My parents have given up on me. “Enough is enough!” they tell me, “why is it only you have to kill yourself?” But no matter what they say, I still have to do it.

If you’re over 30 in computing you’re out of it. They keep coming out with new systems and standards, and it’s harder to keep your head above water. The best guys in our company are mostly around 22, 23. When they’re past that they’ll usually leave the company. Nobody stays in this field forever.

My company’s in Roppongi. I catch the bus around 7:00 to Gotanno Station, then take the 7:42 or 7:47 Hibiya Line train for Naka-meguro. It’s incredibly packed. Sometimes you can’t even get on. Crowded as it is, though, even more people squeeze in at Kitasenju. You’re just squashed in like the filling in a sandwich. I’m talking physical harm. You feel like you’ll be crushed to death, or suddenly your hip’s thrown out of joint. You’re all twisted out of shape and all you can think is, “It hurts!” You’re just mangled up in the middle of all this, with only your feet in the same place.

It’s quite literally a pain to commute like that every day. Come Monday morning I always think, “Maybe I won’t go in today …” (laughs) But you know, even though your head’s saying, “No way, I don’t want to go!” your body just automatically sets off for the office.

If everyone had a computer hooked up to the office, there’d be no need to commute. Even now it’s not impossible. You can even hold meetings by conference call. You’d only go in to the office maybe once a week—perhaps it’ll happen one day.

On March 20 I missed several trains because they were delayed due to fog on the Tone River. I ended up catching the 7:50-something, which, because of the delay, was packed tight. It was terrible. The previous Friday I’d come down with a cold and had a temperature, so I’d taken the day off. But I was back on the job on Saturday. I had to change over a system for a customer. I took Sunday off and slept the whole day. On Monday I was still a bit out of things; I really wanted to take the day off, but I’d already told my boss I’d go in.

Quite a few people got off at Ueno Station, so finally I could breathe. I’d somehow held on to a handstrap. What do I do while I’m on the subway? Nothing. I’m just thinking, “Gaah, I want to sit down!” (laughs).

That day the train stopped between Akihabara and Kodemmacho. Then there was an announcement about an explosion at Tsukiji. “The train will be stopping at Kodemmacho,” it said. “Shit,” I thought, “first the fog, now this accident. It’s just not my day.” I was already seriously late.

The train stopped just that once, then went on to Kodemmacho. I was certain it would start again sooner or later, so I waited on board. But not long afterward there was another announcement: “This train is stopping here. We do not foresee moving on again.” What could I do but get off? I decided to take a taxi the rest of the way to the office. So I walked up the stairs to the ticket barrier and went above ground. Suddenly I met with the most amazing sight. People were dropping like flies all over the place.

I’d taken the third car from the back and had absolutely no idea what was happening at the front of the platform. I was just heading up above ground, swearing under my breath like everyone else, when right before my eyes I saw three people fall down and foam at the mouth, their arms and legs twitching. “What the hell’s going on here?” I thought.

Closest to me was this man whose limbs were quivering, he was trembling all over and foaming at the mouth, having some kind of seizure. I just looked at him and my jaw dropped. I knew it was serious and rushed over to ask him what had happened. I could see he needed immediate care. That’s when someone who was still walking by said, “Him foaming like that is dangerous, you’d better stuff some newspaper in his mouth.” So we both helped him. After that all these exhausted people kept coming up from the ticket barrier below, then dropping to the ground. I couldn’t work out what had happened. Some of the people sitting down suddenly just keeled over flat out.

It was a strange sight. Off toward the back of the next building, this old man—I mean really old—wasn’t breathing and there was no pulse. He’d gone motionless just where he lay. “Did anyone call an ambulance?” I asked the person nearest me. “They called,” he said, “but none came.” Then somebody else said: “We’ll never make it. If we wait for the ambulance we’re done for.” We decided we had to try stopping cars and asking the drivers to help move everyone out.

The traffic light had just turned red, so we all jumped in front of the cars and begged them: “Please, you have to take us to St. Luke’s.” That was the nearest hospital. We went for vans mostly, thinking they could carry five or six people. Everyone stopped for us, and once we’d explained the situation they were understanding and took us.

I must have been doing that for an hour, helping carry across those who’d dragged themselves up above ground. We passed them along like a relay team. We divided ourselves up between the “people carriers” and the “car stoppers.”

The ambulances just didn’t come. Finally one ambulance did show up, but only after about half an hour. It had come from miles away because all the others were at Tsukiji. One ambulance!

I went to the hospital by taxi too. I’d been so busy helping people, by the time I’d finished I was showing symptoms myself. The main reason was I’d gone back down to the platform. Word was that a station attendant had collapsed and another attendant came up, saying, “Can anyone give me a hand?” So I went down again together with a few others and breathed in the sarin. By that time the station was full of gas…

The fallen station attendant was barely conscious and muttering something about, “No, no, I have to remain here in the station.” He’d somehow leaned against the ticket barrier and still he was saying, “I have to stay here.” We had to drag him out of there by force.

I didn’t think twice about going down to the platform. Scared or not, I wasn’t even aware of it; we were too desperate. All I knew was we had to help. There were only a handful of people still on their feet, how could we not help? Going back down, there was a paint thinner-like smell. I remember thinking, “Odd, who dimmed the lights?” My pupils were contracted.

After we’d carried out all the injured and got our breath back, I was trying to get a taxi to work when I started to feel sick. My head hurt, I felt nauseated, my eyes itched. The others told me, “If you’re feeling strange you’d better go to the hospital.”

Three of us shared a taxi. One guy had come up from Osaka or Nagoya on business, and he was grumbling: “Why did this have to happen today? I just got here.” I sat in the front seat; the two men in the back were pretty dizzy, so we wound down the windows all the way. The roads were jammed. Tsukiji was sealed off and there was no way of getting to any backstreets, so we had to head straight down Harumi Avenue, which was packed, a real mess.

They tested my eyes at the hospital and put me on a drip straightaway. The place seemed like a combat hospital, IV drips lining the corridors … I got two drips, then, since my symptoms weren’t so bad at the time, I went home. The doctor even asked me, “Are you going home or staying?” but I was so worked up, as if I’d just left a war zone, I didn’t even notice if I was tired or weak or anything.

By the time I got home my eyes really hurt. I could barely sleep for a week. I’d shut my eyes, but they still hurt—the whole night through until morning … that wore me out. So I went back to the hospital for more tests and was told my cholinesterase level was way down and I was showing the effects of sarin. I wish they’d told me earlier. Ever since the Matsumoto incident they knew what the symptoms of sarin were and they must have had testing procedures. And St. Luke’s is one of the better places. Most of the other hospitals were so poorly equipped it was a joke.

The tests showed my kidney functions were down dramatically. “You’re into the danger zone,” they told me. And it wasn’t just me; others were showing the same signs too. Apparently it had something to do with the alcohol-based solvent they used to thin down the sarin. The kidneys are what they call “silent organs,” so you wouldn’t even know. There’s no pain. They told me to lay off alcohol completely, so I didn’t drink for a long time.

I ended up taking a week off from work and didn’t do any overtime for the next three months. My boss understood, so that really helped.

To tell the truth, though, I have my doubts about the police and fire department. Okay, they sprang into action in the beginning at Tsukiji, but even so they were just way too late in coming to help at Kodemmacho. We’d given up on them by the time they arrived. I just wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t taken it upon ourselves to do something. Granted the local police might not have any experience, but they were practically useless. Ask them which hospital to go to, and that hasn’t been established so they’re on the radio for ten minutes. Just a simple question: “Which hospital?”

The police showed up only after the rescue operation was practically over. Then they began directing traffic for the one ambulance that arrived. I don’t know what’s wrong with Japan’s standby disaster arrangements. After all those sarin gas victims in Matsumoto, they ought to have learned a lesson or two. They’d identified a link between Aum and sarin at that time. If they’d followed that up this whole gas attack wouldn’t have happened, or at least I’d have come away with less serious injuries.

At the hospital I saw some of the others who had helped me rescue people from Kodemmacho Station. Some were bedridden. We all inhaled sarin. I don’t want to keep quiet about this thing; keeping quiet is a bad Japanese habit. By now, I know everyone’s beginning to forget about this whole incident, but I absolutely do not want people to forget.

And I’m going to continue to raise objections: why hasn’t any treatment policy been established for posttraumatic stress disorder? Why hasn’t the Japanese government made an accurate assessment of the current health of the injured? I’m going to fight this one.

“It’d be pathetic to die like this”
Michiru Kono (53)

Mr. Kono was born into a farming family in Oyama, Tochigi (north of Tokyo), in 1941, the year the War in the Pacific began. After graduating from high school he got a job through a friend at a printing factory in Kayabacho. This was back when horse-drawn carts were still rolling through the old downtown warehouse districts of Tokyo. You could see right across to Tokyo Station from the rooftops of Kayabacho in those days. He lived in the company dormitory until he was 21. For recreation there was the cinema, or maybe hiking in the hills with his colleagues.

In 1969, aged 28, he married. He and his wife now live in Soka, Saitama, and have two children, both in their twenties. He’s strongly built and has never once been ill. He swears by eating and drinking in moderation as the root of all health. If he goes out drinking one night, he absolutely refuses to touch a drop the next day, even if his wife forgets and opens a bottle of beer. He’s that strong-willed.

Now he goes to the pool once a week and swims for an hour. The gas attack sapped his strength, so he began this regime.

He loves bonsai. Mention bonsai and his face lights up and he’ll talk nonstop. After the gas attack, however, he was so upset and confused, he decided to get rid of his cherished plants. Luckily, he changed his mind, but not before a friend had taken ten of the biggest and best.

Our company prints account ledgers. I’ve been working there thirty-nine years. Ever since 1957. There was nowhere else to go (laughs).

Business hasn’t been so good lately. Everyone’s gone computerized, so there isn’t much demand for accounting ledgers.

Now they just push a button and out it all comes printed. Just tear it off and stuff it in an envelope and post it. Done. So the demand for invoice forms and delivery forms, all that has gone. And it’s going to get even worse from here on. There are eight of us in the company now. We used to have twenty-five.

The first thing I do when I wake up at 5:30 is water my bonsai. Before I get a drink, the bonsai get theirs. Once every three days is enough, but in summer it’s every day. I’ve got eighty pots altogether, so it takes some doing. At least half an hour. After that I eat, dress, and leave home around 7:00. I walk to Matsubara Danchi Station and catch the 7:17. But that day, owing to circumstances, I caught a different train.

The fact is, aside from bonsai, I go freshwater fishing as a hobby. I usually take off the next day after I go fishing. You need a lot of gear: high boots, your rod, all kinds of other stuff. Well, I can’t stand not cleaning each piece of equipment myself. That’s just the way I am. So that’s why I take the following day off.

Generally I and my friends drive up on a Saturday night from Kawaguchi as far as Niigata. We don’t sleep, and as soon as morning comes we start fishing, from dawn until maybe one o’clock. We start downstream and work our way up, then we come downstream and head back to town. When the Kanetsu Expressway is busy traffic doesn’t move at all, so I don’t get home until about nine or ten at night. I take off the Monday after. On that weekend [March 18/19], we’d gone to the Daimon River in Nagano, just below Lake Shirakaba. I got back home at 8:00 on Sunday.

But the following Monday I was going to be busy, so—much as I would have liked to—I couldn’t take time off. I put off dealing with the big fishing gear and settled for a quick tidy-up, which made me ten minutes later than usual leaving the house. I didn’t oversleep. I never oversleep.

I change at Takenozuka for the first Hibiya Line train of the morning. I could change at Kita-senju, but it’s so damned crowded. Seven or eight years ago I once had my glasses broken there. I got crushed as they all came shoving in. After that I gave up on Kita-senju. I’ve a much better chance of getting a seat on the first Takenozuka train. Then I read a bonsai book or a magazine.

But that day I was late, so I took a later train. I sat on the second row of seats on the right-hand side, looking in the direction of the train, by the middle door in the third car from the front. I was asked about this repeatedly by detectives, so I remember it very well. I’ll never forget as long as I live (laughs).

Actually, the work I was doing at the time had something to do with AIDS. We were printing drug labels for a pharmaceutical company. Two-color labels to stick on the product, and we had to deliver them by March 25. We had to start printing on the twenty-second, so I had to go into work and prepare the plates.

En route—right before Akihabara, was it?—the train stopped. There was an announcement: “There’s been an accident at Tsukiji Station, we will wait here briefly.” But we weren’t there for very long, so I wasn’t bothered. That sort of thing happens all the time. Then we stopped again between Akihabara and Kodemmacho, and there was another announcement. Something about a gas explosion at Tsukiji Station. They repeated it twice. Which sent a buzz through the car.

Five or six minutes later, I can’t be sure, the train we were on inched into Kodemmacho Station. Then suddenly I heard a woman scream. A loud piercing squawk like a parrot—at least I think it was a woman. It came from outside the car. “What now?” I thought, but the platform was so crowded I couldn’t see a thing from inside the train.

Then came another announcement: “We will remain stopped here for a while.” At this point maybe a third of the passengers got off, though I remained seated. Judging from past experience, it’s usually best to stay put; the train sometimes starts again. It’s stupid to get caught in the middle trying to change trains.

Well, I waited for three or four minutes, and again there was an announcement: “This train is being taken out of service.” “That does it,” I thought, and got up. It’s two stations between Kodemmacho and Kayabacho, that’s thirty or forty minutes’ walk. If I hurried I might make it to the office just after 9:00. I took down the paper bag I’d put up on the shelf above my seat and stepped onto the platform. And next to a column a little way ahead toward the front of the train, there’s a man lying faceup, his arms and legs twitching like he’s about to breathe his last.

I set down my bag against the wall and held his legs to keep them from kicking, but I just couldn’t control them, he was trembling so bad. His eyes were tightly shut. I stayed there for six or seven minutes, just holding him, but in the end he died, I know. He was the eleventh person to die. A Mr. Tanaka from Urawa, 53 years old—the same as me.

I’m not the sort to just pass people by. Something happens and I’m right there to lend a hand. People are always telling me, “You shouldn’t go looking for trouble” (laughs). But I just can’t look the other way. Close by a woman had collapsed too, and there were about ten people around her. You can’t be too careful touching a woman, but man-to-man you can help out no questions asked. Anyway they were standing around her. I was crouching, so I could see her between people’s legs. Her name was Ms. Iwata, 32 years old. She died two days later.

I started shouting at everyone walking along the platform, “There’s a sick man here, somebody call the station attendant!” I looked around and there wasn’t a station attendant anywhere on the platform.

Soon enough one did appear, but he went straight over to the woman, not to where I was. So I yelled, “Hey, over here!” But he said, “There’s only one of me and I can’t be in two places at once.” I heard later that this station attendant ended up in a serious condition and very nearly lost his life.

I was still crouching there, rubbing the man’s legs, when suddenly I smelled this stink like rotten onions. In the train they said something about a gas explosion, so I knew it had to be gas and I had to get out of there quickly. So I stood up, grabbed my paper bag (I’m amazed I actually remembered!), and made a run for it. Every second counted, so I didn’t even show my travel pass; I just jumped over the ticket barrier and dashed up the stairs, shouting the whole way, “Gas! Gas! Run for it!”

Everyone else was plodding up the stairs so slowly, completely unaware. More were coming down the stairs to board the train. There were no station attendants anywhere to stop them coming down. When I started yelling, people up ahead were grumbling: “What’s the hurry?” “Hey, don’t push!” Maybe they were afraid I’d start a stampede. But I just pushed my way through them. I ran ahead into a narrow side street, squeezing past the parked cars. I had it in my head that the main roads would be dangerous. I even considered getting in one of the cars parked there, but it was locked. Well, of course it was locked. But I didn’t even think, I was in such a state.

So off I ran again, this time to a building. I wanted to escape the gas explosion. I found somewhere with the lights on, but it was still early, so the door was locked. I went across the street, when suddenly my eyesight went funny, as if I were seeing fireworks or something. “Odd,” I thought, then ten seconds later my eyes blacked out totally. It was a bright clear day, then out of nowhere this curtain descended and I couldn’t see a thing.

I couldn’t see, I couldn’t run, but I knew I had to get across the street. I was running almost on instinct. It was a small street, it couldn’t have been far, but I tripped on something and fell. “Ah! I’m going to die like this,” I thought, “I don’t want to die!”

Then I heard a man’s voice saying, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” I vaguely remember him asking me what company I worked for. I think I held out my travel pass, because it had my company ID card in it, though I can’t be certain. Then everything went black and I don’t recall a thing.

I came to five or six hours later in a hospital bed.

I was this close to losing my life. Only three things saved me: (1) I smelled something; (2) I ran out of there; (3) some stranger found me and took me to the hospital long before the ambulance came. If it hadn’t been for these three things, I’m sure I’d have died.

And thinking back on it now, I’m convinced that Mr. Tanaka, the man who died, said to me when I smelled gas: “It’s too late for me, run!”

While the other commuters were coming out of the station, then falling like flies, I was in the hospital already getting treatment. With sarin, even a second earlier on to oxygen makes all the difference. I was the third sarin case to be hospitalized. I only heard later that when I was helping the man on the platform, the packet of sarin was just ten meters away from me.

Toward afternoon my eyes sensed a little light. I still couldn’t see. It was like there were soap bubbles over my eyes. Everything was layered double, triple, and swirling around. My family had come and I could tell there was someone there, but I couldn’t recognize anyone until they spoke.

It was excruciating. I vomited, but nothing came, just a little fluid. And the muscles in my legs were in spasm. The nurse and my daughter-in-law had to massage them until the evening. I’m sure I was in the same state as the man I’d helped at the station, but he could hardly speak so he must have been in unbelievable pain.

Seeing me like that, my family seemed to have resigned themselves to the fact that I might not pull through. But by the third day I was over the worst. Though I was in a bad state at first, my symptoms soon went away and I was out of there remarkably quickly. Only from the fourth day I ran a high fever of 39°C [102.2°F] that wouldn’t come down for two days. My kidneys were bad. “No shape to be discharged in,” they said. I was surprised to hear that. I’d had annual checkups at work and always came through 100 percent.

I was in the hospital for thirteen days, on drips the whole time. Changing the old body fluids. The biggest problem was urinating—I felt like going to the toilet every five minutes. There was nothing to pee out, just a few drops, but I found it hard to sleep when I wanted to take a leak all the time.

From the fourth day or so, I started having hallucinations. Always the same dream. Just as I’m dozing off it hits me. I’m sleeping in a white room and this white veil comes draping down over my head. It’s fluttering around in the way, so I try to grab it and tear it off, but I can’t reach. It’s not that it’s too high. I just can’t get my hands on it. I dreamed that over and over again every night.

And while I’m dreaming there’s this strong pressure, like someone’s pressing down full force on my whole body. They say nightmares are one aftereffect of sarin. Well, it’s not quite “dreaming.” The fear stays lodged in the brain and these reactions just occur. But it’s scary while you’re dreaming; you snap awake three or four times a night, and that’s what wears you out.

Another aftereffect, my eyesight’s much worse. There’s little chance of recovery, so I’m no good at the detailed work anymore. I have to proof layouts, which is difficult if I can’t see precise alignments.

I took a week off work. The hospital said I ought to take three weeks, but if I took that long off the company would go bust (laughs). I’m in charge of all the plate layouts, with no one else to stand in. Two or three days we can let slide, but no more than that. So the fourth day at the hospital I had work brought in and gave instructions over the phone. I may have been sick, but I wasn’t incapacitated! But you know, I think it contributed to my recovery.

Later I went back to the subway, boarded the very same train, and sat in the same seat. I even went to look at the place where I fell down. At the time I thought I’d run so far, when in fact I’d only gone about fifty meters at the most.

For a while after the gas attack I felt like throwing everything away. I’m generally good at holding on to things (I still have my plastic pencil case from elementary school). But I wanted to toss everything out. A year later that impulse has gone, but at the time it was like “Nothing’s worthwhile anymore.” I even felt like giving away my most precious bonsai.

When I went blind, I thought, “It’d be pathetic to die like this.” I even cried out at the hospital: “I don’t want to die!” Someone told me later. They heard me all the way down to the corridor from reception. It gave people goose bumps. Actually, when I was six I nearly drowned swimming in a river, and I remember thinking: “Ah, saved back then only to go blind and die like this …” I didn’t think about my family; I just didn’t want to die. Not there, not like that.

I have no feelings of hatred toward the Aum perpetrators, not now. At the time I was furious, outraged, but that anger disappeared relatively quickly. “Kill ’em, give ’em the death penalty”—I’m past all that. If you carried around all that hatred you’d never get over the aftereffects, but maybe I can say that because I don’t have any really painful aftereffects …

“The day of the gas attack was my sixty-fifth birthday”
Kei’ichi Ishikura (65)

At 55 Mr. Ishikura retired from his job with a towel manufacturer, and currently works for a rubber cord company in Ningyocho, northeast central Tokyo. The day I interviewed him at his home near Tanizuka Station on the Tobu Isezaki Line in the northwestern suburbs of Tokyo, the place was impressively clean. I mean spotless. Mr. Ishikura gets up at 3:30 A.M., cleans the house from top to bottom, has a bath, then goes to work. Amazing!

Not that he especially loves cleaning; he says that he always wanted to do one thing better than anyone else, and it turned out to be cleaning. Despite his claims to be “impulsive by nature” and to “not really think things through before acting,” underneath it all he strikes me as fastidious and iron-willed.

Mr. Ishikura did not suffer directly from being on the platform or on any of the trains that were targeted. He just happened to be walking past Kodemmacho Station when he saw a victim collapse on the pavement. Concerned, he went down into the station entrance to see what was wrong, and that was toxic enough. A rare case among all those I interviewed. Yet even now he suffers from aftereffects.

I was born on March 20, so the day of the gas attack was my sixty-fifth birthday. I was born in Ono, Fukui [on the north coast of Japan], near Eiheiji Zen monastery. My family were dairy farmers. We had seven or eight cows, milked them every morning, processed and bottled the milk, then delivered it to about eight hundred houses in the town and surrounding hills.

My parents were very demanding. When we ate, they fussed over every little thing, like how we raised and lowered our chopsticks. Especially Father, who’d been in a cavalry regiment and had seen his fair share of punishment. I never did get along with Father. The reason I left home and went to Tokyo was because he wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say. A real upstart I was. My big brother was in the army, and around the time he was posted to Manchuria I wanted to leave home, but my parents wouldn’t let me go. “Your brother isn’t here and you just disappear, what’s to become of the business? You stay here and work until such time as we know for sure if your brother’s dead or alive.”

Then, after the war, my brother was sent from Manchuria to Tashkent in the Ukraine [sic], where he was forced to do hard labor. But since he was a technician, he was valued for driving cars and tractors, and he wasn’t sent home for ages. It was eight years after the war ended, 1953, before he finally made it back to Japan. We didn’t even know if he was still alive until a letter from him arrived in 1950.

Meanwhile I couldn’t leave home. That milk delivery work, boy, how I hated it! I was coming of age, breaking out in pimples. I’d be doing my milk rounds and have to hide my face for shame every time I met a schoolgirl.

Once we knew my big brother was safe and sound, Father told me, “So now we know, you can go off wherever you want.” They didn’t need me around anymore, so I made straight for Tokyo. That was in 1951. I was 21.

I hadn’t really thought things through before going to Tokyo, so naturally I screwed up a lot. It was always, “If only I hadn’t done this, if only I hadn’t said that.” But as soon as I got an idea in my head, I couldn’t rest until—bam!—I’d gone and done it. So bam!—I was off to Tokyo, and there I happened to meet someone from my hometown who manufactured towels and he said, “Come and work with me.”

I’m ashamed to admit it, but when I came to Tokyo I’d secretly pocketed three thousand yen from my milk round (laughs). In those days three thousand yen was a fair amount. My train fare from Fukui down to Ueno [in Tokyo] cost only eight hundred yen. It was milk money I collected from a dozen or so families. I just stuffed it in my pocket and left.

As it turned out, I worked for that Nihombashi towel company a long, long time. It was 1984 when I retired, so that makes thirty-three years! I was in sales; I went out and got orders.

Marriage? I married the year they banned the red-light districts, so that was … 1958, was it? That’s when the bill [The Anti-Prostitution Act, April 1957] was forced through … March 10, 1958. Army Day. I got married that day. I’d gone home for a few days and a neighbor said, “There’s this girl, so how about it?” and I said, “Okay.” Very simple. I thought it was about time I had a family like everyone else. We met the next day.

My father was furious. He knew about this impulsive nature of mine. “Of all the stupid things! Marrying someone you’ve never even met! It’s not just your problem—there’s the family name to consider.” We had a big row. But thinking back on it now, he was right. I became a father myself, and when my daughter got married I was thinking the very same thing.

So the next day we met. She came out just once and I didn’t even really get a good look at her face. We didn’t have much to say. Her parents did all the talking; on my side there was just me. She came out for a moment, we exchanged greetings, and that was that. They served me sake. There wasn’t much to like or dislike about her. She was a lot thinner then, and I suppose she looked pretty to me. All I thought was, “She’ll do.”

Anyway, about the gas attack. That day it took longer than usual to go from Tanizuka to Kita-senju. The train ran slow the whole way. I kept looking around wondering what on earth had happened. When we got to Kita-senju they announced over the PA: “There’s been an explosion at Tsukiji Station, all trains are delayed.” Then it was: “Alternate transport will be provided. Passengers in a hurry should take that.” But I wasn’t in any hurry, so I stayed on the train. Changing would have been a hassle, besides, I still had time before office hours began.

The train stayed at Kita-senju for about twenty minutes. When it did move again, it was starting and stopping all the time, crawling along. At Minami-senju or Minowa, it just stopped with the door open. En route they announced something about “injuries at Kasumigaseki.” Of course, at that point we didn’t know anything about poison gas, so “injuries” didn’t mean much.

Yes, we were stuck at Ueno Station for ages. There was another announcement: “This train, will go no farther for the foreseeable time. Passengers in a hurry should please change trains. Alternative transport is being provided.” By then the train was practically empty. Everyone had gotten off, yet somehow or other it made it all the way to Akihabara. Then it stopped completely: “This service will terminate here.” That was about 8:30.

I decided to walk from there. It’s only two stations from Akihabara to Ningyocho. But when I got to the area around Kodemmacho Station, there were ambulances and people lying down all over the place, even on the sidewalk. “What’s going on here?” I thought. I went to take a look two or three steps down into the subway entrance. But there were people lying on the steps, bent over or huddled up. One station attendant had his cap off and was clawing at his throat, groaning in agony. A businessman was shouting, “My eyes! My eyes! Do something!” Nothing made any sense.

Back up on street level, over by the Sanwa Bank, in a niche in the building, a girl was trying to help up a prostrate body. There were two or three ambulances on the scene, but that was hardly sufficient. There were bodies up and down the street, not sitting down but lying flat out, writhing in pain, struggling to loosen their collars and ties. People vomiting, too. A girl had vomited and was trying to take out her handkerchief to wipe her mouth, but she couldn’t even manage that. She looked so ashamed, she tried to hide her face.

Everyone was suffering, bent over in pain, and there was no way to ask, “What’s going on?” Firemen were rushing this way and that with stretchers. There was no time to talk to anyone.

One girl on the sidewalk was crying, “Help, please!” but when I asked her what had happened she didn’t know. All she could say was, “Please, call somebody.”

I didn’t see a single policeman, just firemen with stretchers moving around, not really doing anything. Ask any of them about the situation and they couldn’t tell you anything. So I decided to go on to work anyway.

I walked along Ningyocho Avenue to my company. The weather was clear that morning, yet everything looked dark and cloudy to my eyes. The day was warm; I even worked up a sweat walking, but by the time I was near the office the sun had gone dim.

I vomited as soon as I got to the office. I went inside and everything looked so dark. I had turned on the TV, then felt sick. I went straight to the toilet and vomited. A whole bucketful, really emptied out my stomach.

TV news carried first reports about the gas attack. People at the office said, “Ishikura, if you’re sick you’d better see a doctor,” so I went to a nearby hospital. The doctor told me, “This is just a cold.” “But it’s been on the TV,” I said. Unfortunately the NHK News had said nothing about the attack, so he gave me two aspirins and said, “See, there’s nothing on the news. It’s just a cold. If your head still hurts take another of these at noon.”

Well, my head did hurt. But I always have headaches, so I didn’t pay much attention. I went back to the office, took the tablets, and immediately vomited again. I really retched, but there was nothing left to thtow up, only water and the tablets I’d swallowed.

Soon more details came out on the TV. Two people had died at Kodemmacho, about eighty or so others had been taken to St. Luke’s. I rang the police and asked them which hospital to go to, and they said Tajima in Ryogoku.

My eyes still aren’t back to normal. With my left eye, the sun looks completely overcast, all fuzzy like an eclipse. It was fine before March 20. Now I wear UV filter glasses. I can’t walk outside without them. I can barely see anything on TV.

I also tire more easily. There’s no energy in my legs and joints. If I’m on my feet for even half a day I can’t get my strength back. The doctor says, “That isn’t sarin, it’s just age.” But do people age—snap!—just like that? It’s very strange if you ask me, but there’s no proof it was the attack.

My wife says my memory has gotten worse. I’ll start to do something and can’t remember what it was or where I put things. Also, since the gas attack, people say I ramble more. If I start to say something, everyone in the house just wanders off. I had tendencies in that direction before, but lately it’s gotten terrible. I also drink more now. Before I used to drink only sake, but now I’m on whiskey. Drinking alone. I can hardly sleep, so I drink whiskey.

I get up around 2 A.M. to take a leak, then doze off until around 3:30. That’s when I start dreaming. Often the same dream. I’m walking somewhere and someone bumps into me. I think, “Poor guy,” but it’s me who falls over. And they take me to the hospital, where the person who bumped into me apologizes. I dream that over and over again. When I wake, I’m in a cold sweat.

I don’t say anything in public, but personally speaking, it’s the death penalty for Asahara. I’d give anyone who did that the death penalty, no questions asked. They say the trial’s going to drag on, but while I’m still alive I’d like to see them clinch it. It’d be insane if I got old and died first.