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



What Happened in the Tokyo Subway on March 20, 1995?

The morning of March 20, I was at my house in Oiso, two hours due south of Tokyo. I was living in Massachusetts at the time, but had returned to Japan for a fortnight during the spring holidays. With no TV or radio in the house, I was completely unaware that a major cataclysm was taking place in the city. I was indoors listening to music, leisurely straightening up my bookshelves. I remember that peaceful moining very well. Not a cloud in the sky.

Around 10:00 I received a phone call from an acquaintance working in the media: “Something crazy’s happened in the subway; lots of people hurt.” His voice was tense. “Poison gas. This is Aum’s doing, no mistake. Better steer clear of Tokyo for the time being. They’re dangerous.”

What was he saying? Poison gas in the subway? Aum? I’d been away from Japan for some time and hadn’t kept up on current affairs. I’d missed the Yomiuri Shimbun scoop on New Year’s Day when they’d discovered sarin residue near the Aum headquarters in the village of Kamikuishiki. This linked the cult to an earlier outbreak of poisoning in nearby Matsumoto, three hours northwest of Tokyo. Little did I know the Aum cult had been implicated in strange dealings surrounding a number of crimes, that it was an extremely hot topic in Japan.

From today’s perspective, I now realize that few people—in the media at least—thought it far-fetched that Aum might be involved in such a major act of terrorism. Anyway, as I had no plans to go into Tokyo that day, I went back to sorting out my books as if nothing had happened.

That was my March 20.

Yet somehow the perplexity I felt that morning—a sense of estrangement or displacement—stayed with me. I remained “out of phase.”

For many months thereafter, the media overflowed with “news” of all kinds about the cult. From morning till night Japanese TV was virtually nonstop Aum. The papers, tabloids, magazines all devoted thousands of pages to the gas attack.

None of which told me what I wanted to know. No, mine was a very simple question: What actually happened in the Tokyo subway the morning of March 20, 1995?

Or more concretely: What were the people in the subway cars doing at the time? What did they see? What did they feel? What did they think? If I could, I’d have included details on each individual passenger, right down to their heartbeat and breathing, as graphically represented as possible. The question was, what would happen to any ordinary Japanese citizen—such as me or any of my readers—if they were suddenly caught up in an attack of this kind?

High-flown excesses aside, the polemic put forth by the media was quite straightforward in structure. To them, the moral principle at stake in the gas attack was all too clear: “good” versus “evil,” “sanity” versus “madness,” “health” versus “disease.” It was an obvious exercise in opposites.

The Japanese were shocked by this macabre incident. From every mouth it was the same outcry: “The sheer lunacy of it all! What on earth’s become of Japan, when such mass insanity walks among us? Where were the police? It’s the death penalty for Shoko Asahara no matter what …”

Thus, to a greater or lesser degree, people all jumped onto the “right,” “sane,” “normal” bandwagon. There was nothing complicated about it. That is, placed alongside the likes of Shoko Asahara and the Aum cult, compared to the deeds they had done, the overwhelming majority of Japanese were indeed “right,” “sane,” and “healthy.” It could hardly have been a more open-and-shut case. The media merely played along with this consensus and accelerated its force.

There were a few lone voices that bucked the trend. “Shouldn’t the crime be punished as a crime, without all this talk of ‘goodness’ or ‘sanity’?” they insisted, but were largely ignored in the general furor.

Only now, several years after the event, just where has this ramshackle bandwagon of mass consensus delivered us Japanese with “right on our side”? What have we learned from this shocking incident?

One thing is for sure. Some strange malaise, some bitter aftertaste lingers on. We crane our necks and look around us, as if to ask: where did all that come from? If only to be rid of this malaise, to cleanse our palates of this aftertaste, most Japanese seem ready to pack up the whole incident in a trunk labeled THINGS OVER AND DONE WITH. We would rather the meaning of the whole ordeal was left to the fixed processes of the court and everything was dealt with on the level of “the system.”

Certainly the legal process is valuable and will bring to light many truths. But unless we Japanese absorb those facts into our metabolism and integrate them into our field of vision, all will be lost in a mass of meaningless detail, court-case gossip, an obscure, forgotten corner of history. The rain that fell on the city runs down the dark gutters and empties into the sea without even soaking the ground. The legal system can deal with only one facet of the issue on the basis of the law. There is no guarantee that this will settle the matter.

In other words, the shock dealt to Japanese society by Aum and the gas attack has still to be effectively analyzed, the lessons have yet to be learned. Even now, having finished interviewing the victims, I can’t simply file away the gas attack, saying: “After all, this was merely an extreme and exceptional crime committed by an isolated lunatic fringe.” And what am I to think when our collective memory of the affair is looking more and more like a bizarre comic strip or an urban myth?

If we are to learn anything from this tragic event, we must look at what happened all over again, from different angles, in different ways. Something tells me things will only get worse if we don’t wash it out of our metabolism. It’s all too easy to say, “Aum was evil.” Nor does saying, “This had nothing to do with ‘evil’ or ‘insanity’” prove anything either. Yet the spell cast by these phrases is almost impossible to break, the whole emotionally charged “Us” versus “Them” vocabulary has been done to death.

No, what we need, it seems to me, are words coming from another direction, new words for a new narrative. Another narrative to purify this narrative.

Why Did I Look Away from the Aum Cult?

What alternative is there to the media’s “Us” versus “Them”? The danger is that if it is used to prop up this “righteous” position of “ours” all we will see from now on are ever more exacting and minute analyses of the “dirty” distortions in “their” thinking. Without some flexibility in our definitions we’ll remain forever stuck with the same old knee-jerk reactions, or worse, slide into complete apathy.

A little while after the events, a thought occurred to me. In order to understand the reality of the Tokyo gas attack, no study of the rationale and workings of “them,” the people who instigated it, would be enough. Necessary and beneficial though such efforts might be, wasn’t there a similar need for a parallel analysis of “us”? Wasn’t the real key (or part of a key) to the mystery thrust upon Japan by “them” more likely to be found hidden under “our” territory?

We will get nowhere as long as the Japanese continue to disown the Aum “phenomenon” as something completely other, an alien presence viewed through binoculars on the far shore. Unpleasant though the prospect might seem, it is important that we incorporate “them,” to some extent, within that construct called “us,” or at least within Japanese society. Certainly that is how the event was viewed from abroad. But even more to the point, by failing to look for the key buried under our own feet, where it might be visible to the naked eye, by holding the phenomenon at such a distance we are in danger of reducing its significance to a microscopic level.

This thought has a history. I trace it back to February 1990, when Aum stood for election in the Lower House of the Japanese Diet. Asahara was running in Shibuya Ward, the Tokyo district where I was living at the time, and the campaign was a singularly odd piece of theater. Day after day strange music played from big trucks with sound systems, while white-robed young men and women in oversize Asahara masks and elephant heads lined the sidewalk outside my local train station, waving and dancing some incomprehensible jig.

When I saw this election campaign, my first reaction was to look away. It was one of the last things I wanted to see. Others around me showed the same response: they simply walked by pretending not to see the cultists. I felt an unnameable dread, a disgust beyond my understanding. I didn’t bother to consider very deeply where this dread came from, or why it was “one of the last things I wanted to see.” I didn’t think it was all that important at the time. I simply put the image out of mind as “nothing to do with me.”

Faced by the same scene, no doubt 90 percent of people would have felt and behaved the same way: walk by pretending not to see; don’t give it a second thought; forget it. Very likely German intellectuals during the Weimar period behaved in a similar fashion when they first saw Hitler.

But now, thinking back on it, the whole thing seems very curious. There are any number of new religions out there proselytizing on the street, yet they don’t fill us—or at least me—with an inexplicable dread. No, it’s just “Oh, them again,” and that’s it. If you want to talk aberrations, then shaven-headed Japanese youths dancing around chanting “Hare Krishna” are a departure from the social norm. Still, I don’t look away from Hare Krishnas. Why, then, did I automatically avert my eyes from the Aum campaigners? What was it that disturbed me?

My conjecture is this. The Aum “phenomenon” disturbs precisely because it is not someone else’s affair. It shows us a distorted image of ourselves in a manner none of us could have foreseen. The Hare Krishnas and all the other new religions can be dismissed at the outset (before they even enter into our rational mind) as having no bearing on us. But not Aum, for some reason. Their presence—their appearance, their song—had to be actively rejected by an effort of will, and that is why they disturb us.

Psychologically speaking (I’ll wheel out the amateur psychology just this once, so bear with me), encounters that call up strong physical disgust or revulsion are often in fact projections of our own faults and weaknesses. Very well, but how does this relate to the feeling of dread I felt in front of the train station? No, I’m not saying “There but for the grace of—whatever—go I. Under different circumstances, you and I might have joined the Aum cult and released sarin gas in the subway.” That doesn’t make any sense realistically (or logistically). All I mean to say is that something in that encounter, in their presence, must also have been present in us to necessitate such active conscious rejection. Or rather, “they” are the mirror of “us”!

Now of course a mirror image is always darker and distorted. Convex and concave swap places, falsehood wins out over reality, light and shadow play tricks. But take away these dark flaws and the two images are uncannily similar; some details almost seem to conspire together. Which is why we avoid looking directly at the image, why, consciously or not, we keep eliminating these dark elements from the face we want to see. These subconscious shadows are an “underground” that we carry around within us, and the bitter aftertaste that continues to plague us long after the Tokyo gas attack comes seeping out from below.

The Handed-Down Self: the Allocated Narrative

To quote from the Unabomber manifesto, published in The New York Times in 1995:

The system reorganizes itself so as to put pressure on those who do not fit in. Those who do not fit into the system are “sick”; to make them fit in is to “cure.” Thus, the power process aimed at attaining autonomy is broken and the individual is subsumed into the other-dependent power process enforced by the system. To pursue autonomy is seen as “disease.”*

Interestingly enough, while the Unabomber’s modus operandi almost exactly parallels Aum’s (when, for instance, they sent a parcel bomb to Tokyo City Hall), Theodore Kaczynski’s thinking is even more closely linked to the essence of the Aum cult.

The argument Kaczynski puts forward is fundamentally quite right. Many parts of the social system in which we belong and function do indeed aim at repressing the attainment of individual autonomy, or, as the Japanese adage goes: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

From the perspective of the Aum followers, just as they were asserting their own autonomy, society and the state came down on top of them, pronouncing them an “antisocial movement,” a “cancer” to be cut out. Which is why they became more and more antisocial.

Nonetheless, Kaczynski—intentionally or unintentionally—overlooked one important factor. Autonomy is only the mirror image of dependence on others. If you were left as a baby on a deserted island, you would have no notion of what “autonomy” means. Autonomy and dependency are like light and shade, caught in the pull of each other’s gravity, until, after considerable trial and error, each individual can find his or her own place in the world.

Those who fail to achieve this balance, like Shoko Asahara perhaps, have to compensate by establishing a limited (but actually quite effective) system. I have no way of ranking him as a religious figure. How does one measure such things? Still, a cursory look at his life does suggest one possible scenario. Efforts to overcome his own individual disabilities left him trapped inside a closed circuit. A genie in a bottle labeled “religion,” which he proceeded to market as a form of shared experience.

Asahara surely put himself through hell, a horrific bloodbath of internal conflicts and soul-searching until he finally arrived at a systematization of his vision. Undoubtedly he also had his satori, some “attainment of paranormal value.” Without any firsthand experience of hell or extraordinary inversion of everyday values, Asahara would not have had such a strong, charismatic power. From a certain perspective, primitive religion always carries its own associated special aura that emanates from some psychic aberration.

In order to take on the “self-determination” that Asahara provided, most of those who took refuge in the Aum cult appear to have deposited all their precious personal holdings of selfhood—lock and key—in that “spiritual bank” called Shoko Asahara. The faithful relinquished their freedom, renounced their possessions, disowned their families, discarded all secular judgment (common sense). “Normal” Japanese were aghast: How could anyone do such an insane thing? But conversely, to the cultists it was probably quite comforting. At last they had someone to watch over them, sparing them the anxiety of confronting each new situation on their own, and delivering them from any need to think for themselves.

By tuning in, by merging themselves with Shoko Asahara’s “greater, more profoundly unbalanced” Self, they attained a kind of pseudo-self-determination. Instead of launching an assault on society as individuals, they handed over the entire strategic responsibility to Asahara. We’ll have one “Self-power versus the system” set menu, please.

Theirs was not Kaczynski’s “battle against the system to attain the power process of self-determination.” The only one fighting was Shoko Asahara: most followers were merely swallowed up and assimilated by his battle-hungry ego. Nor were the followers unilaterally subjected to Asahara’s “mind control.” Not passive victims, they themselves actively sought to be controlled by Asahara. “Mind control” is not something that can be pursued or bestowed just like that. It’s a two-sided affair.

If you lose your ego, you lose the thread of that narrative you call your Self. Humans, however, can’t live very long without some sense of a continuing story. Such stories go beyond the limited rational system (or the systematic rationality) with which you surround yourself; they are crucial keys to sharing time-experience with others.

Now a narrative is a story, not logic, nor ethics, nor philosophy. It is a dream you keep having, whether you realize it or not. Just as surely as you breathe, you go on ceaselessly dreaming your story. And in these stories you wear two faces. You are simultaneously subject and object. You are the whole and you are a part. You are real and you are shadow. “Storyteller” and at the same time “character.” It is through such multilayering of roles in our stories that we heal the loneliness of being an isolated individual in the world.

Yet without a proper ego, nobody can create a personal narrative, any more than you can drive a car without an engine, or cast a shadow without a real physical object. But once you’ve consigned your ego to someone else, where on earth do you go from there?

At this point you receive a new narrative from the person to whom you have entrusted your ego. You’ve handed over the real thing, so what comes back instead is a shadow. And once your ego has merged with another ego, your narrative will necessarily take on the narrative created by that other ego.

Just what kind of narrative?

It needn’t be anything particularly fancy, nothing complicated or refined. You don’t need to have literary ambitions. In fact, rather, the sketchier and simpler the better. Junk, a leftover rehash will do. Anyway, most people are tired of complex, multilayered scenarios—they are a potential letdown. It’s precisely because people can’t find any fixed point within their own multilayered schemes that they’re tossing aside their self-identity.

A simple “emblem” of a story will do for this sort of narrative, the same way that a war medal bestowed on a soldier doesn’t have to be pure gold. It’s enough that the medal be backed up by a shared recognition that “this is a medal,” no matter that it’s a cheap tin trinket.

Shoko Asahara was talented enough to impose his rehashed narrative on people (who for the most part came looking for just that). It was a risible, slapdash story. To unbelievers it could only be regurgitated tripe. Still, in all fairness, it must be said that a certain consistency runs through it all. It was a call to arms.

From this perspective, in a limited sense, Asahara was a master storyteller who proved capable of anticipating the mood of the times. He was not deterred by the knowledge, whether conscious or not, that his ideas and images were recycled junk. Asahara deliberately cobbled together bits and pieces from all around him (the way that Spielberg’s ET assembles a device for communicating with his home planet out of odds and ends in the family garage) and brought to them a singular flow, a current that darkly reflected the inner ghosts of his own mind. Whatever the deficiencies in that narrative, they were in Asahara himself, so they presented no obstacle to those who chose to merge themselves with him. If anything, these deficiencies were a positive bonus, until they became fatally polluted. Irredeemably delusional and paranoiac, a new pretext developed, grand and irrational, until there was no turning back …

Such was the narrative offered by Aum, by “their” side. Stupid, you might say. And surely it is. Most of us laughed at the absurd off-the-wall scenario that Asahara provided. We laughed at him for concocting such “utter nonsense” and we ridiculed the believers who could be attracted to such “lunatic fodder.” The laugh left a bitter aftertaste in our mouths, but we laughed out loud all the same. Which was only to be expected.

But were we able to offer “them” a more viable narrative? Did we have a narrative potent enough to chase away Asahara’s “utter nonsense”?

That was the big task. I am a novelist, and as we all know a novelist is someone who works with “narratives,” who spins “stories” professionally. Which meant to me that the task at hand was like a gigantic sword dangling above my head. It’s something I’m going to have to deal with much more seriously from here on. I know I’m going to have to construct a “cosmic communication device” of my own. I’ll probably have to piece together every last scrap of junk, every weakness, every deficiency inside me to do it. (There, I’ve gone and said it—but the real surprise is that it’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do as a writer all along!)

So then, what about you? (I’m using the second person, but of course that includes me.)

Haven’t you offered up some part of your Self to someone (or something), and taken on a “narrative” in return? Haven’t we entrusted some part of our personality to some greater System or Order? And if so, has not that System at some stage demanded of us some kind of “insanity”? Is the narrative you now possess really and truly your own? Are your dreams really your own dreams? Might not they be someone else’s visions that could sooner or later turn into nightmares?


I began researching this book nine months after the gas attack and then worked at it for another year.

A certain “cooling period” had passed by the time I set about gathering stories. But the event had such an impact that memories were still fresh. Many interviewees had previously told and retold their experiences to people around them. Others had never admitted to anyone certain details about the attack, but even so, they surely went over and over the events in their own minds and thereby objectified them. In most cases the descriptions were extremely real and highly visual.

Nevertheless, they were all, strictly speaking, just memories.

Now, as one psychoanalyst defines it: “Human memory is nothing more than a ‘personal interpretation’ of events.” Passing an experience through the apparatus of memory can sometimes rework it into something more readily understood: the unacceptable parts are omitted; “before” and “after” are reversed; unclear elements are refined; one’s own memories are mixed with those of others, interchanged as often as necessary. All this goes on perfectly naturally, unconsciously.

Simply put, our memories of experiences are rendered into something like a narrative form. To a greater or lesser extent, this is a natural function of memory—a process that novelists consciously utilize as a profession. The truth of “whatever is told” will differ, however slightly, from what actually happened. This, however, does not make it a lie; it is unmistakably the truth, albeit in another form.

During the course of my interviews I endeavored to maintain the basic stance that each person’s story is true within the context of that story, and I still believe so. As a result, the stories told by people who simultaneously experienced the very same scene often differ on the small details, but they are presented here with all their contradictions preserved. Because it seems to me that these discrepancies and contradictions say something in themselves. Sometimes, in this multifaceted world of ours, inconsistency can be more eloquent than consistency.

What Can I Do?

I decided to write this book because, in short, I have always wanted to understand Japan at a deeper level. I’d been living abroad, away from the country, for a long time—seven or eight years—first in Europe, then America. I left after writing Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and, apart from brief visits, I did not return until I had finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I regarded it as a period of self-imposed exile.

I wanted to broaden my experience of other places, plant myself down, and write. By getting away from Japan—which stood a priori both to the Japanese language and to my own being—I forced myself to map out the various methods and postures I assumed, phase by phase, when dealing with the language and all things Japanese.

To my surprise, it was only during the last two years of my “exile” that I discovered anything I urgently wanted to know about “that country called Japan.” The time I spent abroad, wandering about trying to come to terms with myself, was coming to an end—or so I gradually realized. I could feel the change inside me, an ongoing “revaluation” of my values. I was, to understate the obvious, no longer that young. And by the same token, I suddenly knew I was entering the ranks of that generation with a “vested duty” toward Japanese society.

“Time for me to be heading back to Japan,” I thought. Go back and do one solid work, something other than a novel, to probe deep into the heart of my estranged country. And in that way, I might reinvent a new a stance for myself, a new vantage point.

Now then, how do you go about understanding Japan any better?

I had a fairly good idea of the stuff I was looking for. The bottom line was, after doing one good clean sweep of my emotional accounts, I needed to know more about Japan as a society, I had to learn more about the Japanese as a “form of consciousness.” Who were we as a people? Where were we going?

Yes, but what specifically did I have to do? I had no idea. I spent my last year abroad in a sort of fog when two major catastrophes struck Japan: the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo gas attack.

In the end, my extended research into the Tokyo gas attack did indeed turn into a decisive exercise in “more deeply understanding Japan.” I met a great many Japanese, listened to their stories, and as a result was able to see what it meant to be Japanese when confronted by a major shock to the system like the gas attack. Thinking it over now, I admit to injecting a degree of authorial ego into it. I did in one sense use the exercise as a “convenient vehicle” for my own ends. Not to recognize this would be hypocritical.

Even so, certain other aspects of my ego were nicely snubbed over the course of conducting these interviews. Meeting the victims face-to-face and hearing so many raw, firsthand accounts, I had to pull myself together. It wasn’t a topic you merely toyed with. What transpired was more profound, more compounded with meanings than anything I could have imagined. It was humbling to know how completely ignorant I was about the gas attack.

For me, as a novelist, hearing all these people tell their “narratives”—told from “our” side, it should go without saying—had a certain healing power.

Eventually I stopped making judgments altogether. “Right” or “wrong,” “sane” or “sick,” “responsible” or “irresponsible”—these questions no longer mattered. At least, the final judgment was not mine to make, which made things easier. I could relax and simply take in people’s stories verbatim. I became, not the “fly on the wall,” but a spider sucking up this mass of words, only to later break them down inside me and spin them out into “another narrative.”

Especially after conducting interviews with the family of Mr. Eiji Wada—who died in Kodemmacho Station—and with Ms. “Shizuko Akashi”—who lost her memory and speech and is still in the hospital undergoing therapy—I had to seriously reconsider the value of my own writing. Just how vividly could my choice of words convey to the reader the various emotions (fear, despair, loneliness, anger, numbness, alienation, confusion, hope …) these people experienced?

Also, I’m quite sure I carelessly hurt a few people in the course of my interviews, whether through my insensitivity or my ignorance or purely because of some flaw in my character. I’ve never been a good talker, and sometimes I don’t put things very well. I would like to borrow this opportunity to sincerely apologize to all those I may have hurt.

I came to them from the “safety zone,” someone who could always walk away whenever I wanted. Had they told me, “There’s no way you can truly know what we feel,” I’d have had to agree. End of story.

Overwhelming Violence

The Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo gas attack of January and March 1995 are two of the gravest tragedies in Japan’s postwar history. It is no exaggeration to say that there was a marked change in the Japanese consciousness “before” and “after” these events. These twin catastrophes will remain embedded in our psyche as two milestones in our life as a people.

That two such cataclysmic events should come in quick succession was as startling as it was coincidental. Yet, arriving as they did at the time when Japan’s “Bubble economy” burst, marking the end of those times of rampant excess, they ushered in a period of critical inquiry into the very roots of the Japanese state. It was as if these events had been lying in wait to ambush us.

Common to both was an element of overwhelming violence: the one an inescapable natural calamity, the other an avoidable man-made disaster. A tenuous parallel perhaps, yet to those most affected the suffering was frighteningly similar. The source and nature of the violence may have differed, but the shock in both cases was equally devastating. That was the impression I got, talking to the survivors of the gas attack.

Many of them remarked how intensely they “hated those Aum thugs,” yet they found themselves deprived of any outlet for their “intense hatred.” Where could they go? Where to turn? Their confusion was compounded by the fact that no one could pinpoint the sources of the violence. In this sense—having nowhere to direct their anger and hatred—the gas attack and the earthquake bear a striking formal resemblance.

In some ways, the two events may be likened to the front and back of one massive explosion. Both were nightmarish eruptions beneath our feet—from underground—that threw all the latent contradictions and weak points of our society into frighteningly high relief. Japanese society proved all too defenseless against these sudden onslaughts. We were unable to see them coming and failed to prepare. Nor did we respond effectively. Very clearly, “our” side failed.

That is, the narrative that most Japanese embrace (or imagine they share) broke down; none of these “common values” proved the least effective in warding off the evil violence that erupted under us.

Granted, a sudden emergency on such a scale will inevitably result in a level of confusion and oversights. As is clear from these testimonies, people at all levels of society—in the Subway Authority, in the fire department, in the police, in the various medical facilities—were all subject to lapses of judgment and mixups large and small.

It is not my intention, however, to point fingers or lecture anyone over individual errors. I’m not saying “It couldn’t be helped,” nor am I suggesting that each and every error be made right at this late date. More to the point, what I hope should sink in is the recognition that Japan’s crisis-management system itself is erratic and sorely inadequate. The immediate on-the-ground errors of judgment were the result of existing holes in the system.

Even more dangerous, little if anything has been learned about what actually happened as a result of those failings, because the information is classified. Japan’s institutions remain inner-circle-upon-inner-circle, acutely sensitive to any public “loss of face,” unwilling to expose their failings to “outsiders.” Efforts to investigate what happened were greatly limited for all the usual hazy, accepted reasons: “It’s already on trial …” or “That’s government business …”

Then there were those interviewees who were curiously reticent: “I myself would like to cooperate, but the people upstairs aren’t so keen …” Very likely it was felt that if people revealed too much, someone would have to take responsibility. Typically in Japan, the order to keep mum is never a direct order, but rather a sort of soft-pedaling from above: “Well, it’s over and done with anyway. Probably best not to say any more than we have to …”

In preparing to write my last novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I did in-depth research into the so-called 1939 Nomonhan Incident, an aggressive incursion by Japanese forces into Mongolia. The more I delved into the records, the more aghast I became at the recklessness, the sheer lunacy of the Imperial Army’s system of command. How had this pointless tragedy gone so wantonly overlooked in the course of history? Again, researching the Tokyo gas attack, I was struck by the fact that the closed, responsibility-evading ways of Japanese society were really not any different from how the Imperial Japanese Army operated at that time.

In essence it was the foot soldiers with guns in their hands who risked the most, suffered the most, faced the worst horrors, and were the least compensated in the end, whereas the officers and intelligence behind the lines took no responsibility whatsoever. They hid behind masks, refused to admit defeat, whitewashed over their failure with jargon and rhetoric. For if such glaring ignominy on the front line were to be exposed, they as field commanders would be subject to swift and severe punishment. Typically, this meant hara-kiri. Thus the truth of the matter was nominally classified as a “military secret,” sealed away from public scrutiny.

In this way, countless soldiers were sacrificed to an insane stratagem in a bitter fight to the death at the front line (worse than anyone expected). Even after more than fifty years, I was still shocked to learn that we Japanese had embarked on such a patently idiotic maneuver. And yet here in today’s Japan we were repeating the very same thing. The nightmare continues.

Ultimately, the reasons for our defeat at Nomonhan were never properly analyzed by the Army High Command (aside from some rather hasty studies), so that absolutely nothing was learned. No lessons were passed on, and with the replacement of a few figures in the Kanto Army, all information about the war on that distant front was effectively kept under wraps. Two years later, Japan entered World War II, and the same insanity and tragedy that happened at Nomonhan was repeated all over again on a massive scale.


Another personal motive for my interest in the Tokyo gas attack is that it took place underground. Subterranean worlds—wells, underpasses, caves, underground springs and rivers, dark alleys, subways—have always fascinated me and are an important motif in my novels. The image, the mere idea of a hidden pathway, immediately fills my head with stories …

Underground settings play particularly major roles in two of my novels, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Characters go into the World Below in search of something and down there different adventures unfold. They head underground, of course, both in the physical and spiritual sense. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland a fictional race called I? Klings have lived beneath us since time immemorial. Horrible creatures, they have no eyes and feed upon rotting flesh. They have dug a vast underground network of tunnels beneath Tokyo, linking their “nests.” Ordinary people, however, never even suspect their presence. The protagonist for one reason or another descends into this mythic landscape below, encounters chilling traces of INKling infestation, somehow makes his way through the black depths, and emerges unscathed into Aoyama Itchome Station on the Ginza Line.

There were times, traveling on the Tokyo subway after writing this novel, when I’d fantasize seeing INKlings “out there” in the darkness. I’d imagine them rolling a boulder into the path of the train, cutting off the power, breaking the windows and overrunning the cars, ripping us to shreds with their razor-sharp teeth …

A childish fantasy, admittedly. Yet, like it or not, when news of the Tokyo gas attack reached me, I have to admit those INKlings came to mind: shadowy figures poised waiting just beyond my train window. If I were to give free rein to a very private paranoia, I’d have imagined some causal link between the evil creatures of my creation and those dark underlings who preyed upon the subway commuters. That link, imaginary or not, provided one rather personal reason for writing this book.

I don’t mean to cast the Aum cultists in the role of monsters straight out of the pages of H. P. Lovecraft. That I worked INKlings into Hard-Boiled surely says more about the primal fears latent inside me. Whether from my own mind or the collective unconscious, they were a symbolic presence, or else represented danger pure and simple. Never to be disassociated from the dark, always just out of our field of vision. Yet there are times when even we children of sunlight may find comfort in the gentle healing embrace of darkness. We need the sheltering night. But under no circumstances do we venture further, to open that locked door leading down to the deepest recesses. For beyond unfolds the impenetrably dark narrative of the INKling world.

Thus, in the context my own narrative, the five Aum “agents” who punctured those bags of sarin with the sharpened tips of their umbrellas unleashed swarms of INKlings beneath the streets of Tokyo. The mere thought fills me with dread, no matter how simplistic. Yet I have to say it out loud: they should never have done what they did. For whatever reason.

* The document that became known as the Unabomber manifesto was sent to The New York Times and The Washington Post in April 1995 by a person called “FC,” identified by the FBI as the Unabomber and implicated in three murders and sixteen bombings. The author threatened to send a bomb to an unspecified destination “with intent to kill” unless one of the newspapers published this manuscript, entitled “Industrial Society and Its Future.” The attorney general and the director of the FBI recommended publication and it appeared in a special supplement in both papers in September 1995. This led David Kaczynski to draw a comparison between the Unabomber and his estranged brother Theodore, who was arrested in April 1996. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1998. [Tr.]