Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

~written by Haruki Murakami
~translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami is actually the English translation of two of Murakami's books, Underground and The Place That Was Promised, which was serialized under the title Post-Underground. Underground, initially published in Japan in 1997, collects interviews Murakami held with victims of the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo while The Place That Was Promised, released in 1998, collects interviews with members and ex-members of Aum Shinrikyo, the religious group responsible for the attack. The English translation of the two books by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel was first published in 2000. The English edition doesn't explicitly state so, but I believe that it is an abridgement. The first book in particular, Underground, seems to be a shortened version of original Japanese edition.

On Monday, March 20, 1995--a day falling between two holidays--select members of Aum Shinrikyo coordinated and executed a release of sarin gas, a highly toxic chemical weapon designed for military use, in various locations throughout the Tokyo subway system. Many people, including novelist Haruki Murakami, were frustrated and unhappy with the media's coverage of the attack and related events. The media tended to focus on Aum and the more sensational aspects of the incident, often trampling or completely ignoring the personal experiences of the victims. Partially in response to this, Murakami decided to pursue and conduct interviews and collect individuals' stories. Of the thousands of people immediately affected by the sarin gas attack, Murakami and his assistants were only able to positively identify around one hundred forty people. Still carrying emotional, psychological, and physical scars, even fewer were willing to be interviewed. In the end, only sixty people agreed to allow their interviews to be published.

Thirty-four of these interviews are included in the first part of the book, "Underground." Murakami proceeds train by train, collecting similar stories together to create a more cohesive whole that allows the same events to be viewed from multiple perspectives. Each section of "Underground" begins with an overview of the Aum members who released the sarin gas in that particular location and a description of their actions. Before each individual interview, Murakami provides a brief introduction and personal commentary about that person. This allows their stories to not only be put in to the context of the events of March 20th, but into the context of their own personal histories and lives. These are not faceless individuals; they are real people who have lived through a terrible and traumatic episode, but this is not the only thing that defines them.

In "The Place That Was Promised," Murakami interviews eight members of Aum Shinrikyo. Some of the interviewees were still members at the time while others had left or were excommunicated from the organization. None were directly involved with the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground. Neither did any of them condone the actions of their fellow members. It does help to already have some basic knowledge of Aum and its beliefs to fully understand these interviews. But even if you don't, what is revealed through their stories is that they are normal people, just like anyone else, who turned to religion out of frustration with the society around them. Murakami does tend to be more argumentative while interviewing the Aum members. Before reading Underground, I knew very little about the Tokyo sarin gas attack. While the event is unquestionably tragic, Murakami handles the interviews with respect and is careful not to exploit the stories that have been entrusted to him. Underground is an compelling oral history.

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