Full Title: Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
Category: Non-Fiction/Modern History – Paperback: 309 pages – Publisher: Random House – Imprint: Vintage – Source: My own shelves
First Published: 1997, 1998
Originally Published As: Andaguarando (Part I, 1997) and Yakusoku sareta basho de (Part II, 1998) in Japan / Translated From: Japanese / Translated By: Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel
Counts for January in Japan 2012
Perhaps I should have started my January in Japan themed reading this month with something a little less dark and brooding but Underground was the only non-fiction on the list and it was non-fiction I was craving for the train journey too and from London earlier this week. For those who don’t know or remember much about the gas attacks, here is how Murakami finishes his introduction:
‘The date is Monday 20 March 1995. It is a beautiful clear spring morning. There is still a brisk breeze and people are bundled up in coats. Yesterday was Sunday, tomorrow is the Spring Equinox, a national holiday. Sandwiched right in the middle of what should have been a long weekend, you’re probably thinking “I wish I didn’t have to go to work today.” No such luck. You get up at the normal time, wash, dress, breakfast and head for the subway station. You board the train, crowded as usual. Nothing out of the ordinary. It promises to be a perfectly run-of-the-mill day. Until five men in disguise poke at the floor of the carriage with the sharpened tips of their umbrellas, puncturing some plastic bags filled with a strange liquid…’
Five teams of two men – all members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult – one who carried two plastic bags of sarin to stab with a pointed umbrella on pre-chosen Tokyo subway trains and the other to act as a getaway driver. They appear to have done so believing it would either free souls from earthly souls or usher in the end of the world but they’ve never really explained their reasons.
Liquid sarin when exposes to the air releases a deadly gas which affects the human body in roughly the same way drinking an organophosphate fertiliser would. The pupils contract until you can’t see anything, you can’t breathe and in severe cases of those who touched the liquid, got it on their clothes or stood too close to the packets it was released from, it caused convulsions, bleeding and foaming from the mouth and death.
17 people died in the attack or immediately after, 50 were seriously injured and about a thousand were injured. Many still have ongoing issues with sarin poisoning symptoms: memory loss, poor breathing, weakened physical strength and disturbed sleeping patterns for example.
Underground is a collection of eye-witness accounts from that day – those who worked in the subway, passengers, relatives of those who died, doctors who treated the injured – in the first section and a collection of accounts from those who were members of Aum in 1994/5 about their experiences within the cult in the second.
The book has been much abridged in the translated versions, there are 62 accounts of survivors included in the Japanese edition and only 34 in the English. As much as I wonder how much these absent accounts confirm, contrast and contradict the included accounts, I do think this was the right decision for the foreign audience. So much of the testimony is cold, self-obsessed and self-contained that it is hard reading page after page so I understand why it has been truncated. It’s not so much repetition of events that is noticeable in these accounts but repetition of bewilderment and disassociation that grinds you down a little.
For example, on page 32 you read of a subway worker who handled the deadly sarin packets and was dying going back to his desk to sort out his paperwork before the ambulance arrived. Another subway worker stayed at the scene getting progressively sicker for about 4 hours until his replacement showed up. Those who had streaming eyes, couldn’t stop coughing, couldn’t breathe, were going blind… they all tried to get to their office on time and tried to normalise their bizarre and painful symptoms as sudden flu, hayfever or anaemia. Some of them collapsed on their way to the office, one man stopped at a corner store to buy milk because it was his ‘milk buying day’ before he conceded he needed medical attention.
To be frank, I don’t think I’ve ever read such an alienating book. The sub-title of the book, The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, is very well-picked as this is a great insight into the very distant mindset of those who were present that day and just how different it is compared to those in Europe.
Accounts of helping others or seeing other people help those worse off are very few and far between. The first testimony in the book details a woman helping out but the following testimony conflicts her account and seems to suggest she might be exaggerating. Another account details a bystander coming over to see what was going on at a subway station, gawking for a bit and then walking on. He later helped a colleague from work that he saw in need of help in a bus queue – but only because he recognised him and wanted to show off his knowledge of what might be wrong.
Most of the accounts detail someone sitting on a subway train, watching everyone around them getting very, very sick, doing nothing to help them, and most people not getting off the train until they were explicitly told to. Only one or two people opened the windows. Everyone else just sat there, waiting for someone else to come and do something or the irritation to go away without their intervention. Once out of the station only a handful of people sought help from bystanders or passing cars – the majority sat patiently waiting for ambulances to arrive even when none had been dispatched.
This cultural refusal to identify with being a victim, lack of empathy and expectation that someone of appropriate rank will swoop in and save the day is so very at odds with how that day’s events would play out in any European city (either pre or post 11SEP2001). The embarrassment and humiliation that those injured on the day still feel and the fact that most refused to speak about their experience for shame is shocking. Mostly though it was the bizarre and repeated efforts to normalise the results of the crisis (by just about all those questioned) that made me feel baffled and angry again and again as I read this book.
I just don’t understand how when such drama is unfolding around you the first instinct is to assume everyone has *suddenly* come down with nothing more serious than flu or to rationalise that you left the house healthy thirty minutes again and now can’t walk or see but it must just be a touch of anaemia… that everyone else also seems to be experiencing.
Perhaps this makes the book all the more useful to someone like me who doesn’t understand why the trains weren’t stopped (to do so would have upset the timetable and was only done much later), why the hospitals were told it was sarin by a respected doctor who had treated a smaller sarin attack by Aum the year before but didn’t act on the information (they expected it to be something more ‘normal’) and why the stations weren’t more effectively evacuated (the passengers seemed to have a hard time believing they wouldn’t be able to carry out their routine even in the face of a gas attack or explosion).
I found myself very, very glad Murakami had gone to such lengths to produce this book, spending nearly a year tracking down witnesses and interviewing them for hours at a time, making sure they signed off all testimony to gain their trust. As a historical record it is invaluable and I was awed by just how honest a book he had succeeded in creating. But I will admit I had to keep putting it down with a shudder and saying a fervent thank you for living in a culture where stranger might more readily offer their help in the event of a crisis. While I sympathised with what each of the witnesses had experienced on that day, I couldn’t help wondering who might have suffered less or perhaps remained alive if those around them had been less determined to pretend nothing was wrong.
The final section containing the testimony of those who were or are still Aum members was not particularly enlightening but I can see why Murakami wanted to add it for balance. His afterword sheds light on a culture that was questioning material wealth and the increasing power of the media but not really looking at how to deal with cults like Aum which were perceived as pure evil rather than a social problem. He also looks at just how badly set up the hospitals and emergency services were to deal with a major event like this.
Overall, the book is as fascinating as it is foreign and very well written, but you probably don’t want to read it all in one sitting. I’m glad I read it at last (I’ve had it on my shelf for years) and I guess it’ll offer a nice contrast to all the other, lighter fiction books I (and others) will be reading for the rest of January in Japan…
Rating: 8/10 (Book Review Scale)