Publisher: Vintage Books, 1997
Number of pages: 309
Rating: 4 out of 5
After being entranced with Haruki Murakami’s magical way with words, creating a world I dove into headfirst with Kafka On The Shore, I wanted to see what he did with nonfiction. His book, Underground, is a series of interviews with those who suffered the gas attack in the Japanese subway system on March 20, 1995.
Members of the Aum cult were instructed to carry plastic bags of deadly sarin gas into the train carriages. They were to then pierce the bags with the sharpened tips of their umbrellas and quickly exit the train, leaving chaos, pain and destruction behind.
After being both shocked, and simultaneously terrified, while watching the attacks America suffered on 9-11, I couldn’t help but pick up this book; not only to read how people managed under such duress, but to try to understand what makes the terrorist mind bow to such an evil authority. It will remain incomprehensible to me, but there seems to be an explanation in this quote:
On 18 March Toyoda received his gas attack orders from his superior at the Ministry of Science and Technology. Until then he had been involved with the cult’s Automatic Light Weapons Development Scheme and had dirtied his hands in various illegal activities, but even he was shocked by the plan to release sarin on the subway. With his abundant knowledge of chemistry and having also participated in the secret manufacture of sarin at Satyam No. 7, he could easily imagine the tragic consequences of the plan. It was nothing short of random mass slaughter. And he was being asked to take part himself.
Naturally Toyoda anguished over the possibilities. To an ordinary person with normal human feelings even entertaining the notion of such an outrageous act must seem inconceivable, but Toyada could not criticize a command from his Master. It was as if he’d climbed into a car that was about to plummet down a steep hill at breakneck speed. At this point he lacked both the courage and the judgement to bail out and avoid the coming destruction. p. 103
The victims realized that they had been gassed when they saw fellow passengers collapse, or heard others coughing. Their eyes burned, and many said that it seemed as if someone had turned out the lights. They also described an inability to get enough air; even though they were breathing, they were not getting the oxygen they needed.
It is shocking to see how this act created such devastation in so many families. While “only” twelve people died, thousands were injured. Not only were their lives never the same again, their families’ lives were changed as well. It is inconceivable to me how people can inflict such suffering on other humans.
Halfway through this book, I must admit that I tired of hearing so many interviews. (Doesn’t that sound incredibly petty?!) It was the same story over and over, describing the symptoms, the dismay, the fear of riding on trains again, the need to get back to work. But, I continued because I was fascinated by the glimpses into the Japanese culture that Murakami gave.
For example, his interviewees said repeatedly how ineffective the Japanese emergency systems were. Hospitals turned people away at first, saying, “We’re not eye doctors!” The police didn’t communicate with the doctors about the terrorist act which had been commited, and the hospitals were dependant on news for their information. Ambulances were not dispatched, so many victims had to take taxis to the hospital. Of course, this was a surprise attack, but I was interested to hear how Japan coped under such an emergency.
Perhaps one of the best reasons for reading this book, or maybe in Murakami’s writing it, is how it allowed the Japanese to express themselves. One victim says,
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. (p. 147)
Thanks to Murakami’s courage in writing, we won’t.