Underground by Haruki Murakami

Title: UndergroundAuthor: Haruki Murakami
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.

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29 thoughts on “Underground by Haruki Murakami”

  1. I am not into non-fiction. Usually, unless I am doing a research and this can provide quite an insight, if by any chance a writer decides to involve this subject into a novel or a novella. It's true that the Japanese have this thing about keeping their tongues behind their teeth and harshness in expression or directness for that matter is based on the caste system and usually frowned upon in their culture. Have you noticed nuances in people's testimonies, depending on their social standing, if of course such information has been given?

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  2. This is a nonfiction book I want to read, to learn more.I am presently reading 2 Japaese books of short stories aong with the terriffic book THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.1-THE LAWS OF EVENING by Mary Yukari Waters2-BLIND WILLOW, SLEEPING WOMAN by Haruki MurakmiIt will take me some time as I am reading all 3xoSylvie

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  3. I read this book about 3 years ago, I think, and was absolutely enthralled. I admit to never tiring of the interviews and felt that for all the similarities, more and more nuances of Japanese social identity were revealed as the book continued. I did feel as though Murakami's attempts at remaining neutral about the terrorists' stories were failures though and that the book lost a little for that.

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  4. This one has been on my radar since 'discovering' Murakami last year. I know precious little about all that happened mostly because I have never been a big 'watch the news' person and so I just recall sketchy details of the time. I do remember seeing the images of folks though and how terrible the idea was that anyone could simply do something like this so easily.

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  5. Harry, I don't like nonfiction very much, either, unless it's a cookbook. Or, of course, the Bible. Everything else can sound like a textbook to me and becomes tedious to read. In fact, it took me a bout a week to read this, which is way longer than I take to read a book when I'm not teaching. I didn't notice people being quiet in terms of social standing or position. Overall, there was a general tendency to have what the British call a stiff-upper lip: I should go to work, be strong and responsible for myself and my family. I wonder how Americans would respond. So many of them seem to be looking for government help nowadays, in terms of financial assistance.I did get some insight into why cult members carried through on the plan. Some were from very unhappy families, many had found no meaning in the lives they were living, and so they made the Aum leader their god. Everyone else in the world seemed unsanctified, and therefore worthless, to them. Amazing.

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  6. Sylvie, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was the very first Murakami I picked up. I did not understand why the stories had no plot, as those do that I was familiar with, but instead were a 'slice of life'. It was a totally new way of reading to me, and I had to learn to suspend my expectations with Murakami's work. I've placed a hold on The GIrl with Dragon Tattoo because I've heard so many good things about it. We'll have to have a good discussion when I get it from the library!

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  7. Colleen, I totally agree with what you said about how more and more nuances of Japanese social identity were revealed. Having never visited Japan, it was all fascinating to me. I am amazed at the courage I felt the people had, even if every one was very reserved about it. I think sometimes Americans tell too much (like when they blog? :)The second half of the book which held Murakami's interviews with the members of the cult did have some of his emotion seeping through. I felt he was truly trying to understand the mentality, or reasons, behind joining such a cult and giving it such credence.

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  8. Carl, you saw more than I. I rarely watch the news (it's always either some horror show or a pack of biased infiormation, in my opinion) so I completely missed this one. I was telling my father about the book, and he said, "Oh, with the sarin gas?" cause he knows everything. 😉 Anyway, I think it's important to become aware of how people deal with acts of terrorism because they seem so prevalent in society today. At least, you hear of them far more than when I was a child. I liked this book, but I must say I like Murakami's fiction best.

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  9. omg, I am almost done with Murakami's Norwegian Wood right now and I am l-o-v-i-n-g it. I love his descriptions and his writing style. I am definitely going to be reading Murakami for the Japanese Lit Challenge!

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  10. Rebecca, it makes me so happy to hear your enthusiasm! I can't wait to read Norwegian Wood myself; I'm saving it for an autumnal read, and then we can talk.

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  11. I've always liked non-fiction actually, though I can be quite picky about the subjects I choose. And sometimes they can get rather boring, so much so that I wish they would get fiction writers to write non-fiction instead!Underground is sounding very very promising indeed. I'm now reading Murakami's memoir, What I talk about when I talk about running, and this is starting to read like a very good piece of non-fiction!

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  12. Michelle, Carl V. (of Stainless Steel Droppings) recently mentioned how much he enjoyed What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. He said it isn't only about running, which if it were, wouldn't interest me at all. 😉 I don't normally pick up nonfiction, either, but with Murakami I don't think it's possible to find a disappointing book. At least, I haven't found one yet.

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  13. This sounds as if it is in the same form as John Hersey's Hiroshima, a fact that is quite interesting.I have wanted to read this but first it will be more Murakami fiction. I am really looking forward to reading Norwegian Wood for the challenge and have to curb my excitement a little and restrain myself from also adding Kafka on the Shore to the TBR pile.

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  14. shades of the holocaust, a mini holocaust, 'I had to follow orders' seems to me our learning curve is slow. We get smarter and invent more ways of killing each other, which is let's face it, so much easier than growing in spirit. Then I think deeply because it's just so inacceptable to hurt people that way. So I have to ask 'spiritually' speaking why would something like that need to happen, did those people 'have to experience' this for a reason or another. To grow or to make others grow. I finally understood why it's good that we don't remember past lives. Cause truly if we have to experience every pain we've ever caused to a fellow human being, that is creating PAIN that is intentional and not circumstancial, then how much sympathy would we have for people who were literally gassed? could they have been Nazis in a previous life? and just how much would be care about them now. Same could be said of the Holocaust, so yeah I can see why reincarnation is forgotten, on the same wavelenght, isn't that the only explanation that makes sense, that is until we become fully compensation and non-judgemental people will be stop this unending inhumane treatment of one another….Didn't mean to get into the subject of reincarnation, it's just to me the only explanation for all the pain that we put each other through….blows the find. For the longest time I only read witness accounts of past dees, not historical accounts because of course, history writers can only go by facts given usually by the 'victor' anyhoo after a lot pain reading accounts, I stopped and went back to fiction. Until I know more, become wiser I don't want to read about our reality. Not anymore…not wise enough bravo for this report, that is the only thing left that I can read, so yeah, I read you girl…sorry for this very long comment!

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  15. Claire, I love John Hersey! A Bell for Adano, recommended to my by Magical Mystical Teacher, is one of my favorite reads of the decade. I'll have to look into Hiroshima.I want to read norwegian Wood, too, very badly, and I'm almost lamenting the fact that I must return to my classroom next week to prepare for this year's students. However, don't let Kafka slip from your fingers. It's multi-faceted, complicated, beautiful and thought provoking all at once. I needed to read it twice, and I'm sure I will again, to try to understand all his meanings. Which he says are different for every reader.

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  16. Lorraine, I love your very long comment, and the thought you put into responding here. I can't address reincarnation, not believing in it myself. In my mind, I can only explain the pain in this world because it's fallen; this is not what God planned or wanted for us, and I look forward to His return when things will be made right. Perhaps we feel pain so that we are able to comfort and instruct one another?This line struck me most forcefully: "Until I know more, become wiser, I don't want to read about our reality." I, too, want to turn my head away from evil and those who are totally under its influence. But, maybe reading about it helps us achieve the wisdom we seek.

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  17. Black Rain by Ibuse is also very good, Bellezza. Both are horrific to read but very well done. As a reader it is easy to tire of interviews though, even with a compelling subject matter.I will definitely read Kafka and only trying to resist temptation just now because of the out-of-control reading. I think I'll read it towards the close of the challenge but I am determined to read it as soon as I can.

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  18. Sometimes I truly wish I didn't believe in reincarnation, 'cause the thought of having to come back and experience all sorts of things is exhausting lol but i believe, no, I know that it will happen…

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  19. That is indeed an exahusting thought. Not to mention discouraging. Who wants to live through all the disappointments again, even if they are countered with a few joys?

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  20. This is the book I picked for the 50 Books for Our Time Project, so I'll read it for the Japanese Lit challenge also. I don't think what you said sounds petty – no matter how tragic the stories, it's only natural that hearing the same again and again becomes repetitive. Still, I look forward to what it will teach me about Japanese culture.

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  21. Nymeth, thanks for assuaging my guilt over tiring a bit in the interview process…the book certainly picked up again as I learned more about the cult as well as the Japanese culture. Such a fascinating one; I wish I knew it better.

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  22. I read too much manga and there the context messages lead me thinking that speaking for themselves is considered an act of pure selfishness. Their society is centred more or less towards self-sacrifice for the well fare of other, precisely the explanation why for me Japan developed in such a rapid motion once technology was introduced. Inventors thought of others rather than milking for money. It's the same in emotional aspect. The Westerner's instinct is to go to the word 'me', while the Japanese person is more self-conscious. That's why they are so stoic. Side-effects from such a culture is that they numb towards the joys of life and I think Japan was the land of organized mass suicides of teens or something similar. Not a very happy place to live, when you are emotionally oppressed.

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  23. Great review Belleza, I've always wanted to read this book but whenever I see it at the bookstore I always feel like I may not be in the mood for something that might be as heartrending as Holocaust account. But I know it's such an insightful and even inspiring story. I'm sure I'll pick this up one day 🙂

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  24. (Finally managed to log on — I cut and pasted the URL!)I've wanted to read this book too. The Chiyoda line that the sarin attacks took place on was the train I took to work every day, one hour later. Friends of mine who were usually on that early morning train had stayed home that day, with colds. For years, every time I passed the station where it happened, I got the chills just thinking about this.

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  25. Mary, I got the chills reading your comment! Wow, I didn't know you were there. Have you lived in Japan for a long time? Do you live there now? I'm so glad you're safe. I remember hearing people talk about the attacks on the World Trade Center saying things like, "If I hadn't stopped to buy a Band-Aid", "If I hadn't been hung over and overslept"…I like to think that the Lord has protected us at times like these, although I have no answer for why others lost their lives.I'm so glad your comment was able to work, let's hope the problem's gone.

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  26. Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.

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  27. It’s not that I understand after having read Murakami’s book why the Aum sect members committed this terrible crime. But that was also not the primary purpose why he wrote it. I liked the empathy and respect that the author showed in his approach toward the survivors (I refrain from calling them victims because that would reduce their individuality to the status of a sarin victim only). Murakami’s fiction – as far as I have read it – never worked for me; but this book gained him my deep respect. My own review: http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=1270

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