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Non Fiction

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

Long before the Tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear disaster happened this year, the year 1995 recorded twin disasters of the Kobe Earthquake and the Underground gas attack in Japan.  Underground (アンダーグラウンド Andāguraundo?, 1997–1998) is a book by Haruki Murakami about the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. It is a collection of 60 interviews from victims and doctors on the day of the attack. The day was 20 March 1995, the Manurouchi, Chiyoda and Hibiya lines were boarded by a pair of Aum Shinrikyo devotees with mouth covers, two packs of sarin in plastic bags wrapped with newspaper and umbrella boarded the underground train at peak hours before 8:00am. When it is time, the perpetrators pierced the bags with their umbrella and got off the train. No one noticed the act of releasing the poisonous gas. Observers who had boarded the train was nonchalant but had the same body reaction, albeit for a few savvy ones who knew it was Sarin. The commuters were coughing, some have collapsed on the floor or at the platform. They couldn’t breathe and the lights seemed to become dimmer as their pupils contracted……. I ride the London tube 3 or 4 times a week. It would seem sick of me riding the tube and reading about the Tokyo underground gas attack but the book fascinates me. Some of the victims were going about their routines, taking their regular seats at carriage number 2 or 3 at the very same seat everyday and trying to catch up with some sleep or reading the daily. Some took a detour and do something out of the ordinary and they walked into a disaster. As a result 6,252 was injured and unfortunately 13 dead. The toll would have been reduced if it isn’t for the poor crisis management of people in charge and the apathetic attitude of the Tokyo denizens. From the interviews I came to a few conclusions:

  • Despite the noticeable discomfort felt by the commuters caused by the gas, not a single interviewee asked other commuters what was going on, preferring to wait until the next stop to change trains. Despite all the doubts that senses something is wrong, the majority did not ask questions and few took actions.
  • Commuters that lost consciousness remained lying on the floor for some time. One commuter actually lied on the floor for half an hour before passers by offers help.
  • Although suffering from extreme physical symptoms from inhaling sarin, most of the victims continued with their planned activities. It is a very Asian way of gritting their teeth and getting on with life.  For many this included going back to work – some only went reluctantly to a hospital for treatment, when their superiors insisted.
  • The hospital staff is apathetic. Instead of owing the patient a duty of care most victims were brushed off by prescribing painkillers to them.
  • The trains ran the entire circuit back to the end and begin again with the Sarin puddle on the train. Railway staff and commuters were slow to take notice of anything unusual and report it.
  • Cultural reservation and non-sharing of intelligence: One doctor said “To be perfectly honest, the way things are with us doctors in Japan, it’s almost un-thinkable that any doctor would go out of his way to send unsolicited information to a hospital. The first thought is never to say too much, never to overstep one’s position.

There is no clear-cut chain of command. It was exactly the same with Kobe earthquake. The effort of local units were extraordinary but the overall emergency network was useless. – Murakami, page 193

The two most emotional interviews were the experiences narrated by brother and wife of two dead victims, Shizuko Akashi and Eiji Wada who had their lives stolen away from their families just like that. Some victims relate long term effects of pro-long headaches and lethargy, and cease to be as productive at work as they were before the attack. As the stories of individuals unveiled, there were more surprises to come. A doctor was interviewed which explained the effect and danger of Sarin. Murakami gave his prognosis of why this horrific act is committed, instead of ‘us’ against ‘them’ and dismiss this as an isolated act. In the chapter titled “Blind Nightmare: Where are we Japanese going?” Murakami ask if the Japanese society has taken a hard look at themselves about what their responsibilities were to allow this atrocious act to happen? At the end of the book, the 8 members of Aum were interviewed. The members and perpetrators who committed the crimes are intellectuals and scientists.  A group of very intelligent but misguided people. I am full of praise for Murakami’s talent as a novelist but as journalist, he is just as superb. The interviews in  Underground were conducted throughout 1996. They were taped, transcribed, and then edited. Draft interviews were then sent to the interviewees before publication for fact-checking and to allow them to cut any parts they did not want published, bearing in mind Japan is a conservative society whose people are not used to bare it all. It is a lot of hard work and Murakami wanted to get the reader to recognise that each person on the underground that morning had a face, a life, a family, hopes and fears, contradictions and dilemmas. I got to know a little more about Murakami’s motivation to write the book and the man himself. What drove him to compile and wrote this book was that he wished to learn more about Japan after living almost entirely abroad for nine years and that he wanted to fulfill a responsibility he felt towards Japan’s society and on top of his own fetish and fascination about Underground. Remember the INKling from the Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and the well experience in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle? I can’t find a copy of this book neither on my local library where I live and where I work in London. It is not in the catalogue or non-replacement of missing copy, so I bought my own copy. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand about the incident, about past crisis of Japanese modern history and for Murakami’s fan who wants to read his substantial non-fiction work of considerable length besides his short What I Talk about When I Talk About Running, this is the book for you. Rating:  I’m reading this for Murakami challenge, Japanese Literature 5 and my main motivation for reading the book is for the July Hello Japan! Mini Challenge : Non-fiction hosted by lovely Tanabata. Trivia about the book: Underground was originally published in Japan without the interviews of Aum members – they were published in the magazine Bungei Shunju before being collected in a separate volume, The Place That Was Promised. The English translation combines both books into a single volume, but has been abridged. There is a severe cut in the number of commuter interviews included in the work—from 62 in the original to 34 in the translation. Underground was translated by Alfred Birnbaum; The Place That Was Promised, by Philip Gabriel. For more of Tokyo Gas Attack see here. Other reviews: Gavin @ Page 247: I also really appreciate the depth of Murakami’s intelligence, his clarity of thought and willingness to probe deeply into his own psyche. Dolce Bellezza: I was fascinated by the glimpses into the Japanese culture that Murakami gave. Mystica@musings from Sri Lanka: This was a very different book in my quest for Japanese authors! It was not a light read. Nymeth @Things means a lot: Nymeth thinks it is an important book, take a look at her review to know the reason why. Thyme for Tea : Murakami hasn’t disappointed me, he’s challenged me. Paperback. Publisher: Vintage Book 2003, originally published in Japanese in 1997 and 1998; Length: 309 pages;  Setting: Japan in the 90’s.  Source: Own copy. Finished reading on: 29th July 2011.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


34 thoughts on “Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

  1. Great review. I love Murakami. I read this one a few years ago. He definitely has the talent for non fiction. Not wanting to sound like a cliche but this book was truly haunting.

    Posted by Karen | July 27, 2011, 10:00 pm
    • Not a cliche. It’s true accounts of many and I can’t imagine the trauma they had to live with after that. I just like how Murakami obtain all perspectives and put them in one book, it’s a lot of work and he pulled it through. Thanks for dropping by Karen.

      Posted by JoV | July 27, 2011, 10:29 pm
  2. I ve read his running book Jov this is on my list of books to read soon by him ,as the event covered in the book seemed out of character for Japan but as recent events show nothing is impossible ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | July 27, 2011, 10:12 pm
  3. What a wonderful you review you’ve written, JoV!! I, too, was completely caught up in this novel (although I didn’t have to take public transportation to work); one reads it with a growing sense of horror but is unable to pull oneself away. I was struck by the same thoughts you were, that you listed as bullet points, but also by the desparation of the Aum cult leaders. Not that I feel compassion for them by any means, but it makes me so sad that they were so lost they blindly followed someone just to have a leader. Just to belong. I was also struck in this novel, as well as in the recent tsunami, how very polite (and reserved) the Japanese appear to be. They handled stress unbelievably calmly, in my opinion.

    As for Murakami’s writing, I know we’re both always amazed by his skill, but wasn’t it wonderful to read something that was nonfiction? For that reason, I’m also looking forward to What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Even though I’m a reader, not a runner. 😉

    Posted by Bellezza | July 27, 2011, 10:58 pm
    • Bellezza,
      Thank you for your kind words! There were so many thoughts about the book I just can’t put them down otherwise the post would have gone on and on and on… 🙂 I read the testimony of the Aum members and they said it is the small pocket of the group committed anarchy, the rest of them were just trying to find enlightenment, meditates and do good work. Still the issue has its core on a society which doesn’t connect to each other.

      I hope you get to read “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” soon, I’m not a runner but it is the closest you will ever know about Murakami. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | July 28, 2011, 8:02 am
  4. p.s. I didn’t know that Jo Nesbo has yet another book out; that guy is prolific. And when people say he’s the next Steig Larsson I want to vomit because he’s way better in my opinion. And, I loved Pamuk’s book Snow. Such great things on your sidebar!

    Posted by Bellezza | July 27, 2011, 11:00 pm
    • Bellezza,
      Apparently The Leopard is on paperback now in the UK. He writes about 1 book per year, most of these crime thriller authors do publish very quickly!
      I’m three quarter into “Snow” now and enjoying it so far. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | July 28, 2011, 8:05 am
  5. p.s.s. Sorry, I just wanted to leave my link to Underground here. XO

    Posted by Bellezza | July 27, 2011, 11:05 pm
  6. I’ve enjoyed Murakami in the past, but haven’t read this one (actually, hadn’t heard of it).

    BTW – wasn’t sure how to respond to your comment (no email) but I wanted to say I hope to read Frenchman’s Creek, Du Maurier around the 1st week in Sept. Would that work for you?

    Posted by (Diane)BibliophileBytheSea | July 28, 2011, 1:13 am
  7. Great review, Jo

    I wanted to read this book but the library hasn’t owned it yet 😦

    Posted by Novroz | July 28, 2011, 2:24 am
  8. Good to hear this is good as it’ll probably be the next Murakami I buy (I currently have copies of ALL his fiction – well, until ‘1Q84’ comes out anyway!).

    Posted by Tony | July 28, 2011, 3:07 am
    • Tony,
      I thought his non-fiction is just as good. Always great to hear from another Murakami aficionado!
      p/s: I can’t wait till 1Q84 is out! I’m just wondering if I’ll live with the pain of burning my pocket spending £24 for the trilogy or not.

      Posted by JoV | July 28, 2011, 8:19 am
  9. This looks very interesting. I’ve always been fascinated in those attacks and the cult that inflicted them. I thinking I should put this book on my list.
    Thanks !!

    Posted by maphead | July 28, 2011, 4:05 am
  10. What a wonderful review! Since reading Underground my respect for Murakami has deepened, now I want to read every thing he’s written. I’ve already got a library hold on 1Q84. I also need to get a hold of the Harry Hole books published in the UK so I can read them in order. Thanks for the link:)

    Posted by Gavin | July 28, 2011, 4:07 am
    • Gavin,
      He is a great writer. I think I read almost everything he wrote except for 3 of the novels, 2 of his out of print earlier novels and of course 1Q84. I’m full of envy of your library for getting 1Q84 so quickly. I’ll see what I think about Harry Hole, Jo Nesbo books is in the rage. Always my pleasure to link back.

      Posted by JoV | July 28, 2011, 8:23 am
  11. I love Murakami and the prospect of reading non-fiction by him is highly tempting.Thanks for the great review.

    Posted by Bhargavi | July 28, 2011, 1:23 pm
  12. I want to read this, but I worry that I’ll find it too disturbing. I know I’ll read it one day, but think I need to find myself a nice sunny day when I can read it all at once without reading at night. I know it will be good, but I also know it will give me nightmares. Great review, but I’m still scared of it.

    Posted by farmlanebooks | July 28, 2011, 5:07 pm
    • Jackie,
      It is not really disturbing (for me I suppose). The only one that I find a little distressing is to read about the testimonials of the family members of the dead victims and the long term health effects of survivors, otherwise the rest of it makes a very informative and thought provoking read. Summer is a great time for this, plenty sunshine!
      I look forward to hear what you think about it. Don’t be scared.

      Posted by JoV | July 29, 2011, 7:59 am
  13. This is my favourite book by Murakami, i read & posted on it last year & think that anyone who is a fan of the writers work, cannot skip this.

    Posted by Parrish | July 29, 2011, 9:49 pm
  14. I’ve had this book on my wishlist forever — having read your review, I need to go get myself a copy.

    One part does slightly disturb me, though. And that is Murakami giving editorial control to his subjects. This is not what a trained journalist does.

    Posted by kimbofo | July 31, 2011, 12:00 pm
    • Kim,
      ohhh. I hope you do. Murakami has an aim to let the victims say what they want to say and in a Japanese society, caution not to offend or upset other people is seen as priority. I understand what you are saying about leaving the editorial control in the hands of his subjects, perhaps if it was the other way the book would have been different. But I’ll leave it with you to get a chance to read the book and I look forward to your thoughts about the book.

      Posted by JoV | July 31, 2011, 1:09 pm
  15. I’m glad you were able to take part in the mini-challenge for July!
    Psst. You might like to check this out: http://www.inspringitisthedawn.com/2011/08/hello-japan-mini-challenge-july-links.html 🙂

    The points you mentioned are some of the things that frustrate me about Japan. But then that’s me looking at things with my Western eyes. I read this a long time ago and really should read it again sometime. Thanks for the great review.

    Posted by tanabata | August 5, 2011, 5:29 pm
    • Tanabata,
      I know what you mean. I look at it through my western eyes as well and don’t understand why when there is a need to inform or talk, no one will…. I hope you get the chance to read it again.
      What a pleasant surprise!!! Thanks! 🙂

      Posted by JoV | August 6, 2011, 9:22 am
  16. I am not a big fan of Murakami in general, but to do him justice I have to say that Underground is a very human, touching and respectful book that gives the victims of this attack back their dignity. Your review explains very well the strength of this book. My own review: http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=1270

    Posted by Mytwostotinki | March 26, 2015, 9:29 am


  1. Pingback: Underground by Haruki Murakami | Page247 - July 29, 2011

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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