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.