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Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (edition 2001)

by Haruki Murakami

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1,782423,936 (3.83)109
Member:clsnyder
Title:Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
Authors:Haruki Murakami
Info:Vintage (2001), Edition: 1st Vintage International Ed, Paperback, 384 pages
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Underground by Haruki Murakami

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Showing 1-5 of 38 (next | show all)
In March 1995, five members of the religious cult Aum released sarin gas in 5 different cars an several Tokyo subway lines. Overall, (miraculously only) 12 people died, and thousands were injured, many very seriously. Author Haruki Murakami was living abroad at this time, and later read a letter from a woman whose husband was injured in the attacks. He couldn't get the letter out of his head, and when he returned to Japan a few years later he began interviewing survivors of the attack (and in one case relatives of a deceased victim). This book presents, primarily verbatim, transcripts of about 60 of those interviews, as Murakami attempts to make sense of the attack and the reaction to it, and to ponder on what it means to be Japanese.

In the course of the interviews, the victims, including ordinary workers on the way to their offices as well as subway workers, reflect on what happened, how they reacted, and what they observed of others' reactions. What struck me was how long it took for anyone to realize how serious the situation was. The perpetrators had the sarin (in liquid form in plastic) wrapped in newspaper, which they placed on the floor of a subway car. As they exited, they stabbed the sarin package with a specially sharpened umbrella tip to break the package and release the sarin. Passengers noticed fumes and some would leave the car at the next stop, but passengers at the next stop would see a car with empty seats and get in the contaminated car to continue to the next stop. This occurred despite there sometimes remaining on board people who were obviously very ill or even unconscious. Sometimes at a stop, a subway worker would come on board, remove an unconscious passenger, "mop" up the "spill", and the car would proceed on. Even passengers who felt ill with symptoms such as difficulty seeing (a "feeling" of blackness descending) or difficulty breathing would proceed to work, often walking past people collapsed on the subway platforms or sidewalks, only seeking help when they totally collapsed or when they heard news reports at work about what had happened. One passenger described the scene: "People foaming at the mouth....half of the roadway was absolute hell. But on the other side people were walking to work as usual....It was as if we were a world apart. Nobody stopped. They all thought, 'Nothing to do with me.'"

The volume I read contained an added section of later interviews Murakami did with members and former members of the cult which carried out the attack. These members all claimed to have been unaware that the attack was planned, but many of them admit that had the leader ordered them to carry out these attacks they are not sure they would have been able to resist such an order.

This book is very different than Murakami's fiction (although I guess you could say the general theme of the Japanese character and the ennui and alienation of today's youth apply in both cases). Murakami acknowledges his debt to the oral histories of Studs Terkel. A fascinating read.

3 1/2 stars
1 vote arubabookwoman | Oct 19, 2015 |
"Underground" isn't always riveting stuff: much of the book consists of retelling the events of the Aum Shinriyko's nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. These accounts fit with Murakami's interest in straightforward, unembellished narrative, and I suppose comparisons to "Rashomon" are in order, but most readers probably won't notice or care too much about the small differences between these accounts. It's interesting see how profoundly even those victims who didn't suffer serious long-term physical effects from the sarin attack have been affected: Murakami may be right when he argues that this event triggered deep and powerful feelings in his country's national psyche. What's most interesting about them, from my perspective, anyway, is what they say about life in modern Japan. One of Murakami's stated aims in writing this book was to explore how the attack disrupted people's lives, and in that, he was largely successful. He also revealed, intentionally or otherwise, that the life of the average Tokyo resident is astonishingly busy and very work-centric: the biographies that Murakami's subjects provide could probably serve as informal résumés. Fittingly enough, the author argues that the cult that perpetrated the attack could be seen as a sort of mirror-image of a society that has become more more materialistic over the past few decades while leaving little room for those who might not want to do everything possible to advance their careers in a socially acceptable manner. Murakami notes that several of the cult's higher-ups had extremely successful careers before they abandoned them almost overnight to join Aum: it's possible that they wouldn't have taken such drastic measures if they had lived in a more flexible society.

The second half of "Underground," which consists of interviews with former Aum members, will probably be of more interest to the average reader, perhaps because extraordinary evil, for better or for worse, seems to cast a spell that ordinary life can't quite compete with. The ex-members certainly paint an interesting portrait of the cult: it was strict in some ways, but remarkably forgiving in others. Its theology was a confusing new-age mishmash, and many of the members don't entirely regret their experiences with the group. I noticed that many of the former members share a rather logical cast of mind which sometimes contrasts oddly with their spiritual interests, though I suppose that it might explain why they found a cult that talked discussed spiritual advancement in terms of a precise hierarchy and seemed to have been organized like a multinational corporation appealing. It's also interesting to note the hold that Aum still has on many of its former members: many admit to keeping up relationships they made while in the cult and to still finding some of the group's meditative techniques useful. Their contact with the group, like that of their victims, seems to have very long-term implications. Even though most of the former cult members that Murakami interviews seem to have left the group before things got really dark, these interviews provide a startlingly matter-of-fact account of a demonstrably evil organization in action. ( )
1 vote TheAmpersand | Aug 15, 2015 |
I picked up Underground as a recommendation by a coworker. She loved the book, and said it was in her Top 5. I am not quite as enthralled/passionate in all things Japan as she is, and knew very little about the Tokyo gas attacks. I decided to try it out, figuring that at the very least I could learn more about what happened. In short, while I am glad that I read it, I don't think I enjoyed it nearly as much as she did.

The author Haruki Murakami provides an interesting account of the viewpoints and perspectives of the various people involved in the attacks. The first half of the book (which I understand was first published as a separate piece) focuses on interviews Murakami gives of different passengers, subway workers, family members, and doctors/emergency personnel. The second half involves conversations with the terrorist group Aum.

I started out strong, but I think I lost a little steam when many of the interviews began to sound extremely similar - although I did appreciate the work Murakami put into the book to give each voice its own character/background. I found myself towards the second half of the book doing a little more skipping around and skimming the interviews. In my opinion, this is definitely a good book for someone interested in the Tokyo attacks specifically, or Japan culture in general.

I will say that what I found most interesting was how the victims' overall reaction - especially those from the passengers themselves - differed so much from what I would expect should something like this happen in the U.S. Many people "smelled something weird," (later determined to be the poison gas), but simply covered their noses and stayed in their seats - even when people on the same train began to exhibit severe physical ailments, passing out, losing sight, etc. A common observation was that nobody rushed to the exit - much to the frustration of the subway employees - and even when discovering they were going blind/having trouble breathing, their mentality was "oh well, I need to get to work." Even the medical response was lackadaisical (few/no ambulances, doctors having to learn about what is happening through TV only, etc.) although many people seem to be extremely irritated about that. In this regard, the book provided an interesting comparison in culture, especially with regards to emergency response. ( )
1 vote skrouhan | Feb 1, 2015 |
The author interviewed many of the victims of the March 20, 1995, terrorists' placing of bags of sarin on Tokyo subway cars. Many of these victims said much the same thing and after reading some I did not think it was too helpful to read the many more interviewed. He also interviewed members of Aum, the group which was responsible for getting the sarin on the cars. I suppose this was valuable to show the mind set of the kind of persons attracted to the cult. I cannot say I could comprehend how the perpetrators figured this was a good thing, though they were in the cult and one knew some of the cult members would do what the persons contolling the cult wanted done, no matter how evil or stupid it was. Nothing in the book illuminates the thought process of the cult leaders. Since the event is so bizarre I suppose this book should be read, but that it was a book I lked to read cannot be said. ( )
1 vote Schmerguls | Feb 11, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 38 (next | show all)
"Citing examples from recent and ancient Japanese history, Murakami establishes a pattern of a traditionally proud culture that discourages examining or accepting shame. It is precisely this painful examination that Murakami has undertaken."
 
"Like ''Sputnik Sweetheart,'' which begins with a straightforward love-triangle plot before developing an odder geometry, the cult members describe humdrum personal histories that suddenly lurch into the bizarre."
 
"Like Mr Murakami’s novels, “Underground” makes for an unsettling read."
added by Edward | editThe Economist (May 17, 2001)
 

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Haruki Murakamiprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Birnbaum, AlfredTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gabriel, PhilipTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375725806, Paperback)

From Haruki Murakami, internationally acclaimed author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood, a work of literary journalism that is as fascinating as it is necessary, as provocative as it is profound.

In March of 1995, agents of a Japanese religious cult attacked the Tokyo subway system with sarin, a gas twenty-six times as deadly as cyanide. Attempting to discover why, Murakami conducted hundreds of interviews with the people involved, from the survivors to the perpetrators to the relatives of those who died, and Underground is their story in their own voices. Concerned with the fundamental issues that led to the attack as well as these personal accounts, Underground is a document of what happened in Tokyo as well as a warning of what could happen anywhere. This is an enthralling and unique work of nonfiction that is timely and vital and as wonderfully executed as Murakami’s brilliant novels.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:05 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Covers the 1995 Tokyo Gas Attack, during which agents of a Japanese cult released a gas deadlier than cyanide into the subway system, as documented in interviews with its survivors, perpetrators, and victim family members. In March 1995, agents of a Japanese religious cult attacked the Tokyo subway system with sarin, a gas twenty six times as deadly as cyanide. Attempting to discover why, Murakami conducted hundreds of interviews with the people involved, from the survivors to the perpetrators to the relatives of those who died. Underground is their story in their own voices. Concerned with the fundamental issues that led to the attack as well as these personal accounts, Underground is a document of what happened in Tokyo as well as a warning of what could happen anywhere. This is an enthralling and unique work of nonfiction that is timely, vital, and as brilliantly executed as Murakami's novels. From Haruki Murakami, internationally acclaimed author of the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood, a work of literary journalism that is as fascinating as it is necessary, as provocative as it is profound. It was a clear spring day, Monday, March 20, 1995, when five members of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo conducted chemical warfare on the Tokyo subway system using sarin, a poison gas twenty-six times as deadly as cyanide. The unthinkable had happened; a major urban transit system had become the target of a terrorist attack. Attempting to discover why, Murakami conducted hundreds of interviews with the people involved, from a subway authority employee with survivor guilt, to a fashion salesman with more venom for the media than for the perpetrators, to a young cult member who vehemently condemns the attack though he has not quit Aum. Through these and many other voices, Murakami exposes intriguing aspects of the Japanese psyche. And, as he discerns the fundamental issues leading to the attack, we achieve a clear vision of an event that could occur anytime, anywhere. Hauntingly compelling and inescapably important, Underground is a powerful work of journalistic literature from one of the world's most perceptive writers. Concerned with the fundamental issues that led to the attack as well as these personal accounts, Underground is a document of what happened in Tokyo as well as a warning of what could happen anywhere. This is an enthralling and unique work of nonfiction that is timely and vital and as wonderfully executed as Murakami's brilliant novels.… (more)

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