Thursday, June 22, 2006

And now it's been ten years, I'm still wondering who to be

I've finished reading Haruki Murakami's excellent nonfiction book "Underground." Murakami is the novelist who wrote "Kafka on the Shore," possibly the best book I've read so far this year. After I finished that book I thought, "Who IS this guy?" and did some research. Several of his other novels also sounded good, but one book in particular caught my eye. "Underground" is his look at the 1995 sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway. I think there are a few reasons I thought it would be interesting. First, I tend to really dig it when novelists write nonfiction; George Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia" is a great example of very fine work done outside an artist's main mode. Second, like a lot of Americans I've grown much more interested in terror as a weapon after the 2001 WTC attacks; I want to better understand where it comes from, what its goals are, and how to respond to it. Japan has historically been one of the safest countries in the world, and I thought their shock to this attack would probably be very similar to our own. Finally, I thought it would be a good opportunity to maybe understand the Japanese psyche a little more. I've had a lot of exposure to Japanese culture through video games and anime, but I'm sure that's a very skewed perspective; nonfiction seemed like a better "in", and who better to get it from than an author I already enjoyed?

Murakami's structure to the book is really interesting. It isn't told as a straight narrative; rather, as he describes in his introduction, he wanted to experience the attacks through the eyes of the victims. The events in the book cover only a couple of hours. There are maybe thirty or so chapters in the book, each one a first-person account of one victim's experiences, based on their interview with Murakami. He strikes an interesting balance between compassion and objectivity. Within the interviews he is almost entirely absent from the text, only occasionally asking for more clarification or otherwise prompting them; for the most part he just lets them tell their stories. However, his overall project is extremely considerate and careful towards the victims. He honored anonymity requests, met with them under the victims' preferences, and, what I think is really amazing, sent each person's chapter to them for their approval before publishing. This means that some things were taken out when they changes their mind, which clearly frustrates him as a writer, but his way of honoring them is a great testament to his character.

The introduction was self-deprecating, filled with him saying things like "I can't hope to even begin to address the emotions people felt on that day. I'm not that good of a writer. I just humbly offer up these few stories I was able to collect." It was effective enough that my expectations were lowered - "Oh, this book won't be as good as I thought it would be. Well, I'll keep reading anyways, to see what these people think." And then? I was blown away. What he does is a little hard to describe, but it's as though he acts as a novelist through the role of an editor: he takes large sections of extant text, which he didn't write, and using only pithy introductions and clever organization, layers an extremely compelling narrative on top of this historic event.

Things get off to a bang with the first four chapters. I defy anyone to read these and not think of Kurosawa's excellent "Rashomon." The four chapters all describe the same event: sarin affects several people riding a train, station agents attempt to clean it up but are affected themselves, they go outside and call for an ambulance which never arrives, then several people use a news van and take a very sick person to the hospital, and later that person dies. It's fascinating to see a character in one story become the narrator in the next; and, like in Rashomon, people's descriptions of the details of the events can vary wildly. A red handkerchief becomes a printed one; a female rail employee becomes a nurse; and a wide variety of people take credit for thinking to use the news van as an ambulance. While the structure feels very similar to Rashomon, though, I think the aims are a little different. Both works are about the ambiguity of truth and how everyone works with their perceptions and memories rather than an objective understanding of truth. Rashomon (to me, at least) felt like it was more about the way people shape their perceptions; it isn't coincidental that every person's version of the incident in the woods casts themselves in the best possible light. Underground has a little of that, but more so I feel it reflects the chaos and trauma that hits the mind in such a situation. When someone's very survival is on the line, their mind will focus on that instead of seemingly extraneous details, and later on the details get filled in, seemingly at random.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the history behind this: Japan is thought of as a primarily secular nation, but many citizens observe Shintoism or Buddhism. A Buddhist-derived cult called Aum Shinrikyo grew sharply in popularity during the early 1990's. I wasn't very familiar with the cult before reading this book; it sounds a little like a cross between the Moonies and David Koresh's group. A charismatic leader with magical powers, Shoko Asahara, led the group; at the bottom were several people who had been effectively brainwashed. They were recognized by the Japanese government, and Asahara campaigned unsuccessfully for a seat in the Diet. The organization grew more militant, operating more like a company or a government, with members being assigned to its Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Education, and so on.

All that aside, the group was virtually unknown, both within and outside Japan, until 1995. That was when several members, in a coordinated operation, unleashed a liquified version of sarin nerve gas on a half-dozen crowded subway trains. Several thousand people were injured; miraculously, only a dozen or so actually died, but many more only survived as vegetables or with permanent physical and mental damage. Much like the September 11 attacks, it wasn't immediately clear who was responsible; eventually, Aum Shinrikyo's involvement was proven and the members were arrested and sentenced.

Again, Japan is an incredibly safe country, with the lowest murder rate in the world. Understandably, the attacks were a huge blow to the nation, which wrestled with questions about its character and its reaction, including whether to amend the constitution to allow the death penalty.

Going back to the event itself, though: Murakami completely succeeds in conveying the horror and confusion of that day to the reader. The victims did not know who their attackers were, what was making them sick, why help wasn't arriving, or how many other people had been hurt. Again, through careful structuring of the first-person accounts, he makes the reader experience the same confusion and gradual comprehension of what was happening that day. In the first few chapters we hear how the subway mistakenly reported an "explosion" taking place at a station; much later in the book, we finally see when and how that report was made and spread. Sarin is a bit of a mystery early on; the more cases we read the more we understand the different things it does to a body, as well as what the common signs of poisoning are; and towards the end we finally hear from a doctor who gives a comprehensive explanation of medical identification and treatment of sarin. Like us, though, the first wave of doctors didn't underestand what was happening or how to treat it, and so we can't be too angry at their initial slowness in treatment.

Besides Rashomon, another comparison I thought of was "Armies of the Night," Norman Mailer's excellent account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon. Like Murakami, Mailer is a novelist, and both of them treat a single confusing historic event by focusing on ground-level observations. Murakami has a multifaceted, prismatic approach to the problem, staring at the same event from a variety of perspectives. Mailer is the complete opposite: the story is all Mailer all the time, just as much about his selfishness and cowardice and loathing as it is about the march itself. Mailer has a useful device to describe the book: "History as a novel, the novel as history." He explicitly blurs the line between entertainment and information, providing a novelized version of pure fact. Murakami doesn't claim to be doing anything so grand, but I think what he has accomplished here is no less impressive.

The book closes out with a later addition, in which Murakami interviews past and current members of Aum Shinrikyo. The format is superficially identical to the first part, but in practice is radically different. Murakami is no longer a near-silent observer; instead he is an investigative reporter, challenging his subject, occasionally bullying them, pushing incredibly hard to cut to the root of what he's looking for. I didn't expect to feel this way, but I ended up feeling kind of sorry for them. I felt like first they had been abused by life, then taken in by Aum and often abused by them, and finally had their beliefs and values challenged by Murakami. (As with the victims, Murakami did not publish anything without his subjects approving every word he wrote.)

One thing that kind of struck me about this section was how the Aum members often seemed much more interesting than the victims. I don't at all mean to belittle those who were injured or claim that they were all the same; still, most of them seemed like career-oriented individuals who worked incredibly hard and enjoyed a few basic pleasures in life. (This is probably representative of those who ride the Tokyo subway early in the morning than it is representative of Japanese in general.) By contrast, the Aum members were almost all loners. Some were incredibly passionate about mysticism and spirituality and were drawn to Aum because of that. Some were incredibly rational and hyper-scientific, and were drawn to Aum by a desire to study and understand it. Still others just appreciated the attention and camaraderie. A lot of them were voracious readers who always preferred reading to interacting with their peers; others despised books and never read anything, even for school.

Of course, I'm far from an expert on Japanese society, but I think Murakami is correct when he questions how Aum could have arisen in Japan. One obvious explanation is the exciting version of religion it expounded in a strongly secular country. Reading through the members' testimonies, though, I wondered if part of it might be a result of Japan lacking an emotional safety net. Japanese culture is very monolithic, which probably provides a strong feeling of comfort and security to those who fit into it, but can be terrible to those on the outside. I'm reminded of my own feelings of alienation at public school: feeling like you're on the outside can be rotten. America's incredibly fragmented and chaotic culture can leave people just as lonely, but I think the fact we don't highly value conformity here makes life a little more comfortable on the outside. It's harder to blame society or the world for your problems when everyone looks and acts differently from everyone else.

Then again... while the rank-and-file members Murakami interviews seem fairly marginal to society, Aum's upper ranks were filled with extremely intelligent and successful people. The people who actually carried out the attacks included doctors, businessmen and lawyers. So we can't easily say that the cult existed because of people being excluded from society, since society's best were also Aum's best. Here, you can probably make a more compelling argument that what was missing from Japanese society wasn't acceptance of the individual, but a deep sense of spiritual fulfillment. Their testimonies indicate that these people found something in Aum that they couldn't find elsewhere, which was how it earned their devocation and, ultimately, replaced their conscience.

Could it happen here? In a way it did, in the Oklahoma City bombing. That's a case where citizens, alienated from their government, struck out murderously against innocents. The perpetrators look totally different, with one group filled by religious fervor and the other by political rage. In some ways the Aum attack is more terrifying because it required the active participation of such a large group of people. Also, while I've spent a lot of time thinking about how Japanese society could change to prevent such attacks in the future, I confess I've never seriously thought about how American society should change to prevent another Oklahoma City-style attack. Perhaps I should remove the beam in my own eye before criticizing the mote in Japan's? It's a tricky ground to navigate, keeping the blame squarely on those who did violence while also trying to understand why they did it and what steps should be taken to prevent future harm.

So, that's that. Yet another good book, and I think I'll continue hitting up Murakami in the future. I hear The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is good.


  1. Related story, bullying (ijime) is a big problem in Japan. And it tends not to be just one larger kid hitting a little one--more on the lines of the entire class turning on a student and laughing at them and gossiping about them constantly until they can't bear it anymore and refuse to attend.

    They call it "futoukou"--school refusal. We studied it a little in Japanese class in college. The case we read about was a girl named Shouko who was bullied precisely because her name sounded like Shoko, the cult leader.

    So Shouko started skipping school to the point where her mother had to chase her out of the house weilding a tennis racket. Only after sending her to intensive therapy with other school refusers would she tell her mother the reason she wouldn't go to class.

  2. Wow, yikes! And I thought I had some bad experiences in elementary school. That's true, though... American bullying is highly individualistic (rogue kids acting out individually, outside the bounds of authority or social norms). I've always thought that was bad, but an institutionalized version would be far worse.