Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

Screenshot from 2018-04-11 10-18-02

My Rating: 5/5

Underground was my first dip into Murakami’s non-fiction work, but it certainly won’t be my last! I thought I would miss the traditional Murakami-ism’s, but the writing stood up on its own and I was impressed with the way he took each survivors account and crafted it into a poignant, short story.

I know endless details and theories and crazy allegations about the September 11 attacks in New York, but knew almost nothing of the Tokyo gas attack. I would occasionally hear it referenced in other books (like David Mitchell’s wonderful Ghostwritten), but didn’t look into it in depth until I picked up this book.

The Tokyo Gas Attack, or Subway Sarin Incident (地下鉄サリン事件 Chikatetsu Sarin Jiken) occurred on March 20, 1995 when 5 members of the Aum Shinrikyo released packages of sarin on three subway lines. 12 people were killed, 50 were severely injured, and +1000 other were affected and had temporary (physical) side effects as well as longer lasting psychological effects.

Murakami interviews survivors in various states of recovery, doctors, as well as current and former members of the Aum. The survivors’ stories range from inspiring to heartbreaking and I cried quite a few times while reading through them!

What I really liked about this book is that it talks about people. The story is people in their day to day lives dealing with a terrible event. I feel like so much of the reporting on terrorism focuses on the sensational, a story hardly breaks before blame is cast and the perpetrators are analyzed in minute detail while the victims are just a number, maybe a picture if there happens to be a particularly cute child in the group. It’s important to understand what happens next for survivors. Where they are a year later, what their families are dealing with. That is where we as communities can actually help.

While the Aum is commonly referred to as a cult, it was designed as a religion largely combining elements of Buddhism and Christianity. The ‘Doomsday’ element came directly from the Book Of Revelation 16:16. I fully believe that founder and self-proclaimed ‘Christ’ Shoko Asahara was a delusional and evil man, but I think many of his followers were a kind of victim too. I was really glad that Murakami included their stories in this book. To really understand a tragedy like this, you have to try to understand the ‘other side’. The people you hate.

I highly, highly recommend this book. Not as a definitive guide to the attacks or the Aum, but as a book about real humans dealing with real-world problems.




6 thoughts on “Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

  1. Thank you for this recommendation! I’m a HUGE Murakami fan but haven’t delved into his non-fiction yet. It sounds like a poignant account of the attacks, and having the human element emphasised would definitely reveal another side to the story since, as you say, these kind of events can be sensationalised in the media, removing the victims from the equation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love Murakami too, and this has all the feels of a Murakami novel, while also telling true stories. Have you read Banana Yoshimoto? She is also a great Japanese writer with a hint of magical realism – I recommend Moshi Moshi as a first book if you want to check her out 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love Murakami’s fiction and I knew he’d written nonfiction on running and on translation, but I hadn’t ever heard of this book. It’s on a topic that sounds much more interesting to me than his other nonfiction and it sounds great – definitely going on my to-read list 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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