Underground the tokyo ga.., p.25
Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, p.25Haruki Murakami
To be perfectly honest, the way things are with us doctors in Japan, it’s almost unthinkable 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.
But with the gas attack I had other motives too. One of the seven people who died in the Matsumoto incident was a medical student here at Shinshu University. A coed, extremely bright, who by rights ought to have been at that day’s graduation ceremony. That simple fact kept me going.
* Zazen is a form of seated meditation. [Tr.]
* In November 1989 anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto was murdered, along with his wife and their baby son. It was not until October 1998 that cult member Kazuaki Okazaki was sentenced to death for murdering the Sakamotos. He had crept into the family home and injected them with lethal doses of potassium chloride, then strangled them. Shoko Asahara has also been charged with murdering the Sakamotos. [Tr.]
* He was finally arrested in December 1996. [Tr.]
* Sarin inhibits the action of cholinesterase, an enzyme produced by the liver. 2-Pam (Protopam or pralidoxime chloride) is a cholinesterase reactivator, also used as an antidote in cases of organophosphate pesticide poisoning. [Tr.]
BLIND NIGHTMARE: WHERE ARE WE JAPANESE GOING?
What Happened in the Tokyo Subway on March 20, 1995?
The morning of March 20, I was at my house in Oiso, two hours due south of Tokyo. I was living in Massachusetts at the time, but had returned to Japan for a fortnight during the spring holidays. With no TV or radio in the house, I was completely unaware that a major cataclysm was taking place in the city. I was indoors listening to music, leisurely straightening up my bookshelves. I remember that peaceful moining very well. Not a cloud in the sky.
Around 10:00 I received a phone call from an acquaintance working in the media: “Something crazy’s happened in the subway; lots of people hurt.” His voice was tense. “Poison gas. This is Aum’s doing, no mistake. Better steer clear of Tokyo for the time being. They’re dangerous.”
What was he saying? Poison gas in the subway? Aum? I’d been away from Japan for some time and hadn’t kept up on current affairs. I’d missed the Yomiuri Shimbun scoop on New Year’s Day when they’d discovered sarin residue near the Aum headquarters in the village of Kamikuishiki. This linked the cult to an earlier outbreak of poisoning in nearby Matsumoto, three hours northwest of Tokyo. Little did I know the Aum cult had been implicated in strange dealings surrounding a number of crimes, that it was an extremely hot topic in Japan.
From today’s perspective, I now realize that few people—in the media at least—thought it far-fetched that Aum might be involved in such a major act of terrorism. Anyway, as I had no plans to go into Tokyo that day, I went back to sorting out my books as if nothing had happened.
That was my March 20.
Yet somehow the perplexity I felt that morning—a sense of estrangement or displacement—stayed with me. I remained “out of phase.”
For many months thereafter, the media overflowed with “news” of all kinds about the cult. From morning till night Japanese TV was virtually nonstop Aum. The papers, tabloids, magazines all devoted thousands of pages to the gas attack.
None of which told me what I wanted to know. No, mine was a very simple question: What actually happened in the Tokyo subway the morning of March 20, 1995?
Or more concretely: What were the people in the subway cars doing at the time? What did they see? What did they feel? What did they think? If I could, I’d have included details on each individual passenger, right down to their heartbeat and breathing, as graphically represented as possible. The question was, what would happen to any ordinary Japanese citizen—such as me or any of my readers—if they were suddenly caught up in an attack of this kind?
High-flown excesses aside, the polemic put forth by the media was quite straightforward in structure. To them, the moral principle at stake in the gas attack was all too clear: “good” versus “evil,” “sanity” versus “madness,” “health” versus “disease.” It was an obvious exercise in opposites.
The Japanese were shocked by this macabre incident. From every mouth it was the same outcry: “The sheer lunacy of it all! What on earth’s become of Japan, when such mass insanity walks among us? Where were the police? It’s the death penalty for Shoko Asahara no matter what …”
Thus, to a greater or lesser degree, people all jumped onto the “right,” “sane,” “normal” bandwagon. There was nothing complicated about it. That is, placed alongside the likes of Shoko Asahara and the Aum cult, compared to the deeds they had done, the overwhelming majority of Japanese were indeed “right,” “sane,” and “healthy.” It could hardly have been a more open-and-shut case. The media merely played along with this consensus and accelerated its force.
There were a few lone voices that bucked the trend. “Shouldn’t the crime be punished as a crime, without all this talk of ‘goodness’ or ‘sanity’?” they insisted, but were largely ignored in the general furor.
Only now, several years after the event, just where has this ramshackle bandwagon of mass consensus delivered us Japanese with “right on our side”? What have we learned from this shocking incident?
One thing is for sure. Some strange malaise, some bitter aftertaste lingers on. We crane our necks and look around us, as if to ask: where did all that come from? If only to be rid of this malaise, to cleanse our palates of this aftertaste, most Japanese seem ready to pack up the whole incident in a trunk labeled THINGS OVER AND DONE WITH. We would rather the meaning of the whole ordeal was left to the fixed processes of the court and everything was dealt with on the level of “the system.”
Certainly the legal process is valuable and will bring to light many truths. But unless we Japanese absorb those facts into our metabolism and integrate them into our field of vision, all will be lost in a mass of meaningless detail, court-case gossip, an obscure, forgotten corner of history. The rain that fell on the city runs down the dark gutters and empties into the sea without even soaking the ground. The legal system can deal with only one facet of the issue on the basis of the law. There is no guarantee that this will settle the matter.
In other words, the shock dealt to Japanese society by Aum and the gas attack has still to be effectively analyzed, the lessons have yet to be learned. Even now, having finished interviewing the victims, I can’t simply file away the gas attack, saying: “After all, this was merely an extreme and exceptional crime committed by an isolated lunatic fringe.” And what am I to think when our collective memory of the affair is looking more and more like a bizarre comic strip or an urban myth?
If we are to learn anything from this tragic event, we must look at what happened all over again, from different angles, in different ways. Something tells me things will only get worse if we don’t wash it out of our metabolism. It’s all too easy to say, “Aum was evil.” Nor does saying, “This had nothing to do with ‘evil’ or ‘insanity’” prove anything either. Yet the spell cast by these phrases is almost impossible to break, the whole emotionally charged “Us” versus “Them” vocabulary has been done to death.
No, what we need, it seems to me, are words coming from another direction, new words for a new narrative. Another narrative to purify this narrative.
Why Did I Look Away from the Aum Cult?
What alternative is there to the media’s “Us” versus “Them”? The danger is that if it is used to prop up this “righteous” position of “ours” all we will see from now on are ever more exacting and minute analyses of the “dirty” distortions in “their” thinking. Without some flexibility in our definitions we’ll remain forever stuck with the same old knee-jerk reactions, or worse, slide into complete apathy.
A little while after the events, a thought occurred to me. In order to understand the reality of the Tokyo gas attack, no study of the rationale and workings of “them,” the people w
We will get nowhere as long as the Japanese continue to disown the Aum “phenomenon” as something completely other, an alien presence viewed through binoculars on the far shore. Unpleasant though the prospect might seem, it is important that we incorporate “them,” to some extent, within that construct called “us,” or at least within Japanese society. Certainly that is how the event was viewed from abroad. But even more to the point, by failing to look for the key buried under our own feet, where it might be visible to the naked eye, by holding the phenomenon at such a distance we are in danger of reducing its significance to a microscopic level.
This thought has a history. I trace it back to February 1990, when Aum stood for election in the Lower House of the Japanese Diet. Asahara was running in Shibuya Ward, the Tokyo district where I was living at the time, and the campaign was a singularly odd piece of theater. Day after day strange music played from big trucks with sound systems, while white-robed young men and women in oversize Asahara masks and elephant heads lined the sidewalk outside my local train station, waving and dancing some incomprehensible jig.
When I saw this election campaign, my first reaction was to look away. It was one of the last things I wanted to see. Others around me showed the same response: they simply walked by pretending not to see the cultists. I felt an unnameable dread, a disgust beyond my understanding. I didn’t bother to consider very deeply where this dread came from, or why it was “one of the last things I wanted to see.” I didn’t think it was all that important at the time. I simply put the image out of mind as “nothing to do with me.”
Faced by the same scene, no doubt 90 percent of people would have felt and behaved the same way: walk by pretending not to see; don’t give it a second thought; forget it. Very likely German intellectuals during the Weimar period behaved in a similar fashion when they first saw Hitler.
But now, thinking back on it, the whole thing seems very curious. There are any number of new religions out there proselytizing on the street, yet they don’t fill us—or at least me—with an inexplicable dread. No, it’s just “Oh, them again,” and that’s it. If you want to talk aberrations, then shaven-headed Japanese youths dancing around chanting “Hare Krishna” are a departure from the social norm. Still, I don’t look away from Hare Krishnas. Why, then, did I automatically avert my eyes from the Aum campaigners? What was it that disturbed me?
My conjecture is this. The Aum “phenomenon” disturbs precisely because it is not someone else’s affair. It shows us a distorted image of ourselves in a manner none of us could have foreseen. The Hare Krishnas and all the other new religions can be dismissed at the outset (before they even enter into our rational mind) as having no bearing on us. But not Aum, for some reason. Their presence—their appearance, their song—had to be actively rejected by an effort of will, and that is why they disturb us.
Psychologically speaking (I’ll wheel out the amateur psychology just this once, so bear with me), encounters that call up strong physical disgust or revulsion are often in fact projections of our own faults and weaknesses. Very well, but how does this relate to the feeling of dread I felt in front of the train station? No, I’m not saying “There but for the grace of—whatever—go I. Under different circumstances, you and I might have joined the Aum cult and released sarin gas in the subway.” That doesn’t make any sense realistically (or logistically). All I mean to say is that something in that encounter, in their presence, must also have been present in us to necessitate such active conscious rejection. Or rather, “they” are the mirror of “us”!
Now of course a mirror image is always darker and distorted. Convex and concave swap places, falsehood wins out over reality, light and shadow play tricks. But take away these dark flaws and the two images are uncannily similar; some details almost seem to conspire together. Which is why we avoid looking directly at the image, why, consciously or not, we keep eliminating these dark elements from the face we want to see. These subconscious shadows are an “underground” that we carry around within us, and the bitter aftertaste that continues to plague us long after the Tokyo gas attack comes seeping out from below.
The Handed-Down Self: the Allocated Narrative
To quote from the Unabomber manifesto, published in The New York Times in 1995:
The system reorganizes itself so as to put pressure on those who do not fit in. Those who do not fit into the system are “sick”; to make them fit in is to “cure.” Thus, the power process aimed at attaining autonomy is broken and the individual is subsumed into the other-dependent power process enforced by the system. To pursue autonomy is seen as “disease.” *
Interestingly enough, while the Unabomber’s modus operandi almost exactly parallels Aum’s (when, for instance, they sent a parcel bomb to Tokyo City Hall), Theodore Kaczynski’s thinking is even more closely linked to the essence of the Aum cult.
The argument Kaczynski puts forward is fundamentally quite right. Many parts of the social system in which we belong and function do indeed aim at repressing the attainment of individual autonomy, or, as the Japanese adage goes: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”
From the perspective of the Aum followers, just as they were asserting their own autonomy, society and the state came down on top of them, pronouncing them an “antisocial movement,” a “cancer” to be cut out. Which is why they became more and more antisocial.
Nonetheless, Kaczynski—intentionally or unintentionally—overlooked one important factor. Autonomy is only the mirror image of dependence on others. If you were left as a baby on a deserted island, you would have no notion of what “autonomy” means. Autonomy and dependency are like light and shade, caught in the pull of each other’s gravity, until, after considerable trial and error, each individual can find his or her own place in the world.
Those who fail to achieve this balance, like Shoko Asahara perhaps, have to compensate by establishing a limited (but actually quite effective) system. I have no way of ranking him as a religious figure. How does one measure such things? Still, a cursory look at his life does suggest one possible scenario. Efforts to overcome his own individual disabilities left him trapped inside a closed circuit. A genie in a bottle labeled “religion,” which he proceeded to market as a form of shared experience.
Asahara surely put himself through hell, a horrific bloodbath of internal conflicts and soul-searching until he finally arrived at a systematization of his vision. Undoubtedly he also had his satori, some “attainment of paranormal value.” Without any firsthand experience of hell or extraordinary inversion of everyday values, Asahara would not have had such a strong, charismatic power. From a certain perspective, primitive religion always carries its own associated special aura that emanates from some psychic aberration.
In order to take on the “self-determination” that Asahara provided, most of those who took refuge in the Aum cult appear to have deposited all their precious personal holdings of selfhood—lock and key—in that “spiritual bank” called Shoko Asahara. The faithful relinquished their freedom, renounced their possessions, disowned their families, discarded all secular judgment (common sense). “Normal” Japanese were aghast: How could anyone do such an insane thing? But conversely, to the cultists it was probably quite comforting. At last they had someone to watch over them, sparing them the anxiety of confronting each new situation on their own, and delivering them from any need to think for themselves.
By tuning in, by merging themselves with Shoko Asahara’s “greater, more profoundly unbalanced” Self, they attained a kind of pseudo-self-determination. Instead of launching an assault on society as individuals, they handed over the entire strategic responsibility to Asahara. We’ll have one “Self-
Theirs was not Kaczynski’s “battle against the system to attain the power process of self-determination.” The only one fighting was Shoko Asahara: most followers were merely swallowed up and assimilated by his battle-hungry ego. Nor were the followers unilaterally subjected to Asahara’s “mind control.” Not passive victims, they themselves actively sought to be controlled by Asahara. “Mind control” is not something that can be pursued or bestowed just like that. It’s a two-sided affair.
If you lose your ego, you lose the thread of that narrative you call your Self. Humans, however, can’t live very long without some sense of a continuing story. Such stories go beyond the limited rational system (or the systematic rationality) with which you surround yourself; they are crucial keys to sharing time-experience with others.
Now a narrative is a story, not logic, nor ethics, nor philosophy. It is a dream you keep having, whether you realize it or not. Just as surely as you breathe, you go on ceaselessly dreaming your story. And in these stories you wear two faces. You are simultaneously subject and object. You are the whole and you are a part. You are real and you are shadow. “Storyteller” and at the same time “character.” It is through such multilayering of roles in our stories that we heal the loneliness of being an isolated individual in the world.
Yet without a proper ego, nobody can create a personal narrative, any more than you can drive a car without an engine, or cast a shadow without a real physical object. But once you’ve consigned your ego to someone else, where on earth do you go from there?
Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes