Underground the tokyo ga.., p.26
Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, p.26Haruki Murakami
At this point you receive a new narrative from the person to whom you have entrusted your ego. You’ve handed over the real thing, so what comes back instead is a shadow. And once your ego has merged with another ego, your narrative will necessarily take on the narrative created by that other ego.
Just what kind of narrative?
It needn’t be anything particularly fancy, nothing complicated or refined. You don’t need to have literary ambitions. In fact, rather, the sketchier and simpler the better. Junk, a leftover rehash will do. Anyway, most people are tired of complex, multilayered scenarios—they are a potential letdown. It’s precisely because people can’t find any fixed point within their own multilayered schemes that they’re tossing aside their self-identity.
A simple “emblem” of a story will do for this sort of narrative, the same way that a war medal bestowed on a soldier doesn’t have to be pure gold. It’s enough that the medal be backed up by a shared recognition that “this is a medal,” no matter that it’s a cheap tin trinket.
Shoko Asahara was talented enough to impose his rehashed narrative on people (who for the most part came looking for just that). It was a risible, slapdash story. To unbelievers it could only be regurgitated tripe. Still, in all fairness, it must be said that a certain consistency runs through it all. It was a call to arms.
From this perspective, in a limited sense, Asahara was a master storyteller who proved capable of anticipating the mood of the times. He was not deterred by the knowledge, whether conscious or not, that his ideas and images were recycled junk. Asahara deliberately cobbled together bits and pieces from all around him (the way that Spielberg’s ET assembles a device for communicating with his home planet out of odds and ends in the family garage) and brought to them a singular flow, a current that darkly reflected the inner ghosts of his own mind. Whatever the deficiencies in that narrative, they were in Asahara himself, so they presented no obstacle to those who chose to merge themselves with him. If anything, these deficiencies were a positive bonus, until they became fatally polluted. Irredeemably delusional and paranoiac, a new pretext developed, grand and irrational, until there was no turning back …
Such was the narrative offered by Aum, by “their” side. Stupid, you might say. And surely it is. Most of us laughed at the absurd off-the-wall scenario that Asahara provided. We laughed at him for concocting such “utter nonsense” and we ridiculed the believers who could be attracted to such “lunatic fodder.” The laugh left a bitter aftertaste in our mouths, but we laughed out loud all the same. Which was only to be expected.
But were we able to offer “them” a more viable narrative? Did we have a narrative potent enough to chase away Asahara’s “utter nonsense”?
That was the big task. I am a novelist, and as we all know a novelist is someone who works with “narratives,” who spins “stories” professionally. Which meant to me that the task at hand was like a gigantic sword dangling above my head. It’s something I’m going to have to deal with much more seriously from here on. I know I’m going to have to construct a “cosmic communication device” of my own. I’ll probably have to piece together every last scrap of junk, every weakness, every deficiency inside me to do it. (There, I’ve gone and said it—but the real surprise is that it’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do as a writer all along!)
So then, what about you? (I’m using the second person, but of course that includes me.)
Haven’t you offered up some part of your Self to someone (or something), and taken on a “narrative” in return? Haven’t we entrusted some part of our personality to some greater System or Order? And if so, has not that System at some stage demanded of us some kind of “insanity”? Is the narrative you now possess really and truly your own? Are your dreams really your own dreams? Might not they be someone else’s visions that could sooner or later turn into nightmares?
I began researching this book nine months after the gas attack and then worked at it for another year.
A certain “cooling period” had passed by the time I set about gathering stories. But the event had such an impact that memories were still fresh. Many interviewees had previously told and retold their experiences to people around them. Others had never admitted to anyone certain details about the attack, but even so, they surely went over and over the events in their own minds and thereby objectified them. In most cases the descriptions were extremely real and highly visual.
Nevertheless, they were all, strictly speaking, just memories.
Now, as one psychoanalyst defines it: “Human memory is nothing more than a ‘personal interpretation’ of events.” Passing an experience through the apparatus of memory can sometimes rework it into something more readily understood: the unacceptable parts are omitted; “before” and “after” are reversed; unclear elements are refined; one’s own memories are mixed with those of others, interchanged as often as necessary. All this goes on perfectly naturally, unconsciously.
Simply put, our memories of experiences are rendered into something like a narrative form. To a greater or lesser extent, this is a natural function of memory—a process that novelists consciously utilize as a profession. The truth of “whatever is told” will differ, however slightly, from what actually happened. This, however, does not make it a lie; it is unmistakably the truth, albeit in another form.
During the course of my interviews I endeavored to maintain the basic stance that each person’s story is true within the context of that story, and I still believe so. As a result, the stories told by people who simultaneously experienced the very same scene often differ on the small details, but they are presented here with all their contradictions preserved. Because it seems to me that these discrepancies and contradictions say something in themselves. Sometimes, in this multifaceted world of ours, inconsistency can be more eloquent than consistency.
What Can I Do?
I decided to write this book because, in short, I have always wanted to understand Japan at a deeper level. I’d been living abroad, away from the country, for a long time—seven or eight years—first in Europe, then America. I left after writing Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and, apart from brief visits, I did not return until I had finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I regarded it as a period of self-imposed exile.
I wanted to broaden my experience of other places, plant myself down, and write. By getting away from Japan—which stood a priori both to the Japanese language and to my own being—I forced myself to map out the various methods and postures I assumed, phase by phase, when dealing with the language and all things Japanese.
To my surprise, it was only during the last two years of my “exile” that I discovered anything I urgently wanted to know about “that country called Japan.” The time I spent abroad, wandering about trying to come to terms with myself, was coming to an end—or so I gradually realized. I could feel the change inside me, an ongoing “revaluation” of my values. I was, to understate the obvious, no longer that young. And by the same token, I suddenly knew I was entering the ranks of that generation with a “vested duty” toward Japanese society.
“Time for me to be heading back to Japan,” I thought. Go back and do one solid work, something other than a novel, to probe deep into the heart of my estranged country. And in that way, I might reinvent a new a stance for myself, a new vantage point.
Now then, how do you go about understanding Japan any better?
I had a fairly good idea of the stuff I was looking for. The bottom line was, after doing one good clean sweep of my emotional accounts, I needed to know more about Japan as a society, I had to learn more about the Japanese as a “form of consciousness.” Who were we as a people? Where were we going?
Yes, but what specifically did I have to do? I had no idea. I spent my last year abroad in a sort of fog when two major catastrophes struck Japan: the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo gas attack.
In the end, my ex
Even so, certain other aspects of my ego were nicely snubbed over the course of conducting these interviews. Meeting the victims face-to-face and hearing so many raw, firsthand accounts, I had to pull myself together. It wasn’t a topic you merely toyed with. What transpired was more profound, more compounded with meanings than anything I could have imagined. It was humbling to know how completely ignorant I was about the gas attack.
For me, as a novelist, hearing all these people tell their “narratives”—told from “our” side, it should go without saying—had a certain healing power.
Eventually I stopped making judgments altogether. “Right” or “wrong,” “sane” or “sick,” “responsible” or “irresponsible”—these questions no longer mattered. At least, the final judgment was not mine to make, which made things easier. I could relax and simply take in people’s stories verbatim. I became, not the “fly on the wall,” but a spider sucking up this mass of words, only to later break them down inside me and spin them out into “another narrative.”
Especially after conducting interviews with the family of Mr. Eiji Wada—who died in Kodemmacho Station—and with Ms. “Shizuko Akashi”—who lost her memory and speech and is still in the hospital undergoing therapy—I had to seriously reconsider the value of my own writing. Just how vividly could my choice of words convey to the reader the various emotions (fear, despair, loneliness, anger, numbness, alienation, confusion, hope …) these people experienced?
Also, I’m quite sure I carelessly hurt a few people in the course of my interviews, whether through my insensitivity or my ignorance or purely because of some flaw in my character. I’ve never been a good talker, and sometimes I don’t put things very well. I would like to borrow this opportunity to sincerely apologize to all those I may have hurt.
I came to them from the “safety zone,” someone who could always walk away whenever I wanted. Had they told me, “There’s no way you can truly know what we feel,” I’d have had to agree. End of story.
The Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo gas attack of January and March 1995 are two of the gravest tragedies in Japan’s postwar history. It is no exaggeration to say that there was a marked change in the Japanese consciousness “before” and “after” these events. These twin catastrophes will remain embedded in our psyche as two milestones in our life as a people.
That two such cataclysmic events should come in quick succession was as startling as it was coincidental. Yet, arriving as they did at the time when Japan’s “Bubble economy” burst, marking the end of those times of rampant excess, they ushered in a period of critical inquiry into the very roots of the Japanese state. It was as if these events had been lying in wait to ambush us.
Common to both was an element of overwhelming violence: the one an inescapable natural calamity, the other an avoidable man-made disaster. A tenuous parallel perhaps, yet to those most affected the suffering was frighteningly similar. The source and nature of the violence may have differed, but the shock in both cases was equally devastating. That was the impression I got, talking to the survivors of the gas attack.
Many of them remarked how intensely they “hated those Aum thugs,” yet they found themselves deprived of any outlet for their “intense hatred.” Where could they go? Where to turn? Their confusion was compounded by the fact that no one could pinpoint the sources of the violence. In this sense—having nowhere to direct their anger and hatred—the gas attack and the earthquake bear a striking formal resemblance.
In some ways, the two events may be likened to the front and back of one massive explosion. Both were nightmarish eruptions beneath our feet—from underground—that threw all the latent contradictions and weak points of our society into frighteningly high relief. Japanese society proved all too defenseless against these sudden onslaughts. We were unable to see them coming and failed to prepare. Nor did we respond effectively. Very clearly, “our” side failed.
That is, the narrative that most Japanese embrace (or imagine they share) broke down; none of these “common values” proved the least effective in warding off the evil violence that erupted under us.
Granted, a sudden emergency on such a scale will inevitably result in a level of confusion and oversights. As is clear from these testimonies, people at all levels of society—in the Subway Authority, in the fire department, in the police, in the various medical facilities—were all subject to lapses of judgment and mixups large and small.
It is not my intention, however, to point fingers or lecture anyone over individual errors. I’m not saying “It couldn’t be helped,” nor am I suggesting that each and every error be made right at this late date. More to the point, what I hope should sink in is the recognition that Japan’s crisis-management system itself is erratic and sorely inadequate. The immediate on-the-ground errors of judgment were the result of existing holes in the system.
Even more dangerous, little if anything has been learned about what actually happened as a result of those failings, because the information is classified. Japan’s institutions remain inner-circle-upon-inner-circle, acutely sensitive to any public “loss of face,” unwilling to expose their failings to “outsiders.” Efforts to investigate what happened were greatly limited for all the usual hazy, accepted reasons: “It’s already on trial …” or “That’s government business …”
Then there were those interviewees who were curiously reticent: “I myself would like to cooperate, but the people upstairs aren’t so keen …” Very likely it was felt that if people revealed too much, someone would have to take responsibility. Typically in Japan, the order to keep mum is never a direct order, but rather a sort of soft-pedaling from above: “Well, it’s over and done with anyway. Probably best not to say any more than we have to …”
In preparing to write my last novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I did in-depth research into the so-called 1939 Nomonhan Incident, an aggressive incursion by Japanese forces into Mongolia. The more I delved into the records, the more aghast I became at the recklessness, the sheer lunacy of the Imperial Army’s system of command. How had this pointless tragedy gone so wantonly overlooked in the course of history? Again, researching the Tokyo gas attack, I was struck by the fact that the closed, responsibility-evading ways of Japanese society were really not any different from how the Imperial Japanese Army operated at that time.
In essence it was the foot soldiers with guns in their hands who risked the most, suffered the most, faced the worst horrors, and were the least compensated in the end, whereas the officers and intelligence behind the lines took no responsibility whatsoever. They hid behind masks, refused to admit defeat, whitewashed over their failure with jargon and rhetoric. For if such glaring ignominy on the front line were to be exposed, they as field commanders would be subject to swift and severe punishment. Typically, this meant hara-kiri. Thus the truth of the matter was nominally classified as a “military secret,” sealed away from public scrutiny.
In this way, countless soldiers were sacrificed to an insane stratagem in a bitter fight to the death at the front line (worse than anyone expected). Even after more than fifty years, I was still shocked to learn that we Japanese had embarked on such a patently idiotic maneuver. And yet here in today’s Japan we were repeating the very same thing. The nightmare continues.
Ultimately, the reasons for our defeat at Nomonhan were never properly analyzed by the Army High Command (aside from some rather hasty studies), so that absolutely nothing was learned. No lessons were
Another personal motive for my interest in the Tokyo gas attack is that it took place underground. Subterranean worlds—wells, underpasses, caves, underground springs and rivers, dark alleys, subways—have always fascinated me and are an important motif in my novels. The image, the mere idea of a hidden pathway, immediately fills my head with stories …
Underground settings play particularly major roles in two of my novels, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Characters go into the World Below in search of something and down there different adventures unfold. They head underground, of course, both in the physical and spiritual sense. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland a fictional race called I? Klings have lived beneath us since time immemorial. Horrible creatures, they have no eyes and feed upon rotting flesh. They have dug a vast underground network of tunnels beneath Tokyo, linking their “nests.” Ordinary people, however, never even suspect their presence. The protagonist for one reason or another descends into this mythic landscape below, encounters chilling traces of INKling infestation, somehow makes his way through the black depths, and emerges unscathed into Aoyama Itchome Station on the Ginza Line.
There were times, traveling on the Tokyo subway after writing this novel, when I’d fantasize seeing INKlings “out there” in the darkness. I’d imagine them rolling a boulder into the path of the train, cutting off the power, breaking the windows and overrunning the cars, ripping us to shreds with their razor-sharp teeth …
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