Underground the tokyo ga.., p.36
Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, p.36Haruki Murakami
MURAKAMI: It certainly doesn’t look like you were heading for liberation, does it?
I couldn’t stand it anymore. There was a time when I was thinking of leaving. I did my best in spite of everything, since I was serious about achieving liberation, but it wore me out.
Twice I sent resignation letters to my superiors: “I can’t be in Aum anymore.” This was in ’92, I think. My superior passed these along to Murai and others. They talked me out of it, so I just let things slide.
MURAKAMI: If you had left Aum, do you think you would have made a successful transition to life in the secular world?
I wonder. Certainly my attitude toward the world had changed since I became a renunciate. The world I had entered as a renunciate was a kind of hodgepodge. There were all sorts of people there I’d never met before. Everyone from gung-ho elite types to athletes, artists. In this jumbled-up place I discovered that all these diverse people had the same human weaknesses I had. I lost the prejudices I’d had. “Everyone’s the same,” I realized. Guys who got good grades suffered just like I did. It was a very valuable lesson for me.
The samana, too, had a fundamental loathing of the outside world. “The unenlightened”—that was their term for people who lived normal lives. Since these people were heading straight for hell, the samana had some choice words for them. For example, they didn’t worry about it if they banged into a car belonging to someone from the outside. It was like they were the ones practicing the truth, looking down on everyone else. They were too busy striving for liberation, so even if they put a dent in someone’s car, so what? I thought this was a bit much. No matter what they felt about the people outside, there was no need to make fun of them, or hate them that much. I’m sure I had my own list of things in the outside world I hated, but when I saw this, I just thought, “Enough.” I no longer hated the things I use to hate.
MURAKAMI: That’s interesting. Usually when people join cults you expect those tendencies to get even worse, but in your case you managed to lay them aside.
Maybe my tough experiences in middle management had something to do with it [laughs]. The Animation Division was closed in 1994. Most of the workers were called into a conference room and told to report to the Science Division. The name later changed to the Ministry of Science and Technology. They needed some welders and just assumed that people in the Animation Division must be good with their hands. I was speechless. How can you possibly compare animation to welding?
Before joining the Science Division we were all investigated to see if we were spies. I remember thinking: “If Shoko Asahara has supernatural powers, why can’t he use them to weed out the spies?”
The majority of the Animation Division members were transferred to the Welding Division, and sent to Kamikuishiki. At Satyam No. 9 they were making storage tanks and stirrer machines. We didn’t know the first thing about welding, so we were assigned as assistants. The order had gone out to speed up production, so we did our best, but it actually slowed down. Asahara gave the order to finish everything by May 1994. These were giant tanks, huge two-ton monsters. We’d bend these metal plates, shape them into a cylinder, weld the joints, fit premade panels over this and weld them.
The work was hard, up to sixteen hours a day. We were wiped out, and sometimes didn’t get enough offerings [food]. We didn’t eat for two days once. Everybody complained. Some people just downed tools. I wasn’t used to this kind of work myself, and got injured, burned, my face blackened, my glasses were falling apart. But no one ran away. “This is all for the sake of enlightenment,” I kept telling myself.
In time I was appointed a Master. Probably they recognized my leadership in the Animation Division and how hard I’d worked at welding. When you get promoted to Master they give you a wristband and say: “Give it your best!” That’s it. I’ll admit being a Master does change your outlook on the world. Friends of mine started to address me very formally, which brought home to me again the huge gap between Masters and those below.
After I became a Master I was one of a select few allowed free access to Satyam No. 7. The Security Group kept strict guard on it. Inside were all the storage tanks we’d assembled in Satyam No. 9. It looked like some chemical plant and had a weird feeling to it I can’t explain, an oppressive atmosphere. I had no idea what they were going to manufacture there. The ceiling was as tall as a three-story building, with these huge tanks all in a row. And the smell was indescribable, like all sorts of industrial-strength detergents mixed together. And there was this weird light. The metal was all rusty, and the floor was wet. There was this strange, whitish mist hanging in the air. Everyone who worked there got ill. They all staggered around, and at first I thought they were just sleepy. Actually it was affecting their bodies.
I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I saw that Aum was sinking a large amount of cash into this and whatever it was represented the cutting edge. I wondered if it would push enlightenment forward in one fell swoop. Only a limited number of people were allowed to see this, and I felt a sense of privilege at being one of the chosen. Still, I wondered what it was all about. It didn’t look like weapons.
In autumn 1994, if memory serves, there was an accident. I was on the third floor of Satyam No. 7 taking a rest when this whitish smoke—like dry ice—came up behind us. The guy next to me said we’d better run for it. Just breathing a bit of it blinded me and gave me a piercing pain in my throat. It had an acrid, acidic smell. “If I stay here,” I thought, “I’m going to die.” Satyam No. 7 was a dangerous place.
On January 1, 1995, the order came to hide the inner recesses of Satyam No. 7. “Make all the equipment look like the face of the god Shiva,” we were told, in order to conceal it. I was put in charge of the artwork. Huge slabs of Styrofoam were delivered in the middle of the night, and we glued them over those parts of the plant we didn’t want people to see.
MURAKAMI: But with so many huge tanks you weren’t able to cover them all, were you?
First we built a wall with boards on the facade of the factory, then put Styrofoam pictures of Shiva on top. The rest of the places we wanted to hide we made into makeshift altars. We used partition boards to hide the second-floor area, made it like a maze, you know, like photo exhibitions. Anyway, our superiors told us to do whatever it took to fool people. The CBI [Construction Division], led by Kiyohide Hayakawa, did most of the work. I designed the faces. The finished product was awful. Pure amateur junk.
“This won’t fool anyone,” I thought. Hiromi Shimada came over to see the finished product and declared it a religious facility, but the overall appearance was wrong. “This won’t work,” I thought, but everyone was scared of Hayakawa and kept their mouths shut.
On the day of the gas attack I was away from the Welding Division. I was assisting the number two man at the Ministry of Science and Technology, Kazumi Watanabe, at Seiryu Shoja. I heard that the Tokyo subway had been gassed with sarin, but I never imagined it was the work of Aum. From what I’d gathered up to then, I believed Aum might take up weapons to fight in case of an attack by Freemasons or the U.S. or whatever, but I never thought Aum would be involved in indiscriminate killing. I mean, that would be outright terrorism.
Two days later, though, the police stormed Kamikuishiki. When I heard there were more than two thousand police outside, I realized this was no joke. Seiryu was left untouched in the first police raid for some reason. We gathered up plans at Seiryu that might be incriminating and burned them. We went to Murai’s room, too, and burned all the books about weaponry. We found bulletproof vests, too, and cut them up. The police raid on Seiryu took place, I’m certain, after the sniper attack on Secretary Kunimatsu. *
I began to think that Aum actually did it after I saw with my own eyes what was supposed to be a vehicle for spraying sarin. That was in April, I think. I’m not sure if it was before or after the police raid.
MURAKAMI: Where was that?
In Seiryu. I can tell you I was pretty shocked when I saw this huge spr
After the police raid the people in Seiryu weren’t able to work anymore, so all of them returned to Tokyo to distribute handbills. I went to Satyam No. 5, where I helped with bookbinding and drew comic books under the supervision of Michiko Muraoka. They were a parody of the police arresting Aum members on unrelated charges. Around that time Murai was stabbed to death. †
Naturally I was shocked when I heard this, but at the same time I felt a sense of peace. It’s hard to describe my emotions at the time. How should I put it? I thought it was the end of Aum—a sort of indescribable feeling. I think I was paralyzed, unable to act. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I really wanted to get out. But I didn’t have the strength to do it, so I just tried to blend in with the background. And there was my position to consider. Pride made it hard for Masters to get out. I’d lost a lot of respect for Shoko Asahara. He’d blown one thing after another. None of his predictions came true. The ones he made on Ishigaki Island were way off, the ones about Comet Austin were all wrong, and some of the samana were openly starting to say: “The Leader’s predictions don’t seem to come true, do they?”
Even Murai just did what he was told to do from above, no matter how absurd. For him it was just “Yes” this and “Yes” that. I began to have major doubts about everything. The people below me started to grumble. I got sick and tired of the whole selfish atmosphere. Still, I didn’t have the willpower to quit, but when Murai was killed I felt I was able finally to go back to the real world.
Murai had been an important person to me. After Asahara he was the one person who most symbolized Aum. Everywhere I went Murai was somehow involved in what I was doing—at the printing plant, the Animation Division. Still, I didn’t feel sad when he died. My strongest feeling was: “Aha! Now I can get out!” I know it’s wrong to say this.
But before I could leave I was arrested. Someone told me: “Ikuo Hayashi and Masami Tsuchiya and others have confessed, and it seems like a lot of the Science and Technology people are being rounded up.” “Suppose I’ll be next,” I joked, but a warrant for my arrest had actually been issued. My name was in the newspaper. “Wanted for murder and attempted murder,” it said. I think that was on May 20, 1995. Of course I never murdered anyone, but either charge could bring the death penalty or a life sentence. I was stunned.
I couldn’t very well go into hiding, so I followed advice from my superiors and turned myself in to the Yamanashi Prefecture police. At first I kept silent. “I refuse to answer,” I said, and didn’t for three days. But I couldn’t keep that up forever. Aum threatened me, saying that if I talked I’d be cast into eternal damnation, but I no longer believed that. If I’m going to hell, well, let it happen, and I told the police everything I knew.
The investigation was harsh. The detective in charge tried to force me to sign a statement saying that I knew sarin was being produced in Satyam No. 7. “If I didn’t know, I didn’t know,” I said. Finally I felt cornered and wrote a false confession admitting that I knew about the sarin. Later on, I explained it all to a prosecutor.
In the end they dropped the charges and released me. Their decision to prosecute or not apparently rested on whether I had participated in a meeting at Satyam No. 2 concerning the making of sarin. Thankfully I hadn’t. At first the police were pretty mean, accusing me of being one of the people who released the sarin. It was terrible. They shoved me around a bit. Going through that day after day affected my heart. They interrogated me three times a day and each session was really long. I was worn out. They held me for twenty-three days.
After I was released I went back to Sapporo. I began to have mental problems and stayed in the hospital for about a month. I had trouble breathing and my senses steadily dimmed. I felt as though I were floating. Something was terribly wrong with me. I underwent a lot of tests and in the end they said it was probably psychological.
MURAKAMI: If Murai had ordered you to release the sarin, what do you think would have happened?
I’m sure I would have hesitated. My way of thinking is a bit different from people like Toru Toyoda and others. Even if Asahara himself had ordered me to do it, if I wasn’t convinced it was the right thing, I wouldn’t have cooperated. I didn’t do everything I was told. Of course the atmosphere around me was a big influence. I think even the people who did it were confused. If we’d been under attack from the police or the Self-Defense Forces or something, I might have done it, but this was different—killing complete strangers.
Anyway, the chances of me being selected to commit the crime were pretty slim. I wasn’t one of the elite. The Ministry of Science and Technology was divided into the “Brain Trust” and the “Subcontractors,” which included the kind of welding work I did: on-site labor. In contrast, Toyoda and the others were part of Asahara’s handpicked elite “Brain Trust.” There were about thirty masters in the ministry and I belonged to the lowest group.
Still, when I heard some of the names of people involved, it surprised me. Asahara must have selected the ones he thought would go along with it, no questions asked. These elite people did everything they were told. It was the same with Murai: not a word of criticism, no running away. They’re impressive when you think about it. Most people couldn’t handle it for as long as they did—three or four years.
Only Yasuo Hayashi was different. He belonged to the Subcontractors group. He wasn’t a part of the elite, but had been promoted from the Construction Division. The people around him were superelite—guys doing research on superconductors, subatomic particles, and the like, and there he was, basically an electrician.
Hayashi started out as an all-right guy, but steadily his personality changed. We were at the same stage once and could have friendly talks together, but when he became a Master he started getting overbearing, arrogant. At first he was good-natured, but in the end he lashed out at people. He was the type who wouldn’t blink an eye at stepping all over his subordinates if that’s what it took. I think he just snapped.
From the beginning the Ministry of Science and Technology was given preferential treatment by Asahara. It had so much money. Even in the Ministry there was a big difference between the Brains and the Subcontractors. As someone once put it: “To be a success in the world of Aum you had to be either a graduate of Tokyo University or a beautiful woman.” [laughs]
MURAKAMI: You were in Aum Shinrikyo for about six years. Do you ever feel you wasted that time?
No, I don’t think it was a waste. I met a lot of people, shared some tough times. It’s a good memory for me. I was able to confront human weaknesses, and I think I matured. It might sound odd to speak of it as fulfilling, but there was a sense of adventure: we didn’t know what the next day would bring. When I was given some huge task to do, I felt uplifted because I could focus my energy on it and complete it.
I feel psychologically more at ease now. Of course I have the kinds of troubles ordinary people have, like being disappointed in love. So there are parts that aren’t so easy. But hey—that’s life. I feel I’m living like ordinary, everyday people now.
It took me a long time to reach this emotional equilibrium; about two years. After I left Aum I was completely lethargic. When I was there I had the strength that came from knowing I was a “practitioner of the truth,” which gave me the strength to test myself to the limits. Now I have to use my own powers if I want to do anything. This hit me quite strongly after I left Aum and led to my depression. It wasn’t an easy transition.
But what’s different is that now I have confidence in myself. When I was in Aum I gained a lot of practical experience, and felt certain that even if things weren’t working out there I’d be able to make it on my own. That was a major step for me.
I live in Tokyo now. What gets me through each day are my ex-Aum friends. We think alike, and it helps me know I’m not alone in this hard world.
“Asahara tried to force me to have sex with him”
Harumi Iwakura (b. 1965)
Ms. Iwakura was born in Kanagawa Prefecture. Fair, slim, and attractive, it’s perhaps easier to picture her if I say she is one of the “Aum beauties” we hear so much about. She smiled throughout the interview, was very attentive to her guest, and though not particularly eloquent, was quick to answer all the questions I put to her. She tends to dwell on small details, and gives the impression that deep down she’s a strong person.
After graduating from junior college she worked in an office, and spent most of her time and money having a good time. Gradually, though, she grew dissatisfied with playing around and found herself attracted to Aum Shinrikyo, which she happened to hear about. She resigned and became a renunciate.
For a long time she was one of Shoko Asahara’s “special people,” but something happened and she was given electroshock treatment and lost her memory. For a long time afterward she wandered in a state of almost complete oblivion, regaining her senses just before the Tokyo gas attack. For this reason her memories of Aum are fragmentary. Her recollections of her pre-and post-Aum life are clear, but she finds it impossible to fully account for herself during the two years she was in Aum.
She has no aftereffects, she tells me, but she’s determined never to have anything to do with Aum again. It’s “over and done with.” She doesn’t particularly want to recall this lost period, either. Originally when she read several of my interviews with other Aum followers in Bungei Shunju she thought, “Count me out.”
Now she works as a beautician and hopes to get more training, put aside some money, and open her own business. She lives simply, in an apartment that costs 30,000 yen a month. “Sweltering in the summer, freezing in the winter,” is how she describes it. “Thanks to Aum, though,” she says with a smile, “a simple life doesn’t bother me.”
Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes