Underground the tokyo ga.., p.38
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       Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, p.38

           Haruki Murakami

  MURAKAMI: Were you afraid at all of returning to the outside world? Afraid that you might not be able to make it?

  No, I never thought that. I knew I could make it. I went back to my mother’s house and stayed there for about a month. She was really concerned about me. “It was on TV every day,” she said, “and I was worried sick.” I saw the reports about the gas attack on TV and at first I just told everybody, “Don’t believe what you hear,” but after a while everybody who had left was giving the same testimony, and I began to think: “You know, it looks like Aum did do it.”

  About a month after this, I decided I had to get a job. I knew it was hard for my mother. I felt sorry for her. She gave me 100,000 yen to tide me over, and I left home, and got a job as a maid in a hot-springs hotel. I was wondering how I could live on my own with all the heavy down payments on apartments you need in Japan, and came up with the idea of a hot-springs resort. I could work there and live free of charge.

  At the job interview, of course, I kept my Aum background to myself and they hired me, but before long an officer from Public Security showed up and it all came out. The head of housekeeping told me not to worry about it—she wouldn’t let on, she promised—and I should just keep on working, but I felt awful. I worked there for seven months. The pay wasn’t good—about 200,000 yen a month. But tips helped out a lot. I slaved away every day hoping to get more tips. Once I got tipped three times in one day by the same guest. Often I got tipped when the guest first came and when they left. I saved money, got a driver’s license, and bought a car.

  MURAKAMI: It sounds like you’re a very optimistic person, someone who takes action.

  I didn’t have any choice. I did it because I had to. Looking back on it, I think I did a good job as a maid.

  Now I’m working at a beauty salon. The police came here once, too. It made me so angry. I mean, my memory has been erased and I felt I was a victim. But after a while I started to think that I’m not a victim, but more on the culprits’ side. So I stopped being so cross with the police and began to tell them all I knew.

  I’m quite healthy now, only my memory just won’t come back. I don’t have any contact with Aum people anymore. I don’t have any nostalgia for the time I was in Aum.

  MURAKAMI: You were pretty friendly with some of the enlightened Masters. Do you think it’s possible they were involved in the gas attack?

  I think if they were ordered to do it they probably would. Mr. Niimi in particular would definitely have done it. Ken’ichi Hirose I talked to occasionally, he’s a very simple person. How can I put it? I feel sympathy for them. It wasn’t the kind of atmosphere where you could disobey an order. It was more the feeling of “I’ll be happy to do it!”

  MURAKAMI: At the trial many of the defendants testified that they wanted to disobey orders but were afraid they’d be murdered if they did, so they went along unwillingly. But actually it wasn’t like that?

  Hmm—I wonder … Under the circumstances I think if they were chosen they would have happily gone ahead and done it.

  MURAKAMI: You’re back in the secular world, working. In the past you had doubts about your life, thinking you had nothing you excelled at. Now how do you feel?

  I just accept the fact that I don’t have any special talent. Before I entered Aum I couldn’t talk about my feelings, even to people I was close to. Now, though, I open up a lot more.

  My relatives have tried to arrange meetings with young men for me so I could find someone to marry. “It’s about time you got married,” they tell me, but I think that people who were in Aum, which has committed such brutal crimes, shouldn’t get married. Of course I never committed any crimes myself, I was just doing my own thing as best I could.

  Sometimes that makes me sad, though. I dine out with friends or have a good time, but many days I don’t do anything and just come back here by myself. When I saw the fireworks last summer—with crowds of people enjoying the show—and me all alone—it made me cry. I’m over that now, though.

  There were a lot of very appealing people in Aum. Completely different from the people I’ve known in the outside world. Relationships in society are always so … superficial, but in Aum we all lived together in one place, almost like a family.

  I love children. My younger sister’s children are adorable, but for me to get married, have a family, children—it’s difficult, having been a member of Aum. When I think about talking about my Aum background on a date, I don’t think I could … A big factor has got to be the fact that my own family was so dysfunctional. People raised in happy families probably wouldn’t join Aum.

  “No matter how grotesque a figure Asahara appears, I can’t just dismiss him”

  Hidetoshi Takahashi (b. 1967)

  Mr. Takahashi was born in 1967 in Tachikawa City in the Tokyo area. He studied geology in the College of Science at Shinshu University, and went on to graduate school, majoring in geodetic astronomy. He has always loved observing the heavens through a telescope. The gas attack was a major shock to him and he left Aum. He has appeared on TV to criticize Aum, and has published a book—Return from Aum—in which he discusses at length how he came to join the cult and why he left it.

  While he was a student Mr. Takahashi had a chance to speak to Shoko Asahara when he gave a lecture at Shinshu University. Afterward, Yoshihiro Inoue urged him to join and he did. But grad-school work took most of his time and he grew apart from Aum and eventually left. Still, he found himself unable to concentrate on his studies, so once again he joined Aum, this time as a renunciate. It was just before the Matsumoto incident in May 1994.

  In Aum he was assigned to the Ministry of Science and Technology under Hideo Murai. He was ordered directly by Asahara to develop computer software for predicting earthquakes. The data from this software was able to predict the Kobe earthquake of 1995 and Asahara praised him for his efforts.

  He speaks very clearly and logically—a characteristic shared by many followers and former members of Aum—and unless something is logical, he isn’t convinced. Certainly if one looks at things this way, our world does appear to be an illogical place plagued by contradictions and confusion, a hard place to live in.

  Now he works for a surveying company and lives an entirely ordinary life. He vows to spend his whole life trying to answer the question “What was Aum?” So, even now, when time allows, he goes to court to observe the trials.

  At college I felt a deep alienation between my outer and my inner Self. I was a cheerful, enthusiastic person with lots of friends, but once I was alone in my room, I was engulfed by loneliness and there was nobody I could share that world with.

  I’ve been that way since childhood. I remember always going inside the closet when I was a child. I didn’t want to see my parents, and even in my own room I didn’t feel like I had my own space. When you’re a child it feels like your parents are always interfering. For me the only place to escape to and find peace was the closet. Granted it’s a strange habit, but alone there in the darkness I could feel my consciousness grow razor sharp. It’s just you alone, face-to-face with yourself in the dark. In a sense, then, I was drawn to something like the Aum retreats since I was little.

  In junior high I liked to listen to progressive rock. Pink Floyd’s The Wall, for example. Definitely not the sort of music I’d recommend unless you want something to bring you down [laughs]. I found out about Gurdjieff through King Crimson. Their guitarist Robert Fripp was a follower of Gurdjieff. After he got into that his music changed drastically. I think much of my outlook on life was influenced by that kind of music.

  At high school I was into sports, basketball and badminton, but after entering college I felt I had to draw a line between myself and society. I was what we call a “Moratorium Person”: someone who doesn’t want to grow up. Our generation grew up after Japan had become a wealthy country and we viewed society through this lens of affluence. I just couldn’t adjust to the “adult society” I saw outside. It seemed warped to me somehow. Wasn
t there some other way to live your life, some other way of viewing the world? During my college days I had a lot of free time, and was preoccupied with these questions.

  When you’re young you have all kinds of idealistic notions in your head, but coming face-to-face with the realities of your own life makes you see how immature you are. I felt very frustrated.

  To free myself, to make a fresh start, I poked my nose into all sorts of things, hoping to find the energy I needed to live. Life is full of suffering, and the contradictions in the real world irked me. To escape these, I imagined my own sort of utopian society, which made it easier for me to be taken in by a religious group that espoused a similar vision.

  When the Aum question comes up, people always start talking about relations between parents and children going sour, and family discord, but it can’t be reduced to something so simplistic. Certainly one of the attractions of Aum lay in people’s frustrations with reality and unrest in the family, but a much more important factor lies in apocalyptic feelings of “the end of the world,” feelings all of us have about the future. If you pay attention to the universal feeling of all of us, all Japanese—all humankind, even—then you can’t explain Aum’s appeal to so many people by saying it’s all based on discord in the family.

  MURAKAMI: Hold on a second. You really think all Japanese have a vision of the end of the world?

  It might be hard to generalize and say that all of them do, but I think inside all Japanese there is an apocalyptic viewpoint: an invisible, unconscious sense of fear. When I say that all Japanese have this fear I mean some people have already pulled aside the veil, while others have yet to do so. If this veil were suddenly drawn back everyone would feel a sense of terror about the near future, the direction our world’s heading in. Society is the foundation stone for people’s lives, and they don’t know what’s going to happen to it in the future. This feeling grows stronger the more affluent a country becomes. It’s like a dark shadow looming larger and larger.

  MURAKAMI: Somehow the words “decline” or “collapse” seem to hit the mark more than “the end.”

  Maybe so, but remember that when I was at school Nostradamus’s Prophecies became famous, and that sense that “The End Is Nigh” wedged itself deep into my consciousness through the mass media. And I wasn’t the only one to feel like that. I don’t want this to deteriorate into some simplistic theory about “my generation,” but I feel very strongly that all Japanese at that time had the idea drilled into them of 1999 being the end of the world. Aum renunciates have already accepted, inside themselves, the end of the world, because when they become a renunciate, they discard themselves totally, thereby abandoning the world. In other words, Aum is a collection of people who have accepted the end. People who continue to hold out hope for the near future still have an attachment to the world. If you have attachments, you won’t discard your Self, but for renunciates it’s as if they’ve leaped right off a cliff. And taking a giant leap like that feels good. They lose something—but gain something in return.

  Therefore the idea of “the End” is one of the axes around which Aum Shinrikyo revolved. “Armageddon’s coming, so become a renunciate,” they urged, “donate all your money to Aum”—and of course that became their source of income.

  MURAKAMI: But there are lots of other religious groups that have used an apocalyptic vision as their selling point. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, the Branch Davidians at Waco. What makes Aum different?

  Robert Jay Lifton has said that there are many cults that have an apocalyptic creed, but Aum is the only one that marched straight toward it as part of their program. * That makes sense to me.

  Even now there’s an element about Aum, its driving force and direction, that I can’t fully understand. It had such tremendous energy, and pulled in so many people—including me, of course. But how did it do this?

  When I was at college many new religions tried to convert me, but in terms of grappling with the direction the world had taken, seriously formulating a religious worldview, searching earnestly for a lifestyle that fit this view, and then rigorously putting it into practice, Aum stood out head and shoulders above the rest. Aum was the most amazing group of all. I really admired them for the way they practiced what they preached. Compared to them, other religions were resigned, cozy, comfortable, passive. Aum training was very, very tough. Their religious view—that you must transform your own body before you can transform the world—had a hard-hitting realism. If there’s any chance for salvation, I thought, it has to begin like this.

  To give you an example, with the shortage of food in the world, if only everyone, bit by bit, reduced their consumption the way the Aum diet does, then this food problem would be solved. Not by increasing the supply, but by changing the body, because Aum people eat only a tiny amount of food. If mankind is going to live in harmony with the earth, we’ve reached the age when we have to start thinking in this way.

  MURAKAMI: That reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slapstick, in which the Chinese shrink themselves to half their usual size in order to solve the world’s food shortage.

  That’s kind of funny. Actually I joined Aum twice. The second time I could already sense the violence that overshadowed Aum. The very first day back I thought: “Uh-oh. I’ve made a big mistake.” Aum wore a cheerful mask at the branch offices, since the people there were all still living ordinary lives. But go to Kamikuishiki where it was just renunciates, people who have discarded everything, and you could already feel this urgent sense of desperation.

  When I joined I was put to work straightaway making Cosmo cleaners. Aum was already claiming that it was being attacked from the outside with sarin gas, and Cosmo cleaners were designed to reduce the toxicity. Just prior to my taking vows the Leader gave a sermon. “I’ve been hit with poison gas,” he told us, coughing and coughing. He was as limp as a rag doll, and his face was all dark. It seemed tremendously real. “I can only last another month,” he said, “and at this rate Aum will be destroyed. Before this happens, I want those who believe in me to gather around me. All of you will serve as my shield.” It was a powerful sermon. It forced lay followers to question their faith: here is the Leader in such dire straits and you’re just sitting around? How can you call this faith? All at once about three hundred people took vows, and I was one of them, caught up in this wave. Things started to look strange to me when I was forced to undergo what they called “Christ Initiation.” All the followers were made to take drugs. Any way you look at it, the whole thing was carelessly done. Using drugs in the name of religion, in order to enter some elevated state, is suspect in itself, but even supposing you accept it as a legitimate means, at the very least you’ve got to do it in an organized fashion. What they gave us was something close to LSD, I suspect, and for almost everyone it was their first such experience. Some people went crazy and were just left to their own devices. That really troubled me. Even if the Leader had planned this as a method of elevating our spiritual state, the way it was handled left a lot to be desired.

  I felt a great deal of resistance to this whole “Christ Initiation,” and after I went through it I struggled with whether or not I should leave Aum. It was such a shock it drove me to tears. “What the hell do they think they’re doing?” I wondered. It wasn’t just me—even a few of the leadership wavered over this initiation, some of the enlightened practitioners who hung on Asahara’s every word. It felt like Aum was starting to fall apart.

  I think I joined Aum as a kind of adventure. You have to be a bit forgiving of a system organized to open up an entirely unknown world for you—when in Rome, and all that—so I did accept that system. On the one hand I wanted to adjust to the Aum lifestyle and plunge ahead, while a part of me took a step back and watched it all with a sober eye.

  So anyway, after this “Christ Initiation” I had too many doubts about Aum and I couldn’t do the work I was assigned. I couldn’t easily swallow the doctrine of Vajrayana. There weren’t any other followers
I could express my doubts to, and the Leader was too high up for me to talk to him directly. Even if I did say to someone I thought Aum was into some questionable things, I’d just get a stereotypical response: “Mr. Takahashi, all we can do is follow Aum.” I decided I had to talk to one of the leaders if I wanted to get anywhere.

  While all this was going on Mr. Niimi, Eriko Iida, and Naropa [Fumihiko Nagura] asked me to see them, and as another kind of initiation they tied me up and yelled all kinds of things at me: “Why can’t you follow the life we lead in Aum?” “You’re neglecting your training, aren’t you?” “You’re not devoted to the Guru!”

  Thinking this was a good opportunity, I decided to bring up some of the doubts I’d been having. “Hold on just a second here,” I said. “I have a lot of problems with what’s going on in our church, and that’s why I can’t put everything I’ve got into our activities.” I explained what I’d been feeling and Iida said: “We all feel the same way, but the only path for us is to follow the Guru.”

  I took it a step further: “You don’t know all that much about the Guru, so how is it you can follow him? I believe in the Guru, too, but without really knowing who he is, I can’t just follow him blindly.” No matter how much I pressed them, the answer was always the same: “All we can do is believe him, and follow him.”

  I can’t tell you how disappointed I was. Someone like her [Eriko Iida]—a Mahamudra enlightened practitioner whom everyone respected—and that’s all she could say? “And you call yourself an enlightened practitioner?” I asked her. If this was all I was going to hear, then questions were a waste of time. I decided to ask my superior at the Ministry of Science and Technology, Hideo Murai, but he didn’t respond at all. Total silence. My last resort would have been to ask the Leader himself. I decided to give it up and quietly devote myself to my training.

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