Underground the tokyo ga.., p.9
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, p.9

           Haruki Murakami

  That day I sat in the first seat of the third car. Then I saw a puddle in the area between the rows of seats. This big pool was spreading, as if a liquid had leaked out. It was the color of beer and smelled funny. In fact it stank, which is why I noticed it.

  That day the train was surprisingly empty. Not a soul standing, and only a few people sitting. Thinking back on it now, that strange smell had probably kept them away.

  One thing bothered me: a man sitting alone right next to the puddle. I thought he was sleeping when I got on, but gradually his posture was slipping in a very odd way. “Strange, is he ill or what?” Then, just before Nakano-sakaue, I heard a thud. I was reading my book, but I looked up and saw the man had fallen right out of his seat and was lying on the floor faceup.

  “This is terrible,” I thought, trying to size up the situation. The train was almost at the station. As soon as the door opened a crack, I jumped out. I wanted to fetch help, when a young man ran past me to the front of the platform and summoned a station attendant.

  There was a woman sitting across from the man who fell over and she was apparently flat out too. She was somewhere around 40 or 50. I’m really bad with women’s ages. Anyway, a middle-aged woman. The man was fairly elderly. The station attendant managed to drag the man off the train, then another came running, lifted up the woman, and carried her out, saying, “Are you all right?” I just stood watching on the platform.

  While all this was happening, a station attendant had picked up a bag of liquid and brought it out onto the platform. No one had any idea it was sarin, it was just something suspicious to be disposed of. Then I got back on the train and it moved off again. I moved to the next car down, as I didn’t want to be where the strange smell was. I got off at the next station, Shin-nakano.

  But then as I was walking along the underground passageway, I started sniffling. “Odd,” I thought, “am I coming down with a cold?” The next thing I knew I was sneezing and coughing, then things started to go dim in front of my eyes. It happened almost simultaneously. “This is most odd,” I thought, because I still felt perfectly all right. I was bright and aware. I could still walk.

  I went straight to my office, which is right above the station, but my eyes were still dim, nose running and coughing like crazy. I told them, “I’m not feeling so well. Think I’ll lie down for a bit,” and stretched out on the sofa, cold towel over my eyes. A colleague of mine said a hot towel would be better, so next I tried a hot towel, and lay there for an hour, warming my eyes. And what do you know? My eyes were as good as new. I could see the blue sky again. Up until then it had been as black as night, nothing had any color.

  I worked as though nothing had happened, then around 10:00 a call came from my wife saying, “There’s been big trouble in the subway, are you all right?” Not wanting to worry her, I said, “Fine. Couldn’t be better.” Well, at least my eyes were fine.

  At lunch I happened to see the TV at a soba noodle shop. What a commotion! I’d heard sirens nearby that morning, but I hadn’t paid them any attention. The TV mentioned that the victim’s vision goes dark, and that struck a note, but I still didn’t connect my dimmed vision with those strange-smelling packets.

  I went to Nakano General Hospital to have my eyes tested. As soon as they saw my contracted pupils they shot me up with an antidote and put me on an IV. Blood tests showed my Cholinesterase level was way down. They hospitalized me straightaway, and I wasn’t to be released until my Cholinesterase was back to normal.

  I phoned the office to tell them: “It’s like this and I have to be hospitalized for I don’t know how many days. Sorry to trouble you, but could you tidy up my desk?” I called home too, and my wife lays into me, saying, “What was all that about being perfectly fine?” (laughs)

  I was in the hospital six days and felt hardly any pain all that time. The sarin had been right there next to me, yet my symptoms were miraculously light. I must have been upwind of it. Air flows through a train car from front to back, so I’d have been in a real fix if I’d sat at the back, even if only for a few stops. I suppose that’s what you call Fate.

  Afterward I wasn’t scared to travel on the subway. No bad dreams either. Maybe I’m just dull-witted and thick-skinned. But I do feel it was Fate. Usually I don’t go in through the first door nearest the front. I always use the second, which would have put me downwind of the sarin. But that day and that day only I took the first door, for no special reason. Pure chance. In my life up to now I never once felt blessed by the hand of Fate—nor cursed either, just nothing at all. I’ve had a pretty dull, ordinary sort of life … then something like this comes along.

  “If I hadn’t been there , somebody else would have picked up the packets”

  Sumio Nishimura (46)

  Mr. Nishimura is a Subway Authority employee working at Nakano-sakaue Station. His title is Transport Assistant. On the day of the gas attack, he removed the packets of sarin from the Marunouchi Line train.

  Mr. Nishimura lives in Saitama Prefecture. He got his job with the subway through the intervention of a friend. Railroad jobs were said to be “solid” work, much respected in the countryside, so he was overjoyed when he passed his employment exam in 1967.

  Of average height, he’s a little on the skinny side. Yet his complexion is good, his eyes steady and attentive. If I found myself sitting next to him at a bar, I probably wouldn’t guess his profession. Not an office job—that much is apparent—he’s worked his way up on-site, a self-made man. A closer look at his face would reveal that his job involved a fair amount of daily stress. So a bottle of sake with his friends after work is a real pleasure to him.

  Mr. Nishimura kindly agreed to tell his story, even though it was obvious he didn’t really want to talk, about the gas attack. Or, as he said, he’d “rather not touch it.” It was a terrible event for him, of course, a nightmare he’d rather forget.

  This was true not only for Mr. Nishimura, but probably for all the subway staff. Keeping Tokyo’s underground train system running on time without hitches or accidents is their prime objective every minute of the day. They don’t want to recall the day when it all went horribly wrong. This made it all the more difficult to get any kind of statement from the subway staff. At the same time they don’t want the gas attack to be forgotten or their colleagues to have died in vain. My deepest thanks go to him for his cooperation in contributing this invaluable testimony.

  At the subway we have a three-way rotation: day shift, round-the-clock duty, and days off. Round-the-clock is a twenty-four-hour shift from 8:00 in the morning to 8:00 the following morning. Naturally no one is expected to stay up all the way through. We have rest intervals in the bunk room. After that we get a day off, then go back to day-shift duty. Each week has two round-the-clocks and two days off.

  With round-the-clock duty we can’t just leave in the morning. The rush hour peaks between 8:00 and 9:30, so we do overtime. That March 20 was the morning after my round-the-clock duty and I was on “rush-hour standby.” That’s when the gas attack happened.

  The day fell between holidays, a Monday; the same number of passengers as usual. Ogikubo-bound Marunouchi Line trains all suddenly empty out after passing Kasumigaseki. From Ikebukuro to Kasumigsaseki passengers keep boarding thick and fast, but after that it’s just people getting off and no one getting on.

  Rush-hour standby involves overseeing the train crew’s operations, checking that there are no irregularities, seeing that the crew change goes smoothly, that the train isn’t late; supervising, really.

  Train A777 arrived on time at Nakano-sakaue at 8:26. When it pulled in, a passenger called over a station attendant, who then shouted across to an attendant over on the Ikebukuro platform, “Get over here quick, there’s something wrong!”

  I was about fifty yards away on the same platform and couldn’t quite catch what he said, but it seemed something was up, so I hurried on over. Even if an irregularity’s reported, the other attendant has the tracks in between and can
t just hop over. That’s why I went. I entered the third car from the front through the farthest back of the three doors and saw a sixty-five-year-old man sprawled on the floor. Opposite him, a fifty-year-old woman had slid off her seat. They were panting, gasping, bloodstained pink foam coming out of their mouths. The man seemed totally unconscious at first glance. The thought flashed through my mind: “Ah, a double love suicide.” But of course they weren’t; it was just a fleeting impression. The man died later. The woman, I hear, is still in a coma.

  There were only those two in the car. No one else. The man on the floor, the woman on the seat opposite, and two packets in front of the nearest door. I spotted them the minute I got inside. Plastic pouches about thirty centimeters square, with liquid inside. One was puffed up, the other had collapsed. And this sticky-looking liquid had flowed out.

  There was a smell, but I really can’t begin to describe it. At first I told everyone it was like paint thinner, but actually it was more like a burnt smell. Oh, well, no matter how many times they ask me, I never know what to say. It just stank.

  Soon other station attendants came running and we carried out the fallen passengers. We have only one stretcher, so we carried the man out first, then locked hands under the woman and set her down on the platform. Neither the driver nor the conductor on the train had any idea this situation had arisen.

  So we helped the two passengers off and signaled that the train was ready to leave. “Take her out,” just to move it on. You can’t let a train sit still for long. There was no time to wipe the floor. But there’s that strange smell, the floor’s wet, so we had to get them to clean it up in Ogikubo at the end of the line. I rang Ogikubo Station, saying, “777 car number 3’s floor needs cleaning, can you take care of it?” But gradually everyone is starting to feel ill, both attendants and passengers. This was about 8:40.

  It’s five stops from Nakano-sakaue to Ogikubo. The train takes twelve minutes. Train 777 was a switchback, numbered 877 on the return. But the passengers who boarded the 877 at Ogikubo were feeling funny too. They were mopping the car floor at Ogikubo—I think they were still cleaning it while the train was heading back this way—and what happens? Everyone who is cleaning starts to feel sick too. Likewise the passengers riding from Ogikubo to Shin-koenji. Word came down, “There’s something wrong with that train.”

  Let’s see, this time I think quite a lot of passengers got on at Ogikubo. The seats are generally all taken, some people standing. We knew we had to check the train this time, so we were waiting for 877 to reach Nakano-sakaue, scheduled for 8:53. But they took it out of service at Shin-koenji.

  Well, after we carried out the two passengers, I picked up the plastic sarin packets with my fingers and put them on the platform. They were the sort of square, plastic packs they use for intravenous drips. I was wearing white nylon gloves, like we always wear on patrol duty. I tried to avoid touching the wet parts.

  I assumed the man and woman had used these to commit suicide, so I thought, “These are dangerous objects, better report them to the police.” I saw a newspaper tucked up on a shelf above the seats, so I grabbed that and placed the sarin packets on top, then lifted the whole thing out onto the platform. Set it down by a column on the platform. Then an attendant came out with a white plastic bag like you get at the supermarket. We dumped the sarin packets in that and tied up the bag. The attendant carried it to the station office and left it there. I didn’t realize, but he apparently put it in a bucket near the door.

  Soon passengers were complaining of feeling poorly, so we took them to the office; and not only them, but now many of the station staff were ill. The police and fire department showed up to ask about the circumstances, and they soon realized something strange was going on. At that point we took the bag outside. The police disposed of it somewhere, if memory serves.

  When I went to the office to phone, I didn’t actually realize it yet, but my nose was running and my eyes were acting funny. They didn’t hurt, they were just blurred and tingled. I couldn’t see very well. If I tried to focus, then they hurt like mad. It felt fine looking around in a fog, but focus on anything and it hurt. After a while the fluorescent lights and everything began to flare.

  Around 8:55 I began to feel dizzy from the glare and it was about 9:00 when I went to the bathroom to wash my face, then lay down in a bunk room for a while. Because the outbreak on the Hibiya Line was earlier, it was about this time that we learned of other problems elsewhere, as well. By now everyone was panicking. It was getting full coverage on TV.

  I was feeling ill, so I left the station. Ambulances were racing around the Nakano-sakaue intersection, having a devil of time rounding up all the patients to ferry them away. It was difficult finding an ambulance to take me. They were even using Special Mobile Task Force police vans for ambulances. You know, the ones with the wire screens. They took me in one of those. It was around 9:30 when I reached the hospital. Six of the Nakano-sakaue staff were taken to the hospital and two hospitalized, myself included.

  At Nakano General Hospital they already knew that sarin was probably the cause, and they treated me for that: washed my eyes, gave me an immediate transfusion. I had to write my name and address in the register, but I couldn’t see to write, so I scribbled as best I could out of focus.

  I ended up six days in the hospital. March 20 was pretty grueling. I was tired out, with only the clothes I was wearing, and all the tests for this and that. My blood Cholinesterase was abnormally low. It took three to four months of continual blood transfusions to bring it back to normal, and until then my irises wouldn’t open properly. Contracted pupils, a lot worse in my case than others. My pupils remained contracted until my discharge. I’d look at a light and wince at the glare.

  My wife came racing over to the hospital, but to be frank, I wasn’t in any real life-or-death condition. No very severe symptoms or anything. I hadn’t passed out. Only my eyes hurt and my nose ran.

  Rough nights at the hospital, though. Lying there, my whole body felt cold as ice. I have no idea whether it was a dream or reality, but anyway it was vivid enough. It occured to me to push the call button for the nurse, but I just couldn’t press the thing. I was in pain, groaning. That happened twice. Waking up with a start, trying to press the button, and failing.

  Considering I lifted the packets of sarin by hand, I’m lucky to get away with such minor symptoms. Or perhaps it had something to do with the direction of the wind in the tunnel. Probably it was all to do with the way I picked them up so that I didn’t inhale the fumes directly, because there were others who picked up the stuff the same way at other stations and died. I’m a heavy drinker, and some of the guys at the office say that’s what saved me. That it was harder for me to become intoxicated. Well, maybe.

  It never really hit me that I might have died there and then. I slept days, couldn’t watch TV. Nights I was bored silly with nothing to do, but luckily the physical pain went away early on, so I wasn’t depressed or anything. On March 25 I was discharged, then I rested at home until April 1; after that I went back on the job. I got bored hanging around at home, so I thought it was about time to get out and work.

  To tell the truth, I didn’t feel any anger toward the Aum perpetrators at first. When you’re on the receiving end it doesn’t much matter who did it. If someone hits you, you know how to respond. But, of course, as more things have come to light I’ve been outraged. To launch an indiscriminate attack on defenseless people, it’s unforgivable. Because of them, two of my colleagues lost their lives. If the criminals were brought in front of me, I don’t know if I could stop myself beating them to a pulp. I think the criminals should get the death penalty, sure. There are those who argue for the abolition of the death penalty, but after all they did, well, how can they go pardoned?

  As for picking up the sarin packets, I just happened to be there at the time. If I hadn’t been there, somebody else would have picked up the packets. Work means you fulfill your duties. You can’t look the othe
r way.

  “I was in pain, yet I still bought my milk as usual”

  Koichi Sakata (50)

  Mr. Sakata was born in Shinkyo (present-day Changchun) in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, but now lives in Futamatagawa, southwest of Tokyo. He, his wife, and his mother live in a bright, tastefully renovated house.

  A full-time accountant, Mr. Sakata is exceedingly meticulous about filing his papers. Any question I asked would summon a related clipping, receipt, or memo from a folder without the least searching or shuffling. If he kept his home so orderly, I could just imagine his desk at work.

  He enjoys a game of go, and he’s a keen golfer—though he’s so busy at work he makes it to the course maybe only five times a year. He’s in good shape and has never once been ill—until he was hospitalized with sarin poisoning.

  I’ve worked eleven years for—Oil. We’re tarmac specialists. In my last company we had problems with the management. They rubbed everyone the wrong way, so we all bailed out together: “One—two—three—jump!” And we built up this company from scratch.

  Am I busy? Not as much as before during the “Bubble.” Now, the property market’s in a downturn. Then there was the deregulation of the petroleum industry. Our suppliers can now access cheaper oil coming in from overseas and we have to start thinking about restructuring.

  I leave the house at 7:00 and dash to the station about a mile away in twenty minutes. For exercise, you understand. My blood sugar’s been high lately, so I thought the walk would do me good. From Futamatagawa it’s the Sotetsu Line to Yokohama, then the Yokosuka Line to Tokyo, and from there I take the Marunouchi Line to Shinjuku-sanchome. The commute takes about an hour and a half. I always find a seat from Ginza or Kasumigaseki, so it’s no strain.

Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up