Attempting to ‘explain’ incidents of mass violence is a tricky endeavor. On one hand, an explanation can be used to disperse, or even nullify, responsibility and culpability. On the other hand, the absence of an explanation can give the impression that an incident was simply an anomaly, without context and outside the realm of cause and effect. Historically, attempts to explain the unthinkably horrible have been met with great resistance and, thus, undertaken very carefully. Investigations into Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust, for instance, have landed writers such as Hugh Trevor-Roper and George Steiner in a tangled, emotional maelstrom (for a fascinating account of some of the scholastic, philosophical, and theological issues surrounding the historiography of Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler is an enlightening read).
In his non-fiction work Underground, Haruki Murakami confronts this issue head-on in relation to the 1995 gassing of the Tokyo Subway by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. In March of that year, cultists released sarin gas into the Tokyo Subways in a series of five coordinated attacks. The motive for the attacks remains unclear, although the ostensible reason was to hasten the arrival of doomsday as foretold in an esoteric Buddhist text. As a result of the attacks, 13 people died and thousands were injured.
The bulk of Murakami’s book is dedicated to verbatim interviews with survivors of the attack and family members of the deceased. In a second section (published later), he includes interviews with current and former members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. For Murakami, the question that fascinated him the most was one that the media couldn’t or wouldn’t address: What happened in the Tokyo subway the morning of March 20th, 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.
To this end, Murakami the author takes a backseat and allows the victims to do the talking. He asks, What happened? and writes down what they say. In the second half of the book, he becomes a more active interviewer, pressing members of Aum Shinrikyo to expound on their answers and explain their views. Both sections are fascinating due to the raw power of personal testimony.
In this midst of these interviews, Murakami directly confronts the issue of historical memory and culpability for these horrible attacks in an impassioned essay which truly showcases his masterful skills as a writer. As he sees it, the subway attacks are in imminent danger of being consigned to the attic of recent history.
Most Japanese seem ready to pack up the whole incident in a trunk labeled THINGS OVER AND DONE WITH…saying “After all, this was merely an extreme and exceptional crime committed by an isolated and lunatic fringe.”
This dichotomy of “us” versus “them” is ultimately a false one, Murakami continues, because, within any society, “they” are necessarily part of “us.” And, to truly understand what really happened and why, a new narrative is needed, one which does away with this dichotomy, “another narrative to purify this narrative.”
While Murakami’s essay deals specifically with the Japanese psyche and how it has grappled with the Tokyo subway attacks, his point is relevant to any society facing a shattering national tragedy. The traditional adversarial narratives only serve to reinforce psychologically comfortable interpretations which absolve “us” from any culpability and places the blame squarely on “them.” The truth is infinitely more complicated and just as uncomfortable.
While there is no excuse for the perpetrators of the attack, Murakami suggests that each member of society has a small measure of culpability and, at the very least, has a responsibility to question what happened and why. As a novelist, Murakami’s job is to construct narratives and, as such, he personally wonders about his ability to construct narratives which can compete with the “utter nonsense” spun by the leaders of Aum Shinrikyo which, nonetheless, managed to persuade otherwise rational individuals into an almost unthinkable act.
In this short essay, only about 20 or so pages, Murakami unambiguously and powerfully calls on Japanese society to take a serious look at itself, to examine its fundamental values, and to take stock of where it is heading. It is advice which would be wisely heeded by other societies in the hopes that a tragedy similar to the Tokyo subway attack might be avoided.