Underground by Haruki Murakami

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel

Vintage International, New York, 2001

Borrowed from my local Library.

After reading Kafka on the Shore, and not being sure what I thought of Haruki Murakami, I decided to read his book on the 1995  Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo gas attacks.  Murakami says in his introduction that he was motivated to write Underground because he had been living away from Japan, wanted a deeper understanding of his home country and felt an obligation to those who had died in and survived the attack.  He wanted to have their voices heard.

Underground is actually two books that were published separately in 1997 and 1998.   The first part,. Underground, is made up of interviews with survivors of the 1995  attack in the Tokyo subway system, the second part, The Place That Was Promised, contains interviews with people who had been involved with Aum Shinrikyo.

From the interview with Toshiaki Toyoda, a Subway Authority workman.

    There were ordinary passengers who unfortunately lost their lives or suffered injuries just because they were traveling on the subway.  People who are still suffering mentally or are in pain.  When I consider their lot, I don’t have the luxury to keep seeing myself as a victim.  That’s why I say: “I’m not a sarin victim, I’m a survivor.”  Frankly, there are some latent symptoms, but nothing to keep me bedridden.  I’m just glad I survived.

The fear, the mental wounds are still with me, of course, but there is no way to flush them out of my system.  I could never find words to explain it to the families of those who died or sacrificed their lives on the job.  From page 38.

Murakami shows great respect for the people he interviewed, never interfering with their answers and yet drawing them out.  I am deeply impressed by his level of caring and by his commitment to his fellow citizens.  I am also moved by the survivors, their willingness to share their stories and their commitment to their culture and to each other. I find the difference between our two culture profound.

I also really appreciate the depth of Murakami’s intelligence, his clarity of thought and willingness to probe deeply into his own psyche.

From Blind Nightmare: Where Are We Japanese Going?

            …I am a novelist, and as we 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 over 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 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?  From page 233.

The second part of this book is made up of interviews with people connected to Aum Shinrikyo at the time of the attacks.  It is chilling how easily these people, all of whom seem intelligent and humane, were disconnected from their families, their peers and any sense of empathy or compassion.  They became “mindless” but sincerely thought otherwise.  Read that quote from Blind Nightmare again.

I will definitely read more of Murakami’s work, even as I struggle to make sense of it.

Other reviews:


Dolce Bellezza


The Parrish Lantern

things mean a lot

Thyme for tea


Filed under Culture, History, InTranslation, JapaneseLiteratureChallenge 5, Nonfiction, Review

19 responses to “Underground by Haruki Murakami

  1. I think it’s an interesting interpretation to say the Japanese became ‘mindless’. I didn’t see it that way. I was personally quite impressed by the strength and fortitude I saw in them during this catastrophe in Murakami’s book, as well as the recent tragedy of the tsunami. In my opinion, the looting, stealing, and chaos that went on in the Amercian South in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was mindless. Or worse, like animals. The Japanese seem to remain calm (almost to a fault?), and certainly mannerly…I could not believe how they continued on with their day, went on to work, felt badly that they couldn’t perform after being gassed. I also was amazed at the hopelessness that those who had to join the cult felt in their own lives. To have nothing no other viable option than joining such a group for meaning, is so tragic to me.

    • In no way did I mean that the Japanese people became “mindless”. I was referring to the Aum cult members that Murakami interviewed for /Underground/.

      I am also impressed by the strength, composure and kindness that the people of Japan show under stress. I find it very different then the social behavior in the United States. I believe that people’s reactions to Katrina had to do with the severe poverty they live in and the lack of immediate response from our government. I guess it depends on what “narrative” you believe.

  2. The only Murakami I’ve read was his memoir, which was excellent. I tried a collection of his short stories on audio, but it didn’t work. This one really interests me, but I need to find time for Kafka and Wind-Up Bird first since I already have them. He intimidates me a little.

    • I’m very curious to hear what you think of Kafka when you get to it. I may try Norwegian Wood next, or maybe I should read his memoir? Don’t let him intimidate you, you are a brilliant reader!

  3. I read my first book by Murakami at the beginning of the year and I have to admit I had no idea what I thought of it… I still don’t all these months later. One of these days I have to read something else by him.

  4. I haven’t read this book but I remember it being a very popular choice when I was working at a Japanese bookshop in London. This was such a tragic event and I remember reading about it in the news. It’s definitely one I have on my wishlist. I think one of the things Murakami does best is to probe and reveal the Japanese psyche. In some ways it is as though he is trying to understand himself. And we in turn, by reading him, are trying to understand ourselves.

    • I agree with your comments, sakura. “In some ways it is as though he is trying to understand himself. And we in turn, by reading him, are trying to understand ourselves.”

      I really want to read more of his work.

  5. Ti

    I am almost through with Kafka on the Shore. In the beginning, I almost gave up on it. It was so bizarre and strange but after a while, I began to really get into the story. Now, nearly at the end, I am mesmerized by it and want to read everything Murakami has written.

    I had not seen this one though. It souinds fascinating.

    • I can’t wait to read what you think of Kafka on the Shore! I’m not sure which Murakami I’ll read next, maybe some short stories? Hope your weekend wasn’t too crazy:)

  6. this is one of the few of his I ve not read keep checking library for a copy free but they ve onlyt one so have to wait ,a interesting subject these attacks seemed so out of character for Japan ,all the best stu

    • I think you would like Underground, Stu. It really impressed me, both Murakami’s writing and the individual comments from the Japanese people.

  7. Em

    This is not one of Muakami’s book that tempts me, but this might change as my tastes always evolved. I recently read Norwegian Wood and I have Wild Sheep Chase lined up. I was really glad to discover this author.

  8. Pingback: Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche « Bibliojunkie

  9. I reads this last year & even posted on it. O f the Murakami books it is my favourite & one any fan of the writer should read.

    • Parrish – you comment reminded me that I hadn’t searched out any other reviews for my post so I am adding a link to your review and several others!

  10. Thanks for the link & what’s your Murakami level now, with one being, yeah he’s alright & ten being you’ve already finished 1q84- twice!

  11. Having read several interviews with Murakami my level is about 7. I still need to read more of his work, 1Q84 is on hold at my library, but I am beginning to love how he thinks, the way his mind works. Thanks for stopping by!

  12. Excellent review of this very human, noble book. Not being a big fan of Murakami’s writing usually, this book won me over for him for the first time. His approach to the survivors is so respectful, and although the structure of the interviews is somehow repetitive, each of the interview partners in the first part takes shape in front of the reader as an individual that has been going through a terrible experience and tries to get to terms with this. My own review: http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=1270

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