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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

THE HUMAN COST

The Aum Shinrikyo victims have their say

By Kavitha Rao and Murakami Mutsuko / Tokyo


Go to an interview with Murakami Haruki, author of Underground

MORE THAN TWO YEARS AFTER IT SHOCKED THE WORLD by killing 12 people and injuring another 5,000 in a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, the Aum Shinrikyo cult has managed to slip back into the shadows. Only the slug-paced trial of leader Asahara Shokou -- plus those of some of his followers for unrelated offenses -- draws media attention these days. But that doesn't mean the doomsday disciples have abandoned their aims.

A new police report says the cult has been rebuilding. It is now up to 500 fulltime devotees -- compared with 1,100 at the time of the gassings -- and 5,000 other followers (10,000 previously). It opened a new center in downtown Tokyo in May, bringing the number nationwide to 26. It is raising funds in a number of ways, including running a discount computer store. The movement, the police report says, "still shows dangerous signs and requires close monitoring." Egawa Shoko, an investigative reporter who has shadowed the cult's activities, says: "It is still a destructive force."

But what of its victims and their families? Since the March 20, 1995 attack, they have been viewed as little more than statistical evidence of Aum's viciousness and evil ambition. But each represents a mini-drama -- a tale of an innocent life wrecked. Take, for instance, the case of supermarket worker Akashi Shizuko:

The night before the attack, she had eaten at a noodle shop with her family. Her brother recalls: "When we had dinner together, we thought, 'This is what happiness is all about, isn't it?' Everyone gets together, eats and chats. It is a tiny happiness, such a modest joy. But it was destroyed the next day." Akashi, a happy-go-lucky 31-year-old, was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was on the Marunouchi subway line, heading for a sales-training session, when the cult's goons struck.

The effects of the sarin left her with severe brain damage. Today, she has recovered enough to pronounce her name and move her arm, but she cannot walk or eat unaided. She has almost no recall of her life before the attack. "I wish she had died," her mother said at the time.

Akashi's story springs from one of more than 60 interviews conducted for Underground, a book by popular Japanese novelist Murakami Haruki. In a year of intimate discussions with survivors, families of victims, eyewitnesses and others, he fleshed out press reports into a poignant history of a fateful day. The interviewees included office workers, doctors, a lawyer and subway employees. Many used their real names; some asked for pseudonyms.

The author prefaces their stories with his own description of how the day had begun: "March 20, l995. It is an early spring morning, nice and clean. The wind is still cold and people on the streets are wearing coats. Yesterday was Sunday and tomorrow is the Vernal Equinox, a national holiday. So it is a day in between. But you couldn't take it off for various reasons. So you get up at the usual time, wash your face, change your clothes and head for the station. It is an uncharacteristic morning, one of the unidentifiable days of your life -- until five Aum devotees stick the sharpened points of their umbrellas into plastic bags containing a strange liquid."

Murakami, 48, says he wrote the book to balance press coverage of the incident. "I had been frustrated by the few reports on victims, in sharp contrast to the flood of information about the Aum Shinrikyo," he told Asiaweek. "I felt I had to find out the other side of the story." He learned a lot more than he was comfortable with.

He cites, in particular, the tale of Wada Eiji. The 30-year-old employee of the Japan Tobacco company left home at 7.30 in the morning to take the subway to work. Two and a half hours later, his wife, Yoshiko, received a phone call from her husband's boss. He told her Eiji was dead. Yoshiko, married for just three years and pregnant, gave birth to a girl a few months later. Says Murakami: "The family talked to me in detail, cheerfully at times. But later what they had said gradually soaked in. I am sure what I heard will stay deep inside me and then, perhaps in a year or two, it will emerge somehow."

Also graphically told is the drama of Ohashi Kenji, 41, an automobile service center employee and father of three children. He didn't normally take the train to work, but that morning he missed his bus because it passed two minutes earlier than usual. When he boarded the train, he saw one male passenger slumped in his seat and a woman doubled over. He sensed a strange smell, "sweet as if something was rotten." Ohashi took a seat and fell into a brief sleep. When he woke up, he was thirsty and started coughing. His legs began trembling. Everything was black around him and he could hardly breathe. He was rushed to hospital, where he stayed for 12 days.

Today he still experiences paralyzing headaches. "I wanted many times to commit suicide," he told Murakami. "I thought it would be better if I died. I still think that way. Imagine how you would feel if you had a stone or heavy helmet on your head all the time. I don't think anyone can understand how I feel. I am very alone."

Underground, which runs to 727 pages, sold 270,000 copies in Japan in the first two months after its release earlier this year. Not bad for a first foray into non-fiction by an author better known for surrealistic works such as The Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Murakami's books have been translated into English, Chinese, French, Korean and Italian. Seven of his short stories have been published in The New Yorker. There are no plans at this stage to translate Underground into English.

Murakami says the book has changed him. "I learned, for one thing, that you cannot share the pain of other people. They lost their family members. You are lying if you claim you can feel their sorrow," he says. For all that -- and despite the often-distressing task of transcribing hours of taped interviews -- Underground was a rewarding experience. "I am genuinely interested in people and their stories. I enjoyed talking to every one of them," he says. And the victims, through him, were given a chance to show the true human cost of that day of madness.


The Storyteller

"I wanted to know what happened"

IN AN INTERVIEW WITH ASIAWEEK CORRESPONDENT Murakami Mutsuko, author Murakami Haruki talked about how Underground came about and what his research into the Aum Shinrikyo killings taught him about Japanese society. Excerpts:

You are better known as a fiction writer -- and a successful one at that. What motivated you to interview the sarin gas victims?

I simply wanted to know exactly what happened in the Tokyo subway that morning. I felt an urge to learn about the individual victims. To do that, I had to go to them directly and hear all the details. It was exhausting, a non-stop job. I spent 80% of my energy last year on this project.

What are your feelings now about the Aum Shinrikyo and its activities?

The movement is a symbol of modern Japan. It grew at a time when the country was losing its sense of values. Asahara Shokou represented a set of values -- no matter how vicious -- and that's why quite a number of people chose to follow him. It is not just what the Aum Shinrikyo did that frightens me. What is worrying is that it is quite possible that something similar may happen again.

You say in Underground that Japan needs to examine itself and analyze why these killings took place. Two and a half years later, do you think we have learned any lessons?

It all comes down to the individual and the system. Who was responsible for the subway gassings -- the Aum Shinrikyo or the people who committed the crimes? It is the same with the Rape of Nanking. Who did it? The military or the individual soldiers? Just how responsible are individuals in a society where they relinquish their free will to the system? In Japan, individuals simply do not function well enough. That's the problem.


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