Underground by Haruki Murakami

I wanted to read this book, partly because I love Murakami’s writing and partly because I was living in Tokyo at the time of the sarin gas attack, in 1995. I was actually across the road from Shinjuku station, where much of it unfolded, and saw the emergency services in action.

It is Murakami’s assiduous attempt to understand how those acts of terrorism affected the victims, and what motivated the perpetrators, who placed packages of liquid sarin on commuter trains and then burst them with umbrellas, before escaping. Many people died and hundreds were injured.

This particular book brings together his various writings on the subject, some of which have appeared in Japanese magazines. He says himself the is following the approach of Studs Terkel, and it works very well. He interviews victims and members of the Aum cult, which lay behind the attacks.

His summary of all this is brilliant, if only a few pages long. He identifies an enduring problem for Japanese society, maybe for many societies, which consists in its structure and expectations. Not everybody fits in, so what are they to do? That might imply he is soft on Aum – he isn’t. Some of the best pieces are his arguments with them about their beliefs. But, overall, it is a measured and thoughtful book, and a great example of what a writer’s sensibilities can bring to very difficult problems.

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