A Japanese Writer Analyzes Terrorists and Their Victims

New York Times/October 15, 2001
By Howard W. French

Tokyo -- For Haruki Murakami, Japan's most popular living fiction writer, the current struggle against terrorism is no clash of civilizations, much less a crusade.

Rather, as the novelist sees it, the war that opposes the United States and its allies against reputed terrorist groups like al Qaeda is a collision between incompatible networks, or what he calls circuits, whose apprehension of reality is every bit as irreconcilable as matter and antimatter. And whose collisions are bound to be just as explosive.

"The open circuit is this society," Mr. Murakami said, "and the closed circuit is the world of religious fanatics: Islamic fundamentalists or groups like Aum Shinrikyo. I think they are all the same in a way. Their worlds are perfect, because they are closed off."

In the universe of the fanatic, he said: "If you have questions, there is always someone to provide the answers. In a way, things are very easy and clear, and you are happy as long as you believe."

In our open world, however, "things are very incomplete," he said in an interview in his tidy book-filled office, which looks out over the rooftops of Tokyo's fashionable Omotesando neighborhood. He continued: "There are many distractions and many flaws.

And instead of being happy, in most cases we are frustrated and stressed. But at least things are open. You have choice and you can decide the way you live."

Mr. Murakami's reflections recall discussions during the cold war of the relative advantages of open and closed societies, as well as long-running philosophical debates over the meaning of free will. But his views take on added interest because they come from a non-Westerner, one, moreover, whose society experienced a terrifying chemical weapons attack by the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect on March 20, 1995.

In novels like "Sputnik Sweetheart" and "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," the author has made something of a specialty of dichotomies like these. His quirky characters often seem to flit back and forth between two worlds, one humdrum and the other secret, mysterious and full of menace. But it is from a recent experiment with nonfiction - his first - that the author says he learned enough to talk confidently about the universe of terrorists and their collisions with our world.

After the attack on Tokyo's subway system, which killed 12 and injured about 5,500, he spent a full year interviewing the 62 victims who consented to talk to him at length, producing underground" (Vintage International Edition, 2001), a Studs Terkel-influenced work that hauntingly chronicles their experiences on the day of the attack and in the months of slow and typically incomplete recovery that followed.

Stung and surprised by subsequent criticism here that he had delivered a one-sided story, Mr. Murakami spent another year reporting a companion work, "The Place That Was Promised," which delves deeply into the work of Aum's devoted members. "I am a novelist, so people expected that I would be on the Aum cult's side because they are outsiders, and a novelist should be sympathetic to the outsiders," he said. "But I wrote 'Underground' because I was interested in the victims, the ordinary people, because I believe the stories of the ordinary people are more important and deeper than those of the pure people, so to speak. And I believe I did the right thing.

"A year later I wrote the Aum cult people's side. Originally they were two different books. Even now I can remember all of the victims' faces and voices, and yet I cannot remember those of the Aum people."

The victims' stories are full of everyday decisions rendered portentous by fate: spur-of-the-moment decisions to take a different train route than usual, or the annual meeting that put the unsuspecting individual in the path of a chemical weapons attack.

Others labored for months to make sense of what happened to them, like the man who said his reaction in the hospital bed the next day was: "Well, I'm O.K. I'd been right at the epicenter, but instead of shuddering at the death toll, I felt like I was watching a program on TV, as if it had been somebody else's problem. It was only much later that I began to wonder how I could have been so callous. I ought to have been furious, ready to explode. It wasn't until the autumn that it really sank in, little by little.

"For example if someone had fallen down right in front of me, I like to think I'd have helped."

It is also full of pathos. One man, whose sister was reduced to a vegetative state by the sarin gas, said: "The night before the gas attack, the family was saying over dinner: `My, how lucky we are. All together having a good time,' a modest share of happiness. Destroyed the very next day by those idiots. Those criminals stole what little joy we had."

Compelling as these stories are, anyone seeking to understand what could drive people to acts of such wanton destruction will find the accounts of the Aum members even more illuminating, all the more so since the hijackers of the airplanes that smashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11 disappeared without leaving behind any real testament.

What first strikes a reader is the banality of the evildoers. Aum's members are ordinary people in almost every sense of the word, from dropouts with few prospects in search of some answers in life to highly educated professionals grown tired of the rat race.

In a chilling passage that rings with a kind of weariness and disgust with the world as well as faith in the cleansing powers of suicidal missions that one associates with religious fanatics elsewhere, Hiroyuki Kano, a computer expert who was 30 at the time of the attack, recounts his gradual seduction by Aum.

"There was one other reality I came to ponder when I was in the sixth grade," said Mr. Kano, an Aum member who was not involved in the sarin attack. "I was staring at a pair of scissors in my hand, and the thought suddenly struck me that some adult had worked very hard to create them but that someday they would fall apart. Same with people. In the end they die.

Everything's heading straight for destruction and there's no turning back. To put it another way, destruction itself is the principle by which the universe operates."

Once he joined Aum Shinrikyo, a cultish offshoot of Buddhism that promised a "fast path" to salvation, he said, existence once again began to have meaning. "Life in Aum was much tougher than secular life," Mr. Kano said. "But the tougher it was, the more satisfying it felt; my inner struggles were over, for which I was grateful."

Akio Namimura, another member, told Mr. Murakami, "When I graduated from high school I felt like I would either renounce the world or die, one of the two."

He eventually joined Aum, paying whatever he could to take part in the group's training sessions. One course consisted of taped sermons by the group's founder, Master Shoko Asahara, a man who, devotees were told, was the "Final Liberated One." The $3,000 fee bothered him, but others told him, "That's a cheap price to pay to get power."

When Mr. Namimura raised questions about the group's attacks, a member explained: "Whether we are attacked or whatever happens to us, people who have a relationship with the master are blessed. Even if we fall into hell, he will save us later."

Mr. Murakami said that hearing this kind of hermetic logic, in which any act or situation can be explained away, brought him strangely back to his own fiction.

For all of the pivotal qualities of the events of 1995 in Japan, from the Kobe earthquake to the sarin gas attack, Mr. Murakami speaks with deep regret about the way they were rendered banal, or as he put it, "consumed in a sea of media coverage."

This is where, as he sees it, the novelist's role in society comes to the fore, connecting huge public traumas to subtler changes in life, from the workaday experience of Japanese citizens down to the fears and dreams of his intensely imagined characters.

"What I write are stories in which the hero is looking for the right way in this world of chaos," he said. "That is my theme. At the same time I think there is another world that is underground. You can access this inner world in your mind. Most protagonists in my books live in both worlds - this realistic world and the underground world.

"If you are trained you can find the passage and come and go between the two worlds. It is easy to find an entrance into this closed circuit, but it is not easy to find an exit. Many gurus offer an entry into the circuit for free. But they don't offer a way out, because they want to keep followers trapped. Those people can be soldiers when they are ordered to be. I think that is very much like what happened with those people who flew the planes into those buildings."

The experiences of Japan, where few parallels are being made between the attack from within and the recent airliner hijackings, and of the United States are full of lessons for each other in an era that Mr. Murakami said might be called the "new world chaos."

"In Japan most people think that terrorism is the United States' own problem," Mr. Murakami said. "The U.S. is the strongest country in the world and Islamic people don't like America, therefore there is a terrorism problem.

"But that isn't right. The same thing can happen at any moment, in Tokyo, Berlin or Paris, because this is war between closed and open circuits, different states of minds. This is not about nations or countries, and not about religion, but about states of mind."

For the United States, he said, the message was that countries' trajectories can be profoundly altered by events like these, often in ways impossible to predict. "I was born in 1949, and when I was a teenager this country was getting richer and richer, and we all believed we could be happy if we were rich," he said.

"But that wasn't the case, and this was a real turning point."

"The New York tragedy announces a different phase for American society," Mr. Murakami said. "This is the first attack on the American mainland, and people know they are vulnerable. Things are not the same anymore.

"I don't know, honestly, if things will get better or worse, but I wish for the best. We have to be mature and get used to the new chaos. We have to be patient with that chaos. There is no simple or clear solution for it. One of the most important things is sympathy and respect. In the war between our network and their network these can go a long way."

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