Taking a Look Back, a Look Ahead

If you haven‘t picked up a copy of Haruki Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, I highly reccommend snapping up a copy now while relevance is high. On June 15, the last fugitive of the worst terror attack in Japan since World War II was apprehended by police in Tokyo. This attack, the 1995 sarin gas attack, be might distant for some, but I would argue it has had a profound effect on the Japanese psyche ever since.

If you don’t make a hobby out of keeping up on psuedo-Buddhist, apocalyptic cults, you may not be familiar with Aum Shinrikyo. Founded in 1984, the group draws inspiration from sources as varied as yoga, Tibetan Buddhism, and Pali Cannon. Their major goals include spiritual enlightenment through intense meditation, communal living, and spreading the “truth” regarding the creation and destruction of the universe. In a break from traditional Buddhist focus Aum has been preoccupied with the notion that they need to be prepared for armaggedon, by arming themselves both spiritually and militarily. Hence their need for a meditation center adjacent to a chemical weapons lab. In Aum, a believer can “remove bad karma” by enduring various sufferings; sometimes the more enlightened may help out by removing bad karma from others who don’t realize they have it.

Members used this idea to justify the abuse of others, making the attack on the Tokyo underground a logical way to rid society of all that pesky bad karma before the world really came crashing down.

Using an easily produced, highly destructive chemical agent on the largest subway system and the busiest time of the day seemed a highly efficient way to end a lot of suffering to the leaders of Aum. So on March 20, 1995 during the morning rush hour on Tokyo’s subway lines, ten trained followers boarded five subway cars carrying parcels filled with sealed bags of liquid sarin, which were then punctured to release the poison into the train’s passenger compartment. This left twelve dead and thousands more ill.

For those who survived, there were the after effects like vomiting, convulsions, and intermittent blindness, but the worst wounds seem to be psychological. In Underground, Murakami interviews one woman who is afraid to leave her home, another who becomes paralyzed with fear upon approaching a train, or others so angry they lash out in violent fits.

As soon as we are able to wrap our heads around some terrible event, the very next thing we want is closure. We want the security blanket of peace of mind draped over us, and without it, it seems that we cannot move on, and the Japanese are no different. But will they ever have closure on this? Will this final arrest be a turning point, or will they still eye their neighbor on the train with a latent sense of suspicion?

As long as there are still people who buy into the “dark elements” of their society, the majority of citizens will never have unfettered psychological peace. Without the power to snub out so-called cults and subversice elements on the fringes of soceity, there will always be the threat of being blindsided by disaster.

But maybe not. It can be thought about one of two ways, depending on how you choose to view it. I choose to use the effects of Aum’s weapon of choice as my point of reference. An attack such as this can lead to chronic paralysis, manageable to a point, or can be dealt with swiftly and practically, by engaging in a psychological purification, in order to wash away “the bitter aftertaste that continues to plauge [Japan]” that resulted from this inscrutible tragedy, and an attempt to move on.


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