UNDERGROUND: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, by Haruki Murakami. Translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel. Random House, Vintage International; 366 pp., $14.

On Monday, March 20, 1995, Tokyo experienced a terrorist attack. Sarin gas was released in the subways. While many of the perpetrators — members of a religious cult named Aum Shinrikyo — are still undergoing trial, the everyday aftereffects of the attacks live on in the Japanese psyche — a kind of double violence of social stigmatization and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Best-selling novelist Haruki Murakami sensed a gap between the media coverage and the reality of people’s experience, so he returned to Japan after many years abroad to go behind the headlines. What is the Japanese psyche, and how did it give rise to something like Aum?

Out of 1,000 people he contacted, 65 people — survivors, doctors, subway workers, relatives of the dead and past and present cult members — agreed to talk. This is the record of those candid and often emotional interviews.

Japan is a commuter society, and since most people can’t afford to live in the cities where they work, trains are the backbone of the economic culture. The subway was the perfect place for a terrorist strike.

Shortly after bags of sarin gas — 26 times as deadly as cyanide — were planted in the trains and punctured by Aum agents, people noticed a strange smell. Some moved out of the contaminated cars, but others’ relief at getting a seat overrode their concern. Station workers left the poison on some cars so that their trains would continue to run on schedule. Dutiful subway workers waited at designated corners for ambulances that never arrived. People walked by others in need. One cosmetics-company worker said, “I’d been right at the epicenter, but . . . I felt as if I was watching a program on TV. . . . If someone had fallen down right in front of me, I like to think I’d have helped. But what if they fell 50 yards away? Would I go out of my way to help? I wonder. I might have seen it as somebody else’s business and walked on by. If I’d gotten involved, I’d have been late for work.”

While there is surprisingly little resentment toward the perpetrators, animosity is directed toward the police, who people believe should have disseminated information about the previous sarin-gas attack in Matsumoto to help prevent another such tragedy.

By 1995, the miraculous economic “bubble” had already burst, and Japan was hit with its two greatest postwar catastrophes — one natural (the Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe) and one man-made (the sarin attack in Tokyo). Both disasters originated “underground,” providing an interesting metaphor that Murakami links to the subconscious elements within us. His fans will recognize the subterranean theme — a hallmark of his best fiction.

The victims and perpetrators share more than we might imagine — the Japanese way is “never to say too much, never to overstep one’s position,” and a strong work ethic was at play on both sides. Affected commuters who felt ill tried to downplay their symptoms to make it to work on time, while others didn’t stop to help their fellow passengers who had fallen for fear of “getting involved.”

Police, fire departments and ambulances were slow to respond. While some waited in vain for ambulances that never came, others corralled media vans, insisting they ferry victims to the hospital. When victims finally arrived for treatment, medical staff had no idea what they were looking at or how to treat it. People remained in sarin-saturated clothing, affecting others. A lack of systematic disaster preparedness and the tendency to wait for someone “in charge” to issue orders contributed to the tragedy.

The postbubble slump had led people to question materialism and to seek a more spiritual dimension to existence. While “salarymen” dutifully loaded themselves onto the trains, Aum followers — many the elite graduates of prestigious Tokyo University — sought an authentic spiritual experience, a religious community and a place outside the system.

Unfortunately, Nostradamus was extremely popular in Japan, and he had prophesied that 1999 would mark the end of the world. Aum leader Shoko Asahara integrated the doomsday scenario into his program, actually pushing followers into taking an active part in it.

Aum members who dispersed the gas wanted to prove their devotion. In a twisted quest for salvation, they believed that by killing someone, you raise him up and put yourself further on the path to enlightenment.

The most pressing issue to emerge from this collage of personal accounts is the question of authority. To whom do we assign the power to write the stories of our lives? Murakami can’t help but interject himself into the flow, asking, “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?”

In this important and powerful book, Murakami gives the surrealistic tragedy very human dimensions. He even suggests that Aum resembles pre-World War II Manchuria, where Japan’s “best and brightest” sought to create an idealized society. That venture, too, ended in unimaginable violence and tragedy.

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