Japan Today, Sep. 8, 2003
The Song of Sarin
By Stew Magnuson
A novel written by an American author based on the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo poison-gas subway attack shows how an ordinary person becomes sucked into a cult and a killer.
“I have a lot of themes in here, but the main theme was the dangers of religious extremism and how it can be such a negative force in the world,” Stew Magnuson, the author of “The Song of Sarin,” says.
The book, published in April by Xlibris Corp, is based on the March 1995 poison-gas attack by Aum Shinrikyo cult members on the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 people and injured more than 5,000.
“I think I had the idea many years ago, maybe five, six years ago,” said Magnuson, 40, who now lives in Nebraska.
“I just had an image of a person following a former Aum member into the subway. I thought that would be a foreign male following a former girlfriend into the subway, and that would be the beginning of the novel,” he said.
“But that really didn’t work because there were no female attackers in the Aum on the subway,” Magnuson said. “So when I decided to change it to an American woman following her former boyfriend into the subway and he is one of the cult members, that is when I finally decided to write the book.”
The story begins with the scene where Tamara Duffy, a 29-year-old American woman, spots her former boyfriend, Junichi Habaki, on the steps leading down to a crowded Tokyo subway system.
Habaki, now an Aum Shinrikyo member, walks down the steps of the station wearing a surgical mask and gloves, carrying a clear plastic umbrella in one hand and two bags of sarin nerve gas in the other.
The novel features Aum Shinrikyo members who were active at that time, including its founder Shoko Asahara.
“I should note that I try to base everything on the facts. Fictional things that happened I tried to base on some kind of reality,” Magnuson said. “And also some people will notice that my book is kind of a what if book.”
Magnuson said Aum Shinrikyo members attacked five Tokyo subway lines although they originally intended to attack one more line.
“So in my book, the main character, Junichi, is the attacker — it’s kind of an alterative reality — on the sixth line that they intended to attack,” he said.
Magnuson lived in Japan from 1992 to 1997. After teaching English in Hiroshima and Fukuyama, he moved to Tokyo in early 1995 and worked as a journalist for an English-language newspaper.
After returning to the United States, he started writing the book in November 2000 and finished the complete first draft in the spring of 2001. He spent the next couple of years rewriting it.
Magnuson said the most difficult thing in writing the book was “getting the facts right.”
“I wanted to approach it like a reporter to get as many facts right as I could, so I had to do a lot of research to get the times right and base all the events as accurately as possible,” he said.
Magnuson said, “A very key question that I hope to answer in this book is how does an ordinary person become sucked into a cult like this — maybe a good person who has never thought about killing anyone with no criminal background — and become a killer.”
Junichi Habaki is a character created to show readers how it could happen, he said.
Magnuson said he created Tamara Duffy as an American character for Western readers to identify with.
“She is very much like a lot of foreigners that I know in Japan who have been living there a long time and don’t feel like Japan is their home but they return back to America and feel kind of out of place there also.”
“She is kind of stuck between the two cultures, and she can’t make a move to leave. And I’ve experienced that myself and I know many people who have experienced that,” he said.
The book has another fictional main character, Shin Nomura, a Metropolitan Police Department inspector, who pursues Habaki.
“As for the police, that was the most fictional part of the book,” Magnuson said.
“I felt, I just have a feeling — and I have nothing to base it on — that there were good policemen inside the agency who wanted to do something and that they must have been frustrated,” he said.
“And that is what I based Nomura on, that there were good policemen inside the Tokyo department who wanted to stop him (Habaki) but couldn’t,” he said.
Magnuson said the Aum Shinrikyo incident is not a case that can only occur in Japan.
“That is one thing that I would really like to say is that I don’t want to sound like I am a Japan basher or picking on Japan because this happened all over the world,” he said.
The book is nline purchase at www.amazon.com.
Sep. 8, 2003 Book Review
Review by Yoichi Kosukegawa