The Tokyo subway was the perfect terrorist target. Efficient, clean, safe, its tunnels were, and still are, the veins and nervous system of the world’s biggest metropolis. Each day, with unerring punctuality, its trains disgorged the foot-soldiers of the Japanese miracle – the soberly dressed salarymen and earnest young office ladies – on to the spotless station platforms from where they streamed to their places of business. Better still for a saboteur, the five lines that the Aum doomsday cult targeted with its poisonous concoction 10 years ago tomorrow all converged on Kasumigaseki, Tokyo’s ministerial heartland, from where the bureaucratic elite had crafted Japan’s spectacular economic rise. Aum’s attack was an assault on the body politic itself.
In 1995, Sanae Yama was one of those foot soldiers. A graduate of international studies, she had joined a US securities firm and, by the age of 37, had risen to a senior management position. On the morning of March 20, she left for work at 8am. Unusually for a Tokyoite, her journey took fewer than 30 minutes. Most of those who were gassed that morning had spent well over an hour jammed inside trains clattering them towards their intended execution.
I had come to meet Yama in an anonymous-looking apartment block that serves as a support centre for some of those poisoned that morning. My secretary had warned me that Yama could not bear any chemical fragrances and that I should not use strong shampoo or aftershave. She had also told me on no account to treat Yama as a victim. “She does not know how the interview will go,” the note said. “But she does not want you to show any sympathy for her. She does not like to receive words of sympathy from anyone.”
Sheepishly, I knock and enter. Yama, seated at a small table, is wearing a dark polo neck and brown jacket, clothes so drab it is as though events have sucked them dry of colour. Despite my secretary’s admonitions, it is hard not to read suffering into her slim frame and hair cropped almost maliciously short. Yet when she speaks, though her voice is cracked, it emerges strong and brave. She says, clearly and precisely, that she has no interest in assigning blame. Nor does she want to postulate on what Aum’s underground activities may have “meant” – the thrust of my endeavour. But she is happy to recount what happened and keen to urge her government to rectify what she regards as its negligence in not properly researching the after-effects of, and proper antidotes to, sarin poisoning. Matter-of-factly, she tells of the ruin of her life.
”I left home five minutes early and unfortunately met the accident. There was nothing strange that day. But when we were pulling into Kodemmacho station, the train suddenly stopped. There was an announcement. They said they were not sure, but it seemed there had been an explosion at Tsukiji station” (further down the line).
From the platform, she called her office to tell them she would be late and waited. “When the next train pulled into the station, I felt something was strange,” she says. “People were yelling. But it was a very odd feeling. I knew they were yelling, but my world was very quiet. I went upstairs, and found people sprawled on the ground, looking very sick. Outside was as dark as night because sarin was affecting my pupils. I went to work by taxi. In the office, it was also dark and I asked my colleagues to turn the lights on. They said there was no need to. It was fine.”
One of the people who ruined Yama’s life – and destroyed many others – was Yasuo Hayashi. He was a high-ranking member of Aum (pronounced “ohm”), a religious cult whose 10,000 Japanese members had been busily preparing for Armageddon. Shortly before 8am, he had boarded a Hibiya line train, travelling the same route that Yama would later follow. At roughly the same time, four fellow “monks” – all armed with cheap umbrellas and carrying plastic bags filled with a colourless liquid – were boarding separate trains rattling towards Kasumigaseki.
The liquid was sarin, a lethal nerve gas invented by German scientists in the 1930s. Aum had learnt to make it. According to The Cult at the End of the World, an investigation by David Kaplan and Andrew Marshall, it had come up with a song to celebrate the discovery. One verse went: “It came from Nazi Germany, a dangerous little chemical weapon, Sarin Sarin. If you inhale the mysterious vapour, you will fall with bloody vomit from your mouth, Sarin! Sarin! Sarin – the chemical weapon.”
The man who would later be dubbed Killer Hayashi by a frenzied press stood in the packed carriage and quietly let his plastic packets slip to the floor. He jabbed the tip of his umbrella – carefully sharpened the night before – into the polythene and elbowed his way on to the platform. In the carriage, the doors closed and the train moved on. Passengers started to splutter and groan as noxious fumes spread. At 8.02am, the train pulled into Kodemmacho, where Yama’s train would be taken out of service some 15 minutes later. The doors opened and one of the choking commuters kicked the package on to the platform. There, unnoticed, it would poison dozens.
One of the people working at Kodemmacho that morning was Tsutomu Ohmuro. Nearing the end of a 24-hour shift, he had arisen a few hours before from a futon laid out in his office and cooked himself some thick udon noodles for breakfast. It was a bright clear morning, the first day of spring. Shortly after 8am, a buzzer sounded. Further down the Hibiya line, in the carriage where Hayashi had released the sarin, one of the passengers had fumbled for the emergency bell. Many were now vomiting uncontrollably and clutching their eyes. Three lay twitching on the ground.
Ohmuro was informed, erroneously, there had been an explosion at Tsukiji. He could do little about that, so he went to the platform and began handing out refund slips to delayed passengers. “I was issuing certificates and helping passengers with alternative routes. In the beginning everything was calm,” he says. The package was only metres away. As the crowd grew more frenzied, he didn’t notice that his vision was slowly fading. “Suddenly I saw a person in a panic,” he says. “Bubbles were coming out of his mouth and he was screaming. Two or three other passengers brought him over. I took him to the station office, but later I heard he died.” Shortly afterwards, Ohmuro also collapsed and was stretchered off to nearby St Luke’s hospital. There, doctors injected him with an antidote to pesticide poisoning. Though serious symptoms persisted for months, he took a solitary week off work. They were his first sick days in 12 years.
Similar scenes of horror were unfolding elsewhere. Hastily handwritten signs were posted outside the metro explaining that service had been suspended. Some bore a word so unfamiliar it was rendered in the katakana alphabet reserved for foreign concepts. That word was “terror”.
News filtered to Yama’s office that there had been some kind of gas attack. She too was ferried to St Luke’s, where doctors noticed that her pupils had shrunk to pin-pricks.
By the end of the day, more than 5,500 others had been struck down, some with agonising symptoms. One woman’s contact lenses fused to her pupils. Doctors surgically removed both her eyes. Twelve people, including station attendants, died. A number were left in vegetative states.
Four years later, Yama developed sarin-induced chemical sensitivity triggered by an office renovation. When her children brought artwork home from school, she vomited at the smell of paint. She quit work and became a prisoner in her home. Her symptoms have not improved, but Yama has adapted; with careful planning, she can move around Tokyo and even, occasionally, beyond. When our interview ends, she picks up the dark glasses and respirator that form her urban survival kit and straps a thick surgical mask to her mouth. The last time I see her she is heading for the entrance to the subway.
For Yama’s life, the result of Aum’s odious attack has been clear enough. She is happy to leave to others the messy and unsatisfying business of conjuring meaning from deranged actions. There has been no shortage of volunteers. The gas attack traumatised Japan and – particularly in the weeks after March, when Aum mounted an unsuccessful repeat performance at Shinjuku, Tokyo’s busiest station – television responded with blanket coverage.
Much dealt with the mechanics of the hunt for Aum’s leaders. In May, viewers watched live footage of a raid on the cult’s Mount Fuji compound, when police prised open a tiny chamber and discovered Shoko Asahara, the founder, sitting cross-legged in the gloom. (He and several others were subsequently sentenced to death by hanging, though no executions have yet been carried out.) It took 18 months before Hayashi, hardly inconspicuous at 6ft tall with an acne-scarred face, was finally arrested. Not surprisingly, questions were asked about the competence of a police force that had stood by for years as Aum built up its huge chemical arsenal and carried out a campaign of kidnappings and intimidation.
”Wide shows”, Japan’s frantic television magazine programmes, wheeled out a parade of experts, academics and charlatans to shake their heads and suck their pencils. It is hard to exaggerate how desperate Japan was for answers to the question: why? After all, Tokyo was a city where people left their bikes unlocked and where lost wallets were handed in still bulging with cash. Crime, particularly violent crime, was for other countries. Japan was supposed to be united. Enemies, if there were any, lay beyond its shores. To think that saboteurs – however few their number – lurked within, came as a terrible shock.
It so happened that in 1995, Haruki Murakami, Japan’s best-known novelist, had returned home from years of self-imposed exile in Europe and the US. He had been driven abroad by adulation that bordered on hysteria after Norwegian Wood, his novel about love and teenage suicide, sold more than 3 million copies, turning him into the beatnik spokesman for his generation. A devourer of foreign novels and the owner of a jazz club called Peter Cat – his parents had expected him to join Mitsubishi or some other prestigious conglomerate – he had been desperate to escape from what he regarded as the stifling atmosphere of Japanese society.
He couldn’t have picked a worse, or better, time to get reacquainted. The year 1995 wasn’t just the year of sarin. It was also the year his home city of Kobe was destroyed by a massive earthquake. That made it, Murakami reckoned, the most decisive 12 months in Japan’s postwar history. “This was the most critical year after the war, a kind of milestone for our country,” he once told me over lunch. We had met in a restaurant near the medieval-looking walls of Aoyama cemetery. In a wood-panelled private room, he discussed the enclosed world of his novels and the mayhem of life outside. “That was the year the postwar myth of the miracle years ended,” he said. “We believed in our system. We had been getting richer and richer and we thought our system would be stable forever. After 1995, we are no longer so confident.”
For Murakami, who had looked on in disgust at what he saw as the appalling spectacle of bubble Japan, it must have been hard not to see the Great Hanshin Earthquake as some kind of retribution. The public had been convinced Japanese buildings could withstand quakes and that emergency services were well organised. But much of Kobe was reduced to rubble in 15 seconds and fireballs roared unhindered through the city.
The twin tragedies drove home to the novelist the message that Japan’s miracle years were over. On the face of it, 1990 was the year that Japan’s great GDP project died. That was when the equity and land market collapsed, exposing the bubble years as irrational fantasy. These events had shaken Japan; but for several years, its elites laboured under the delusion that the crisis was temporary. Land and stock prices would surely recover, and the march to economic supremacy would resume.
The delayed reaction meant that 1995 – not 1990 – was Japan’s real economic turning point. In that year, two Tokyo-based credit unions went bust. The government responded by guaranteeing all bank deposits, an emergency measure that is only now being ended. It was also the year Japan’s GDP deflator turned negative, ushering in the longest period of deflation in modern history. Prices are still falling.
Murakami is not alone in seeing 1995 as key. “This was exactly when Japan went from being the land of economic miracle to the land of interminable slump,” says Jeff Kingston, a US academic and long-time resident. “In 1995, people saw the powerful Hanshin earthquake in Kobe and the gassing of Tokyo commuters by religious fanatics as omens that things were very wrong in their realm.”
A minority of Japanese had long felt something was wrong. In the 1970s and 1980s, people looking for inspiration beyond the cult of GDP were not short of alternatives. L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology, the Unification Church of Reverend Sun Myung Moon and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s movement all flourished. By the 1980s, a hundred new religions were emerging every year in what one scholar termed “the rush hour of the gods”.
It was fertile ground for Asahara, the son of a tatami-mat maker born in 1955 as Chizuo Matsumoto. Blind in one eye and bullied as a child, Matsumoto grew up ruthlessly determined to succeed. After failing an entrance exam for Tokyo university, the elite institution from where many Aum recruits would later be drawn, the embittered Matsumoto had his first run-in with the law when he was arrested for punching a fellow employee at a massage parlour. His second arrest followed in 1982 after he had duped elderly patients out of $200,000 by selling them Almighty Medicine – tangerine peel in alcohol solution – at $7,000 a pop.
In 1984, the 29-year-old Matsumoto set up the Aum Association of Mountain Wizards, a yoga and health-drink club. Things got more sinister when he reinvented himself as Shoko Asahara and started travelling to the Himalayas. He renamed his group Aum Supreme Truth, whose ideology was stapled together from Shiva the Destroyer, Nostradamus, the 16th century doomsayer, and Biblical notions of Armageddon. He began to predict a nuclear war that would soon lay waste to civilisation. Naturally, only devout – paid-up – members of Aum would survive.
Thousands of Japanese fell for this bizarre sales pitch. Of course, other societies are susceptible to false prophets, not least the US where in 1997, to cite just one example, 39 members of Heaven’s Gate committed mass suicide with the aim of floating away behind the Hale-Bopp comet. In Russia, which underwent wrenching social change in the 1990s, Aum’s membership grew to 30,000.
What distinguished Asahara was that he attracted a higher class of cultist. Many of those who signed over all their possessions and cut ties with society were recruited from elite universities. Well-educated young people, who might otherwise have joined prestigious companies or powerful ministries, found themselves participating in bizarre rituals. In one, which cost $7,000, initiates would drink a small vial of Asahara’s blood. In another they would gulp down his dirty bathwater, known as Miracle Pond, at $800 a quart. Cut-price initiates could seek enlightenment through the guru’s beard clippings, a snip at $375.
Before long, Aum shifted its focus from surviving Armageddon to precipitating it. Lieutenants scoured the world for chemical and biological weapons, even a nuclear bomb. Back in Japan, hundreds of young Japanese donned electrode caps intended to synchronise their brain waves with those of Asahara.
It is natural to dismiss Aum’s rise as freakish. After all, there are deranged lunatics in all societies. Yet a surprising number of Japanese intellectuals, Murakami among them, have sought to link the cult’s emergence with a crisis in Japanese society. In Underground, Murakami’s book of interviews with victims and perpetrators of the gassing, he writes: “I can’t simply file away the gas attack, saying: ‘After all, this was merely an extreme and exceptional crime committed by an isolated lunatic fringe.’” Rather than seeing the event as “Evil Them” versus “Innocent Us”, he rakes over mainstream society for clues. “Wasn’t the real key,” he writes, “more likely to be found hidden under ‘our’ territory?”
When I met him, he expanded on the idea. If the cult people’s lives were absurd, so was the existence of the uncomplaining commuters who sacrificed everything for Japan’s miracle, he argued. “I think their lives [too] are absurd. They are consuming, consuming themselves, you know. They commute two hours and work so hard. It’s inhuman. And when they come back to their house, their children are sleeping. It’s a waste of humanity.”
That view is tempered by the interviews in Underground, in which the uncomplaining creators of Japan’s miracle emerge as quietly heroic. Yet Murakami also appears to identify with the motives of those who tried to escape their ranks. “The cult people got out of that system and they entered the right system, a system they thought was right at least. They were very pure and they decided to live for themselves, for something good, for something immortal. Of course, they committed a crime, and they should not have done that.”
One could dismiss Murakami’s sympathy for Aum’s “ideals” as perverse if it did not crop up elsewhere. Kenzaburo Oe, Japan’s Nobel laureate, told me something similar about the fictional cult in his post-Aum novel, Somersault. “They wanted to show the Japanese people how we are at a dead end. They wanted to encourage us towards a new religion,” he said.
It is hard to attribute any idealism to the cultists, particularly senior members who knew all about Asahara’s doomsday plans. For Aum investigators Kaplan and Marshall, the cult was less an escape from Japanese society than a distorted reflection. “Aum’s young adherents found a structure that must have seemed comfortably familiar. The entire faith was set up like a Japanese school, with frequent exams (initiations), grades (levels of enlightenment) and an all-knowing teacher (the guru). At no point would they have to think for themselves.”
Kingston, the US academic, agrees. The cult’s hierarchy mirrored Japan’s pyramidal seniority system, with the guru/emperor seated unassailably atop. Aum even emulated the state’s bureaucratic apparatus, with senior members given positions in an array of fake ministries. “I was always struck by how Aum held up a mirror to Japanese society,” he says. “A lot of these people are from good schools, they’ve gone through the exam pressure cooker, they’re fast-trackers. A lot of people thought they were scary because they weren’t so weird.” Indeed, one does not need to believe there was anything intrinsically Japanese about Aum to appreciate the profound impact its emergence had on the national psyche. In future histories of Japan, the years of postwar growth and the years of post-modernist angst will be separated by a chapter headed “1995”.
Someone who has written compellingly about the breakdown of old certainties is Masahiro Yamada, professor at Tokyo Gakugei university and famous for coining the term “parasite single”. The phrase refers to young adults who stay rent-free with their parents, spending their entire salary on conspicuous consumption. Parasite singles still exist, as anyone who has fought through crowds of Tokyo’s luxury-goods hunters can confirm. But Yamada, who once made light of their existence, is now a deeply worried man.
When I knock on his door, he leads me into the cramped cubbyhole that is the typical workspace of Japanese academics. His is particularly messy, with papers strewn about and shelves overflowing with books. On the way in, I nearly trip over a foot-massaging device. Yamada, a delightful, if flustered, host, sits on a moth-eaten couch opposite and hands me a sheet of typewritten paper. The sheet is headed “Winners and Losers in the New Economy”. Below is a list beginning “sudden increase of suicides” and continuing “rapid increase of child abuse… temporary jobs… jobless young people, freeters [part-time workers] as wasted labourers who dream of unrealistic futures… the twilight of the postwar family… hedonistic lives, juvenile crime.”
I start trying to unscramble the list of social ills, but Yamada is already off. From 1945 until the bubble burst, he says, Japan’s social system was built on the assumption of endless growth. Everyone knew the rules. Men went through exam hell, graduated from university and devoted their life to a single company. In return, they received lifetime security and pay that increased with age. Women married those men. Not everyone found lifetime employment, of course. But the certainties it represented permeated a society that became the most secure and egalitarian in the world. Not without reason, Japan has been called the only socialist economy that worked. “Especially for Japanese men, companies play the role of a religious community,” Yamada says with a nod to Aum. “The important thing is that their companies will never abandon them. Japanese society can’t offer mental stability for those not able to join.”
The arrangement began to crumble after the bubble burst, he says, when big banks collapsed and corporations started laying off workers. Since then, the number of part-timers has exploded as Japan furiously constructs an underclass. He springs up to fetch a recent survey of 25- to 35-year-olds that suggests he is not alone in his gloom. Asked what would happen to the Japanese economy over their lifetime, only 4 per cent felt it would improve. Fully 61 per cent foresaw only decline.
The view is widespread that Japan’s postwar stability, equality and sense of purpose are seeping away. Taro Maki, who in the early 1990s was editor of the Sunday Mainichi newspaper, was one of the few to run critical articles about Aum before 1995. Asahara once came to his office to warn him off and Maki feared for his life. When he suffered a stroke, Asahara called it “heaven’s vengeance”. Today, Maki is also depressed about what he sees as social disintegration. Japanese society, in his opinion, has changed from being soto-muki, outward-looking and group-oriented, to uchi-muki, inward-looking and selfish. “The Aum incident happened during a transition period, when social divisions were becoming apparent,” he told me over coffee, the effects of his stroke still apparent in his speech. “Now Japan has become a winner and loser society. The winners are respected and the losers are left in solitude. If there were another Aum-like incident, I wouldn’t be surprised. Japan is very dangerous right now.”
There is an alternative to such alarmism. This holds that the old system, which rewarded unthinking devotion, was not all it was cracked up to be. Inevitably, once Japan caught up with the west economically, the social machine that made such a rapid catch-up possible started to judder and shake. That is the view articulated by Murakami, who maintains that the bursting of the bubble, far from a national tragedy, was a godsend. “I think our society is healthier than it was 10 years ago,” he said when we met. “It’s true that we are lost and we don’t know which way we should go. But I think this is very natural and healthy.”
The rapid rise in part-time workers, source of so much angst, was another manifestation of a society in healthy flux, he said. Young people were no longer shoe-horned into set roles. Like the young jazz-club owner he once was, many of today’s younger generation had willingly traded in security for possibility. “It happens in history. The country wonders about the meaning of its society just as an individual stops to wonder: ‘What am I?’ It is only a matter of time before we recover economically and mentally.”
Kingston also cautions against despair. In no way deaf to the wrenching sounds of a nation in transition, he also regards many recent developments as positive. In his book, Japan’s Quiet Transformation, he charts the rise of a civil society in which non-governmental organisations exert influence, and freedom of information laws flush out corruption. Powerful lobbies, from farmers to dam builders, are crumbling. “Japan’s civil society is under construction. It is work in progress that requires careful tending and patience,” he says. “The question for Japan now is: where do we find something that we can all feel and share as our common goal?”
Kingston leaves for a lecture and I head for the tunnels beneath Tokyo. Below the city, all is calm efficiency. Station staff sprint up and down the platforms as though their lives depended on keeping to the timetable. A Ginza line train wails towards the platform, hissing into view. As I board, I think of one of Murakami’s novels, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, in which he describes a breed of foul and destructive monsters called INKlings that infest the earth deep below Tokyo. In that story, written years before Japan’s real demons mounted their underground attack, Murakami described the violence lurking beneath his own society. Aum revealed to a frightened nation that the INKlings really did exist. Living with them is the next mission.
David Pilling is the FT’s Tokyo bureau chief.