Six years ago, Japan was shaken by two sudden shocks: the Kobe earthquake and the poison-gas attack on the Tokyo subway — two of the most disturbing tragedies of Japan’s postwar history. They represented a marked change in Japan’s consciousness from before to after these events. And the two catastrophes are now embedded in the Japanese consciousness as two milestones in the life of the Japanese people.

Haruki Murakami, a best-selling Japanese novelist, abroad at the time of the catastrophes, (actually living in Cambridge, MA) decided to write a book reflecting the impact of the twin disasters on the Japanese psyche. To do this, he collected the personal narratives of some 60 of the 700-odd survivors of the subway attack — interviewing them himself, usually taping the interviews. Many people just did not want to talk about the incident. They have made him think a bit differently about his compatriots and, indeed, life. The resulting book, “Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche” (Vintage International) makes for powerful, compelling reading

Proceeding with great care, and submitting the finished manuscript to the interviewees, he has produced a remarkable book, revealing to a surprising extent how Japanese minds work. One of the most striking things about the behavior of those Japanese caught in the attack is how largely they cared for each other, much — says Murakami at one point — as if they were members of the same family.

One survivor reports arriving on the scene early on the morning of the attack at one of the several subway stations where members of the Aum cult group had just released deadly sarin gas, twenty-six times as deadly as cyanide. All is pandemonium — with many people passed out or dying, others coughing their lungs out — but it was so orderly it was if it had all been rehearsed. Even when the subway announcement was made over the loudspeaker system, “Poison gas has been detected. It is dangerous underground. Please head for safety above ground.” Still, there wasn’t any panic. The people walked a little faster than normal, but there was no pushing. Some put handkerchiefs to their mouths or were coughing. That was all. But sarin was serious — you breathed it in and you died.

Then the train announcement: “One passenger has collapsed.” And a bit later: “Three passengers have collapsed.” Later, the floor of the station was covered with people either passed out or dying — some lying on their stomachs, some on their backs, not breathing, their eyes closed.

Murakami had always wanted to understand Japan on a deeper level. After seven or eight years abroad, he decided he must return, “to probe deep into the heart of my estranged country,” to enter the ranks of that generation with a “vested duty” toward Japanese society. “I decided that I needed to know about Japan as a society. I had to learn more about the Japanese ‘form of consciousness.’ Who were we as a people? Where were we going? But, specifically, what did I have to do? I had no idea.”

“In the end, my extended research into the Tokyo gas attack did indeed turn into a decisive exercise in ‘more deeply understanding Japan.’ I listened to a great many Japanese stories and, as a result, was able to see what it meant to be Japanese when confronted by a major shock to the system like the gas attack.”

“Especially after conducting interviews with the family of Mr. Eiji Wada — who died in Kodemmacho Station — and with Ms. Shizuko Akashi, who lost her memory and speech and is still in the hospital undergoing therapy, I had to seriously consider the value of my own writing. Just how vividly could my choice of words convey to the reader the various emotions (fear, despair, loneliness, anger, numbness, alienation, confusion, hope) that these people experienced?”

Murakami also discovered, from his many interviews with the survivors, a considerable spread of opinion as to what they thought should be meted as punishment to the cult members who had perpetrated this ghastly crime. Some didn’t even want to think of punishment. They just wanted to get on with their lives. Others thought it only right for the supreme penalty to be inflicted. A few said they would like to kill the men who released the gas with their bare hands. As it stands today, seven have been condemned to death, four to life imprisonment, one is still at large as a fugitive.

“The source and nature of the two events may be likened to the front and back of one massive explosion. Both were nightmarish explosions beneath our feet that threw all the latent contradictions and weak points of our society into frighteningly high relief. Japanese society proved all too defenseless against these sudden onslaughts. We were unable to see them coming and failed to prepare. Nor did we respond effectively. Very clearly, ‘our’ side failed.”

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