What did Aum Shinrikyo have in mind?

Ian Hacking

  • Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami, translated by Alfred Birnbaum
    Harvill, 309 pp, £20.00, June 2000, ISBN 1 86046 757 1

Every once in a while, something happens to you that makes you realise that the human race is not quite as bad as it so often seems to be. In 1972, I was on the London Underground when a man failed to mind the gap. Not only did he put his foot between the train and the platform, but he did so as the train was starting; he was dragged a short distance before the train was halted, and his leg was pulled downwards. He was in agony, his leg was torn and he could not extricate it from the gap. Someone, a station guard or a commuter, took charge. ‘Lean against the carriage and lift it!’ he shouted. We did. ‘One, two, three – heave.’ We heaved and held. It is quite surprising how high you can lift an Underground carriage if the lot of you give it body and soul for a short time. The man was helped out, the emergency services arrived, and we all went our different ways.

This story is not peculiar to the calm, stoic, civil Londoners of Blitz legend. It could have taken place in Budapest, San Francisco or Kyoto. The important thing is that everyone involved knew exactly what had happened. A terrorist bomb in Selfridges would make most of us lose our cool, but we would also know roughly what to do. We might be in shock. We might not afterwards be proud of our behaviour – we thought we were more courageous than we are – but at least we would know what had happened.

Now suppose that we had all started coughing, that a station guard had picked up a plastic carrier bag, dumped it in a trash container, and fallen down foaming at the mouth, just as you noticed that your vision was failing. Would you have had any idea what to do? Would any collective action have made sense? I was certainly sceptical about lifting the Underground carriage, but the cry of the anonymous leader made sense to everyone in the crowd. What would make sense if your Tube stop was the subject of a sarin gas attack? Haruki Murakami thinks the events in the Tokyo Underground of 20 March 1995 can teach us something about the Japanese psyche. I am not convinced: any more than I would be if someone told me that the rescue of the man who failed to mind the gap said something about the British or the London psyche.

Underground is a personal quest that prompts more questions than it can answer. Who is Murakami? Is there such a thing as a Japanese psyche, or a French psyche? What was the gas attack on Tokyo: which gas was used, what are its effects? Did the Japanese infrastructure deal competently with the attack, or did it break down? Who were the people who launched the attack? Why did they do it? How did it affect the people who inhaled the gas? How have security systems all over the world adapted to the possibility of such an attack? Is it relevant that this was a nerve gas attack on the Japanese Underground, itself the nerve system of the city? What would you, or I, have done had we been there on the busy morning of 20 March 1995? How would it have tested our character?

Murakami has a primary objective. Break down the ‘them’ and ‘us’, the attitude that holds that we are sane and they (those who launched the attack) are nuts. His book consists of interviews with people who were on the subway that morning, followed by a few interviews with members of Aum Shinrikyo, the secret society that set off the gas attack. (In Japan these two parts were published as separate books.) There are slender conjectures about ‘them’ and ‘us’ being part of the same social structure, and sharing the same national psyche. I shall try to address some of the questions, and I shall fail miserably. That, perhaps, is one point of Murakami’s book. We all fail miserably. But we do not have to leave it there. There are many facts, to start with. But they have a lot of different dimensions. The substance. The cult. The victims. The author.

Let’s start with the substance, the nerve gas called sarin. A subclass of chemicals called organophosphorous plays havoc with the signals that pass through the nervous system of pretty much anything that has a nervous system, from people to mites. Sarin was one of the first of these substances to be synthesised and investigated. It is quite a simple chemical, and can be made from cheap materials. It was developed in Germany in 1938. A similar organophosphorous was manufactured there in significant quantities during the war but never used. The German military prudently judged that once the Americans had worked out the formula, they could use the overwhelming superiority of Allied air power to kill every last German – man, woman, child, cow, sheep, dog, cat, flea and mite. Soon after the war, chemists in Britain managed to produce stuff ten times crueller than sarin, and these more lethal substances became the core of the US and British nerve gas arsenal. (The UK seems long to have been a leader in the field.)

Perhaps the German high command should not have worried so much. Sarin, cheap to make, is not so easy to ‘deliver’ – the euphemism for ‘to kill people with’. The standard procedure for rich governments is to finish producing a nerve gas only on delivery: that is, you have two non-lethal components that you lob at your enemy, and when they land, a small explosion enables them to interact and produce the deadly stuff. It is widely believed that Iraq used nerve gas when it fought Iran in one of the most horrible wars of the 20th century. The American war against Iraq paid full attention to the possibility of gases, and no one knows for sure whether some nerve gases, perhaps released from bombed factories, caused Gulf War Syndrome – or was it the depleted uranium used to coat American shells, which makes them better at piercing armour, but which gets into the atmosphere after the shells explode?

The Tokyo gas attackers settled on a simple delivery system. The gas is volatile. They packaged their product in a plastic bag, wrapped it in newspaper, put it at the exit to a subway carriage, and when the carriage came to a stop, stabbed the bag with the inevitable umbrella, and ran out to a waiting car or taxi. Three Underground lines were almost simultaneously attacked in this way; Murakami distinguishes seven different sites on these lines. It’s believed that a total of ten men made the primary deliveries.

Sarin is deadly, but its real-life potency is often overstated (as in the first translator’s footnote to this book): it is pure sarin that is so lethal and it is not very easy to make it pure. The Tokyo gas attack relied on a fairly impure product. Sarin is almost odourless, but this stuff seems to have smelled like paint thinner. The number of people killed was quite small, a total of 12. Many, many more passengers suffered from complex after-effects. An early official summary stated that 3796 people were affected. The more commonly cited number today is about five thousand. A recent study found that around 30 per cent of these people are still affected, many of them by post-traumatic stress disorder.

If you were just intent on killing people you could do better with a bomb made of agricultural fertiliser. You could also kill vastly more people using the same impure sarin and a slightly different delivery system. The same plastic bags, deployed differently, and not in the Underground, could have efficiently killed thousands of Japanese. (Forgive me for omitting the details; unfortunately anyone with minimum technical dexterity can figure this out.) One hypothesis would be that the attackers wanted not so much to kill people as to attack the Tokyo Underground system as a symbol of Japan at its technological, organised best. The Underground station most heavily attacked was Kasumigaseki, which is directly under the highest concentration of government offices – read Whitehall – so the targets could be thought of as the top junior people in the Japanese civil service on their way to work.

Who is Murakami? An exceptionally successful Japanese novelist whose work figures prominently on the fiction shelves of every Western bookshop I’ve looked in. I loved the first book of his that I read, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1993), but there is a basic plot-line in almost all his novels that is a bit jading. There is always a Narrator, a loner, who knows several very odd people, one of whom is usually a terminally virginal nymphet, on whom the Narrator has no designs. His relationship to reality, or to alternative realities, is less than secure. There are regular dollops of soft porn involving consenting adults. His refrigerator has a truly amazing capacity for beer and his lady friends of all ages have very audible cigarette lighters. There are some menus, gracefully thrown together, but the Narrator seems to eat more spaghetti than anything else. He slurps it up, in fact, which fits well with the oral passions elsewhere on show. Anybody in Tokyo who is rich enough has an unbelievably expensive European car. For the Narrator, it is second-hand Subarus all the way.

The odder the people whom the Narrator knows, the more likely they are to disappear, or cross over into another world. Murakami’s most elegant, and truly pure, short story seems, in retrospect, to tell it all: ‘The Elephant Vanishes’. Everyone in town is looking for a missing elephant; only the Narrator knows that there is a very simple explanation for the inability of the police and the boy scouts to find the elephant: it vanished.

The Narrator listens, very knowledgably, to a lot of Western music, jazz, popular and classical. Norwegian Wood, recently released in English, although already translated into many other languages, was Murakami’s first great success in Japan.[*] It is named after the Beatles song and is not unlike The Catcher in the Rye or L’Education sentimentale, or something between the two with a bit of Werther thrown in. High praise, but not higher than it received at home, where it was a stunning bestseller. We are informed by the publishers that a previous English translation was made commercially for Japanese learning English: since they knew the (by no means short) story off by heart, this was a good text to learn from. I found it an interesting place to learn about Japan in 1968, when the story is set. The Narrator makes it through 1968, slightly scathed and amply sucked, but almost everyone else, including his best boy friend and his true-love girlfriend, gets dealt heavy-duty suicide. Even in this story we get an inkling, right at the start, of a passion for living, literally, under ground. (Whoops. Freudian slip there. In Hardboiled Wonderland the underground enemies are translated as ‘INKlings’.) In other stories the underground may be moved up to the 16th floor of a supermodern hotel: just once in a while, when you get out at that floor in the middle of the night, you will find yourself in total darkness, there will be a smell of mould, and somewhere down there, at the end of the corridor, one of the Narrator’s shuffling old chums, first rediscovered by an innocent young receptionist who got off at the 16th floor at a bad moment, but also known about by a psychic nymphet whom the Narrator has to escort back to Tokyo. Who is the shuffler? The sheep man, shuffle, shuffle, he walks in the scary dark. He has a few wise saws, wears a sheepskin coat, and is working through a somewhat faded manual from Yorkshire, bearing on sheep reproduction.

The Narrator who most clearly chooses the underground is in the book that is most admired in translation, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1999). He discovers a dried-up well in a haunted house next to his. An Old Soldier tells him that once, while on a spying mission in Mongolia, he was captured by a mad Soviet colonel who had him tied up and tossed to the bottom of a dry well, and it was there that he had his epiphany. So the Narrator decides to epiphanise in his neighbourhood well, a dangerous undertaking because the neighbourhood nymphet has a nasty habit of pulling up the ladder when he is asleep. Following the advice of the Old Soldier, the Narrator gradually learns how to get into the Other World, where his disappeared wife and/or cat may or may not be, but just as he has figured it out, and has killed (in the Other World) his wife’s Evil Brother, and generally purified himself, the well, into which he has crawled, suddenly comes to itself, and fills with water, in which said Narrator is about to drown; luckily he is rescued two chapters later by the brilliant, charming, but also Autistic Son of the woman who has been hiring the Narrator to act as psychic guide to the confused matrons of Tokyo, whose chauffeurs drive those Mercedes with the tinted windows. (She has managed to have sex of a sort with him by licking a bluish spot that grew on his cheek while he was in the well, when he was switching into another reality, maybe. Her father, who worked in Manchuria during one of the sorriest scenes in Japanese history, had an identical mark on his face, which is the reason she hired the Narrator. By what I believe is called dramatic foreshadowing the Autistic Son saves the day by taking the slightly shamed Narrator to a shower, where he can wash and also replace his soiled underpants, new ones being provided by management.) Meanwhile the Narrator’s wife, perhaps in this world, cuts off the life-support system of the Evil Brother: a fact of which she informs the Narrator by using the computer wired by the Autistic Son. And the damned spot got removed in the purification scene at the bottom of the well, where the Narrator was (probably) not drowning.

I hope you see that Murakami was just the man to examine the Tokyo gas attack: not just because of his fascination with the underground, but also because he takes seriously both alternative realities and the end of the world, possibly a major feature in the thinking of the leaders of Aum Shinrikyo.

Murakami decided to interview as many victims of the gas attack as would co-operate. He wanted to find out what it was like to be there. He thinks that Japanese society crashed, and that the attack forces the question ‘Where are we Japanese going?’ It does not seem like that to me, outsider though I am. I think that many people, indeed the entire system, behaved quite well, even though a great deal of chaos was to be expected. In one Tube train the station guards are heroes, and die. In another an adolescent is assigned to clean up a carriage, and swabs it carelessly, it stinks, and he callously retreats. Surely this is what it is like to live in a great city.

The doctor best qualified to advise on treatment for the victims was supposed to be on holiday, but he wasn’t, and as soon as he got word of some sort of calamity in the Underground, he understood what had happened and started faxing every hospital in Tokyo with precise directives. Some of the hospitals reacted well. Others didn’t. At one hospital a woman walked into the emergency room with the pupils of her eyes vanishing, a major symptom of sarin gas poisoning, and was told to see an eye doctor. Such mismanagement seems to me to be expected. It doesn’t reveal anything about the Japanese psyche. It just shows that in a great city in minor crisis some things will work serendipitously (the sarin-expert doctor had not left for his holidays) and other things will not work (‘go see an eye-doctor, we can’t help you’). I know it sounds heartless to call this a minor crisis when it was experienced as a catastrophe, as a breakdown of the social stability that Japan had come to expect. Many aspects of the event were comparable to the recent explosion in the Pushkin underpass in Moscow, except for the fact I have mentioned: that everyone in Moscow knew pretty much what happened. My daughter missed the Moscow explosion by half an hour, her destination being one of the kiosks almost exactly where the bomb went off: because she was late she saw only the emergency services in action. So when I say ‘minor’ I do not in any way underestimate the terrible actual or potential grief to the individuals or to the nation.

One of Murakami’s interviewees said she had lived for a year in the US and she knew that people in New York would have behaved differently. Yes, of course, a little differently, but significantly so? Enough to alter the outcome? Recent letters to the New York Times describe what happens in an airplane when a crisis is announced (‘We have just lost our landing gear’). In one such incident the entire passenger cabin became totally silent; nobody did anything except tighten their seat belts. In another the cabin filled with shrieks and cries of terror. An interesting phenomenon: but there is no evidence of any correlation with nations or their psyches.

What are you supposed to do when a guard falls down foaming at the mouth and something is going wrong with your breathing and your vision? I understand from Internet browsing that a selfish person would hold his breath, run to the surface, and on to the nearest Boots, where he would grab a bottle of talcum power to sprinkle over all the exposed parts of his body. Even flour is a pretty good idea, or a weak solution of sodium hydroxide or potassium permanganate. But that isn’t exactly common knowledge, and it is wholly selfish. Is there a civil and communitarian thing for an ordinary citizen to do, in the event of a gas attack? No one seems to have any suggestions. Go back down there with a case of talcum powder to neutralise the packages of gas? Not advised, unless you really want to be a dead and probably ineffectual hero.

Maybe people were just a little too ready to stick to their routines. Many of the interviewees describe in great detail their subway practices. Where they would get on, change, get off, which part of a train they would go to in the hope of getting a seat. It was just an ordinary morning. They started coughing. They should for their own good have left the train at once, which many who were not interviewed apparently did. But some stayed on for a while, following routine. I can’t see that as part of the Japanese psyche. I would probably have stayed on the train, because I tend to put up with things; my wife, who refuses to, would probably have got off. I got no sense, from Murakami’s interviews, that people behaved very differently from how the crowded throngs that come to work every morning in so many great cities would have done.

And what about Aum Shinrikyo? I have no sense, from the interviews, of Aum, although it seems to me to resemble an American Christian apocalyptic survival cult. The English version of Murakami’s book could have done with a knowledgable introduction by an expert. What I have to say now would be well known to Japanese readers, but is not available from this book. And I must emphasise that I am not an expert.

There is a charismatic leader, a tradition of initiation and renunciation, and an other-worldliness. The leader, who gave himself the name of Shoko Asahara, was born in 1955. His new religion was established with a dozen or so disciples in 1986. It is founded on an eclectic mix of variants of Buddhism, especially Tibetan, with bits of esoteric Hindu practices thrown in, as well as elements of Nostradamus and the Book of Revelations. ‘Shinrikyo’ can be translated as ‘teaching of the supreme truth’. One connotation of ‘Aum’ – the deep breath sound used in some yogic meditation – is ‘powers of destruction and creation in the universe’. It may seem strange that I call this group Buddhist, as Buddhists have a pretty good world reputation for pacifism. A brief translator’s footnote directs us to Vajrayana Tantra, described as similar to more conventional Buddhism, but offering a fast track to salvation, a track that is held by some to condone murder. The chief god in the Aum pantheon is Shiva, the god of destruction. Aum gained legal status as a religious group in 1989.

At first the group was much concerned with nuclear weapons, and behaved like survivalists in the US. They wanted small communes with nuclear shelters, food supplies and their own weaponry. But then they turned their attention to more conventional matters. By 1989, according to court proceedings, they began to murder people, starting with a young lawyer (one of their critics), his wife and his baby. They were very much concerned to make their own destiny, and their own weapons. They established a plant to make a thousand imitation AK47s, plus bullets. They succeeded in making some bad ones. Under the direction of a man with an MA in organic chemistry, they were apparently able to manufacture sarin by late 1993. A trial run was conducted in a small city in central Japan, with the dual purpose of exterminating some judicial and administrative figures who were investigating Aum, and of testing the gas. On 27 June 1994, seven people were killed and hundreds injured. Some cult members were also eliminated around the same time. The police seem to have made a hash of investigating the crime. They arrested a scapegoat, a man who used to work for a small chemical firm, and whose hobby was gardening. His potting shed was full of chemicals, probably gleaned from his employer. The police interrogated him for months and he was reviled by the entire country. Much the same happened when the police found bombs in Atlanta at the time of the 1996 Olympic Games. They, too, arrested a scapegoat. On the other hand, when the gardening chemist was finally cleared, the Japanese media publicly apologised to him.

Next question: why did this group want to gas the Tokyo subway? The perpetrators, three of whom have been condemned to death, did not talk to Murakami. Not surprising, but what did they think they were doing? I examined other studies of Aum, but I did not find any that was wholly convincing. Here is the closest. They were a millennial cult, who wished for the end of the world, and the rebirth that each would experience in a new world. They could hasten that happy day by leading this world through a path of destruction. They were agents of reform, not political but one might say metaphysical, who wanted to get to another side of reality, and who could speed up the process by causing this side to be destroyed more quickly.

Aum is often grouped together with terrorist organisations, but the classification is too coarse. One has to be careful: one cannot say that terrorists have broadly political ambitions, while cultists have spiritual ambitions. Aum did run candidates for Japanese elections a few years before the attack. The difference lies in ultimate this-worldly as opposed to other-worldly (or end-of-the world) ambitions or fantasies. Murakami suggests that the other-worldly fantasy is deep in ‘the Japanese psyche’. I do not think he proves his case.

Murakami is totally opposed to the them and us attitude taken by the Japanese media: we are sane, Aum is crazy. He says, Aum and ‘we’ belong to the same society. He offers an analogy. The young people who went off to found the new state of Manchuria in the 1930s were idealists who could create a new world (a subplot of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). This is a topic on which Westerners have to reflect a little, for we were brought up to believe that the Japanese assaults on China and the north were unspeakable. They were. Murakami’s point is that they began in a high idealism, and a desire to get away from the Japanese homeland to create a purer world. It turned into horror, in part because of a lack of historical sense of what is attainable and what is not. It is quite well known now that the Second World War suicide pilots were the brightest and most idealistic of a cadre of university students. Murakami suggests that the young people who joined Aum made the same type of error as those earlier idealists.

I find the comparisons between colonialism and cults somewhat facile. It should not be surprising if the two pursue similar patterns in Japan and the West. Japan decided to become a Western state in 1868, an event in world history whose only close analogy was the decision of Peter the Great to become European. Japan bought into everything, including being a colonial master and having cults. They are not the same thing, however. Exploiting colonies, or making them into idealised worlds, is a perfectly rational strategy, even if the cruelties are deplorable, and the contempt for the colonised despicable. Apocalyptic other-worldly cults, in contrast, are crazy – I say in disagreement with Murakami. (Not that ‘crazy’ explains anything.) Apart from the idea of speeding up the end of the world by mass murder, Aum, with its totally charismatic leader and unhappy young people who become dedicated to the cause, does not look importantly different from cults that horrify us in other parts of the world. For a while, everything goes pretty swimmingly, but various delusions build up in the mind of the leader which he is able to impose on his followers. And then the communes crash in ways that strike the rest of us as insane. This happens regularly. Jonesville. The Quebec-Swiss cult. The recent case in Uganda. Some cults make it: it is sad that some young people became Moonies, but it does not seem the worst thing in the world to be a Moonie. Other cults are the worst thing in the world to join. Aum developed into just such a cult. And yet Aum was different. It was not into suicide; it was into random mass murder, or so it appears, mass murder intended to hasten the end of the old world.

Sometimes the cult worked better than one would expect. Like many survivalists it wanted to be self-contained. It made its own guns and, I think, its own bullet-proof vests. We have a report here of a young man who was told to learn how to work as a magazine printer and book-binder. So he worked for a few months in a print shop, and learned his trade. Then he was brought back as an initiate, given truckloads of obsolete and broken machinery and a dozen totally ignorant assistants, and told to start publishing a magazine. The LRB would collapse in a week with this strategy, but Aum pulled it off. So maybe they’re not crazy after all?

The leader firmly believed he needed to be protected from poison gas, and had many of his acolytes developing air-cleaning machines (they sound like giant vacuum cleaners) which had to accompany him everywhere. He set up a little state with ministries on the British system (there was a ministry of science and technology, for example). Murakami calls the members of Aum the élite of Japanese society, but this needs explanation for Westerners. Our word ‘élite’ has become incorporated into standard Japanese, but with a shift in nuance. It applies to people who get in to a certain group of top universities, or who work for top corporations – they may in every other aspect of their lives be hopelessly mediocre. There is an absolute hierarchy to Japanese educational institutions, and a student who fails and drops out is (I am informed) still called ‘élite’. Aum deliberately recruited from what a Japanese friend of mine calls ‘brand name’ establishments. Asahara himself tried repeatedly to get in to one of the brand name universities and failed; then he took up religion. Everyone was asking: ‘How come these élite individuals joined Aum?’ Murakami replies: ‘Just because they were élite.’ My friend suggests that the choice of the Kasumigaseki station as the prime site for the attack suggests that this was an action against true élites (in the Western sense) on the part of drop-out élites.

Aum was made up of reasonably prosperous, reasonably educated and unreasonably lonely young people in an eclectic society. ‘Eclectic’ may be a key word. It applies to the language of Japan, and to the writing. Perhaps here is something Japanese: you’ll hear more Christmas carols in the streets of Tokyo in December than anywhere else in the world; but you can also go to a Shinto shrine the same day and see the new cars being blessed by holy men with feather dusters to drive out evil spirits. And then to spiritual places of every denomination, including those in Kyoto which I think are the most moving on earth.

What Westerners will not see is the explosion of eclectic cults since 1950. It began much earlier, perhaps in the 1880s, but after the war innumerable cults came into being and acquired many adherents. Aum was very much a latecomer. From that perspective, it is merely an extreme version of what was happening all over the nation. Perhaps the combination of technological advance, materialism, money, crowds, rapid transit and spirituality makes a cult that combines all those elements more possible in Japan than anywhere else.

Can we do anything to deal with apocalyptic cults? We don’t have a good record. The obvious thing would be to have the domestic spy system, MI6 or whatever, infiltrate cults and find out what they are up to. Well, maybe there have been endless such successes, and stories never told, but it surely does not look like that. We cannot quite balance democratic and security values. We don’t want very odd religious groups systematically spied on, but at the same time we do not want them to gas us or to blow us up in the Tube. Balancing democracy and security was particularly hard in postwar Japan, with its determination to be respectful of its cults, and to count all of them, from an official point of view, as legitimate religious bodies.

Undoubtedly Japanese security could have been better. The first sarin attack, in June 1994, took place in a little known town in central Japan. The innocent man arrested by the police was held for a long time; Aum was largely ignored. And even in 1989 at the time of the group’s first proven murder, an Aum badge was found at the scene of the crime, but no arrests could be made – partly because the bodies of the three victims had been hidden in different places in the mountains and were not found for six years.

We probably should not imagine that we are dealing with an isolated cult whose privacy was overly respected by a not too competent police force. One scenario turns these dark events into something worthy of a Murakami novel. Aum may well be networked with a number of other dastardly forces, including Yakuza – the Japanese Mafia – and some persons in Very High Places. It has been suggested that the murder of the young lawyer and his family was a joint enterprise, the Aum badge planted by Yakuza to keep Aum in its place, while the police were hampered because they were sure that the Very High Places were going to intervene in the case. Maybe this is just the type of paranoid speculation that builds up around a bizarre and terrifying story, but as I kept on looking into these matters, I became convinced that there is a lot more to this grotesque tale than has come out so far. None of these questions arises in Murakami’s book, but I thought readers might like a little more background than he provides.

To return to Underground: a further striking fact is that despite the earlier sarin attack, only one subway passenger whom Murakami interviewed knew right off what was happening: a woman in her thirties who refused to have her name published in this book. ‘This has to be sarin,’ she said. ‘My pupils are contracted, aren’t they?’ She had carefully read newspaper reports of the attack in June the previous year. She was also one of the few who was astonished by the absence of panic. ‘Everyone was so silent. No one uttered a word.’ This may be one thing which marks off the events in Tokyo from what might have happened in similar circumstances in other parts of the world. Had there been a sarin gas attack in Northampton, say, and one in London nine months later, many people in London would have had a clearer idea of what was happening than their Japanese counterparts. Murakami may be right to speak of a loss of historical sense – something he has tried to counter in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by incorporating bits of 1930-45 narrative. Perhaps there was too much confidence that Japan had put itself back together, a feeling that nothing bad would ever happen again.

Perhaps that attitude should have changed after the Tokyo attack, but it did not – and that may be one point Murakami wanted to make. Aum and its members were reviled by the public. Although citizens are constitutionally entitled to live where they choose, local authorities don’t allow Aum members to complete residence formalities. Asahara’s trial on 17 charges continues (it was in recess during the month of August when I was writing this). Two men were condemned to death for the 1989 murders, and this summer three more were sentenced to be hanged for their share in the sarin attack. The cult must now report the number of its members every three months. The most recent count was 1140 – a loss of ten members since the previous report. About half live in Aum ‘facilities’, and the rest privately, although often close together because it is so hard to find a landlord who will rent to them. At its height there were some five thousand members. The main Aum website in English continues to proselytise and praise Asahara as if nothing had happened. Technically the organisation is now called ‘Aleph’ but just type in the letters ‘Aum Shinrikyo’ and you will find it instantly.

[*] Norwegian Wood is translated by Jay Rubin (Harvill, 512 pp., £15, 18 May, 1 86046 800 4).