Underground (stories)

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: General Literature

Author Haruki Murakami
Original title (if not in English) アンダーグラウンド
Translator Alfred Birnbaum, Philip Gabriel
Country Japan
Language English
Genre(s) Non-Fiction
Publisher Kodansha, Bungeishunjusha (Japan) / Harvill (UK) / Vintage (US)
Released Japan 1997-1998 / UK 2000
Media Type Print ( Hardback)
Pages 309 (UK hardback edition)
ISBN 1860467571
Preceded by The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Followed by Sputnik Sweetheart

Underground (アンダーグラウンド Andāguraundo ?, 1997- 1998) is a book by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami about the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Described as a work of "journalistic literature," it collects a series of separate interviews Murakami conducted with 60 victims of the attacks and 8 members of Aum, descriptions of how the attacks were carried out, and his essay "Blind Nightmare: Where are we Japanese going?"

Underground was originally published in Japan (in Japanese) without the interviews of Aum members - they were published in the magazine Bungei Shunju before being collected in a separate volume, The Place That Was Promised. The English translation combines both books into a single volume, but has been abridged to achieve this. The translation of Underground was performed by Alfred Birnbaum, with that of The Place That Was Promised being done by Philip Gabriel.


In his introduction to the book Murakami describes his motivations for writing it:

The Japanese media had bombarded us with so many in-depth profiles of the Aum cult perpetrators--the 'attackers'--forming such a slick, seductive narrative that the average citizen--the 'victim'--was an afterthought . . . which is why I wanted, if at all possible, to get away from any formula; to recognise that each person on the subway that morning had a face, a life, a family, hopes and fears, contradictions and dilemmas--and that all these factors had a place in the drama . . .

Furthermore, I had a hunch that we needed to see a true picture of all the survivors, whether they were severely traumatized or not, in order to better grasp the whole incident.

Jay Rubin holds that Murakami also had highly personal reasons for wanting to write Underground, notably that he wished to learn more about Japan after living almost entirely abroad for nine years and that he wanted to fulfill a responsibility he felt towards Japan's society.


The interviews in Underground were conducted throughout 1996, being recorded on tape, then transcribed and edited. Draft interviews were then sent to the interviewees before publication for fact-checking and to allow them to cut any parts they did not want published.

At the start of each interview, Murakami asked general questions about the subject's life, allowing him to build a background picture of them which is included before each interview. He did this to "give them a face", thus avoiding creating, "a collection of disembodied voices". His interviews with victims have been seen as similar in style to those of Studs Terkel's Working, an influence that Murakami admits along with that of Bob Greene. His interviews with Aum members are intentionally more combative.


Murakami concludes the victim-interviews with the essay, "Blind Nightmare". In it he strongly criticises the Japanese response to the gas attacks, calling their crisis management system, "erratic and sorely inadequate". He further worries that the government's lack of openness about their failings may lead to their repetition. He also talks about one factor which led to the attacks - the handing over of personal responsibility by cult members to Aum leader Shoko Asahara - a trait which irritated him during interviews with Aum members.


The original Underground (sans Aum interviews) was seen by some critics as being "one-sided", a view which Murakami himself shared, leading to his publishing The Place That Was Promised. Despite this possible bias, the original Underground sold 270,000 copies within two months of its Japanese release.

Common themes

The stories of those interviewed in the book share many common themes:

  • Working overtime seems to be normal for the interviewees - many talk of waking up early so they could arrive at work up to 90 minutes before it officially began.
  • Almost half of the female interviewees mentioned being regular victims of chikan - groping of women by fellow commuters on the subway (none ever attempted to report this to the authorities).
  • Despite the noticeable discomfort caused by the gas, not a single interviewee asked other passengers what was going on, preferring to wait until the next stop to change trains.
  • Passengers that lost consciousness remained lying on the floor for some time. Commuters, with a few notable exceptions, did not attempt to help them, but instead waited for employees whose authority allowed them to intervene.
  • Despite casual references throughout the book, Aum Shinrikyo itself is touched on only briefly in the preface to the book and its conclusion (although this is redressed by the Aum narratives published later).
  • Not all of the victims blame Aum and call for hard judgements, the Japanese edition even includes an interview with a man who refused to admit being a victim and considers his involvement to have been "lucky".
  • A large number of those suffering from post-traumatic problems suffer more from mental disabilities rather than the physical effects of the gas itself.
  • Some victims recovered faster than others, with no apparent correlation between recovery time and the amount of gas they consumed.
  • Although suffering from extreme physical symptons from inhaling sarin, most of the victims continued with their planned activities. For many this included going to work - some only went to hospital for treatment reluctantly, when their superiors insisted.
  • Some victims radically changed their lifestyle to start focusing on 'what's important'.
  • Despite other sarin-related incidents which occurred previously, hospitals and ambulances were caught unprepared and many victims had to use taxis to get to the hospitals.
  • Media coverage concentrated on Aum more than on gas attack victims, overlooking their experiences.

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