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Homogeneity is the crux of Japanese society, it is commonly stated by both outside observers and the Japanese themselves. How, then, to explain the characters in Haruki Murakami’s novels? The young men who feel lost, alienated, and purposeless? The young women beguiled by dreams, disappearance, and even death? The cult of cracked-Buddhist zealots who follow their guru’s orders to release poison gas on Tokyo subway trains, killing 12 people and injuring hundreds more?

Actually, Murakami didn’t concoct the latter threat to Japanese social harmony. During the morning rush hour of March 20, 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo sect really did release sarin gas on five trains on three Tokyo lines, terrorizing what is undoubtedly the world’s safest, most orderly major metropolis. If Murakami didn’t invent Aum Shinrikyo, though, of all the contemporary Japanese writers known in the West, he certainly seems the best qualified to explain it.

Born in Kyoto in 1949, Murakami lives near Tokyo—the Japanese equivalent of growing up in Boston and now living in southeastern Connecticut. In between, however, the novelist has spent much of his life overseas, including in the United States. A model baby boomer, Murakami has wandered and wondered, forever touched by what happened in the late ’60s, an era that was as tumultuous in Tokyo as in Paris or Washington. Indeed, the success of his Japanese best seller, the semiautobiographical Norwegian Wood, clearly is due in part to the way it conjures that period’s sense of possibility.

Crushing conformity and widespread alienation can easily coexist, as Murakami—and anyone who’s been to high school—knows. Yet the novelist was surprised by Aum Shinrikyo, a group of misfits who fled stultifying everyday Japan for a new minisociety even more demanding and capricious. Inspired to learn more, he conducted the interviews that compose most of Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, a sort of oral history of the morning of March 20, 1995, on the sarin-choked Chiyoda, Marunouchi, and Hibiya Lines. The novelist transcribed interviews with 60 victims and witnesses of the gas attack—34 of which are reproduced in this English edition. When these accounts failed to fully satisfy, he added the accounts of eight people who were members of the cult at the time to make up Part 2 of the book, “The Place That Was Promised.”

Murakami acknowledges the writings of Studs Terkel and Bob Greene as models for Underground, but he could just as easily have cited Please Kill Me’s look at New York punk or Shoah’s account of the Holocaust. Such works attempt to conjure a whole world by obsessively cataloguing individual details, while avoiding (or pretending to avoid) interpretation. Murakami tempers this approach with two short essays—which partially justify the book’s English subtitle—but mostly he just lets people talk. The effect is interesting, if inconclusive. When witnesses give their overlapping but incongruent versions of the events—Was the person who helped at Kasumigaseki station a nurse or a PR woman? Was the handkerchief she lent a TV crew transporting victims patterned or red?—Underground recalls Rashomon, the career-making Akira Kurosawa film that recounted a story from four viewpoints.

Murakami’s interviewees can’t even agree on what sarin smells like—paint thinner, rotten onions, and coconut are just a few of the options—so it’s not surprising that they differ about what Aum Shinrikyo’s assault says about Japan. “There are too many self-assertive people out there,” says a 52-year-old subway-station attendant, whereas a 41-year-old cosmetics-company executive (and part-time rock guitarist) contends that “the individual in Japanese society has to become a lot stronger.” A 30-something woman who teaches Japanese to foreigners and lived in the United States for a year argues that, “if the same thing had happened in America there would have been a real scene” with everyone “coming together to find the cause.”

When I first read that comment, I discounted it. Since then, however, a knife-wielding attacker in Osaka managed to kill eight elementary school kids and wound 15 more before being disarmed, an incident that probably would have ended less catastrophically in a more extroverted culture. “[K]eeping quiet is a bad Japanese habit,” says a 28-year-old software worker who helped carry victims from a train and questions the adequacy of the Tokyo police and fire departments’ response. (If American subway riders might have reacted more decisively to a gas attack, it’s doubtful that transit or emergency workers in the perennially disorganized United States would have responded more capably than their Tokyo counterparts.)

In dozens of poignant, surprising, or even comic details, Underground records differences between Japanese and U.S. society. But when Murakami tries to explain Aum Shinrikyo, he takes one of his texts from that American sweetheart, the Unabomber. And when the cult members themselves speak, they sound much like Western disciples of the Rev. Moon, Jim Jones, and similar authoritarian gurus. Before they to turned to Aum Shinrikyo, the converts were interested in Swedenborg, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Nostradamus, Gurdjieff, and prog rock. Cult leader Shoko Asahara tried to destroy his followers’ independent identities with LSD, claimed that yogic bouncing qualified as “levitation,” taught that the material world is evil, and tried to force many of his prettier female recruits into bed. This is all routine cult-leader stuff, practiced worldwide. The most Japanese thing about Asahara’s sect may be that it had an animation division.

Sickness is a taboo subject in Japan, where doctors frequently don’t inform patients who have cancer and lepers could still be quarantined until a recent court decision. So the lingering symptoms of sarin poisoning—which can damage heart, lung, eye, and liver functions—are an embarrassment in a country where a woman might boast to a prospective employer that “other than the mumps, I’ve never been sick a day in my life.”

That’s what 22-year-old Sumire, an aspiring writer who’s the pivotal character in Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, tells Miu, a middle-aged woman she meets at a wedding. If she lived in the real Japan instead of a Murakami novel, the disaffected Sumire might well have joined Aum Shinrikyo. After all, as Sumire tells Miu with un-Japanese candor, she’s a college dropout who can’t cook, clean, sew, sing, or tell left from right, and she has a bad temper, no money, and “hardly any friends to speak of.”

By comparison, Miu seems to embody the glamorous life of Tokyo’s cosmopolitan Shibuya ward, home to boutiques, nightclubs, and J-pop eclecticists such as Cornelius and Pizzicato 5. Miu is stylish and sophisticated and has built a wine-importing business to complement the trading company she inherited from her father. But she’s of Korean descent, a permanent outsider in the country where she was born. And she remains traumatized by an incident in her past, one that will be recounted once Sumire and Miu leave Tokyo for Europe—and Sputnik Sweetheart departs from the lyrical style and tortured-youth themes that recall Norwegian Wood for a magical-realist approach reminiscent of longer, more involved Murakami novels such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

The novelist writes empathetically about women, but from a male perspective. Like Norwegian Wood, this book is narrated by a young intellectual who’s in love with the central female character; she in return treasures his friendship, but she is reluctant to become his lover. Sumire has never felt sexual desire, she tells the unnamed narrator, a fledgling schoolteacher who worships her. That is, until she meets Miu. The young woman follows her new mentor on a European wine-buying trip, desperately hoping to be more than Miu’s assistant. (The teacher, meanwhile, forlornly screws the mother of one of his students. It’s not that Japanese women don’t put out; it’s just that Murakami has a thing for conflicted neurotics whose sexual diffidence is part of their charm.)

Norwegian Wood’s motif is suicide. Although in many ways engaging, that book chronicles the fates of so many sensitive, dead young women that—at least for the skeptical Western reader—the story risks self-parody. No one dies in Sputnik Sweetheart, but that doesn’t mean no one passes away. Almost everything about the novel—save its overexplained title—is left deliberately vaporous. One thing for sure, though: Sumire ends up even further from mainstream Japan than she began.

Not that the tale is especially Japanese. Sumire reads Kerouac, listens to Mozart, takes inspiration from The Wild Bunch, and falls for Miu over pumpkin gnocchi. I didn’t learn about Cornelius and Pizzicato 5 from Murakami; he’d rather discuss Jean-Luc Godard and Huey Lewis and the News. Within this internationalist milieu, though, the novelist seeks a disposition that is particular to his homeland.

“I think that inside all Japanese there is an apocalyptic viewpoint,” says a former Aum Shinrikyo member in Underground, and in their first-person, perpetual-adolescent manner, Murakami’s novels are apocalyptic. Toward the close of Sputnik Sweetheart, the narrator finds himself extricating one of his students who has been caught shoplifting—another Japanese renegade in the making—and telling the sullen fourth-grader that he wants to “see with my own eyes what’s been lost from the world….Maybe I really don’t want to see that. Maybe I don’t want to see anything anymore.” Murakami hasn’t really cracked the Aum Shinrikyo case, but he clearly understands the desire to forsake the world, whether physically or spiritually. CP