Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche - Haruki Murakami, Alfred Birnbaum, Philip Gabriel On March 20, 1995 a Japanese religious cult, called Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas onto five subway trains during the morning rush hour. Cult members entered trains near the front with two or three newspaper-wrapped packets of sarin, piercing the packets with sharpened umbrellas the members were able to get off the train with minimal injury due to the gas.

In Japan, this book was published as two: the first being interviews with sarin survivors that had been affected in some way, even just having their day disrupted; the second being interviews with members and ex-members of Aum that agreed to be interviewed. The first part of the book definitely deserves five stars. The second part of the book I found less intriguing, which surprised me. Maybe it's the way that the Aum talk about enlightenment that I really just had trouble with because it's so foreign to my western thought processes.

My lack of knowledge of this attack is pretty disgusting. But the thing is, that even spell check didn't recognize "sarin." Leads me to believe it's probably not just me that doesn't know enough about the attack. Hell, I didn't even know what sarin was or did until the last interviews in the first part of this book which were interviews with doctors who treated the sarin. The only thing I really knew about sarin, I learned from the introduction to the book, in a foot note.
Sarin is a nerve gas invented by German scientists in the 1930s as part of Adolf Hitler's preparations for World War II. During the 1980s it was used to lethal effects by Iraq, both in the war against Iran and against the Kurds. Twenty-six times as deadly as cyanide gas, a drop of sarin the size of a pinhead is sufficient to kill a person.

In the interview with the doctors, the most helpful part was this:
If you want to move a suckle the nerve endings send out an order to the muscle cells in the form of the chemical, acetylcholine. It's the messenger. When the muscle receives that they move, they contract. After the contraction, the enzyme cholinestrerase serves to neutralize the message sent by the acetylcholine, which prepares for the next action. Over and over again.

However when the cholinestrerase runs out, the acetylcholine message remains active and the muscle stays contracted. [...] when they stay contracted we get paralysis.


As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed the first half of this book quite a bit more than the second half. What was really striking was how surreal the event felt to the people who were involved. None of them really seemed to know what was going on or how to handle it. Even if they did hear that it might be sarin gas, the the overwhelming response seemed to be: "well, it couldn't be me, better be off or else I'll be late for work!"

My favorite interviews were the ones with Tatsuo and Shizuko Akashi. Shizuko was on Marunouchi Line, towards Ogikubo. She was the one most affected by sarin that agreed to be interviewed for Murakami's book. She lost much of her memory, ability to speak and walk. At the time this book was published she was in the hospital doing therapies to attempt to help her regain her life. The two interviews felt, to me, to be the two most emotional, and therefore resonated best with me.