Being in Japan has reminded me that I wanted to come back and write about two works, Underground and After the Quake, by one of favourite writers, Haruki Murakami. Murakami is a Japanese writer who the Japanese literary establishment hate, the public love, and generally the western literary establishment love. He writes mainly surreal fiction, comprised of characters that don’t fit in well in Japan (they eat pasta, and listen to jazz..it’s not surprise then to learn that Murakami once owned a jazz club). There are also a lot of talking cats in his books. His writing is direct, hardboiled, but there is sensitivity in his characters. It can be off beat, odd, and I guess after 40 years, if you weren’t a real fan, you might it a little bit samey. I’m a fan.
He wrote Underground, an account of the Sarin attacks in Tokyo in 1995. He was living overseas, although back in Japan for a short period, and like many Japanese, like us all really, found it hard to compromise why a cult a) exists and b) why cult members would carry out such attacks. Swamped with the news for months, Murakami kept thinking, none of this tells me what I really want to know. What happened down there in the subway? How did ordinary people react to the gas attack?. He was also disturbed by the black and white media, us and them, goodies and baddies nature of the commentary. Any examination of the cult, (the them) should also give rise to an examination of the us, the society that gave rise to the cult.
The book sets out to present two stories, those affected, and those who perpetrated, or at least were part of the cult that perpetrated the acts. Initially it was just published as an account of the survivors. Murakami deliberately tried not to present any of the Aum in the book, he didn’t read anything about them. However as time went on he was drawn to finding out why people were taken into the cult. Part 2: The Place that was promised deals with the accounts of 8 Aum members. This is important, as we as managers need to make sense of a situation, and help the public make meaning of a situation (which is something I don’t think we do at all well).
From the people affected, there are a range of responses from the stoic to the sensitive. Each account is harrowing. Murakami has captured, I think what he set out to do, to give us a little bit of insight. We weren’t there, but we can begin to understand.
“ I know I don’t appear to be in constant pain, but imagine wearing a heavy stone helmet, day in day out, I guess it doesn’t make sense to anyone else”
After the Quakes takes place after the Kobe Earthquake also in 1995. This account is different, as it is his fiction. Some of it is crazy, as Mr Katagiri and Frog prepare to do battle with the giant worm to stop an earthquake destroying Toyko. But listen to Frog describing the earthquake to a sceptical Katagiri
“ buildings will be transformed into piles of rubble, their inhabitants crushed to death. Fires everywhere, the road system in a state of collapse, ambulances and fire trucks useless, people just lying there, dying. A hundred and fifty thousand of them. Pure Hell! People will be made to realise what a fragile condition the intensive collectivity known as a city really is”
One of my favourites is the four year old who believes that the earthquake man is trying to stuff her in a box. IT is a reminder of the impact of exposure of these events on young, plastic minds.
I think these works are worth reading. It helps us, and should help bring the challenges of disaster management, and particularly recovery into the public domain, and shift the simplistic narrative that surrounds out popular culture perception of disasters.