Murakami and Katrina

Personal Writings

Hong Kong   31 Days in Exile!

I don’t remember now why I had picked this book up at Kramer’s in DuPont Circle in DC. Impulse? Probably. Saw it on a shelf and decided that it would be interesting and that it was something I did not now much about. I was probably more attracted to its promise of a discussion of the Japanese psyche as by the fact that it had to do with the Tokyo subway gas attacks of 1995. Airplane reading or something for the odd evening off — my son is a manga addict and we talk about taking a trip there some day when we have saved enough.

As it happens I read half of the book before the hurricane devastated New Orleans and the other half on the plane en route to the Hong Kong.

Haruki Murakami is arguably Japan’s most important contemporary novelist and has won some international acclaim for his work. I’m familiar with his name, but not his work, and having largely deserted fiction (or was I deserted?), I can not comment on that part of his work. Nonetheless, Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, seems to have almost been a providential purchase.

Murakami was trying to reconnect to his country and his people after years of work and travel abroad. Two things happened in 1995 which riveted his attention: the devastating natural disaster brought by the Kobe earthquake early in 1995 and then the terrorist attack by the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult using deadly sarin gas which poisoned thousands in the wildly busy Tokyo subway system killing a small number of commuters as well. Murakami borrowing from Studs Terkel and others conducted a series of interviews with people who had been somehow in the mix during the poisoning and either happened on it or been in the thick of the problem to understand how people reacted and felt about this kind of unforeseen situation.

I would argue that the combination of 2001’s 9/11 terrorist attack and now the 2005 Battle for New Orleans have also shown parts of the American psyche that are fundamental and disturbing.

Murakami’s analysis of these events 10 years on is helpful, if sobering. He found that “Japanese society proved all too defenseless against these sudden onslaughts.” (p.237) “…the narrative that most Japanese embrace (or imagine they share) broke down; none if these `common values` proved the least effective in warding off the evil violence that erupted…” (p.238). Later on the same page, Murakami adds the kicker for me: “Even more dangerous, little if anything has been learned about what actually happened as a result of those failings, because the information is classified.” (p.238)

The stories from the participants — the survivors — are compelling and riveting. They show a people wedded to a precision of practice — a fixed train caught daily, a certain train car always chosen, a particular habit never broken of sleeping, reading, or whatever — that seems almost surreal, yet not altogether repulsive in the comfort that discipline and daily habits can bring. [I miss my daily oatmeal and running before dawn on my familiar course in the Bywater and my 2 mile drive to the office at 730 am.] These were the working people of Tokyo caught in a drama that their lives did not expect. The city was immobilized by the gas attacks. Hospitals did not know how to respond and in many cases did not respond until they heard something was wrong — they were unable to listen to the victims. The emergency procedures and response of Tokyo was virtually non-existent and overwhelmed, just as we saw in the New Orleans situation.

Societies and systems — even our own assuredly — seem able to train to a pattern, but not to sufficiently teach a response that requires thought and rapid adaptation. This seems a fatal failing. I just finished two days of training with our young organizers with two years experience on exactly this problem — how do you think and how do you respond when something outside of the predictable pattern and model is presented to you? Unable to sufficiently prepare for individual exceptions, societies like ours and Japan’s have to do so, so much better at pre-emptive and systematic preparations for worst case scenarios, because we seem unable to react well during cataclysmic crises beyond our normal experience. This seems true both of victims and those that would provide the governmental and public response.

At the same time, Murakami convinces me even more that I both want — and we need — to hear the voices of the people of New Orleans. Two groups of students and their professors from both Sarah Lawrence College this October and from Georgetown next Spring have contacted me about coming to New Orleans to help. In each case I have suggested two things. One is to help gather the stories of the individual exiles and refugees so that we can piece together the pattern of this horror in the post-Katrina saga and learn from it. The other would be to do lead testing with Louisiana ACORN to see where the ground will be habitable in the future.

We have a lot to learn so that we can fight to make sure that we are better prepared to fight against the horror that is coming the next time.

September 21, 2005