Umbrellas on a Sunny Day
by Yurina Yoshikawa
I get my Japanese news from my mother. Having left Tokyo at 18 for college and staying in the U.S. ever since, she’s my one portal to my home country and everything that happens in it. The news is usually light. She tells me about celebrity gossip, political scandals, new food trends, the minor earthquakes and typhoons that the international media tend to overlook. The burning down of our favorite soba shop. The emergence of even more pop idol groups. And of course, news about her, my dad, and their two Yorkshire terriers.
There are only a handful of times when the news is so big it shakes us to the core, taking over our conversations for weeks, sometimes even months or years. The March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami was that kind of news, an event we still talk about nearly a decade later. It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around the death toll of nearly 20,000 and the 2,500 still deemed missing. Or the invisible yet horrifying effects of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. My mother still refuses to buy produce from the northern regions, just in case.
The second time the news took over our conversations, the news itself wasn’t as big or global in nature, but it felt bigger, if not more personal, to both me and my mother. It happened on July 6, 2018, and I knew as soon as I got her text that it was another Big Event. “They executed Asahara,” she wrote. “And six former Aum members. It just happened.”
Shoko Asahara was the leader of Aum Shinrikyo, a doomsday cult responsible for multiple massacres, most notably the Tokyo Sarin Gas Attack which killed 13 and injured over 5,000 people. The attacks happened on three train lines on March 20, 1995, during the morning rush hour between 8:00 to 8:30. I was six years old at the time, living in Tokyo with my parents. And like any average Japanese kid, I, a first-grader, had taken the train by myself to school. Tokyo was (and is) so streamlined and safe that children are often unaccompanied during commutes.
“Do you remember that day?” my mother asks.
I respond that I do, but my memory of it is like a strange recurring dream that made little sense in the moment, and more sense as time went on. I had just arrived at school by the time the attacks occurred. It wasn’t until the end of the day that we knew something terrible had happened, based on our teachers’ murmurs and how quickly they had organized every student’s homebound commutes, grouped by train lines and neighborhoods. We were told to hold hands with our designated buddies as though we were on a field trip.
Later we learned that the Aum members released toxic gas inside multiple train cars by bringing in bags of sarin wrapped around in newspaper, dropping them on the floor, and puncturing them with the tips of sharpened umbrellas right before departing the train cars themselves.
After the event, all of us children were on the lookout, and in perpetual fear, of stray plastic bags, newspapers, and umbrellas—especially on unsuspecting sunny days like the morning of the attack.
In the years since 1995, Asahara and the Aum members who carried out the attacks had been tried and sentenced to life imprisonment or death. But no one knew when the executions would actually take place. In Japan, the government keeps executions a secret until they’ve already happened.
So it was that my mother—along with the rest of the Japanese public—learned about these executions after the fact, and that they took place on July 6, 2018, a day as random as any other, seemingly out of the blue, at a time when Japan seemed to have finally recovered from the collective trauma of March 11, 2011. “Why now?” was a question on everyone’s minds that the government would never end up answering. A part of me felt relief. The nightmare was finally over. Justice had been served. But my mother was still unnerved. If anything, the news of these executions only brought these horrible memories back to life and sent with them a quiet warning: What if something like this happens again?
When I think of the attacks, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t about the trains, it’s about a kid in my class who happened to share the same last name as the Aum leader: Asahara. We all called each other by last names, and Asahara was this bony little kid who could never sit still, who kept getting in trouble with his little antics. We went to a Catholic school, so all the teachers were nuns in crisp gray veils. They would scold us by saying, “Jesus is watching.” Although many of us came from secular households, the nuns would deliver these warnings in a way that could make us cry in an instant.
After the attacks, little Asahara came up with a new gimmick, where he’d stand on a chair and start singing the infamous Aum chant: “Soshi, soshi, soshi soshi soshi, Asahara Soshi!” Everyone would march around him in circles, joining the chant with our arms up and down with each beat.
In this particular case, the nuns seemed to be the ones afraid of little Asahara—and afraid of all of us—instead of the other way around.
We all knew the Aum chant because it had pervaded TV programs ever since the attacks. The grown-ups were trying to warn us about this evil group and their methods of mind-control, but to us children, the Aum followers didn’t look threatening at all. In fact, they looked friendly and familiar. Wearing plain baggy clothes, holding balloons and giant stuffed elephants, singing and dancing with big smiles on their faces, they looked just like the hosts on kids’ TV programs that we were encouraged to trust. The Aum followers, at least the ones who were featured in these videos, included pretty young women who exuded a childlike playfulness. Which I realize, in retrospect, was exactly what was so scary to adults and yet mesmerizing to us kids.
As a Japanese girl, I was always made to understand the value and power of cuteness. Like most children of the world, I grew up with cuteness all around me. Soft animal cartoons with smiley faces and high-pitched voices. Hello Kitty. Totoro. Anpanman, a popular superhero whose head is made of edible (and replaceable) red bean pastries. In Japan, though, there’s a sense that you’re allowed to continue enjoying cute things beyond childhood, or that cuteness isn’t limited to the world of children. Grown men and women can still be cute without losing their authority or maturity. Even the government can be cute. Starting in the 2000s, local governments have used cute mascots called yuru-chara to promote tourism, especially in rural areas. Kumamon, a black bear representing Kumamoto Prefecture, has earned billions in merchandising revenue alone.
Outsiders looking at the big picture might attribute Japanese cuteness to a necessary reaction to the country’s defeat in WWII. Take philosopher Simon May, for example, who has an entire chapter devoted to the topic in his book The Power of Cute. His interest lies in the intersection of the cute and the uncanny, which he attributes most prominently in the cuteness of Japan. To be cute in Japan is not just about appearing vulnerable, he says, but also self-sufficient. It’s about appearing “not just unthreatening (to outsiders and, crucially for postwar Japan, in its perception of itself) but also subtly ruthless about one’s own preservation.” In the chapter’s climax, May argues that cuteness “allows violence to be expressed in an unsolemn, unthreatening way. As well as extirpating aggression, Cute also sublimates it.”
The Aum followers with their elephant hats were cute in this very way. And as kids imitating the Aum chant in our very Catholic school, I think we also understood the power, not only of cuteness, but of being children. It was our way of saying we weren’t scared. It was a way of taking cuteness back.
After learning about the Aum executions, I decided to re-read Underground, Haruki Murakami’s ambitious oral history of the Tokyo Gas Attack which he published in 1997. He interviewed over 60 people, some survivors, some witnesses, and some family members of the victims who were willing to share their stories. While Murakami provides an essay and introductory remarks before each interview, most of the pages are written in the interviewee’s voices. One after the other, you learn about the person’s age, their job, why they were taking the train that morning, how they remember the attack, what happened immediately after, how the event affected them later on. The dreams and nightmares they’ve had since. The way they saw themselves in the news reports. The way the sarin affected their vision, motor abilities, their mental and emotional states. How their co-workers treated them afterwards. How the attacks affected their relationships with their friends, family, with themselves.
The first time I read Underground, I was a college student reading it to understand Murakami and his weird fiction. As a novelist whose stories tend to focus on dark, hidden worlds underneath all the perfections of modern Tokyo, Murakami admits that the attacks were like something pulled from one of his books. “Subterranean worlds—wells, underpasses, caves, underground springs and rivers, dark alleys, subways—have always fascinated me and are an important motif in my novels. The image, the mere idea of a hidden pathway, immediately fills my head with stories…”
But re-reading Underground in the context of Asahara’s execution, I noticed something deeper about his project, so urgently put together and published just two years after the attacks. “The Aum ‘phenomenon’ disturbs us precisely because it is not someone else’s affair,” he says.
“It shows us a distorted image of ourselves in a manner none of us could have foreseen.” Us, as in Japanese people. America may have already been familiar with the dangers of cults with The Manson Family and the Jonestown Massacre among others, but the Tokyo Gas Attack marked the first time any cult made itself visible in Japanese society. Murakami seems to understand, maybe because of his attraction to hidden worlds, that “people who join cults are not abnormal,” that the followers were merely looking for “answers to the reasons why we’re living on this earth, and why we die and disappear. We shouldn’t criticize a sincere attempt to find answers.” This, I think, is what scares Murakami the most. Knowing what it means to be a storyteller himself, he’s not only fascinated, but horrified by storytellers like Asahara who lure followers with their well-crafted stories, labeling them as the very answers they’ve been looking for.
When my mother told me about the Aum executions, I had just become a mother myself to an infant boy. At the time, I was pleasantly surprised at how much of the day the baby spent sleeping, and I felt compelled to entertain him whenever he was awake, to expose him early to all the beauties of the world, to fill every silence with soothing music. I think deep down, I was afraid he’d be judgmental about the world he was born into. No no, I wanted to say. Don’t worry about the frowns on our faces when we look at the news, look instead at the smiley faces on this board book. I played some of the less intense Bach suites on my viola and weirdly felt more nervous playing in front of him than when I’d played in concert halls in the past. Is this okay? I kept thinking. Is this beautiful enough?
I strapped him in the baby carrier and took him to museums and aquariums while he slow-blinked through everything. I found a book called Art for Baby with high-contrast versions of famous pieces like Takashi Murakami’s flower, Damien Hirst’s spots and simplified facial portraits by Julian Opie. I took him to library storytimes and mom-and-baby yoga classes where we sang all the baby songs and everything ended with a collective, soft, high-pitched “Yay!”
All the while the baby would contort his facial muscles to everything but a smile, before crying for milk or falling asleep again.
Even as this baby is now an active two-year-old boy, it’s impossible for me to tell whether any of my efforts made a difference. As I watch him grow, I think more often about my own childhood and the ways my mother made similar efforts to shield me from the horrors of the world. How wonderful and cute my childhood truly was, thanks to her. And yet, how seamlessly the horrors snuck in, just by living. There was no way any parent could have predicted what ended up happening on the morning of March 20, 1995, just like there’s no way for any of us to predict the tragedies that may be in the works for the morning after. But of course, we can’t live that way without going insane. I just have to take each day as it comes, as my mother did with me. And hope, that when he starts asking the big questions about why we live on this earth, and why we die and disappear, that he’s okay with me not having those answers, at least right away.
The Japanese news cycle spent a good few weeks covering the Aum executions, but it quickly moved on to other scandals, murders, gossip, and the peppier, happier news surrounding, for example, the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. My mother, too, has moved on over time, and her news updates have gotten light again. We talk about her, my dad, and the two Yorkshire terriers. I tell her about her grandson. Everyone is happy. They’re smiling. They’re cute.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yurina Yoshikawa holds an M.F.A. from Columbia University and teaches fiction and non-fiction writing at The Porch Writers’ Collective. Her writing has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hyphen Magazine, Chapter 16, and elsewhere. She is a 2019-2020 OZ Art Wire Fellow and the winner of the 2020 Tennessee True Stories Contest. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
From Belmont Story Review Volume 5: Longing