Sarin & Memory in Postwar Japan


A review of Sarin Traces: Memory Texts and Practices in Postwar Japan, 1995-2010, by Mark Aaron Pendleton.

Mark Pendleton’s dissertation throws light on the aftermath of the 1995 Tokyo subway gassing that came to be known generally as the Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo gas attack. Having escaped becoming a victim only by a few minutes in 1995, his personal connection to the event strengthens his narrative of life-writing. As a primary focus, he opted for examining how the incident is culturally represented in memory texts and practices. The primary materials include life narratives of the victims, perpetrators and others with connections to the sect. The thesis revolves around the topic of victim experience and connects the historical and cultural contexts while moving away from a narrow definition of the concept. The writing also joins the dots between memories and actions of the victims, and historical debates on war responsibility, cultural memory and national history. Pendleton argues for the utilization of emotive and affective textual sources for historical purposes and highlights the importance of using the aforementioned memory texts and practices in a global, transnational context. Finally, he contests the image of a forgetful Japanese nation by drawing attention to the role of memories of wartime violence, further forging a connection between the Tokyo gas attack and other historically significant experiences of violence.

The body of research is an analysis of life-writing texts, commemorative practices and memorial processes that were created as responses to the attack. Thus, the thesis fills a substantial gap in comprehending how this incident – and other acts of violence perpetrated by Aum – are remembered in contemporary Japan. It also tackles a greater number of questions that refer to the incident’s temporal location during an era that bore testimony to significant “shifts in interpreting politics, economics, history and society” (p. 6). Pendleton is intrigued with the relationship “between memory and violence … that looms large in twentieth-century Japanese history and politics” (p. 6). He uses the “‘postwar’ … as a rhetorical marker” (p. 7) for his questions about memories of war and the idea of responsibility. He searches for the constructed idea of “responsibility” that emerges both as memory and commemoration, and for a delineation of boundary between historical rationality and the emotional and subjective memory studies which Tessa Morris-Suzuki defines as a “tension between interpretation and identification” (Terra Morris-Suzuki, The Past Within Us: Media, Memory, History. London and New York: Verso, 2005, p. 23). The final target of investigation includes “the tension [that] arises in how memories of violence are relayed through media” (p. 8) and emotional responses to them. The question of how best to commemorate the past looms over the narrative and connections to the postwar social climate permeate the Tokyo gas attack interpretations at a deeper psychological level and “relate these memories to the construction of political subjectivities” (p. 9). To conclude, Pendleton discusses the “relationship of discursive construction and constraint” in connection to “ways in which traces of the past can be represented in the present” (p. 10). His main questions are “how do victims of violence write and speak about their experiences, and how do these acts of writing and speech relate to political action? … how national legacies and international models work to frame understandings of remembered harm (or victimization). … The impact of a contemporary political discourse of terrorism on understandings of political violence in both the past and the present. … How the temporal location of this event in 1995 relates to concurrent debates around the relationship between nations, state and society at the end of the long Japanese postwar” (pp. 25-26).

Chapter 1, “Reading Memory Texts: A Genealogy and Methodology” follows a genealogy of life-writing and Japanese history in a narrative form. The argument delineates a contrast between indigenous traditions and Western concepts of life-writing forms after the Enlightenment. The author follows a methodological approach by focusing on textual and discourse analysis in history, memory studies and critical theory. He concentrates his “thesis on victim writing [that] reflects the mass circulation of these discourses through the media and publishing spheres” (p. 32) and circulates around the ideas of temporality. He is interested in “the subjective internal dimensions of individual memory [spilling] into the realm of shared experience” (p. 33). Throughout the chapter Pendleton provides an entertaining overview of memory and memory text ideologies, citing extensively from Susannah Radstone, Maurice Halbwachs, Teresa de Laurentis, Patrick H. Hutton, Carol Gluck, Harry Harootunian, Nancy K. Miller and Jason Tougaw, Mikhail Bakhtin, Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Tessa Morris-Suzuki and Walter Benjamin among others.

Chapter 2, “Tracing the Victim: Narratives of Remembering and Retelling,” follows with a discussion on how victim stories see the light of day in the public sphere, some of which were published in Murakami Haruki’s edited volume or collected by the victims themselves. His compilation of 61 stories “identified the key role of narrative in dealing with personal memory and constructing individual subjectivity” (p. 66). There are many more primary sources that reflect on the events, emotions and repercussions of the sarin attack that are analyzed in the chapter, providing a solid basis for arguments that connect truth-telling, the nation and survival narratives. Pendleton examines these narratives within the framework of war memory with special regard to storytelling. Furthermore, he relies heavily on the writings of John Treat and Lisa Yoneyama and discusses how the victims’ proximity to the area of perpetration conveniently positions victimization and victimhood.

Chapter 3, “’Before’ and ‘After’: Memory, Temporality and the Victim/Author,” continues with the analysis of entire books – some of them published as autobiographies – that tell of comprehensive life changes and are authored by Aum victims. Pendleton examines the notions of time and how the event gained public attention as part of the author’s life and connects the victims’ experiences to a shared space history. The temporal aspect of the writings is viewed through the analyses of ideas put forward by Paul Ricoeur, whereas Homi Bhabha, Richard Terdiman and Vera Mackie are also consulted for their arguments on spatiality, modernity and memory, and social polity, respectively.

Chapter 4, “A Society of Victims? Embodied Memory and Transnational Victim Politics,” narrows the scope of the previous chapter while drawing on the same sources, focusing on the narratives of Takahashi Shizue and Kono Yoshiyuki and discussing, among others, the link between storytelling and politics, grief, and transnational activism. Furthermore, Pendleton reflects on their writings from the viewpoint of “an ongoing political divide in Japan between those who see the state as the means by which victims have their wrongs righted and those that see the state as complicit in that victimization” (p. 124). Richard A. Gardner’s take on victimization, Judith Butler’s publication on violence and politics, along with Helen Hardacre’s media analysis in connection with the Aum incident are also amply used. Jenny Edkins’s book on Trauma and the Memory of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) is a reflection on the 9/11 experience, but Pendleton finds parallels with the gas attack especially in the ideas on victimhood.

Chapter 5, “On the Streets and in the Subway: Memory Practices and Remembered Space,” begins with a personal anecdote in which Pendleton recalls how he attended the 14th anniversary of the Incident at Kasumigaseki station. In this chapter he also addresses “commemorative processes and memorial proposals at particular locations related to the subway gassing and the sect responsible” (p. 28). Memory, performance and place are put in the limelight and the author reflects on the absurdity of eternal remembrance and building a finalized relationship to the past. This chapter cites the most online sources, but Pendleton also quotes Peter Siegenthaler on ‘trauma’ tourism, David Simpson on commemoration and most of all, Michel Foucault on several counts.

Chapter 6, “The Victim/Perpetrator: Apology, Responsibility and Subjectivity,” reflects on memory texts created by perpetrators and associates of Aum Shinrikyo. While many of them claim a place among the victims despite their membership in the sect, Pendleton contests this idea with the politics of responsibility and expressions of apology via “national history and transnational politics” (p. 199). Memory is introduced in the equation as a key component while the ex-Aum members express “ongoing unease about national projects of conciliation, justice and reparations for violence” (p. 200). The common denominator between victims and victimizers emerges as “human vulnerability … in which responsibility for violence is abrogated” (p. 201). The chapter uses mostly Japanese primary, secondary and reference sources, although several English materials which focus on the idea of cult and cult membership also appear.

This is a major contribution to academic scholarly literature that contributes significantly to our understanding of the Aum Incident memory texts.  Pendleton articulates the usefulness of individual narratives as history sources and convincingly argues for their importance with regard to place and time in national remembrance and transnational polity. This dissertation project will be of special interest to scholars of media studies, memory texts, life-writing, national remembrance, victimization and those interested in the question of responsibility. It will also appeal to a wider audience interested in individual stories depicting historical events.

Judit Erika Magyar
Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies
Waseda University

Primary Sources

Autobiographies and other books by victims e.g. Takahashi Shizue and Kono Yoshiyuki
Murakami Haruki’s numerous publications on the Aum Incident, including a compilation of victims’ narratives
Memory texts created by perpetrators and their associates

Dissertation Information

University of Melbourne. 2011. 292 pp. Primary Advisor: Vera Mackie.

Image: The victim spokesperson Takahashi Shizue in front of the memorial plaque to her dead husband in the Kasumigaseki station on the fourteenth anniversary of the gassing, 20 March 2009. Photograph taken by Mark Pendleton.

1 comment
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like