Life in the Tokyo Megacity: Longing For A Better Place

Amidst the bustle of bodies in Tokyo, anxieties, hopes and fears jostle too.

Thirteen million people live in Tokyo, and the number is growing in an era where the rest of the Japanese population is shrinking rapidly. The city looks as if a troubled child tried to place toy houses in a small box. It’s chaotic. Dull, humid air mixed with the exhaust fumes of cars dances through hundreds and thousands of grey buildings.

During the boiling summer, I feel like the city is trying to suffocate me. In the middle of Shinjuku, I look around desperately to see if anyone else is feeling this suffocation. If they are miserably trying to catch air like fish left on the land, they don’t show it in public. I close my eyes and try to breathe deeply, but it doesn’t work. Nothing works in these moments. The only solution seems to be jumping into the water. But once you know the comfort of water, how can you deal with the suffocation of the land? Surely no fish want to come back to the land if they have a choice.

On the 15th of June 2012, the last member of the Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, which committed the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, was arrested.

The memory makes many Japanese hearts sink. For every city and every generation, there is a crime we cannot forget. We ask: why did they do such a terrible thing? What did we do to let this happen? It is easy to dismiss the question by saying it was merely an exception, they were ‘just crazy’. The rest of the world is safe because we are different. We would never do something so horrible, because we are nothing like them.

But is it true? Many of the Aum Shinrikyo members were highly educated. Why did they follow the seemingly ridiculous teachings of the guru, Shoko Asahara, and commit vicious murders?

Born in 1955 to a poor family with eight siblings in South Japan, Asahara stayed at a school for the blind, from the age of six to twenty. Although he could see much better than other students, he was sent there as the school was free and they provided food and a place to sleep. His parents never visited him nor did he go back to his home. There, as a boy who had better eyesight than others, he acted like king, using violence as the method of control.

Asahara moved to Tokyo when he was twenty-two, hoping to get into Tokyo University. His ambition was to be prime minister of Japan. His dream was shattered, as he never got into the university. But he had a new idea, the idea that changed the lives of too many – he established Aum Shinrikyo. In 1985 only 15 people followed him; a year after that, 35. In 1987, the number grew to 600. In 1989, the cult committed a couple of its first murders. Asahara increasingly believed that Armageddon was approaching and used LSD to strengthen his mind control over his followers. The cult kidnapped those who tried to escape and kept them in cells.

Yet by 1995, the group had more than 15,000 followers.

And there it was. At rush hour on Monday morning, March 20th, 1995, the deadly chemical weapon Sarin gas was released on five subway trains in central Tokyo. The weapon you could not see and feel; yet people were dying all around you. Panic. Confusion. Despair. Thirteen people were killed and more than six-thousand were injured. Asahara was arrested two months later. He killed twenty-seven people in total, and was sentenced to death in 2004. As of today, he has not yet been executed.

People gather in Tokyo chasing their dreams. Asahara and his followers were no different. When they come here, they realised that nothing is enough anymore. And there is a fear in everyone that they may never find what they came here for.

The fear is so dreadful; we are constantly searching for something to cling to. In fact, it is a matter of life or death. In Japan, more than thirty-thousand people kill themselves every year. Between the ages of fifteen to thirty-nine, the top cause of death is suicide. When you are pushed to the edge, and you feel like you are falling down, who knows what you decide to grab onto. And Tokyo offers a variety of stuff to hold on to.

We long for a safe haven, the place we fit in, like fish long for water. While it is obvious that for fish, water is the place to live, we do not know where that place is for us. In fact, we know that such a place doesn’t exist, but we still long for something better than now, because accepting that what we have is all we get, is hard to do in Tokyo. In a free city where nothing is impossible, we restrain ourselves in religion, relationships, political groups, and so on, to escape from the constant pressure to make the right choices. How do we know that what we decide to believe in is not another Aum Shinrikyo? Something as destructive?

In this brave free world, we easily lose ourselves.