Sarin gas:A decade on, Aum’s attack still casts a long shadow over Japan
Historians may look back on March 20, 1995, as a turning point in this nation’s history. Until then, it was widely accepted that Japan was one of the safest countries in the industrialized world.
Ten years ago Sunday, several Aum “hit” teams boarded Tokyo subway trains and released sarin nerve gas at the peak of the morning commuter rush. Twelve people died and thousands were sickened. That more weren’t killed was a miracle.
In the decade since, much has changed in Japan as the public struggled to come to grips with the terrifying terrorist attack on the nation’s capital.
Aum’s aim was simple: to cause utter chaos and sidetrack a police investigation into the cult while it plotted revolution against the government. The misery was orchestrated by self-professed guru Chizuo Matsumoto, a plump middle-aged man who wore his head at shoulder length.
Matsumoto, 49, was handed the death sentence by the Tokyo District Court in February 2004. His lawyers have appealed. Thirteen of his disciples have also been found guilty for the subway attack in the district court. Barring successful appeals, many will be put to death.
The shadow cast by that fateful day 10 years ago is still felt by thousands of ordinary Japanese. Of the 5,500 who fell ill, some still complain of vision or other health problems. A few remain comatose, even now.
Keeping track of these victims is not easy, say groups that were set up with that task in mind. One such group is the Tokyo-based Recovery Support Center.
Last October, it won the assent of medical clinics to conduct health checks for sarin victims. Only 139 people showed up.
Of those, 95, or 68 percent of the total, said they often felt fatigued; 119 people complained about tired eyes, and 88 said they occasionally had blurred vision.
Yogo Isogai, secretary-general of the Recovery Support Center, fears victims will be forgotten with the passing years. He insists that more must be done.
“More than 5,000 people suffered in the sarin attack, yet we only have the names of about 1,600 people,” Isogai said. “I’m certain that many individuals increasingly are becoming concerned about what will happen to them physically and psychologically. And even if they seek out help, I wonder how many others will be forgotten.”
Shizue Takahashi set up a victims group in memory of her husband, who died in the sarin attack. She, too, urged the central government to do more to help.
“Innocent people were sacrificed on behalf of the state, which was the cult’s real target,” Takahashi said. “And what has the government done? Practically nothing. It has ignored the victims by not providing sufficient compensation nor conducting adequate studies into their health problems.”
Still, lessons were learned from this tragedy. Fire and rescue workers now feel better prepared to deal with a similar attack, officials say.
Firefighters rushed to Tsukiji Station on the Hibiya subway line after an alarming report of commuters collapsing. They arrived at 8:19 a.m. on March 20, 1995, less than 15 minutes after the first report that something was wrong.
Firefighter Sadao Onodera recalls that nothing prepared him for what he saw when he reached the station platform. Eight adults lay sprawled on the ground, some convulsing; others were vomiting blood.
Onodera and his team helped 19 people. Searching for other victims in the subway car, Onodera stepped on liquid that had spilled. His vision blurred and he lost consciousness after being taken to a hospital.
Not knowing that sarin was involved, Onodera entered the subway station without a gas mask.
In total, 135 firefighters suffered health problems while trying to help the public that day.
In 1996, the Tokyo Fire Department revised its standards for dealing with disasters caused by toxic chemicals. If the cause of a disaster is not apparent, firefighters and rescue workers who arrive on the scene are obliged to wait until specially trained workers with the necessary skills and equipment turn up. Those experts would go in first.
Ambulances are now equipped with gas masks. Measures have also been taken to avoid contamination as a result of protective gear being exposed to toxins.
“If a similar incident occurred tomorrow, we would be able to reduce the total number of victims as well as the severity of the symptoms for some of the victims,” said an official working in the section that deals with chemical and biological terrorist threats.
However, he said more people may end up dead if the protocol of waiting for the arrival of specially trained rescue workers is followed.
A decade ago, police had few weapons to go up against Aum because the cult could hide behind laws drawn up to protect religious organizations.
In the years since, as cult members moved to new locations, neighborhoods began taking matters into their own hands through tougher surveillance systems.
For example, seven security cameras scan crowds near Tokyo’s JR Nakano Station.
The cameras were installed in 1999. Nakano was the third location in Tokyo to set up camera surveillance following the subway attack.
Neighborhood association leaders were galvanized into action because so many Aum-related facilities were located there.
Back in 1995, it was common to see young Aum members in strange headgear hanging out near a restaurant operated by the cult, which now calls itself Aleph.
The cult also ran a medical clinic about 1 kilometer from the restaurant.
One neighborhood association official acknowledged that the cameras were set up with the twin aim of cracking down on aggressive bar touts and monitoring the activities of religious organizations seeking to recruit new members or distributing pamphlets.
Prior to the sarin attack, only one Tokyo district had surveillance cameras, according to the Metropolitan Police Department. Now, cameras are installed at 54 locations.