AFP, Dec. 16, 2002
Sumiko Kono’s eyes move but she does not see — she has been in a semi-vegetative state for the past eight years since surviving — in only the most basic sense — the world’s first terror attack using Nazi-invented sarin gas.
The deadly gassing took place on the sultry night of June 27, 1994 in the quiet central Japanese city of Matsumoto, famed for its castle, mountain views and “wasabi” Japanese horseradish. Seven people died and more than 144 were injured.
Staged by the Aum Supreme Truth doomsday sect in a bid to kill judges who were hearing a civil case brought against the sect, the attack also served as a dress rehearsal for its March 1995 assault on the Tokyo subway system, which left 12 people dead and almost 4,000 injured.
The Konos, who lived next door to the judges, fell victim when the wind changed direction as sect members released the deadly gas from a van.
Every day, Kono’s husband Yoshiyuki, 52, climbs into his ageing car for the drive to the home for severely handicapped people where she has lived for the past two-and-a-half years, cared for during the day by her 84-year-old mother.
On the night that changed their lives forever, the Konos were watching television in the living room of their large, traditional house near the castle when Yoshiyuki heard a noise in the garden.
He went outside to find one of the family’s two dogs already dead and the other foaming at at the mouth and in convulsions.
By the time he got back indoors, his wife was already on the floor, unconscious. Her heart had stopped, and even though she was resuscitated, she has never regained consciousness.
“Sumiko-chan (Little Sumiko), Sumiko-chan,” Kono calls gently as he raises his wife’s head and lets it rest on his arm. He smoothes a lock of hair into place, and massages her back and motionless hands as he relates the day’s events in minute detail.
Sumiko’s skin is beautiful, unwrinkled despite her 54 years. Eyes open, she seems to be listening.
“Her cerebrum (main part of the brain) is shrinking, it is almost non-existent. She cannot see and she can only hear certain sounds,” Kono explained.
“Nothing can be done in medical terms, but she has more expressions compared to just after the incident happened.”
“Sumiko was a very active person, she loved to cook, she would always bake cookies and cakes for the children and has thousands of recipes and liked to play her electric organ,” Kono said, remembering happier times.
“She was very outgoing and liked outdoor activities — we used to go camping a lot with the children.”
Kono appears to harbour no hatred towards the rump Aum sect, now renamed Aleph, because he thinks those responsible for what happened to his wife have been or will be punished.
Neither is he bitter toward the police who made him their only suspect even though he had first raised the alarm, largely because he stored chemicals at home to develop photographs, his hobby, and leaked his name to the press.
But he does resent the fact that the government has not instituted a legal framework allowing for financial assistance for the sarin victims of Matsumoto and Tokyo, and that the only money they have received has been compensation the courts ordered Aum to pay.
“I know hundreds of people suffering from bad eyesight, some have memory problems; they cannot recognise where they are; cannot get back to their own home without help; some people are suffering from post-traumatic disorder,” Kono said.
“Some (victims) can no longer work. They need financial support but there is no official aid.”
Although the medical expenses are covered by social security, it is Kono who pays roughly one million yen (US$8,100) a year for specialized equipment and the dietary regime designed to stimulate brain activity for his wife.
Along with lawyers, doctors and representatives of the victims of the Tokyo sarin attack, Kono is active in the Recovery Support Center, a non-profit organization set up in March.
He is seeking donations, while the doctors involved offer free medical checks for sarin victims at Tokyo’s St Luke’s Hospital.
“A center like this that survives on donations should be organized by the government, but the government does not want to do more because it would show up how poor the (existing) support system is, and it does not want the media to cover these problems,” he said.
Kono also said he regretted that the health ministry had not kept its word and maintained a database on the treatment of sarin victims over the past eight years, which could prove useful in the event of another attack.