In February, Chizuo Matsumoto, founder and former ringleader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, was sentenced to death for masterminding the terrible crimes committed by his followers. Many people feel the verdict closed a chapter on one of this country’s most horrendous crime sagas.
But I take issue with that conclusion.
In the eyes of the Recovery Support Center (RSC), an organization that is active in the care of victims of the March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, nothing has been resolved.
Although nine years have passed since the terror attack, many victims continue to suffer from the aftereffects of the nerve gas. Their problems are compounded by a lack of meaningful public assistance.
Recent developments have served to further underscore the gravity of the situation. The court’s verdict, for example, seems to have triggered aggravated post-traumatic stress disorder in some victims, and at the RSC, we have been swamped with consultations in this regard.
As the date of the verdict drew near, some television stations aired specials re-creating scenes of the crime. Film crews walked along station platforms, entered subway cars and approached rows of seats. Cameras then zeroed in on puddles on the floor, meant to convey the liquid sarin used in the attacks. Some victims viewing the programs suffered severe flashbacks and cried out for help in frail, moaning voices.
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As one person said: “My body won’t stop trembling. I try to lie down and sleep, but the terrible scenes of that morning reappear before my eyes. I’ve been up for two straight days now.”
Some of the techniques employed by the media-recounting the realities of the attack in the most lurid detail possible-have increased the psychological pain of the victims. What’s more, there is surprisingly little knowledge of this situation.
We have also heard from victims of whom we were previously unaware. One elderly man and woman sobbed desperately as they described the plight of their son, a man in his 30s who has become a virtual recluse since the attack. They are still searching for the means of caring for him.
Why do such individuals seek help from the RSC, a privately operated support group? The answer lies in the pathetic state of government measures used to target the problem.
In addition to causing 12 deaths, the sarin subway attack is estimated to have sickened approximately 5,500 people. However, only 12 have used the “after-care system” introduced in 1997 by the former Ministry of Labor. The program was set up to help victims deal with the aftereffects of the attack. Many of them were commuting when the attack occurred. Efforts to publicize the system have been paltry.
This brings to mind the old proverb, “Ploughing the field but forgetting the seed.” Amazingly, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare waited until just before the Matsumoto trial verdict to give notification of the existence of the care system by letter to the 3,600 people who have been certified as victims of a work-related accident.
At the RSC, we launched a campaign last year to publicize the system and to urge victims to make full use of it. We received responses from about 70 people who are planning to collectively apply for benefits.
However belated, government attempts to at last take action would appear to be a step in the right direction. But closer examination of the system reveals a number of new problems.
First, not everyone qualifies. Only individuals certified as having suffered a work-related accident can receive care. This excludes the self-employed, part-time workers and students.
It is worth mentioning here that Aum Shinrikyo staged a separate deadly sarin attack in 1994 in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. The nerve gas was released late at night in a residential district. None of the victims of that incident are receiving after-care services. This is a clear case of discrimination.
The second problem lies in the content of the care. It is meaningless, for example, to receive token treatment at hospitals that possess no real knowledge of sarin. Certainly, those suffering from exposure to sarin will become dubious of such services. Thorough knowledge and information sharing is a prerequisite for success on this front. The government must take the initiative immediately, and set up a system that gets the job done properly.
As things stand today, there is no definitive means or effective medicine for treating the aftereffects of sarin. Nevertheless, the tragedy has captured attention from around the world, particularly with regard to what has been done to assist the victims. Requests for information continue to pour in.
To what degree will the government, and the Japanese people themselves, work to seriously support the sarin victims-innocent people who are doomed to suffer from physical pain and mental anguish for the rest of their lives? At the RSC, we will continue to closely monitor the efforts, or the lack of them.
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The author is director of the Recovery Support Center, a privately run organization established to assist crime victims in the recovery process. He contributed this comment to The Asahi Shimbun.