Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Ground Zero, 8:10 a.m., March 20, 1995

Kazumasu Takahashi, an assistant station master on the Chiyoda subway line in central Tokyo was on duty when the 8:10 train pulled in on that Monday morning in March 1995. Many of the passengers were civil servants working in the government ministries in the Kasumigaseki district close by the Imperial Palace.

Before the doors shut, Takahashi noticed that some liquid had spilled onto the train floor. He mopped it up and waved the train on. Then he keeled over on the platform and died. Within minutes thousands of commuter were staggering out of the subway exits gasping for air, coughing, rubbing their eyes or foaming at the mouth.

Urban terrorists had planted sarin nerve gas at five widely scattered locations along three central city subway lines in the world’s first and so far only use of a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) delivered in a bento (lunch) box. Twelve people died in the attack. It would be a long time before any Japanese entered a subway without feeling trepidation.

Ten years have passed since this opening shot in the Global War of Terrorism. Although the death toll was much lower than the attacks on New York and Washington, the number of injured surpassed 5,000, and many of the survivors are still bedridden with little or no prospects of recovery.

Suspicion quickly fell on a cult called the Aum Shinrikyo (Shining Light), and for a while the menacing portrait of its hirsute guru Chizuo Matsumoto (alias Shoko Asahara) was as common then as portraits of Osama bin Laden are today. Perversely, one of his lieutenants in crime, Fumihiro Joyu, became almost like a pop idol to many teenagers. Girls thought he was kawai (cute).

The authorities were stunned when they discovered in the ashram’s laboratory at the base of Mt. Fuji equipment capable of producing sarin gas in quantities sufficient to kill literally millions of people. Nor did the cult ignore any of the WMD branches – chemical, biological, nuclear. The cult even had a rudimentary nuclear lab in the Australian outback.

That an obscure doomsday cult with no known track record of international terrorism was able to manufacture sarin gas in such quantities so easily and spray it indiscriminately in the middle of the world’s largest city is a timely reminder of what terrorists can do with chemical weapons.

It is also worth remembering that not all ideologies of doomsday or apocalyptic terror are incubated in Muslim madrasses – Juyo was a graduate of Waseda University, one of Japan’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning. Nor did these dedicated terrorists have to brew their deadly chemicals in caves in remote border areas. They lived in the suburbs.

In the ensuing decade 189 Aum followers have been tried in Japanese courts. Twelve have received death penalties, although none has been hanged. The guru himself was sentenced to death about a year ago after a trial that lasted the better part of nine years. Japanese justice grinds slowly.

Asahara’s appeal may not be heard until 2006, and the process may drag on for another decade. Many think he may die of old age before he ever sees the hangman. By way of comparison the Tokyo sarin attack occurred less than one month before the Oklahoma City bombing. Yet Timothy McVeigh has been tried, sentenced, executed and dead for more than three years.

In America the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 spawned the Patriot Act, and Japan too has tightened security measures in the wake of the sarin attacks. The Diet (parliament) passed a wire tapping law that gives the Japanese police the authority to eavesdrop on telephone calls, fax messages and e-mails for serious crimes. As in the U.S., civil rights advocates say it is an invasion of privacy and have urged its repeal.

The sarin attacks may also have solidified the public’s support of capital punishment. In a poll taken in February more than 80 percent of the people said they favored the death penalty, the highest figure ever recorded on this subject. Some think that a wave of school killings has also contributed to the high percentage.

Unlike the U.S. Congress, the Diet never convened any kind of high profile investigation similar to the 9/11 Commission. That combined with the continuing silence of the main leaders means that, ten years later, the motives behind the attacks are still not fully understood – if indeed they are capable of being understood by rational people.

During all those years he was on trial the blind guru said nothing. He never testified in his defense, never tried to justify or set out any kind of rationale for the murders. When he was found guilty of mass murder, he accepted his sentence without a word, made no apology or admission of guilt.

And while the victims of the 9/ll attacks in America have received millions in compensation, the Japanese government provided nothing specific for the victims of the commuter train attack. The sect, which still exists and at one time had fairly large business interests, has paid an average of about $10,000 to each of the survivors or bereaved families.

However, the survivors have had one significant success. Last year persistent lobbying paid off in passage of Japan’s first crime victims’ law, which states in part that, “The central and local governments and the Japanese people are responsible for protecting crime victims.”

Ten years later cults still flourish in Japan and continue to draw in more young people. They seem to fill a spiritual void at the heart of Japan’s consumer society. The two traditional religions, Buddhism and Shinto, are basically empty shells. For the overwhelming majority of Japanese, their precepts are only practiced for rites of passage, such as marriages and funerals. Otherwise they are ignored.

Strangely, the Aum Shinrikyo was never outlawed. It still has branches in 17 out of Japan’s 47 prefectures and perhaps 2,000 adherents. It is said that the guru is gaining new respect among followers, now in their late teens, or early 20s, who were only 10 or so when the gas attacks occurred and have no real personal memories of the attack.

The Chinese often point to Aum Shinrikyo in offering an explanation as to why the government banned and persecuted another sect called the Falungong as being an “evil cult,” even though it never hurt anyone. So it says something about Japan’s commitment to freedom of religion and association that it allows such a sect to exist, though closely watched.

These days one hears a lot about how terrorism can be traced to rootless young people trapped in poverty and held down by the dead hand of dictatorships. So it is worth remembering that the world’s first and only terrorist attack with a WMD took place in a functioning democracy by indigenous young people with good educations and prospects.

Japan’s most famous contemporary novelist, Haruki Murakami turned his attention to the cult in a book called Underground. The Tokyo Gas Attacks and the Japanese Psyche first published in 1997. In his interviews he asked if any of young followers regretted joining the cult. Almost all said no. “They found a purity of purpose they could not find in ordinary society,” he wrote.

Todd Crowell is the author of Tokyo: City on the Edge

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