Kazumasu Takahashi, an assistant stationmaster on the Chiyoda subway line in central Tokyo, was on duty when the 8:10am train pulled in on Monday morning, March 20, 1995. Many of the passengers were civil servants working in the government ministries in the Kasumigaseki district close by Tokyo’s Imperial Palace.
Before the doors shut, Takahashi noticed that some liquid had spilled on to 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 commuters were staggering out of the subway exits gasping for air, coughing, rubbing their eyes or foaming at the mouth.
It was sarin nerve gas. Urban terrorists had planted it 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 delivered in a lunchbox. Twelve died in the attack; 5,000 were injured. More than two decades later, some survivors are still bedridden with little or no prospect of recovery.
Suspicion quickly fell on a cult called Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth). For a while, the menacing portrait of its hirsute guru Chizuo Matsumoto alias Shoko Asahara was as common as portraits of Osama bin Laden. Police arrested dozens of members, including Asahara.
Only now, 23 years later, does it appear that the “guru” and his lieutenants will have to pay the ultimate price.
The wheels of justice have moved slowly. Asahara, along with another 12 cult leaders, was sentenced to death in 2006 after a trial that lasted more then eight years. By way of comparison, the Oklahoma City bombing in the US took place in the same week as the Tokyo nerve-gas attack. However, the perpetrator of that atrocity, Timothy McVeigh, was swiftly convicted and executed. He has been dead for 16 years.
The Aum trials were unprecedented in Japan’s judicial history in terms of their sheer number (190 indictments) and the extraordinary length of the deliberations.
Japan’s Supreme Court finally cleared the path to the gallows when it upheld the life sentence for one Katsuya Takahashi, an Aum cultist who had been on the lam for 16 years. Under Japanese law, a person cannot be executed while courts are considering an accomplice, on the theory that he or she might be needed to testify.
Asahara has never tried to explain or justify his actions, or express any remorse for the victims. When he was found guilty of mass murder, he accepted his sentence without a word. He has never made an apology or admitted guilt
Amid this legal firestorm, one might think that the vast number of trials (Asahara alone made 257 court appearances) would have shed light on the cult’s motives for its murderous attack on the Tokyo subway system.
Yet aside from one brief statement at the beginning of his trial to the effect that he had ordered his associates not to poison the system, Asahara clammed up. He never addressed the core issues; never tried to explain or justify his actions, nor express any remorse for the victims. When he was found guilty of mass murder, he accepted his sentence without a word. He has never made an apology or admitted guilt.
It not clear how the Justice Ministry will handle the 13 executions. If it follows current procedure, Asahara will not know his execution is to take place until the morning guards show up to escort him to the gallows chamber. The general public will learn of the execution with a terse announcement after the deed is done.
Public opinion polls show that the Japanese public approves of capital punishment by very large margins. But much of that is because the government takes pains to keep executions as low-key as possible – no vigils outside the prison, no dramatic calls to the state governor for clemency.
That an obscure doomsday cult with no known track record of international terrorism was able to manufacture sarin gas in quantities large enough, theoretically, to kill millions so easily, and to spray it indiscriminately in the middle of the world’s largest city, is a timely – and terrifying – 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 madrassas – former Aum spokesman Fumihiro Joyu 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.
Remarkably, Aum Shinrikyo has never been outlawed and still has perhaps 1,500 followers. 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.
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. For the overwhelming majority of Japanese, traditional religions such as Shinto and Buddhism are only practiced for rites of passage, such as marriages and funerals. Otherwise, they are largely ignored.
Much ink has been expended on how terrorism can be traced to rootless young people trapped in poverty and oppressed by the heavy hand of dictatorships. Given this, it is worth remembering that the world’s first and only terrorist attack with a WMD was perpetrated 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, published in 1997. During his research he asked if any of young followers regretted joining the cult. Almost all said no. “They found a purity of purpose they never experienced before,” he wrote.