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Japan Reflects on 1995 Sarin Gas Terror Attack - 2001-11-03


Worries about biological and chemical terrorism are gripping people everywhere and the Japanese are no exception. However, Japan, unlike most nations, has already experienced the danger of these weapons, when they were used by a doomsday cult in the 1990's.

A small group of religious fanatics launches a deadly attack in a major metropolis, causing death and chaos and creating lasting concerns about terrorism. This is not a retelling of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, but the recounting of events in Tokyo six years ago.

In March 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo sect killed 12 people and injured nearly 6,000 by releasing sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system. The attack, while far less deadly than the assaults in the United States, bears chilling parallels.

One Tokyo resident says he will never forget that day.

"I was in a taxi when the subway was attacked. Traffic was very heavy and it was clear that something strange was happening. Later, I found out that a chemical weapon had been released on five subway trains," he said.

The Aum cult also unsuccessfully tried to use biological weapons such as anthrax and botulism to kill people. Its goal was to make the doomsday prophecies of its leader come true.

That man, Shoko Asahara, is behind bars and the sect has changed its name and renounced violence.

The attack on the Tokyo subway system was a wake-up call to authorities in Japan and elsewhere that a small group of terrorists could easily obtain weapons of mass destruction. But critics say the Japanese government learned little from the experience.

Shoko Egawa is a journalist and Japan's leading expert on the Aum cult. "Japan's security system remains insufficient, even after the sarin attack. I do not think we will know how well police are prepared until another such incident occurs in Japan," he said.

Ms. Egawa says that Japanese police have stepped up monitoring the cult's activities. She adds that Aum now lacks a charismatic leader and she thinks there is little risk it will attempt new terrorist attacks.

But in light of the anthrax attacks and terrorist concerns in the United States, many Japanese fear their nation is unequipped to deal with similar problems.

Miyoko Horiuchi is a 69 year old Tokyo housewife. "I think that police in Japan are doing their best, but at the same time, I worry that the level of security is low," she said.

A recent editorial in Japan's Yomiuri newspaper notes that after the Aum incidents, the production, possession and use of chemical weapons were banned, but that no law prohibits the use of biological agents such as anthrax. It also says the government has done little in the years since the Aum attacks to prevent another biological or chemical assault or to improve its crisis management systems.

The Japanese government apparently is trying to appease the public. It staged an exercise to train for biological and chemical attacks in late October and said it would expand its ten man unit of specialists to deal with any new crisis.

Keiichi Tsuneishi is a specialist in the disarmament of biological and chemical weapons and a professor at Japan's Kanagawa University. He thinks that bolder anti-terrorism laws would go a long way to reduce the risk of additional attacks.

"Japan needs to strengthen its justice system to better deal with terrorism. Biological and chemical attacks could happen here again, and the government needs to play out the different scenarios that could take place and how it would react," she said.

The Japanese parliament is debating anti-terrorism legislation, and it recently amended laws to ratify the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings.

But it appears Japan may still be unprepared. In a recent newspaper interview, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said the capital city is poorly equipped to deal with a large chemical or biological attack.

A recent flurry of hoaxes involving white powder placed at the prime minister's residence, government ministries and elsewhere is unsettling people and causing the government to rethink its strategy.

Japanese officials say they are spending additional funds to develop a comprehensive response to these types of threats, including introducing new detection equipment. Some officials are even calling for joint research with the United States.

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