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Japan Remembers Sarin Gas Attack 10 Years Later

Japan is remembering the lethal nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by a religious cult 10 years ago Sunday. A decade after the incident, legal appeals drag on, and survivors say they are suffering with little outside support.

As millions of Tokyo commuters rode the packed subway trains the morning of March 20, 1995, members of a Japanese doomsday cult placed plastic bags filled with liquid on the floors of several cars and pierced them with umbrella tips.

The fumes began seeping through the trains and stations, and pandemonium ensued.

When it was over, more than 5,000 people had been poisoned by sarin nerve gas, 12 died.

The Aum Shinrikyo cult, said it had hoped to kill many thousands, and plunge the country into chaos, but experts say its homemade nerve gas was far less potent than the cult's scientists had expected.

This Saturday, some 50 survivors of the attack, on a memorial walk, trekked between some of the subway stations where the deadly gas was released. The victims say they want to raise public awareness, that the government is doing nothing to support those still suffering.

Mrs. Shizue Takahashi, whose husband was killed in the attack, heads a support group of victims and their families. Mrs. Takahashi is appealing to the national and Tokyo Metropolitan governments to compensate the victims, and initiate a program to monitor the health of the survivors. She says many victims still suffer physically, mentally and financially.

The alleged mastermind of the attack, Aum guru Shoko Asahara, has been sentenced to death. His lawyers are appealing, a process expected to last years. Twelve of his acolytes have been sentenced to death, but no executions have been carried out. In all, 189 people have been convicted in connection with the attacks.

Prosecutors say the visually impaired guru, a former yoga instructor and unsuccessful candidate for parliament, became a megalomaniac who wanted to stage a coup and proclaim himself "King of Japan."

Asahara's group has renamed itself "Aleph," and says it has renounced violence. However, the recent mysterious deaths of several members are under investigation, and the group, with about 1,600 followers, is under constant police surveillance. A recent opinion poll found that about three-quarters of Japanese still fear the group, believing it is capable of a similar attack.

Asahara himself, at least, is unlikely to pose any further danger. Media reports quote his daughters as saying the once charismatic cult leader has gone completely blind, wears diapers, and mumbles incomprehensibly in his prison cell.


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.
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