Ben Hills

Luckily, I was house-bound with a broken leg. If it hadn’t been for a skiing accident, I could have been victim number 5,511 of Tokyo’s subway horror.

The Hibiya and Maranouchi lines, on which I commute to work, are typical of the score of underground arteries which crisscross the city, carrying 5 million passengers on a typical weekday. It is the world’s busiest subway system and without it Asia’s largest city would, literally, grind to a halt.

Kasumigaseki station, where I change trains, is like any other – grey lavatory-tiled entrances leading down flights of steps and escalators 100 metres or so into the bowels of the earth.

There, on pristine platforms, green-uniformed guards stand on little soap-boxes orchestrating the tide of tens of thousands of grey-suited office workers to and from the government office blocks overhead. During rush-hour, a train arrives every 90 seconds, pulling up with its doors immaculately aligned with guidelines on the platform.

In spite of all this clinical efficiency, many of the regular Kasumigaseki commuters would have recognised the friendly, avuncular figure of Kazumasa Takahashi, the 50-year-old deputy station-master at Kasumigaseki, who was always ready with a handful of change or a spot of helpful advice.

Around 8.20 on Monday morning, about the time I would be swapping trains at Kasumigaseki, Mr Takahashi noticed a disturbance as a Hibiya line train pulled in. People were staggering around, choking and gagging and pointing to a newspaper-wrapped bundle which was leaking an odd fuming fluid.

Mr Takahashi, a dutiful officer of the Teito Rapid Transit Authority, whose job was to maintain order and keep the trains running, picked up the bundle and carried it towards his office.

The next day, everything stopped at Kasumigaseki station for one minute’s remembrance of Mr Takahashi, the first person to die in the subterranean nightmare that would eventually claim 10 lives, with more than 5,000 innocent people injured – one of the most horrifying acts of urban terrorism in history.

The package that killed Mr Takahashi in seconds contained a liquified nerve gas called sarin, a central nervous system poison originally developed by the Nazis as a weapon of mass destruction. However, it was so deadly (20 times as lethal as cyanide) and so indiscriminate that even Hitler baulked at using it – the only time it is known to have been used was by Saddam Hussein in a genocidal attack on Kurdish villagers in 1989.

Unleashed in the confined spaces of subway carriages and stations beneath the streets of Tokyo, the effect of half a dozen of these sarin “bombs” – planted simultaneously in different parts of the city in what was obviously a well-planned attack – was devastating.

Smartly-dressed office workers lay choking, vomiting and half- blinded in the streets, while rescue workers pumped the chests of the dead and the dying. Fortunately, the Japanese military has a long and ugly experience with the use of chemical and biological weapons, and the subways were rapidly decontaminated and back in action.

The plan, it is now believed, was nothing as modest as assassinating the prime minister, or blowing up the Cabinet. The gas bombs were planted on five different trains, and timed to go off when they converged on Kasumigaseki within four minutes of each other.

The object was no less than the extermination of Japan’s real government – the mandarins of the all-powerful departments which cluster around the station entrances. That it failed was a lucky break. As it is, more than 100 of the victims were bureaucrats in the great ministries of finance, trade and construction.

In any country it would have been an outrage. In Japan, which prides itself on being the world’s most peaceful and law-abiding place, the crime defied description. The Japan Times declared bluntly: “Someone is waging war against Japan.” And that someone, it emerged a few days later, was one of the most bizarre and extreme religious cults we have seen, even in these millenarian times – a band of crazies in the same class as the perpetrators of the Jonestown or Solar Temple massacres.

How could such an extremist organisation have emerged in such a conformist, consensus society? And how could it have been allowed to wreak its evil almost unchecked – a crime-wave of fraud, extortion, kidnapping and (possibly) murder stretching back years and culminating in the subway gas massacre?

The statistics confirm Japan’s self-image. Only in some of the harsher Muslim states is there less crime than in Japan. The whole country (population 124 million) has fewer murders than New York. Compared with Tokyo, people in Sydney and Melbourne are three times as likely to be robbed, run four times the murder risk, 10 times the risk of rape, and 77 times the risk of assault.

Women walk the streets of Tokyo at night without fear. Children as young as five and six ride the subways alone. Cars and houses have no burglar alarms. Unarmed elderly bank messengers pedal bicycles around the Maranouchi business district with cash and cheques worth millions of dollars in their baskets.

But, in fact, this appearance of public safety is a myth, according to Katsuya Endo, an assistant professor of international affairs at Tokyo International University.

“Japan has always thought of itself as a homogenous, monocultural society where you could rely on the ‘village mentality’ for people to police themselves, ostracising any wrong-doer,” he says.

“Unfortunately, Japan is no longer a village and the people responsible for public safety have done nothing to deal with the increasing threat of urban crime. Tokyo is virtually defenceless – the perfect spot for international crime or terrorism.”

Aum Shinrikyo (Aum Supreme Truth) is merely the latest group to attract – and capture – the disaffected and the demented of this stiflingly conformist society. It differs only in its message and its methods from the outlaw groups which declared war on Japanese society in decades past.

Like the leaders of the Red Brigades, its guru is a charismatic speaker, if physically unprepossessing. Chizuo Matsumoto (known to his followers as Shoko Asahara) is a short, fat, sloppy-looking man of 40, with a scraggly beard and shoulder-length hair, who is legally blind. He made his living as an acupuncturist and pharmacist in the southern island of Kyushu, before founding a yoga school.

After studying under Tibetan monks at the Dalai Lama’s retreat in northern India, Asahara proclaimed himself satori – enlightened – and returned to Japan to demonstrate miracles such as floating in mid-air. His preachings later took on a bleak and Messianic tone: the world would end in 1997, and only his followers would be spared.

Bound by oaths, which include drinking their guru’s sperm, blood and bathwater, his followers now number more than 50,000, living in scores of ashrams all over Japan, as well as New York, Moscow, Bonn and Colombo.

As his cult gathered strength (it was recognised as a tax-free religion by the Government in 1989), Asahara began accumulating vast wealth and property. All followers were required to hand over their worldly possessions – everything from the pathetic collections of old cooking pots to tracts of land worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Behind the shuttered windows of the compounds, his followers were ruthlessly robbed, brain-washed, starved, and drugged.

The 50 released by this week’s police raid were little more than zombies.

For years, parents claiming their children had been kidnapped, and residents near the huge, heavily-guarded Aum compounds at the foot of Mt Fuji, campaigned vigorously to have the cult investigated.

But, in spite of a number of official complaints – including, most ominously, the disappearance of an anti-Aum lawyer, his wife and child who have been missing, believed murdered, since 1989 – the authorities did little to stop the growing terror.

Even after, most bizarrely of all, Asahara smuggled into Japan a Russian helicopter gunship, he managed to intimidate the police – and the public – with an avalanche of lawsuits claiming religious persecution, and a campaign of dirty tricks, ranging from telephone-tapping to the kidnapping in broad daylight of another lawyer trying to free his sister from the clutches of the cult.

Complaints by citizens, who smelt strange and powerful fumes coming from cult buildings, were never properly investigated even though, on one occasion last year, the substance was positively identified as sarin. Aum’s lawyers claimed the smell was a mixture of oil and perfume used in a purification ritual. In a final monumental blunder, police allowed all the sect’s leaders, along with truckloads of documents, to escape the raid.

It is now suspected that Aum had been developing and testing its ultimate terror weapon for at least a year. No great expertise was needed – and that is the really frightening part. The recipe has been published in a Japanese novel, and the ingredients – an organophosphate pesticide banned in most countries – are available over the counter.

On its first trial last summer, sarin was released in a mountain resort park. It drifted through the open windows of two apartment blocks, where people were sleeping, killing seven and injuring more than 200. Police became convinced they had the culprit – one of the victims – and failed to seek out the real killers when he was shown to be the wrong man.

Then, just three weeks ago, a train travelling between Tokyo and the port of Yokohama was hit. Eleven people were taken to hospital with poisoning, but, again, the authorities failed to investigate thoroughly, and did not even identify the chemical used.

The trigger for the Tokyo attack appears to have been the arrest, in the city of Osaka, of three members of the cult who are being held on kidnapping charges. The particularly persistent parents of a 21-year-old university student being held by the cult finally managed to get the police to listen.

Although Aum has specifically denied responsibility for the gas massacre – the cult’s lawyer called a media conference to claim someone else did it to give Aum a bad name – police are convinced they have the evidence in more than 20 tonnes of chemicals that can be used in manufacturing sarin seized in the raid.

They say Asahara ordered the attack as a demented act of revenge for the arrest of his followers, then broadcast a message to his followers to commit mass suicide.

This extreme event did not amount to Japan’s loss of innocence – that happened long ago.

It did, however, remind its citizens, and the rest of the world, that beneath the calm and conformist surface of its society lurk the demons that so many times this century have soaked the country in blood.

Breaking the Peace

1948 Tokyo

A man posing as a health official gives Imperial Bank staff an “antidote” against dysentery. Twelve people die from drinking the prussic acid.

1949 Mitaka

Protesting communists and railway unionists launch an empty train onto the tracks near Tokyo. It derails, killing six and injuring 15.

1960 Tokyo

Prime Minister Nobosuke Kishi is stabbed at a public meeting.

1970 Tokyo

Students of the militant Red Army Brigade hijack a Japan Airlines domestic flight.

1971 Tokyo

Farmers and university students kill three police officers in riots protesting against the building of Narita airport.

1972 Karuizawa

A besieged Red Brigade gang kills two police officers. Five gang members are lynched.

1972 Tel Aviv

Japanese Red Brigade members kill 26 and wound 76 in a massacre at Israel’s main airport.

1973 Dubai

A Red Brigade squad hijacks a JAL Paris-Tokyo flight.

1974 Tokyo

The leftist East Asia Anti Japan Army Front kills eight and injures 385 in an attack on Mitsubishi.

1977 Tokyo

Two people die after unknowingly drinking Coke spiked with cyanide.

1987 Kobe

A presumed member of a right-wing gang shoots dead one reporter and seriously injures another at the Asahi newspaper bureau.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 25 March 1995
Edition: Late
Section: News And Features
Sub section: News Review
Page: 30
Word count: 1766
Keywords: History
Caption: Illus: Commuters overcome by poisonous gas that swept through Tokyo’s subway stations.
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