Jul 14, 2018

My Experience Reporting on the Tokyo Subway Sarin Attack

Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult
Shogo Takahashi

July 12, 2018

The former leader of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult and 6 of his past followers were executed in early July. Shoko Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, masterminded the sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subway system in 1995 which killed 13 people and injured more than 6,000.

NHK World Executive Shogo Takahashi reflects on his experience covering the cult and how the attack affected Japanese society.

Tokyo Plunged into Confusion

Aum was the worst cult in Japanese criminal history. It sought to subvert the state by mounting a chemical weapons attack on workers in Tokyo's central business district, where many government offices are located.

March 20th 1995. It was a beautiful spring day in Tokyo. As a city reporter, I was heading for the Tsukiji fish market to cover another story when the subway stopped abruptly. I got off, and heard a station attendant explaining that a bomb may have been planted on one of the trains running ahead. I took a taxi to the market, and saw a number of fire engines and ambulances surging past the cab.

When I arrived, a breaking news report was saying that attacks using white powder took place at multiple subway stations. So I headed back to Tsukiji subway station, but police officers and fire fighters on the scene told me not to go below. They said many passengers had stumbled out of subway cars after arriving at the station, and that some people were unconscious. Roads were blocked in a wide area from Tsukiji to Ginza, and chemical corps of the Self-Defense Forces drove up to the station. They put on gas masks and went down to the subway station carrying tanks for decontaminating the sarin nerve gas. I was joined by another reporter and we went to work covering the disaster.

Shaking the Sense of Safety in Japanese Society

Following the sarin attack, it spurred rumors and speculation that more attacks were coming, spreading fear across the country. Unknown back then was how right those fears were.

It would later be revealed that the cult had plans for a cyanide attack in one of Tokyo's biggest subway stations, Shinjuku. Luckily, those plans were foiled.

But the whole thing cast doubt on the ability of the country's police force. The organized criminal group perpetrated crimes for many years in Japan, a country seen as one of the safest in the world. Aum eventually carried out the indiscriminate attack on the subway system. Its criminal history is unprecedented. The sarin attacks showed the police were not able to respond to that kind of terrorist threat. They were ill-equipped and unprepared. They also didn’t realize the type of radicalization that was going on with the cult. The National Police Agency admitted in its report on the cult that it had failed to prevent Aum from committing crimes conducted using advanced science. The poison gases they manufactured -- sarin and VX -- normally require state government apparatus to create. It added that the organization operated under the guise of a religious group in an environment shut off from other parts of society.

Following the Aum crimes, the police beefed up their units dealing with chemical weapons as well as systems to investigate terrorism and other organized crimes.

On Trial

When the Aum trials had begun, I was a court reporter and I covered the trials at the Tokyo District Court for 5 years.

Aum-related trials took a long time to complete, as nearly 200 members of the group were indicted for their alleged involvement in crimes.

It was striking to hear for several years on end members say with deep remorse that they didn't join the cult to commit murders. The constant theme was that they were brainwashed by the cult leader and in court, away from his control, were devastated by what they had done. I remember one cult member was talking about how two subway employees died while trying to remove bags of sarin from a train car. He burst into tears over what he had done and how he had listened to the orders of Matsumoto.

The widow of one of the subway workers started to cry as well. The only noise in the courtroom was the sobbing of the cult member and the widow. It was an intensely emotional scene that I will never forget.

Promising Youths Brainwashed

I covered trial hearings for all 13 Aum death-row convicts. They had different backgrounds but most of them were well-educated. Five of them who played a role in the making and spraying of the sarin gas were elite scientists, with some of them having been expected to make great contributions to Japan's science world. Most of the Aum followers who were found guilty joined the cult in the 1980s and early 90s, when Japan was experiencing the bubble economy. Aum lured people living in the shadow of the booming economy -- that is, young people who felt isolated and were keen to change their lives.

Matsumoto deceived or brainwashed them, using drugs from time to time. All the death-row convicts say Matsumoto was in control of their minds.

It's fair to say that the execution of the former Aum leader is a milestone in the cases of many organized crimes perpetrated by the cult. And the cult still exists in the form of splinter groups. Two splinter groups use other names than Aum cult. They are under surveillance and must report their assets and, if necessary, accept onsite inspections. Concern is spreading among residents around the groups' facilities. Observers say it's still too early to say that the Aum problem is history.

Preventing a Recurrence

What we must learn from the cult's crimes is this: The group was nothing unusual when it started. But it’s highly educated young members got under the influence of mind control and stopped thinking for themselves and committed crimes to follow the cult's orders. It’s something I think that must not be forgotten in Japan. How easy it was for seemingly normal, bright people to go down a path to terrorism.


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