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Ten years of tero in Japan: Notes on usage

by Philip Brasor

Japanese language purists carp about the surfeit of katakana, but as with all cultural manifestations, from bossa nova to breakfast cereals, the Japanese manage to make these linguistic borrowings their own in an unmistakable way, the most obvious being abbreviation.

Take tero, which means “terrorism.” The English word has been around for a long time. Joseph Conrad defined its current usage in his 1907 novel, “The Secret Agent,” which was about anarchists in London. The word has taken on heightened significance since 9/11, but regardless of how recklessly it is applied for political purposes the meaning is still the same.

In Japan, the word had very little local currency until the Tokyo subway sarin attack that occurred 10 years ago last weekend. The term used then was musabetsu tero, or “indiscriminate terrorism.” Since then, musabetsu has been dropped and tero by itself has entered the language, without any need for modifiers. Considering how often the word is used to describe situations in the world now, not to mention incidents from the past that seem to fit (Japanese Red Army hijackings, North Korean kidnappings), tero is appropriate. Important words should be short, and “terrorism” can be difficult to pronounce, even for native speakers.

Last week the media reviewed the sarin gas attack and looked at what has happened to the main players in the meantime. On one side are the families of the dozen people who died and the thousands sickened. Despite their designation as “victims of tero,” these people have not been afforded the same measure of compensation that the U.S. government gave to the victims of the 9/11 attacks, which would seem to indicate that the government’s approach to tero is different from Americans’ approach to terrorism. So is the public’s. In the United States the victims’ families grieved openly. In Japan, they’re anonymous.

On the other side of the coin, Aum Shinrikyo, the religious cult whose leader, Shoko Asahara, and executive members were responsible for the attack, would normally be considered a terrorist organization given that the sarin incident is a designated terrorist act. In other countries organizations that carry out terrorist acts on their own soil are prosecuted and outlawed, but in Japan Aum is merely monitored. The cult has changed its name to Aleph to indicate that it has broken with its criminal past, but the U.S. State Department, at least, has designated Aum Shinrikyo as a terrorist organization, which means Aleph members cannot travel to the United States.

Such distinctions may sound like semantic hair-splitting — the victims of terrorism aren’t going to care one way or another how the incident that affected their lives so horribly is defined, only that the people who carried it out are brought to justice if not liquidated outright. But terms are important in this embattled world, as evidenced by the current situation in Iraq.

Are the forces engaging the American-led occupiers and their Iraqi allies “terrorists,” as U.S. President George W. Bush calls them? Or are they insurgents, which is how most of the rest of the world refers to them? Except for resources, what’s the difference between Asahara and the guy with the kitchen knife who gives in to his sociopathic urges in the middle of a schoolyard?

Profiles of Aleph showed that members still worship Asahara, simply because their type of religion is meaningless without a guru and no one has emerged to take his place.

But in reality Aleph doesn’t fit the definition of tero. Given that the main evidence provided by the media for the group’s continued status as a menace to society is that two members have died during shugyo (religious training), it seems Aleph is more a danger to its own members than it is to the public. The people who belong to Aleph don’t have problems with society, they have problems with their place in the universe. Supposedly, they joined to make sense out of their lives.

Even during the trials of Asahara and the acolytes who carried out his murderous designs, the media rarely used the word tero. They mostly characterized him as an egotistical lunatic and his executives as self-deluding elites. Then 9/11 happened and the sarin incident’s tero status took on a new significance. The Japanese could say they were there before the Americans.

Last weekend, the government marked the anniversary by placing ads in newspapers outlining measures to prevent terrorist acts. “Tero is unforgivable!” the ad says, and “Stop tero! For a society that can live with peace-of-mind and without terrorism.” The smaller print reminds readers that several Aum suspects are still at large.

In other countries that have adopted such measures, some civil liberties may be compromised for the sake of security. Most people probably won’t mind if they think these measures are effective, though the police received mixed reviews for their handling of the sarin attack. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, in the summer of 1994, a little after the first Aum sarin poisoning in Matsumoto — which still wasn’t recognized as a sarin poisoning — the National Police Agency and the Self-Defense Forces began cooperating on antiterrorist measures. However, the cooperation didn’t go far enough.

At the time the SDF had people with expertise in the kind of chemical attack that Aum carried out, and one of these people told Mainichi that if the police had also had this expertise, then the number of overall sarin victims could have been cut in half. As it was, 126 policemen and 135 firemen were also among those made ill by the gas. In the United States these men would have been exalted as heroes. Here, they were just additional casualties.