Tokyo marks subway sarin attack

15th anniversary of cult's gassing that killed 13, sickened 6,300

Kyodo News

Tokyo marked the 15th anniversary Saturday of the sarin nerve gas attack on its subway system by Aum Shinrikyo cult members, which left 13 dead and sickened some 6,300.

Some 20 station workers observed a moment of silence at Kasumigaseki Station in central Tokyo at 8 a.m., roughly the time the cult members planted and ruptured plastic bags containing sarin on rush-hour trains on March 20, 1995.

Numerous government officials, including Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, victims and bereaved families visited the flower stands set up at five stations along the Hibiya, Marunouchi and Chiyoda lines, which were targeted in the attack. It is believed the attack was aimed at disrupting planned police raids on the group’s headquarters at the time.

“It’s been many years,” said Shizue Takahashi, whose husband, Kazumasa, 50, was killed after removing a bag of sarin as a senior official at the station.

Takahashi, 63, said she feels that her efforts to get support for the victims over the years have finally paid off. A landmark law was enacted in 2008, providing up to ¥30 million to each Aum victim and bereaved families who were left without benefits for 13 years.

But she noted that while they have state benefits now, “it does not mean (the cult’s) responsibility to compensate is gone.”

After offering a silent prayer, Kasumigaseki Stationmaster Shinji Takanezawa, 55, reflected on his experience of gathering information on the disaster from the subway’s head office at the time.

“I was receiving all this information about the situation, and when I thought about my fellow employees working at the scene, it made me shiver,” he said. Takahashi’s husband and another station worker were among those killed in the attack.

Wataru Kitamura, chairman of an information security consultant firm in Tokyo, was among the victims who offered flowers at one of the stands.

Kitamura, 75, was exposed to sarin after connecting from the Chiyoda Line to the Hibiya Line on his way to work, and stayed in the targeted train for about 40 minutes without realizing what had happened.

He said he suffered various physical ailments. “I know I cannot recover physically, but I try to stay firm mentally,” he said.

Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Seiji Maehara spoke to reporters after placing flowers at Kasumigaseki Station, which is located in the heart of the government district.

“As a person in charge of the ministry, I promised (the victims) to do my best to ensure transportation security, including taking antiterrorism measures,” Maehara said.

As well as the attack on the Tokyo subway system, Aum Shinrikyo was involved in a series of crimes, including another sarin release in 1994 in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, for which death sentences have been finalized for its founder, Shoko Asahara, 55, and nine other cult members.

Meanwhile, three other members — Katsuya Takahashi, 51, Naoko Kikuchi, 38, and Makoto Hirata, 44 — still remain at large, prompting the police to post cash rewards totaling ¥6 million for information leading to their arrests.

The group, which had more than 10,000 members at its height, has renamed itself Aleph and has some 1,300 members today, while the Circle of Rainbow Light, a breakaway faction founded in 2007, has about 200 members, according to the Public Security Intelligence Agency.

Hiroshi Araki, 41, head of public relations for Aleph, visited Kasumigaseki Station shortly after noon.

“As a group inheriting the religious community, we would like to do as much as possible for the victims and bereaved families,” said Araki, while admitting the group has not reached agreement with a victims’ foundation over paying the remainder of the compensation.

A representative of the Circle of Rainbow Light also showed up at the flower stand soon after train services began.

Although the size of the groups has not changed much over the last decade, police continue to monitor their moves as they are now actively recruiting younger members, who may not know about or remember Aum’s crimes.

Aleph gained 100 new members last year, according to the agency.

Timeline of events related to subway gas attack

February 1984 — Shoko Asahara forms Aum Shinsen no Kai, predecessor of Aum Shinrikyo.

Nov. 4, 1989 — Lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his 29-year-old wife Satoko and 1-year-old son Tatsuhiko are killed at their home in Yokohama.

June 27, 1994 — Aum members release sarin nerve gas in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, killing seven, and seriously injuring four others.

March 20, 1995 — Aum members attack the Tokyo subway system with sarin gas. Thirteen people eventually are killed, while some 6,300 are injured.

March 22 — Police launch massive raids on Aum’s headquarters in Yamanashi Prefecture and other Aum offices.

March 30 — National Police Agency chief Takaji Kunimatsu is shot and seriously injured.

May 16 — Asahara is arrested.

April 24, 1996 — Trial of Asahara begins.

Feb. 27, 2004 — Tokyo District Court sentences Asahara to death. Defense counsel appeals. March 27, 2006 — Tokyo High Court rejects appeal.

Sept. 15 — Asahara’s death sentence finalized.

June 11, 2008 — Law on benefits for Aum crime victims, bereaved families enacted.

March 20, 2010 — 15th anniversary of subway sarin gassing marked.