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Matsumoto: Aum’s sarin guinea pig

Residents of this picturesque city in Nagano Prefecture recall the day 20 years ago when members of a religious cult released a deadly nerve gas in what was to become a dry run for a subsequent attack on the Tokyo subway system

by Paul Murphy

Special To The Japan Times

It’s been 20 years since mass murderers came to Toshie Koibuchi’s tiny street. It was the night of June 27, 1994. She was then 50, a housewife living with her husband and mother in a slightly upmarket residential area of Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture.

Koibuchi had a late dinner and took a bath around 10 p.m. She enjoys a long bath. It is not clear whether that’s what saved her or nearly killed her — more likely the latter.

While she was bathing, a group of men from the religious group Aum Shinrikyo sat in two vehicles parked about 30 meters from her house. One of the vehicles was a minivan, the other a truck that had been converted into a toxic mobile gas chamber.

In the truck’s cargo space was a heating contraption that had been specifically designed to turn 12 liters of sarin liquid into gas, and fans to expel that gas into Koibuchi’s neighborhood.

It was a particularly warm June night so Koibuchi bathed with the window open. Sometime around 11 p.m. she noticed something was wrong.

“Just after I got out of the bath, my nose started to run. It wasn’t like a normal runny nose, it was running like water,” Koibuchi told The Japan Times. “And when I looked at a light bulb, all I could see was a pin prick of light. I felt very strange. Then I got diarrhea and headaches. It was indescribable. I had no idea what it was. I started to feel very, very sick.”

A couple of kilometers away, neurosurgeon Tomomi Iwashita was finishing a brain operation on a patient in Shinshu University Hospital.

He was also on call for the “Doctor Car,” which, as the name suggests, is an ambulance with a doctor rather than paramedics alone. Like the rest of Japan, Matsumoto’s ambulances are run by the fire department, and the Doctor Car was at that time usually requested only for major incidents.

Shortly after midnight Iwashita got the call: people had been poisoned at Fukashi 1-chome, where Koibuchi lived. He jumped into the Doctor Car. On the way, he received information that carbon dioxide may be the cause of the poisoning.

“When we arrived there was a lot of confusion,” Iwashita recalled. “There were a huge number of people outside, I can’t say exactly, but more than 50 with similar symptoms.”

Like Koibuchi, they had a headaches, a runny nose (rhinorrhea) and constricted pupils (myosis). Sarin forces the pupils to narrow, making it difficult to see — that is why Koibuchi could hardly make out the light in her bathroom.

Although he was just 30 years old at the time, Iwashita was the only doctor at the scene and so assumed command.

His main concern was not for the people he could see — but for those he couldn’t. “I thought the people who were really sick wouldn’t be able to come out. They may not have been able to walk, so I asked the fire department personnel to get into the apartments quickly,” Iwashita said.

There were four apartment buildings in the immediate vicinity, and the managers of the buildings were called to open the doors with master keys.

Inside the apartments they found the most badly injured.

“Some were unconscious, some were suffering convulsions,” Iwashita says.

Some were already dead, among them a young woman that Iwashita knew, one of his students from Shinshu University. Twenty-nine-year-old Mii Yasumoto was from nearby Toyama Prefecture.

“Her father was a doctor and she wanted to become a doctor,” said Iwashita, who now works in emergency medicine at Nagano Red Cross Hospital. He remembered her because “she was very enthusiastic, really good at communicating with the patients, asking about their sickness, and very good at the academic side as well.”

She was due to graduate on March 20, 1995 — the day Aum carried out its attack on the Tokyo subway system.

Yasumoto was one of seven who died on the night of June 27; four others died in their apartments and two in hospital, while another woman died in 2008 from injuries sustained in the attack. A further 54 were admitted to hospitals around the city and 208 were treated as outpatients. The victims ranged in age from 3 to 86 years old. The oldest was Koibuchi’s mother, Kikue, who, like her daughter spent more than 10 days in hospital after the attack. A spritely octogenarian at the time of the attack, Kikue is counted as one of those who recovered but her daughter believes the sarin may have eventually caused her death.

“The following December she fell and damaged her back, and then suffered massive organ failure. I know she was in her 80s, but she had been so healthy and so strong,” she said. “I suspect that sarin was the cause because it can stay in your body for years and then suddenly the symptoms can reappear.”

The difference between dying and surviving, it seemed, was a matter of luck.

“The people who had their windows closed and used air conditioners didn’t die,” said Hiroshi Morita, a clinical professor at Shinshu University Hospital, who treated two of the most badly injured patients. “Some inhaled deeply and the gas stopped their respiratory system very quickly, which caused their death. Those who survived maintained minimum respiration.”

When Koibuchi was hospitalized she shared a room with a judge from Matsumoto District Court who, along with his colleagues, was a specific target of the attack.

Aum aimed to kill the judges before they ruled on a case taken by a landowner who claimed Aum had bought land from him in southern Matsumoto by sleight of hand. In other words, he wouldn’t have sold the property if he knew he was selling to Aum. The verdict was due the following month and the judges were expected to side with the landowner.

Aum’s original sarin plan was to spray the gas into the Matsumoto courthouse, but the Aum members arrived in the city after it had closed. They then decided to target a three-story apartment building across from Koibuchi’s house where Matsumoto’s judges lived (and still live today).

However, if the judges were the main target, subsequent court testimony by Aum followers showed that the group’s leadership also hoped to test the efficiency of its sarin — which it was making at one of its facilities — as a weapon of mass-murder.

The group wanted to see how many it could kill and the citizens of Matsumoto, who had already angered Aum founder Shoko Asahara by vigorously opposing his plan to set up an office and factory at the land in southern Matsumoto, were the guinea pigs. Opponents of the plan gathered 140,000 signatures for an anti-Aum petition, equivalent to 70 percent of the city’s population at the time.

Unforgivably in Koibuchi’s eyes, Asahara, the guru who once wanted to overthrow the Japanese state and now sits incontinent and incoherent on death row, has refused to apologize for the attack.

“Asahara was at the top, so for him to not apologize, not say a word, is no good,” she said. “The death penalty doesn’t solve it … and it (Aum, now known as Aleph) still exists and young people are still joining it. I find that strange.”

Many of those in Aleph aren’t old enough to clearly remember the attack. Even in Matsumoto, memories are fading. It’s difficult to find anyone in the neighborhood where the gas was spread who has deep knowledge of the incident.

Indeed, it’s possible to walk around Fukashi 1-chome and not know that Japan’s first ever terrorist chemical weapons attack happened in this sleepy residential area. There is no memorial and the mayor’s office says there is no plan to erect one.

“For the first 10 years, there was a trickle of people coming here (to the site of the attack) as tourists,” Koibuchi said. “However, now it’s been 20 years. Maybe some still come, but very few. Even I am beginning to forget the details.”

Surprisingly, she said that her neighbors never talked about the sarin attack in the months and years that followed.

Perhaps that is because most harm was caused to outsiders. Those who died on the night of June 27 were from Niigata, Osaka, Chiba, Toyama, Gunma and Shizuoka prefectures. They had come to Matsumoto for either work or study.

Kyoto native Sumiko Kono, who died in 2008 without ever recovering her speech or mobility, was the only one of the dead with any roots in the Matsumoto. The house where she lived with her children and husband, Yoshiyuki, is empty now and her husband has since moved to Kagoshima Prefecture.

The bulk of those injured were from Matsumoto but their injuries generally cleared up within weeks. One has been left with permanent nerve damage in the arm, but it’s a mild injury.

Since the attack, the city has paid for medical checkups almost every year for those who fear they have been harmed.

“At the start there were a lot taking it (155 in July 1994) but the number has decreased. The last was in 2011 and only one person took the checkup,” said Takako Furuhata, manager of Matsumoto City’s Health Promotion Division, who is responsible for coordinating the examinations. “After 20 years people are getting old and it’s hard to know if their problem is caused by sarin or aging.”