Friday’s planned start of another Aum Shinrikyo trial will cast renewed attention on the legacy of the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway nearly 20 years ago.
Victims have been speaking in recent interviews about the impact the attack had on their lives and how they have tried to move on.
The events of March 20, 1995, sent shock waves through a nation that had prided itself on public safety. It killed 13 people and sickened more than 6,000.
Fifty-six-year-old Katsuya Takahashi was arrested in 2012 after 17 years on the run. He is accused of involvement in a range of crimes, including allegedly driving one of the sarin attackers to a subway station.
That morning, Hiroyuki Asami and his wife, Hisako, were on a Hibiya Line train heading to work. They first noticed a strange smell as the train passed Akihabara Station.
They both got off the train at Ningyocho, two stops later. “I felt like all the lights had been turned off,” she recalled. Her pupils had tightened shut, one effect of sarin.
Station staff and rescue workers had no immediate understanding of what had happened. “We told them chemicals had been released, but they didn’t believe us,” said Hisako Asami, now 61.
Hiroyuki Asami, now 63, tried to convince rescue workers by showing them his wet shoes and asking them to take a sniff.
Years later, Hisako Asami complains of bad eyesight, but her doctor attributes it to her age.
“If I trace all my problems to the incident, I won’t find a way out. I have to look to the future,” she said.
The Asamis alighted, but the train continued its journey. Kazuyuki Takahashi, who boarded at Hatchobori Station, found passengers inside the car drooling from their mouths and noses, and some had collapsed in spasms.
The train came to a halt at Tsukiji Station, the next stop. “I thought it was a disaster as scores of people were lying on the platform,” said Takahashi, 50.
He was having difficulty breathing, but he crawled up the stairs thinking that he should get out by any means possible.
He was taken to a hospital and hooked up to a lot of tubes. “I was scared, thinking that I was going to die.”
For more than five years, Takahashi was unable to return to Tsukiji Station. When he finally did, accompanied by a colleague, he said he felt he had overcome the attack.
“I want to know what the suspect was doing while he was on the run. I think it’s good that ordinary people will be able to judge him,” Takahashi said of the upcoming trial, which will be held under the lay judge system.
At Kasumigaseki Station on the Chiyoda Line, Deputy Station Master Toshiaki Toyoda used his bare hands to remove a bag of sarin wrapped only in newspaper and a plastic bag. “After hearing the liquid sloshing around in the bag, I thought it might explode,” said Toyoda, 72.
He returned to his office and found himself unable to write because his hands were shaking.
One of his colleagues — Kazumasa Takahashi, 50, who had helped to remove the sarin from the train — collapsed and died soon after.
“I always wondered why I survived and what I should do,” he said.
Eighteen years after the attack, Toyoda gave a speech about the experience at a high school reunion that was met with loud applause from the 200 people in the audience.
“The speech helped me get over the incident,” he said. “I cannot move forward as long as I have a victim’s mentality. I decided to speak as one of those who experienced the attack.”
Toyoda said he wants the judges at the trial to consider the attack an act of terrorism.
It was carried out by five senior Aum members, who used umbrellas to stab the bags of liquid sarin.
The attack was apparently aimed at disrupting an imminent police raid on the cult. It is thought to have been masterminded by Aum guru Shoko Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto and who is now on death row.