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Basking in misplaced faith is no way to prepare for any disaster

by Roger Pulvers

“Calender journalism” is what it’s called. It’s when the anniversary of an event, ideally in some round number of years, provides the point of departure for an article commemorating the event and/or considering its ongoing relevance.

So it is that the 15th anniversary of the March 20, 1995 sarin-gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system by the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo has recently been the topic of much media attention. That horrendous act of terror triggered a series of incidents that continued until the arrest of the cult’s leader, Shoko Asahara, on May 16, 1995. Hence, this time of year is a grim anniversary of a period of nearly two months when the people of Tokyo lived in a fearful state of psychological siege.

For my family, March 20, 1995 is unforgettable. After a stay of nearly three years in Australia to give our children some grounding in English-language education, we had returned to Japan in December 1994, telling friends and relatives alike in Australia that “Japan is the safest place to bring up children.”

Less than a month later, in the early morning of Jan. 17, the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe and surrounding districts, killing more than 6,400 people and reminding everyone in Japan of the country’s vulnerability to natural disasters. The Japanese have always prided themselves on their “spiritual readiness” to cope with such extreme adversity. Yet the utter unreadiness of officials to deal with the scale of destruction in Kobe showed up that spirit to be so much ineffectual rhetoric.

Then, with the sarin-gas attacks barely two months later, the nation’s confidence in its public safety was dealt another stupendous blow.

That morning, my wife left our home in the Seijo Gakuenmae district of Setagaya Ward for her office, taking, as she always did, the train from there that goes to Yoyogi Uehara and continues on the Chiyoda subway line. I stayed home, and once the children were packed off to school I tidied up the house ahead of the arrival of a television crew from Australia who were coming to do an interview.

At home, I kept the TV off in order to give some quiet thought to the upcoming interview. The reporter, camera operator and sound technician arrived around 8:30 a.m. After filming indoors, we all went out to get some shots around the neighborhood, including one at the local liquor store. While I was schmoozing with the proprietor about the pros and cons of various regions’ sake, the city of Tokyo was being paralyzed with fear by the worst peacetime terror attack in its history.

We finished the shoot at 11:30, deposited cameras and sound equipment at my home, and set out for a soba restaurant by the station. No sooner had we sat down than the cameraman pointed to a TV set on a shelf in the corner. Its sound was down too low to hear, but the screen was showing a seemingly alarming scene. Many people were lying on the ground by the exit to a subway station, surrounded by medical workers and police.

“There seems to be some incident or something,” said the cameraman.

Holding the plastic menu in my hand, I glanced up at the TV.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” I said. “Must be some accident.”

“It doesn’t look like an accident,” he said.

“What else could it be? There’s been no earthquake. Tokyo’s the safest city in the world. Now, what would you like to order? The curried duck soba here is really great.”

So much for being a self-styled expert on Japan. I had failed to recognize the country’s biggest news story in decades!

By the time we were halfway through our lunch, it became clear to us that the city had been under attack. The TV crew collected their equipment from my home and set out in their rented van for their hotel. But the scale of what had occurred had still not dawned on me.

“Did you get into your office OK?” I asked my wife on the phone.

“What? Don’t you know what happened?”

“Sure I do. I saw it on TV. Gas or something.”

“Well, luckily I got as far as Yoyogi Uehara and then they stopped the train. Apparently the sarin-gas attack on the Chiyoda Line was at Kasumigaseki.”

“The what?”

“The sarin attack.”

“What’s sarin?”

After hanging up, I picked up my briefcase and started for the station. I had an appointment with a publisher in the city. At the station I was told that most trains were not running, and I was advised not to travel. I returned home and immediately called the publisher. No one answered the phone.

Now, as this anniversary causes me to reflect, I wonder once more if my reaction was simply an oversight of judgment — my missing the significance of the event. I don’t think so. It was much worse: a case of gross ignorance on my part — the kind of ignorance that comes from thinking you know something all too well.

In effect I had been, over the years, lulled into a blissful state of ignorance by faith. I had believed in Japanese mettle. I had trusted the rhetoric of preparedness assuring one and all that the Japanese people were steeled with vigilance, and that, come what may, they would know how to react and deal properly with disaster — be it natural or, as with that sarin-gas attack that left 12 dead and thousands injured, eerily unnatural.

Ten days later, Takaji Kunimatsu, head of the National Police Agency, was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt. Throughout the early days of April, Aum Shinrikyo’s spiritual leader, Shoko Asahara, remained at large and was issuing terror threats — one for the city-center’s huge Shinjuku Station on April 15. I went through there that evening, and there was only a fraction of the usual throng to be seen. Then, on May 5, an aborted attempt to release hydrogen cyanide into the station’s ventilation system demonstrated the lingering power of the cult to terrorize the capital and the nation.

It wasn’t until after Asahara’s May 16 arrest that the shock and dread of this series of incidents began to subside.

Like millions of Japanese, I was totally naive about Japan’s readiness to deal with disaster, basking as I was in an ingrained self-assurance of safety. In fact, though, the ensuring of safety is a product of exhaustive planning and concrete preparations — and the government had no effective action plan to deal with the Great Hanshin Earthquake, whose victims largely had to rely on young volunteers who streamed into the region. Also, although the police had good reason to believe that a sarin-gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture in June 1994 was carried out by Aum Shinrikyo, they failed to move in and stop the terrorists.

Since the economic bubble burst nearly 20 years ago, the Japanese people, it is said, have lost confidence in their resilience and their power to create an equitable prosperity. But I would contend that the aftershocks of the Great Hanshin Earthquake and the murderous Aum Shinrikyo debacle have rattled the nation even more profoundly.

The awful anniversary of the latter reminded me that I, too, had fallen for a string of empty assurances that could snap at any moment. And it also made me wonder whether we are as helpless in the face of disaster now as we were then.

Counterpoint will be taking a well-earned break next week, but will return in all its glory the following week.