Aum victim keeps memory alive via film

Documentary preserves feelings of '95 subway attack survivors

by Sayo Sasaki

Kyodo News

Shizue Takahashi is painfully aware that for many people, 15 years is long enough for memories to fade and for a generation to grow up with little knowledge of the trauma she and thousands of others suffered in 1995.

It was in March that year that members of Aum Shinrikyo carried out its infamous nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. Her husband was among the fatalities.

Although Takahashi, 63, accepts that fading memories are a part of life, she is determined that this one nightmare not be forgotten. Having been a public-speaking representative of people victimized in the sarin attack, she went on to interview them to compile their feelings, memories and experiences for an hourlong documentary film.

The film will be screened March 13 at a public gathering in Tokyo ahead of the 15th anniversary of the attack, which claimed 12 lives and left more than 5,000 people wounded.

“I think victims must work to remind people,” said Takahashi in a recent interview. “You cannot stop time or stop people from forgetting . . . but (by showing the film) I want to feel that people are learning something from the great sacrifice we made.”

Since September, she has spent roughly 20 hours meeting and interviewing 11 people. Among them was former National Police Agency chief Takaji Kunimatsu, who was shot outside his condominium in Tokyo shortly after the subway attack. A police officer and several others with links to the doomsday cult were arrested in connection with his shooting, but none was ever indicted. The statute of limitations runs out at the end of this month.

Takahashi also visited a woman paralyzed by sarin and the brother who cares for her at their home. In an effort to accurately portray their everyday lives, she focused not just on their hardships but also the things that made them happy. Others interviewed included a doctor, a journalist and a former chief prosecutor.

“I think there were things they told me because of who I am,” she said.

Takahashi’s husband, Kazumasa, 50, was killed while on duty as a senior official at Kasumigaseki Station. He was exposed to sarin while removing one of the plastic bags containing the nerve agent an Aum member planted on a rush-hour train on March 20, 1995.

Ten Aum members, including founder Shoko Asahara, were sentenced to hang for a series of crimes committed by the cult, including the murder of a lawyer’s family and a deadly sarin attack in summer 1994 in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture.

When news spread of the earlier crimes, many blamed the police, saying the terrorist attack in Tokyo could have been prevented if they had thoroughly investigated the prior cases.

The police did not apologize at the time, but Takahashi said Kunimatsu apologized in her interview.

“I wouldn’t say it healed me, but I would have had to carry my resentment for the rest of my life if I did not hear (the apology),” she said. “If (he apologized) two or three years after the case, I wouldn’t even have listened to his words. It made me realize that the passing of time is important.”

The treatment of crime victims has also changed in the intervening years. At the time of the subway case, not much attention was paid to them as “they were not social figures to be recognized,” Takahashi said.

She told Kunimatsu during their interview the victims had been left in pain. In acknowledgment, he said, “The state’s lack of a system for helping victims must have been the cause (of pain),” she quoted him as saying.

For 13 years, the victims fought for aid, saying it was wrong that the government did not aid people falling victim to an attack targeting the state. Trials revealed Aum carried out the attack in an attempt to disrupt a planned police raid at the cult’s headquarters in relation to another case.

It was only in 2008 that a law on benefits for the victims of Aum’s crimes crimes was enacted. Under the law, the state paid ¥20 million for loss of life, those left with disabilities were given ¥5 million to ¥30 million, and those injured, up to ¥1 million.

Lawyer Yuji Nakamura, who has helped Aum victims and their families, believes the law has had a “significant” impact on the victims.

Of the 6,568 people known to have been victims of Aum’s crimes, 6,355 have been notified of the system and 5,259 had applied for benefits as of mid-December, police documents released last month showed.

It also showed 47 out of 70 applications for disabilities ended in certification and 1,077 of 1,163 applications for serious injuries and illnesses were also certified, figures Nakamura called “unexpectedly high” compared with the estimates the law had been based on.

The figures “indicate the victims were in a situation more serious than the state had imagined and that the state is trying to certify as many people as possible,” Nakamura analyzed.

The enactment of the law was a definite turning point for Takahashi.

“My life has been dominated by my work (as representative for the victimized) . . . I worked hard for the law, and with the benefits paid, I think it’s time that I relax a little more and get my life back.”

Still, she is not looking away from issues surrounding the victims and society.

“As various new crimes occur, we need more flexibility in meeting victims’ needs,” she said.

She also saw faults in emergency planning after recently observing antiterrorism drills by the Self-Defense Forces and a fire department.

“Even if each organization holds drills and improves its skills, it would be meaningless unless all the players, including the media and other people, are present,” she said, noting their absence from the drills she saw. “So in that sense, I remain doubtful (an actual crisis response) would function.”

Referring to the distribution in the United States of disaster-prevention DVDs in connection with wildfires, Takahashi said similar efforts were needed in Japan.

“I think the state should be more involved in education that would lead to safety and security,” she said.

But what she really hopes for now is to make viewers of her film at the upcoming event become better prepared themselves.

“We want to prevent a recurrence and stop people from being victimized. That’s why we want young people to learn.”