MATSUMOTO, NAGANO PREF. - It is difficult to fathom that a religious group might be behind a poison gas attack on hundreds of civilians. More likely, logic suggests, it would either be the result of a terrible accident or the work of a deranged individual. When confronted with such a scenario in Matsumoto in 1994, the Nagano Police Department went with the lone-wolf theory.
Their chief suspect was Yoshiyuki Kono, a machinery salesman who lived in a sprawling wooden house next to the site where members of Aum Shinrikyo decided to park the customized vehicle carrying the deadly nerve agent.
Kono was the first to contact emergency services after his wife fell unconscious, with records showing that he called at 11:09 p.m. on June 27, 1994. The next 119 call from another victim didn’t come until 29 minutes later.
Police began to suspect the poison gas had originated from Kono’s property, and their suspicions grew after finding more than 20 chemicals in his possession. Kono told officers he had purchased the chemicals for photo processing and pottery.
Considerable chemistry expertise is required to manufacture sarin, but Kono had no qualifications or experience in this field. Moreover, sarin cannot be synthesized from the chemicals Kono was found to be in possession of.
It wasn’t long, however, before some newspapers openly named Kono as the prime suspect in the case.
“Before this happened, I thought the media just reported on facts, but I was really surprised when this happened to me,” Kono told The Japan Times. “They were reporting lies and including quotes from me that I hadn’t even said. For example, they quoted me as saying I had made a mistake when mixing chemicals, which accidentally produced poison gas. They also claimed I had mixed up the specific quantity of certain chemicals. These were blatant lies.”
Unfortunately, however, they were believable lies.
Toshie Koibuchi, Kono’s neighbor, said it was easy to get sucked into the media’s take on things.
“The media said it was him, so of course everyone thought it was him,” she said.
Not quite everyone. Hideo Osawa, a Protestant pastor now working in Kanagawa Prefecture, is remembered by his former congregation in Matsumoto as someone who stood against the tide of accusations against Kono.
“I didn’t know if he was guilty or not, but he was named in newspapers as a prime suspect within three days of the incident,” Osawa recalled. “I think the police leaked the information. How could reporters have had enough information to say he was the perpetrator?”
Kono was about to lose his faith in another institution — the police.
“I was in hospital for a month,” he recalled. “During that time I thought the police would protect me. However, when I got out and the police came to question me, they treated me like a criminal.”
His wife was in hospital, too, in a coma. Described by Kono as “a cheerful woman with a variety of interests that included cooking and calligraphy,” she died from her injuries in 2008.
Two of their three teenage children were also hospitalized after the attack but for a shorter period of time. Left without their parents, Osawa and others in the community banded together to help.
“Their house was surrounded by reporters, so the mothers of their school friends gave them a place to sleep,” Osawa said. “I didn’t know Kono at that time, but our children were classmates at the same junior high school. I was part of an informal support group. We made food and got them pajamas, that sort of thing, as well as organized a place for them to sleep.”
“I didn’t know if he was guilty or not but I wanted to protect the right of his family to live a normal life,” Osawa said.
As most people around Kono believed he was behind the attacks, local support was sparse.
“I was going door to door to the hospital in a taxi so I didn’t meet anyone, but people around me — relatives and friends — were treated as if they were responsible for the crime,” Kono said. “I heard that they were discriminated against.”
It took another terrorist attack by Aum on Tokyo’s subway system almost nine months later before people began to believe that Kono was an innocent and grievously wronged man.
However, it took the police in Nagano, who declined a request for an interview, a little longer to review the evidence in front of them.
“I wasn’t ruled out of being involved in the Matsumoto incident because the sarin attacks were carried out in Tokyo,” Kono said.
In 1995, the Nagano Police Department said at a news conference they “regretted” their treatment of him. Seven years later, he received an official apology.
Matsumoto’s brush with sarin helped save lives in wake of cult’s 1995 attack on Tokyo subway system
Hiroshi Morita was at work when he first saw television reports of Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin attack on Tokyo’s subway system. It was March 20, 1995, and he had just finished a medical report on the cult group’s attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, nine months earlier with Shinshu University Hospital colleague Nobuo Yanagisawa and others.
The 176-page report was to be released later that day. “Professor Yanagisawa called me to his room and said, ‘It seems to be sarin exposure,'” Morita told The Japan Times. “We have to call the major hospitals in Tokyo and tell them how to treat it.”
At that time, the two doctors were probably the country’s leading experts on sarin poisoning. They had treated and studied victims of the sarin attack in Matsumoto, and could now use their knowledge to help those injured by the one in Tokyo.
The first few hours are crucial for sarin victims. Sarin paralyzes the respiratory system, causing victims to die as a result of asphyxiation.
Patients are usually intubated — that is, a tube is put down their throat and they are kept on an artificial ventilator — and are also given drugs such as pralidoxime as an antidote and diazepam to treat seizures. Treatment is straightforward and almost always successful if carried out soon after exposure.
Morita acted quickly. First, he called the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, seeking their help to get the message out.
“But their response was not so serious,” Morita said. “I said I would send them a fax detailing how to treat the victims but they didn’t express so much interest.”
He and his colleagues then began calling hospitals in Tokyo directly. They produced a hasty summary of the relevant sections from their report and sent the information to more than two dozen medical facilities by fax.
The bureaucrats may not have appreciated the significance of Morita’s phone call, but the reception he received from hospital personnel who were initially ignorant of the cause of the mass poisoning was more positive.
“The doctors were pleased with our suggestions and other doctors who knew me called our hospital directly,” Morita recalled.
The Tokyo attack killed 13 and harmed around 6,000, but the casualty list could have been much higher. However, Morita refuses to take credit.
“The most important thing was the doctors in Tokyo,” he said. “They did their best.”