The 1995 Aum sarin gas attacks in Tokyo laid the foundations for the creation of support networks to help protect those affected by the incident
On the morning of March 20, 1995, Kazuo Asakawa had gone to work as usual. He was in the middle of a meeting with a client when a colleague called to inform him that his sister, Sachiko, had been admitted to hospital in critical condition.
Asakawa raced to the hospital and found that his sister had been placed on life support. He went to hold her hand but a doctor stopped him. The only thing he could do was call to his sister from a distance, praying she could understand he was close by.
Sachiko was one of the estimated 6,300 people who were injured in the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack in 1995. Thirteen people died in the strike on the Chiyoda, Marunouchi and Hibiya subway lines.
That fatal day changed Asakawa and his family’s lives forever. Sachiko had been on her way to a training session for her job. Instead of taking her normal commute, she had boarded a train on the Marunouchi Line.
Sachiko was found in a state of cardiopulmonary arrest at Nakano-Sakaue Station. She had been exposed to a large dose of sarin, and the first paramedic who tried to resuscitate her collapsed and had to be replaced. As a result of the attack, Sachiko suffered so much brain damage that a doctor told Asakawa she would have the intellectual capacity of a 5-year-old. She was also paralyzed and doctors said she would have trouble walking again.
“My mother asked the doctor if a miracle could happen,” Asakawa recalls. “The doctor told her the fact that she was still alive was a miracle in itself. She was in such a state we were warned she could die at any moment.”
Sachiko refused to give up. She recovered slowly, and went through a long period of rehabilitation. She was eventually able to roll over in bed and swallow pureed food. After nearly nine years of being hospitalized, she was finally discharged. Asakawa’s family had refurbished their home to accommodate his sister, adding slopes and bars to create a barrier-free environment. His wife had also undergone training to become a certified careworker.
However, a number of years would pass before the victims of the attack would begin to see any form of financial support from the government. In the months that followed the attack, they might never have guessed they would still be embroiled in a civil lawsuit seeking damages against former members of the cult almost 23 years later.
“We had nothing,” says Shizue Takahashi, who has headed a support group for victims of the subway attack and their families since 1995. “We were victims of an unprecedented terrorist attack.”
Lack of compensation
Takahashi’s husband, Kazumasa, was a subway employee at Kasumigaseki Station. He died after removing a bag of sarin from the Chiyoda Line train that passed through his station during the morning rush hour. A couple of hundred people were injured on the Chiyoda Line that day but Kazumasa and another fellow railway employee were killed.
Takahashi and her husband had been planning to celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary only two months later, but suddenly this part-time worker and mother of three found herself a widow.
“I was abruptly thrown into the depths of despair and it seemed to last forever,” Takahashi says. “I couldn’t get over the feeling of hopelessness.”
Yuji Nakamura, a prominent lawyer who has supported victims since the attack, says little legislation covering such incidents existed in 1995. One law, passed in 1980, provided limited support to victims of crime, including compensation of up to ¥10 million for any family that had suffered a bereavement.
In the sarin attack, however, many of the victims were either at work or on their way to work so their deaths or injuries were instead covered by workers’ compensation insurance.
However, that wasn’t sufficient for the victims’ families.
“We were making ends meet by digging into our savings because we couldn’t work anymore and had hospital bills to pay,” Takahashi says. “The government wouldn’t take care of us but we needed compensation.”
In order to seek redress for victims and their families as well as ensure that Aum would never again be able to function as an organization, a group of about 40 lawyers, including Nakamura, filed a series of civil lawsuits on behalf of victims against cult founder Shoko Asahara (whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto) and other key figures.
Convincing victims to add their names to the legal action, however, proved to be difficult because each plaintiff would need to disclose personal information, including their name and address, and that prospect terrified most victims.
The number of plaintiffs eventually grew, with 41 finally agreeing to join the group, including the Asakawas. Although the group was eventually successful in its suit, Takahashi says the individual plaintiffs have yet to receive any compensation.
The cult was declared bankrupt in 1996, with a court appointing lawyer Saburo Abe as trustee to pay expenses and distribute any balance to creditors, including the government and victims of the attack.
Aum owed ¥5.1 billion in compensation, from which ¥3.8 billion had been earmarked for victims.
For 12 years, Abe worked hard to ensure that the victims and their families were given whatever money he could recover.
During this time, the government, which was the largest creditor in the insolvency, needed to pass legislation giving victims and their families priority.
Meanwhile, Aum changed its name to Aleph, and so another law had to be enacted specifying that spinoff groups of the cult would also be held accountable for compensation.
A total of ¥1.5 billion, or 40 percent of what was owed, was disbursed to victims by 2008. Since then, both Aleph and Hikari no Wa (Circle of Light), another Aum spinoff, have made a few payments.
However, Aleph recently refused to pay the outstanding ¥1 billion it still owed, forcing an official organization supporting the victims led by former Japan Federation of Bar Associations chief Kenji Utsunomiya to file another lawsuit against the cult last month.
Nakamura is frustrated that another lawsuit is needed 23 years after the attack, arguing that the Public Security Agency, which keeps an eye on Aum and its spinoffs, has already ruled that Aleph has more than enough assets to pay the victims.
“Cutting the cult’s financial assets to ensure that it disbands is part of our mission,” Nakamura says. “Aum Shinrikyo doesn’t exist anymore, but Aleph inherited Asahara’s ideology, religious views and teachings, and who knows if it could become a terrorist organization.”
Lack of awareness
Takahashi says it’s important to prevent an attack such as the one Aum carried out on the subway system from reoccurring. She agreed to represent the victims of the attack — a decision that turned her life around completely.
Day in and day out, Takahashi found herself having to deal with the press. Interview requests poured in and she found herself talking to reporters often late into the night, sometimes for hours until the last train. Her children had to learn to become more independent.
Takahashi became the face of the sarin gas attack victims, something that eventually drove a wedge between herself and her children.
Despite the hardship, however, Takahashi doesn’t regret being involved because talking to the media has actually helped her to deal with the incident in a number of ways. Not only has her position helped to sort out her own thoughts and feelings following the attack, she has also gained access to information about Aum and the trials that she couldn’t get directly from the police.
“I have spoken about the attack and my husband on countless occasions, something that has ultimately helped me to heal,” Takahashi says. “There was a massive block of pain inside my heart and (a psychiatrist) once told me that although the volume of the pain would never change, talking about it would help break it down into pieces so that I would eventually be able to live with it.”
What also kept her going was the overwhelming number of letters she received from other victims, who say they owe their lives to Takahashi’s husband for removing the bag of sarin on the Chiyoda Line that morning.
“These letters have encouraged me to keep moving forward. I realized I didn’t have time to be sad,” she says. “In short, I started doing all of this for my husband and his memory.”
Takahashi devoted whatever time she had to the support group’s activities. She talked to lawyers, held press conferences, and collected memoirs from victims and published them in a book. She visited the United States to learn about managing a support group and talked to experts about post-traumatic stress disorder.
Over the years, she has attended hundreds of trials of people who were responsible for killing her husband, 12 others and injuring thousands more.
This wasn’t easy either, as victims needed to line up with the general public outside the Tokyo District Court in Kasumigaseki to get a seat until the victims protection law was passed in 2000.
“The government had little awareness toward victims back then,” Nakamura says. “When we asked for victims to be given priority seating arrangements, we were told no such law existed.”
Listening to the victims
Meanwhile, on Sept. 11, 2001, six years after the subway attack, thousands became victims of terrorist attacks in the United States. The U.S. government’s response compared to Japan, however, was like night and day, Nakamura says.
Just 11 days after the attack, Washington passed a law that would create a fund to compensate victims and their families in exchange for an agreement not to sue the airlines. The September 11 Victim Compensation Fund of 2001 paid more than $7 billion to victims and those who lost their loved ones within 33 months through December 2003.
“The ‘war on terror’ meant taking care of victims as well. That was the American way,” Nakamura says. “The Japanese government had done nothing six years after the sarin attack.”
As victims and their families couldn’t change the system in Japan from within, they looked at what was happening overseas and invited victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to attend a symposium in Tokyo in 2005. The visitors were asked to tell people here about the kind of support they received in the United States.
In 2008, 13 years after the attack, a special law was enacted to offer financial aid to victims of the Aum cult, including both the subway and the Matsumoto sarin attacks as well as other murders and attempted murders carried out by the cult. Families of the deceased received ¥20 million, those who were left disabled by the attacks received between ¥5 million and ¥30 million, and those who had been injured received between ¥100,000 and ¥1 million.
Yoshimasa Tanii, deputy director of the National Police Agency’s Support Office for Victims of Crime Police, says it’s difficult to compensate the victims 100 percent because of the underlying concept that perpetrators should first and foremost take responsibility for their crimes.
“The government is distributing benefits based on society’s spirit of collective responsibility,” Tanii says. “The amount of money distributed through benefits to victims is increasing but it will be extremely difficult to gain public understanding to pay out the full amount with taxpayers’ money.”
Tanii accepts that victims may not be satisfied with the current support system but stresses that incremental progress is being made.
Most recently, for example, victims of crimes committed by a relative can receive benefits provided it is clear that no relationship exists between the bereaved family member and the perpetrator. Financial support for children whose parents have been killed is provided until they turn 18. These new measures could take effect as early as next month.
“Such changes were made after listening to victims,” Tanii says.
Hidemichi Morosawa, an authoritative figure in the study of victimology in Japan, says victims in Japan have had no choice but to fight for themselves.
“These victims have gone through so much pain and suffering and they probably would have quit if they could,” Morosawa says. “However, victims such as Ms. Takahashi have realized that they have to fight for themselves because no one else is going to fight on their behalf.”
A significant development is the enactment of the 2004 law that realizes the rights of crime victims by listing the need for various measures, including the improvement of a benefit system, provision of mental health care and the introduction of financial and tax measures to promote victim support activities by private organizations.
Another landmark victory for victims was the revision of the Criminal Procedure Law in 2007 to allow victim participation in criminal trials, including cases involving murder and rape.
The National Association of Crime Victims and Surviving Families, which was founded in 2000 and has recently announced that it will disband in June, has long advocated for the establishment of such system.
At the time, the law stirred controversy amid concern that the courts could be used by a party seeking revenge and that rulings could be affected.
“The group tackled the most difficult problem head on with tremendous power and succeeded,” Morosawa says.
The law is not retroactive but several Aum victims, including Takahashi, were able to use the system in the arrest of the last Aum fugitive, Katsuya Takahashi, in 2012. His life sentence was finalized by the Supreme Court in January.
“Sitting in the gallery is completely different from being next to the prosecutor. The perpetrator is right there in front of you, so close,” Takahashi says. “I felt a sense of unity with the prosecutor.”
Morosawa says Japan still has a long way to go to establish a more secure system to support victims, including the creation of a restitution order so that perpetrators are obligated to make payments to victims through criminal procedures.
Moreover, Morosawa says it’s important to educate society, especially children, on victims rights in order to create an environment that is supportive for all victims.
“The reality for victims is that they need to remain anonymous but we need that to change,” Morosawa says. “We need to create a society in which victims do not need to feel like they have to hide their identities and stay quiet.”
Confronting the press
It took Asakawa 10 years to come out of anonymity and reveal his and Sachiko’s identity to the press. He recalls being terrified of retaliation by cult members. One day, however, he saw Takahashi and other victims of the attack on camera.
“I was a stranger to myself and I realized right then and there that my messages wouldn’t reach anyone if I stayed in the shadows,” Asakawa says. “I realized I had to show myself in order to tell my story, my sister’s story, to make sure that people didn’t forget about what happened or think that everything we were going through was someone else’s problem.”
Asakawa took Sachiko to the Supreme Court in 2009 so that she could hear the death sentence being finalized for Kenichi Hirose, the person responsible for releasing sarin on the train that Sachiko had been riding.
“It was her case and I felt that she should hear the sentencing herself,” Asakawa says. “Sachiko would often say: ‘Aum. Complete idiot. Death penalty.'”
Sachiko was 31 at the time of the attack. She is now 54 and her mother is 93. Until last fall, they had both been living at Asakawa’s family home, with nurses visiting daily.
Sachiko was hospitalized in October last year after suffering spasms of unknown causes. After several months in the hospital, Asakawa and his family decided that Sachiko should be placed in a facility that would be able to provide her with round-the-clock care.
At 58, Asakawa still works as a salesman for a car components company. He tries to visit Sachiko at the hospital as often as he can, sometimes after work and on the weekends. His children, who were 6 and 2 at the time of the attack, spent their childhoods visiting Sachiko in the hospital.
After almost 23 years, Asakawa says support from the government, including compensation, is insufficient to ensure that Sachiko can continue to live even if he is not there to support her any longer. And that’s why he continues to agree to media requests and talk openly about his sister’s situation.
“Crime victims have been left behind but I think we should be guaranteed at least enough to survive,” he says. “I know it’s almost impossible for others to completely relate to what each victim goes through and I don’t expect that. … That said, the government shouldn’t forget us.”
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