The Sashimi Report: Living in Dangerous Times : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Thursday, October 25, 2001

The Sashimi Report: Living in Dangerous Times

Remembering the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack BY TIM LARIMER

Monday, October 22, 2001

In the subway station near my office in central Tokyo, there is a small memorial to the victims of the terrorist attack that changed Japan. It's hard to find this memorial -- a simple black plaque with bronze-colored lettering obscured by potted plants -- but every year, on March 20, people show up to bow in front of it, light candles, and leave flowers behind.

On that day in 1995, 12 people were killed and over 5,000 were injured by a doomsday cult's diabolical plot to disperse the deadly sarin gas into the subway system during Tokyo's morning rush hour. It was a terrifying time, as commuters and office workers were left to ponder what might come next, where else an attack might occur, who else might die -- and what evil mind would target innocent people so randomly?

Sound familiar? The frantic, panicky responses to the nerve-rattling events in the U.S. over the past month are perfectly understandable. Even here, an ocean and a continent away from the epicenter of New York, I found myself pausing at the entrance of a subway station after a recent round of unsubstantiated rumors about a bomb threat on the line I take. (I took the train. There was no threat. There was no bomb.) But Americans, as the rest of the world realizes even if they themselves don't, aren't embarking on uncharted territory or breaching some new terrible world. A dangerous world already exists. Just ask the people of Ireland, Beirut, Manila, or even Paris, for that matter.

Or Tokyo. In this new age of anthrax, it's worth remembering again the episode of bio-terrorism that occurred in that Tokyo subway in 1995. Just as the perpetrators of the anthrax scare are using a crude method of dissemination -- sending the poisonous substance through the mail -- members of Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult were rather low-tech in their method, too. They carried onto subway cars plastic bags filled with the gas, and punctured the bags with umbrellas. That was it. Such a prosaic delivery system is part of what made the attacks so frightening. Umbrellas are something like community property in Japan. If you find yourself leaving an office building without an umbrella during a rain shower, you can help yourself to one of the dozens usually piled up near the door. Aum turned that symbol of sharing and national unity into a weapon of mass destruction. Nothing was the same again. Who knew if the guy standing next to you on the morning train was really just a droopy-eyed salaryman? What was really inside that bento lunch box?

The first days after the attack were frightening; yakuza gangs were suspected. Most people were only then learning about the strange Aum cult and its wild- haired leader. What if they had a nuclear bomb? Days later, Japan's top police officer was shot (he survived). Over time, that brand of fear eventually subsided. Panic gave way to suspicion, which gave way to mistrust, and finally, pessimism. This is where Japan's brief and thankfully, isolated, incident of bio-terrorism can serve as a cautionary tale for Americans, and, really for everyone.

For the incident didn't in the end serve to rally Japan, or steel it for a more unpredictable world, or even prepare it logistically for a future attack. In fact, Japanese authorities have now sheepishly admitted they haven't really done anything to prepare for bio-terrorism since Aum. This, even though it was later learned the cult toyed with biological warfare, including anthrax, and had plotted to spread the disease at the royal wedding of Princess Masako and Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993. No stockpiles of vaccines, no plans for mass distribution of antibiotics, no emergency evacuation plans. They did move all the trashcans in train stations within eyesight of the station workers.

But what the Aum cult succeeded in doing, in addition to taking the lives of 12 people, was to shatter a nation's sense of unity, to replace trust with suspicion, invincibility with fear. This is where Americans would do well to heed recent history, for as it has been noted, it's not anthrax itself that is contagious, but rather fear that spreads so easily. As the novelist Haruki Murakami, whose recently translated work "Underground" examines the victims of the subway attack, has said: "We lost our confidence then." That was the point it all began to go bad.

Many things have gone terribly wrong for Japan since then. It's too simplistic to blame it all on Aum. What's transpired since then may well have evolved in much the same way; the unraveling of social order, the dysfunctional families, the middle-aged men preying on pre-teens for sex, the teenagers who kill their parents, and each other. Or the demented loners like the one that stabbed and killed a bunch of second-graders this year. Or the desperate, jobless salarymen like the one that kidnapped a rich family's boy last week. Or the thousands of others that give up, disappear, and kill themselves. The mad handiwork of a man U.S. President George W. Bush would call an evildoer didn't directly cause all of those things to happen.

But it did cause a country to begin to doubt itself, to feel helpless, and to accept an inevitability of bad things to come. So when times got tough, nobody could muster the resolve or the energy to respond. "Maybe it's the Buddhist influence," says a scientist I was talking to last week. "But I think people just gave up."

Tokyo can seem like a sad place, even today. People choose not to think much about Aum and that awful day in 1995. Every year on the anniversary, though, the commuters who pass by that small memorial are forced to remember. For a few days afterwards, people eye their fellow subway passengers a little more closely. They move a little more quickly through the station, up the escalator, not stopping until they're outside, where the air is fresh.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 25, 2001


I see we are back in business--after taking 10/24 off.

I really don't think America (which won WWII) will take terrorism in the same way as Japan (who lost WWII). I think a defeatist mode of living set in there, and became a new way of natural reaction to negative events.

Conversely, I believe the basic American reaction, due to an inherent attitude of winning, taking on challenges, and underlying optimism, will react to this terrorism with more of an attitude of defiance, and sense of purpose in defeating it (sure hope I'm right; the "politically correct crowd" has been working very hard toward making us more like defeatist Japan).

But, the immediate reaction of action to, not just swat the mosquitoes, but drain the swamp, seemed to have the support of, even, Hollywood's most dovish liberals.

I think think there is real hope for this country yet.

-- JackW (, October 25, 2001.


-- Jackson Brown (, November 01, 2001.

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