Victims of subway gas attack still suffer
[February 2, 1999]
The Aum Shin Rikyo cult was brought into the public spotlight when they masterminded the deadly gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, which killed a dozen people and injured thousands more. That tragic incident continues to reverberate for the victims and their families, for whom nationwide concern is increasing to such a degree that it is prompting what many feel is a long overdue action within the Japanese government to upgrade its support system for crime victims.
Japan currently lags behind European countries as well as the United States in providing social and financial support systems for crime victims. The few existing examples of such programs can be found at the Tokyo Medical and Dental University and police headquarters, including the Metropolitan Police Department, where they recently established offices and programs to assist crime victims. Pro-bono legal counseling services are also now available.
In response to this growing concern, Tokyo's National Police Agency (NPA) conducted a survey in 1998 of the victims of the sarin gas attack, by contacting approximately 5,300 individuals known to have been present during the attacks. Of those individuals, only 1,500 agreed to respond to the NPA survey, indicating the continuing sensitivity of the victims towards the incident.
Although limited informal surveys were conducted previously by select victims themselves and by private support groups, the NPA's 1998 report represents the first comprehensive official documentation of this case. The report, released on January 14, 1999, concluded that more than 17 percent of the pollees continue to experience mental and emotional suffering, such as flashbacks to the event and panic attacks when boarding trains.
According to the report, more than half the victims continue to suffer from such physical disorders as persistent eye strain. It was the mental trauma described by most respondents, however, that was the most serious concern. The survey found that many victims still "worry about getting involved in a similar incident"; "feel sad when I encounter something that reminds me of the incident"; and "try not to think about anything related to the incident," according to the Daily Yomiuri.
These responses reflect typical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which mentally and physically affects those who have undergone a particularly traumatic experience. Most respondents requested the government conduct a long-term survey on the effects of the sarin gas on their health and futures. Because the long-term effects of the gas are unknown, many victims harbor strong feelings of future anxiety, and female victims in particular are concerned they may not be able to give birth to healthy babies.
Additional fear and frustration were expressed regarding the prolonged trial of Aum cult leader Chizuo Matsumoto, as well as recent reports confirming that current Aum members are involved in a major effort to rebuild and recover their organization to its former financial strength and membership size.
Seventy-one percent of the respondents expressed hope for an early conclusion of Matsumoto's trial. Others expressed indignation that the Aum cult has been sanctioned to resume their activities. In response to the gas attack, the Tokyo district court deprived Aum of its legal religious status and liquidated its assets, but the Japanese government concluded the group posed no "immediate or obvious threat" to society, rejecting a request from officials to outlaw the sect.
But alarming signs of the group's resurgence abound. Security officials note the group's allure to young scientists, engineers and other well-educated people capable of reassembling an arms arsenal, but the greater concern revolves around Aum's continuous acquisition of real estate. The group has grown to approximately 5,000 followers, 500 of which are "ordained monks" who live communally. Aum operates approximately 28 installations at 18 branches throughout the country as well as abroad. Despite the ban against them in Russia, the group remains active there, as well as in the Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. At its height in 1995, Aum had approximately 10,000 followers in Japan and up to 40,000 in other countries, with 30,000 of them in Russia.
Aum also maintains encrypted Web sites and chat rooms in Japanese, English, and Russian, and controls a network of electronic, computer and other stores. These holdings jointly generated about $30 million in revenue in 1997. Aum's publishing company, currently its second-largest source of income, re-opened in April of 1998 and issues at least one book or pamphlet per month.
The trial of Matsumoto, whose public hearings had totaled 100 by the end of last year, has only examined four of the 17 charges he faces. Accounts describe Matsumoto's behavior during these public hearings as consistently defiant.
Source: The Daily Yomiuri, January 31, 1999