Thursday, March 19, 2015

Poison Japan

20 March 1995 I had an early appointment at a western Tokyo university. I walked from my home to Kasuga subway station, then rode a packed commuter train to Suidobashi and changed to the westbound Chūō Line for a 30-minute standing ride.

The trip just then was memorable for being crowded. At the start we were packed so tightly, I still remember being unable to move my arms to wipe my forehead or pat-down my hair. Swearing to avoid Tokyo rush hour trains, I've kept off 'em for the past 20 years.

The morning's further memorable dimension emerged later in the day, after returning home on an almost empty train: nearby painful death. Deluded people on five Tokyo subway trains silently released sarin nerve agent (a deadly poisonous chemical weapon) and then disembarked. I'd been blissfully unaware; the cars I rode were spared, and I saw nobody sick. But I was perhaps just a few meters away from the poisoners and their clear plastic bags of liquid. Hundreds were sickened, a dozen people were killed.

Spooky?  Sure. But two points are most horrible:

1) Nine-months earlier (on 28 June 1994, 240km west of Tokyo) the same group wreaked their first sarin attack in Matsumoto: killing eight & injuring 200 people (link). Japanese Police took some time to discover the killing agent was sarin, and the police throughout were woefully inept. A victim identified as the prime suspect, Yoshiyuki Kōno (河野義行), was vilified by media around Japan (Shincho Weekly later reportedly disavowed its article 「毒ガス事件発生源の怪奇家系図」 after threat of lawsuit - link; see also here). If Japan's police had been slightly alert that year, they'd have solved the Matsumoto case and avoided the Tokyo attack.

2) Response to the Tokyo sarin terror attack on the day was very poor & slow. One Marunouchi line train with poison gas went on its route back and forth and back again for one hour and forty minutes. Many stations were visited three times... and that train passed through my neighborhood twice while dripping poison (and a prior time with culprits pre-release)...

Lessons? Avoid reliance on Japanese officials. One book on the incident (Murakami's Underground. - link) depicts the sarin attacks as laying bare glaring problems of fragmented & sensationalized Japanese society. I wholly agree.