Widow makes film to pass down memories of 1995 sarin attack

The Mainichi Daily News, Japan/March 5,2010

Tokyo - Shizue Takahashi is painfully aware of what 15 years mean for many people. It is long enough for memories to fade and for a generation to grow up with little knowledge of the 1995 chemical attack by the AUM Shinrikyo cult on the Tokyo subway system that claimed her husband's life.

Though she accepts fading memories as part of life, the 63-year-old's determination that the incident not be forgotten spurred her to make a leap from her prior role, as a public-speaking representative of a group of victims and bereaved families of the sarin gas attack, to interviewing people involved in the case herself.

Having met many victims and public officials through her work, she decided to ask them about their experiences and thoughts about the attack. The resulting hour-long film will be screened March 13 at a public gathering in Tokyo ahead of the 15th anniversary of the incident that left 12 people dead and more than 5,000 others injured.

"I think victims must work to remind people," said Takahashi in a recent interview. "You cannot stop time or stop people from forgetting...but (by showing the film) I want to feel that people are learning something from the great sacrifice we made."

Since September, she spent roughly 20 hours meeting and interviewing 11 people. Among them was former National Police Agency chief Takaji Kunimatsu, who was shot outside his condominium in Tokyo shortly after the subway attack. A police officer and several others with links to AUM were arrested in connection with his shooting, but none of them was indicted. The case faces a statute of limitation at the end of this month.

Takahashi also visited a woman paralyzed by sarin and the brother who cares for her at their home. In an effort to accurately portray their everyday lives, she focused not just on their hardships but also the things that made them happy. Others interviewed included a doctor, a journalist and a former prosecutor chief.

"I think there were things they told me because of who I am," she said.

Her husband Kazumasa, 50, was killed while on duty as a senior official at Kasumigaseki Station. He was exposed to sarin while removing one of the plastic bags carrying the substance that AUM had planted on rush hour trains on March 20, 1995.

Ten AUM members, including leader Shoko Asahara, were sentenced to death for a series of crimes committed by the cult, including the murder of a lawyer's family and another sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture.

When news spread of the earlier crimes, many blamed the police, saying the terror attack in Tokyo could have been prevented if they had thoroughly investigated the prior cases.

The police did not apologize at the time, but Takahashi said Kunimatsu apologized in her interview.

"I wouldn't say it healed me, but I would have had to carry my resentment for the rest of my life if I did not hear (the apology)," she said. "If (he apologized) two or three years after the case, I wouldn't even have listened to his words. It made me realize that the passing of time is important."

The treatment of crime victims has also changed in the intervening years. At the time of the subway case, not much attention was paid to them as "they were not social figures to be recognized," according to Takahashi.

She told Kunimatsu during the interview the victims had been left in pain. In acknowledgment, Kunimatsu said, "The state's lack of a system for helping victims must have been the cause (of pain)," she quoted him as saying.

For 13 years, the victims fought for aid, saying it was wrong that the government did not aid people fallen victim to an attack targeting the state. Trials revealed AUM had carried out the attack in an attempt to obstruct a planned police raid at the cult's headquarters in relation to another case.

It was only in 2008 that a law on benefits for the victims of AUM crimes was enacted. Under the law, the state paid 20 million yen for loss of life, those left with handicaps were given 5 to 30 million yen, and those injured, up to 1 million yen.

Lawyer Yuji Nakamura, who has helped AUM victims and their families, believes the law has had a "significant" impact on the victims.

Of the 6,568 people known to have been affected by AUM crimes, 96 percent, or 6,355, have been notified of the system, and 80 percent, or 5,259, have already applied for benefits as of mid-December, police documents released last month showed.

It also showed 47 out of 70 applications for disabilities ended in certification and 1,077 of 1,163 applications for serious injuries and illnesses were also certified, figures Nakamura called "unexpectedly high" compared to the estimates the law had been based on.

The figures "indicate the victims were in a situation more serious than the state had imagined and that the state is trying to certify as many people as possible," Nakamura analyzed.

The enactment of the law was a definite turning point for Takahashi.

"My life has been dominated by work (as the representative)... I strived for the law, and with the benefits paid, I think it's time that I relax a little more and get my life back."

Still, she is not looking away from issues surrounding the victims and society.

"As various new crimes occur, we need more flexibility in meeting victims' needs," she said.

She also saw faults in emergency planning after recently observing terror drills by the Self-Defense Forces and a fire department.

"Even if each organization holds drills and improves its skills, it would be meaningless unless all the players, including media and other people, are present," she said, noting their absence from the drills she saw. "So in that sense, I remain doubtful if it would function in the field."

Referring to the distribution in the United States of disaster-prevention DVDs in relation to wildfires, Takahashi said similar efforts were needed in Japan.

"I think the state should be more involved in education that would lead to safety and security," she said.

But what she best hopes for now is to make viewers of her film at the upcoming event become better prepared themselves.

"We want to prevent a recurrence and stop people from being victimized. That's why we want young people to learn."

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