Aum Three Years Later: Victims struggle for redress

Japan Times/March 18, 1998
By Tetsushi Kajimoto

Invisible scars left by the Tokyo subway sarin gassing, believed carried out by members of Aum Shinrikyo three years ago March 20, still plague survivors and the families of those who died.

With little help from government officials and waning sympathy from the public, these victims and their supporters have endured an uphill struggle to seek redress and improve society's treatment of crime victims.

This week, the state and some local governments announced plans to forfeit their claims, of about 520 million yen, against Aum, hoping to allow individuals to recover slightly greater shares of the cult's assets as redress.

According to Aum's bankruptcy administrator, however, the cult's assets stand at about 1 billion yen, only a fraction of the 5 billion yen in claims filed against the cult. "We're glad that our efforts over the past two years have borne fruit," Yuji Nakamura, chief legal counsel for the victims of the subway gassing, told The Japan Times in a recent interview. "But it's only a small step toward the measures the national government needs to take for the relief of the sarin victims. Heaps of other problems remain to be resolved to fully compensate the victims and to better care for victims of future disasters."

Even with authorities yielding their share of the claims against Aum, roughly 80 percent of the damages will go unpaid, Nakamura points out. He blames the central government for failing to help victims who experienced posttraumatic stress disorder following the attack.

Claiming the victims were part of indiscriminate mass murder targeted at the state, Nakamura says the government has a responsibility to aid victims and develop comprehensive relief measures for the future.

Survivors and victims' families say they feel their rights have been overlooked, while the rights of the defendants, the members of Aum on trial for the gas attack and a raft of other heinous crimes, have been closely guarded.

As evidence, they point to Aum founder Shoko Asahara, who is being placed under medical supervision by justice authorities and defended in ongoing criminal suits by court-appointed attorneys free of charge. Victims of the subway gassing and other crimes believed carried out by Aum have had to cough up vast sums of money to seek damages in civil suits, said plaintiff Shizue Takahashi, 51.

Takahashi's husband, Kazumasa, was killed in the gassing while trying to dispose of a newspaper-wrapped vinyl container full of liquid sarin. He was an assistant stationmaster at Kasumigaseki Subway Station in central Tokyo. "For family members such as me, our purpose is not (to obtain) money, but to break up Aum," Takahashi said.

She added, however, that some of the people seeking damages are in desperate need of financial help, especially because workers' accident compensation insurance and social insurance cannot cover their losses. "I know a man in his prime who was forced to quit his job because of psychological problems after the incident and eventually separated from his wife and child," Takahashi said. "As time has gone by, more indirect effects of the attack have begun to surface."

Since many of those affected by the gassing shy away from recounting their experiences in public, Takahashi and Nakamura have compiled their tales in the book "Still We Live On," published by Tokyo-based Sunmark Inc. earlier this month.

"With the memory of the incident fading in most people's minds, survivors still suffering posttraumatic stress disorder are receiving less public sympathy," said Kanzo Nakano, the director of Kudan Nakano Clinic for neurology and internal diseases.

Having diagnosed more than 50 gassing survivors, Nakano still treats about 20 sufferers at his clinic. Seven of his patients, who all reported symptoms linked to PTSD, first came to see him two years after the attack.

Last April, the Justice Ministry also launched a study group to review civil procedures for restituting crime victims.

But "it's not that the victims' human rights have never been neglected," admitted Kazuhiro Murakoshi, a ministry official at the Criminal Affairs Bureau's Legislative Affairs Division.

Murakoshi said plaintiffs have difficulty obtaining criminal investigation records under current civil procedures because of the privacy afforded the defendants.

"In Japan, defendants' information has been overly protected, and it runs counter to the trend in other advanced countries," said Hidemichi Morosawa, director of the Victims Society of Japan and president of Tokiwa University in Mito, Ibaragi Prefecture.

Even crime victims are often left uninformed of the facts surrounding the crime and the defendants, he said.

Morosawa suggested that the government finance the exorbitant costs of filing damages suits and create a fund to disburse court-awarded damages to crime victims when the defendants are incapable of paying. Takahashi, while acting as manager for the 160-member Society for the Victims of the Subway Sarin Incident and observing the ongoing Aum trials, has taken on a new mission of forging a network of crime victims across the country.

"Until now, crime victims have been faced with difficult situations," Takahashi said. "Though my life was ruined, I hope our activities since the subway sarin incident will provide an opportunity for the government to enact new legislation to establish a substantial compensation system for us crime victims."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.