Death cult they can't kill haunts a nation

Sydney Morning Herald, March 18, 2000
By Michael Millett

THE venom is unmistakable. "Death penalty, death penalty," Yoshimi Kitamura hisses, her tortured frame twisting in the wheelchair. The reaction, frightening in its intensity, is in response to the name Shoko Asahara, the bearded guru behind one of modern Japan's most infamous inventions, the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) cult. Asahara is almost universally reviled for his role in masterminding Aum's murderous crime rampage in the mid-1990s in pursuit of a bizarre Armageddon philosophy.

But few have as much reason to hate Asahara as Yoshimi does.

The 36-year-old supermarket worker was a victim of the sarin gas attack staged by the guru's acolytes in the Tokyo subway system five years ago. Chance placed her within metres of one of the punctured plastic bags containing the deadly nerve gas that Aum terrorists placed on her crowded Marunouchi-line train during the Monday morning peak hour.

Unlike most of her fellow passengers, Yoshimi was not a regular commuter. She had volunteered for a training session for new employees - a task that required leaving her outer-suburban workplace to travel into the city centre.

That one change in routine was to have disastrous consequences. While Yoshimi has no memory of the incident, police later told her brother, Takeshita, that she must have been sitting virtually on top of the seeping fumes.

Isopropyl methyl phosphonfluoridate, or sarin as it is more commonly known, is a nerve gas invented by the Nazis.

It is regarded as one of the most toxic substances known to science. A tiny drop can cause devastating damage to anyone inhaling its evaporating mist. It is also a perfect terrorist weapon - odourless, colourless and relatively cheap to manufacture.

Aum's "hit squad" of five men placed 11 bags of sarin solution on five subway lines converging on Kasumigaseki station, the bureaucratic heart of Tokyo.

Twelve people were killed and more than 5,500 injured in the ensuing macabre drama. The subway system coughed up a seemingly endless line of victims. Soldiers clad in chemical warfare gear clambered through stalled trains in search of a deadly, unknown enemy.

Yoshimi bore the full brunt of the sarin assault on the body's nervous system. She was found comatose at a station kilometres away from her intended exit on the Marunouchi line. So heavily drenched with sarin were her clothes and body that a person who tried to resuscitate her also collapsed.

Doctors told Takeshita she could die within days.

She didn't, but the gas left her with dreadful injuries. She needs permanent hospital treatment. She has only limited body movement. Her vision is seriously impaired. Her voice is a rasping cry.

In 90 minutes of contact, that one word, "shikei" (death penalty), is all she can wrench from her body.

Yoshimi's agony is indicative of the enormous damage wrought on Japan by the gas attack that was Aum's final, insane assault on the establishment forces it believed were plotting its destruction.

For her, and many others who breathed the toxic fumes, there is enduring physical pain and lingering emotional trauma.

Despite its horrific crimes, Aum Shinrikyo remains intact, sustained by the funds flowing from a number of business ventures operated by its members. Goaded into action late last year by community groups alarmed at Aum's resurgence, the Obuchi administration enacted punitive laws aimed at hounding it out of existence.

But it refuses to die, tormenting its oppressors as well as its victims. Only last week, the Government admitted, shamefaced, that Aum computer companies had won contracts to supply software for secret police and defence operations. Aum's cheap labour costs and computer dexterity have also seen it win tenders for several big corporations and academic institutions. The ease with which Aum is still able to penetrate Japan's administrative system makes Yoshimi's venom understandable. The demand for shikei is driven as much by fear as revenge.

The names are pseudonyms. Takeshita crouches beside his sister and cradles her neck as they sit in a dark hospital lobby late at night. He says he is so scared of Aum reprisals that he refuses to disclose identities. They are not the only ones enduring the nightmare.

A National Police Agency survey last year found that many of the subway injured are still suffering mental and physical trauma.

Seventy-seven per cent of the 1,247 who responded to the agency's queries had chronic sight problems. More than half suffered recurring flashbacks of the horror or feared a repeat.

A widespread belief that authorities are moving too slowly in delivering justice and compensation to the victims is compounding the misery. The Mainichi newspaper conducted its own limited poll this week among members of the Subway Sarin Case Victims' Group and found that more than 70 per cent believed attempts to deal with their financial and physical problems had been inadequate.

In contrast to the families affected by the Kobe earthquake two months earlier, the sarin victims were not given any lump-sum compensation by the Government. They were forced to fall back on company and private health insurance and on an uncertain court process to extract compensation from the cult.

While Aum claims its coffers have been exhausted in meeting the demands for compensation, the victims say the tortuous court process and the amount of time given to the cult to bury its assets have meant that little of the money has ended up in their hands.

In a civil case that concluded only last week, the Tokyo District Court ordered senior cult members to pay 668 million yen ($10 million) in compensation. But the chief lawyer for the plaintiffs, Mr Kenji Utsunomiya, said he did not think the bankrupt Aum could pay anything like that. "This matter has not finished, not by a long shot," Takeshita said. "[My sister] is not the only victim. Too many families have lost very precious time because of this awful thing."

The victims' group wants the Government to make ex gratia payments to families who lost members in the attack or have suffered hardship in caring for those injured.

A spokeswoman, Ms Shizue Takahashi, whose subway attendant husband died after trying to clear the deadly gas from Kasumigaseki station, said: "The investigative authorities should have done more. There was ample evidence before the attack that Aum could do something terrible." THE calls have so far gone unheeded in Tokyo's political headquarters, Nagatacho.

"What Aum tried to do was attack the state of Japan. The state hasn't done anything to help us," Takeshita said.

Even if Aum were to cough up, he would prefer government help. "I don't want money from the enemy, I want clean money," he snapped. He is also angry that Japan's court system has taken so long to deliver its judgment. Five years after the event, Asahara is still fighting 17 counts of murder and attempted murder, plus kidnapping and drug trafficking.

Few believe he will walk out of jail alive.

Aum followers have been found complicit in 16 of the 17 crimes with which Asahara has been charged, including an earlier sarin gas attack in the small country town of Matsumoto. In all of the cases, the courts have acknowledged that the crimes were carried out under his direction.

But Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, fights on. The long-winded nature of Japanese court proceedings means it could be another five to 10 years before a verdict is delivered.

Experts offer a range of explanations for the stubborn appeal of Aum and similarly weird outfits.

Japan's education system, with its emphasis on group order and discipline at the expense of independent thinking, is cited as a culprit.

Many argue that the dismantling of state-based Shintoism after World War II has left Japan without a spiritual core.

A lecturer in sociology at Shizuoka University, Dr Kimiaki Nishida, said Japan's disaffected youth had become easy prey for slick recruiting tactics, such as Aum's use of rock concerts and animated videos. The young have also disconnected from mainstream media, so they do not regard the cult as a threat.

Dr Nobutaka Inoue, an expert in religious studies at Kokugakuin University, pointed to other factors: a move by young Japanese from established religions and their increasing interest in the occult, doomsday and death. "For the generation that has grown up since the 1970s, things like psychic powers and the occult are nothing special. Those running the Aum Shinrikyo cult apparently realised that quite well," Dr Inoue said. While this may explain how Aum was able to build its membership to more than 10,000, it does nothing to justify the callous crimes committed under Asahara's name.

Takeshita's response is one of bewilderment. "I don't claim to be religious myself, but surely those who are members of what is supposed to be a religious organisation have a responsibility to do what is right, to demonstrate common sense," he said.

Even now, he feels that Asahara is triumphing over the system. "He is guaranteed food and shelter. But what happens to my sister if I am killed in a car accident tomorrow?"

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