Strange Days – Memories of Aum Shinrikyu

Strange days have found us.

Strange days have dragged us down.

– Jim Morrison

 One morning, about two months after Mother Nature leveled Kobe, everything fell apart in Tokyo.  These entries are essentially factual but, written at the time, reflect the alarm and incredulity both émigrés and Japanese felt about the events of Spring, 1995, as a state of siege descended, and a peaceful city disintegrated into a sensational carnival of terrorism.

 3/21/95

Each morning, she rides the packed  Maronouchi Subway to work in downtown Tokyo.  She passes through Kamiyacho and Kasumigaseki stations.  Yesterday these stations were attacked with nerve gas, killing twelve luckless innocents and poisoning five thousand other souls — the first peacetime chemical attack in history on a general population.

I had dropped her at Ogikubo about an hour after it began, a station far across town.  Her train left as usual, but 30 minutes later skipped two stations with an announcement that “something smells bad and we’re passing them by.”  She took a taxi to her office at Kasumigaseki and arriving there, got the news of what was happening on the other side of the building.  With ambulances and blue emergency tents everywhere, people lay in the street, coughing, dazed, some with blood leaking from their mouths.  Some were dead.

That night I drove downtown to pick her up.  No one knew what was coming next.  But she had no choice but to ride the train each day, and for weeks after that we said goodbye each morning fearfully, telling ourselves that in a city of 14,000,000 her odds were pretty good.  In fact, they weren’t, and we all escaped by the skin of our teeth in a country where the national police acted like Keystone Kops, in the horror movie Mack Sennett never made.

The Journal

 3/25/95

Four hours after the attack on Monday, the Tokyo governor called in the army to dispose of the gas containers and help victims.  Now, four days after the attack, with twelve dead, the police have made early-morning raids on several facilities around the country belonging to the Aum Shinri Kyo cult.

It appears that as early as 1991, Aum had been accused of illegally detaining and placing wiretaps on people who tried to withdraw from their program, one that demands total surrender of personal freedom and property.  People were being abducted.  A lawyer working a case against them disappeared along with his wife and child; an Aum badge was found in their home.  But in June 1994, the needle should have gone off the scale when nerve gas mysteriously killed seven people in Matsumoto.  Why?  Because it also wafted into a special facility housing the three judges who were about to render their decision in a suit brought against the Aum group.  All three judges were sickened and their decision was “indefinitely postponed.“

If this were the U.S., the FBI would have been on Aum like white on rice, in on their every move.  Japanese law, though, is contradictory regarding police powers.  On one hand, police and prosecutors effectively function as judges, dispensing paternal leniency or, if they prosecute, winning about 99% of criminal cases.  FBI-type infiltration or electronic surveillance, though, is forbidden, possibly reflecting deep-seated memories of fascist Japan’s military police, but also conveniently protecting the powerful in a society where secrecy and slippery money is pervasive.  So the Aumsters wire-tapped their enemies while the police were tapping their fingers.  Even when, seven months ago, local farmers reported offensive odors near the main Aum facility in Yamanashi, and nerve gas residue was detected in the area, police, incomprehensibly, took no action.  This is what the national security process looks like in a country where officials tend to assemble data endlessly and are disinclined to share them with colleagues outside their local turf.

Farmers find their crops killed by nerve gas residue on land adjacent to a cult compound.  In America, we’re talking major convoys of pickup trucks with full gun racks, and maybe some home-grown fertilizer explosives taking down the walls.  NOW.

3/26/95

A thoroughly disturbing article on page two of today’s paper: “More Than 100 Sect Members Flee.”  Apparently quite a few Aumsters, including Grand Aumster Shoko Asahara, jumped in their cars and buses and took off for unknown parts in the three days before the police finally invaded.  One wonders what  these folks had in their little suitcases!  What more can the cops do to not protect us?  Nationwide, over 100 Aum centers continue in normal operation.

More news dribbles out on Aum mind-control techniques.  They routinely denied food and sleep to members, handcuffed them in diapers and gave them LSD.  For $10,000, novices were sold electronic headsets, “to keep them in tune with the thoughts of the guru Asahara.”  Backsliders were confined in blacked-out shipping containers for days in blistering heat, threatened with eternity in hell, forced to chant loyalty mantras to Asahara.

Aum Shinrikyu is an extreme manifestation of a passion among some young Japanese for New Age fads, from aura-cleansing to past-life readings. The common thread is a disenchantment with a society so work-driven it makes a California lifestyles resemble Gaugin on a beach in Tahiti.  Reaching for spiritual liberation, the Aumsters got the ultimate in regimentation.

Police also now reveal they had planned to raid the Aum facilities earlier.  They had borrowed gas masks from the army and were practicing using them, but the Aumsters, reportedly informed in advance, struck two days before the planned raids.

Tonight, six days after the attack, Armed Forces Radio announced to U.S. military personnel that anonymous threats have been made against twenty-five public areas around Tokyo — subways, concert halls, and stadiums.

3/27/95

This new threat ran very low-key in Japanese major media. I guess they don’t want the people to panic.  Tokyo is very big — maybe it can handle a few hundred deaths now and then.  They’ll get things back under control, gradually, after some discussion and careful thought.  Japanese papers suggest the police know where Asahara is, but they dare not arrest him as he may hold, as we used to say in the Cold War days, “the balance of terror.”  How about that: a Maharishi with second strike capability!

3/30/95

Today’s bulletin on TV: the Commissioner General of the National Police has been shot and critically wounded outside his home.  A “skilled assassin” shot him from 25 meters away, got on his bike and rode off. Two policemen assigned to protect the Commissioner were “elsewhere,” and so could not return fire or pursue.  Later in the day, U.S. Mutual News said a threat of further attacks had been issued if the police didn’t lay off the Aumsters.

The Police Commissioner is the Japanese equivalent of the United States Attorney General and the Director of the FBI combined.  Where a Westerner would expect a state of national emergency, this government has made no dramatic steps to defend itself.  In the halls of Japanese power the lights are on, but there’s nobody home.  Meanwhile, the Aumster’s spokesperson, mop-topped Fumihiro Jouyu, a zen-master of plausible denial, has an explanation for each new toxic chemical found in their stockpiles.  Nowadays, he’s constantly on television in his turquoise sari, flashing his winning smile and glib answers.  Young girls are seen vying for his autograph, even though he is – what – a post-modern  Goebbels?

It’s a strange feeling to open the Sunday paper and read that the police are trying to determine how far along your local maniacal cult was in developing botulin — a virulent bacteria one gram of which can kill 17 million people — just before they disappeared into thin air.  It gives the coffee a special taste, thinking the next sip might be your last.   A long, strange leap from Merry Pranksters’ buses in the 60’s with acid megadoses to a Tokyo Megadeath Mystery Tour.  Where is it now?  And what a small step it must be, for a megalomaniac, from knowing the world will end next month to deciding that God is asking you to move the process forward.

04/07/95

The police now say they’ve found residues of the final by-product of sarin, methylphosphon acid monoisopropyl.  (One TV announcer dislocated his jaw last night trying to pronounce this.)  Credit the police for scientific sophistication building their case, but isn’t this the same stuff they found in the soil five months ago???

Friday – 4/14/95

Tomorrow is the day everyone thinks the Aumsters will strike downtown in Shinjuku, so people are staying home.  My wife won’t drink the water.  I don’t think anything will happen, but the police raided 125 Aum offices throughout Japan yesterday, arrested more of the leadership, and police were everywhere in the subway stations.  Still no sign of Asahara.

Saturday – 4/15/95 1PM

Many sirens outside our house.  Fearlessly, I jump on my bike and three blocks away find a nearby street blocked off with seven big fire trucks, blue hoses coming out of manholes, firemen everywhere.  Looking around, I see a nearby house with a second-story room slightly blackened by fire.  For this they needed seven fire trucks, three ambulances and several squad cars.  There begins to be a certain cartoon quality to it all.

4/22/95

The pace has quickened while I was out of town for several days.  After scores were injured in two new mystery-gas attacks in Yokohama, the government has snapped out of its lethargy and is now seriously considering removing the Aumster’s tax-exempt religious status!  Astutely reasoning that Aum’s genocidal projects will no longer be tax deductible, they are thus providing a powerful disincentive against further attacks.  Sighs of relief fill the subway stations.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., wackos have blown several hundred innocent people’s lives away in Oklahoma City.  In Los Angeles, a couple of Japanese men, reportedly Aumsters, were arrested, supposedly with detailed instructions for a sarin attack on Disneyland.  But it’s all starting to seem like Disneyland now.   Mickey leans down at you smiling, “A little mustard gas on your hot dog?”  In the U.S., a public discussion takes place on whether current FBI powers should be increased to prevent another Oklahoma City, while here, the Daily Yomiuri runs a huge two-page “Comprehensive Security Plan” proposal with no mention made of any need for new empowerments.

4/25/95

The gas diffuses, the plot thickens.  Hideo Murai, kingpin of Aum’s “science and technology team,” is stabbed to death on TV just before he’s called in for intensive police questioning.  A young guy with yakuza connections hurtles into Murai in the middle of a crowd.  Murai emerges smiling from the attack, unaware of his disembowelment until he notices a trace of blood on his forearm.  Then it all sweeps across his face and with his last strength he staggers into the Aum offices, collapses, and bleeds to death.  On the tube, they re-run it in slow motion in the same appalling detail as in Jack Ruby-Lee Oswald days.  Murai was apparently one of their most evil-minded plotters.  Tokyo will shed no tears.  One hopes it’s an internal Aumster hit, rather than something that will provoke some terrible chemical retaliation.

4/26/95

Another Aum medical “clinic” gets busted in Nakano, very near to us.  The TV reporter says Aum doctors made its “patients” drink two liters of water and then throw up; then they forced them into scalding, 125 degree bath therapies at $10,000 per bath (an 80 year-old woman and others reportedly died as a result) held drugged patients against their will up to a year, then extorted huge sums from relatives.  Local residents said patients sometimes came running out trying to escape, only to be dragged back in, while attendants explained to onlookers that they were disturbed.  You could only get away with this in Japan, with its passive citizens, and where the very last choice is to intercede on a stranger’s behalf.  After the news piece, the anchor observed straight-faced,  “That didn’t seem to be a normal clinic, did it?”  Who writes this stuff???

5/07/92

“Golden Week” in Japan, and Asahara is still invisible.  But on Friday, on a toilet seat in a men’s room in the big underground walkway near Shinjuku’s Marounuchi Station, a cleaning woman found two mysterious paper bags.  Despite signs all over Tokyo warning you to report suspicious packages, and with all the trash cans in the city taped shut, she judged these to be a prank, moved them near the entrance, where a river of humanity flows by, and went back to work.  An internal device soon set one of the bags on fire.  It contained two liters of sodium cyanide; the other bag had 1.5 liters of sulfuric acid. A passing salaryman noticed smoke, told station attendants, and they were able to douse it before the two bags melted together and released enough cyanide gas to kill 20,000 people.  Why that bathroom?  It was the only one having ventilator fans which drew air directly down to the train platform below.  No one hurt.

In Tokyo, we call this a pretty good day.

5/08/95

This morning the police have announced that they will seek permission to seize the plant where they believe sarin was produced.  If all goes well, the legalities will be completed in ten days or so.  Why are they going to do this?  Why, to preserve evidence!   This is how we DO things in Disneyland.  After all the death and mayhem, we give the Aumsters a free hand in Sarinland for another fortnight before moving in…to PRESERVE EVIDENCE!

Say goodnight Gracie.

5/14/95

One week later and everything’s really fallen into place for Japan’s Karaoke  Kops.  A few jailed Aumsters, no longer in Asahara’s thrall and threatened with eternity in hell, are telling all: “Yes I made sarin. Yes I carried out the gas attack March 20.”  Yoshihiro Inoue, Aum’s “Minister of Intelligence,” a pathetic 25-year-old who looks like a high school bully, was finally arrested today.  Inoue allegedly led the team of ten zombies that loosed the supertoxic gas on so many innocent people.  More arrests are coming soon, but they won’t be soon enough for the families of the dead, or for hundreds still suffering after-effects of the nerve gas.

And then there was the big balloon seen floating over Tokyo today.  About five feet high, when they caught it they found a single empty medicine bottle inside.  “A gesture,” someone commented.

5/16/95

Masterfully managing both the media and events themselves, police today entered the Yamanashi compound and arrested Shoko Asahara.  “Asahara To Be Arrested Tomorrow,”  ran the managed headlines the evening before.  They had known where he was all along, hiding in a coffin-sized container under some stairs.  With experts “satisfied” that the impurities in Aum’s sarin render any missing quantities useless, and with most top Aumsters safely in jail, Tokyoites feel much better.

Just one low point tonight: the Governor of Tokyo’s personal aide had a package explode in his face and blow off his fingers — sort of like the last fortissimo of a hellacious Beethoven symphony.

5/20/95

Two months later to the day, like a slowly rising tide, the legal system has finally engulfed the Aumsters.  Police have arrested and named nearly all the players, right down to those who released the gas on the trains.  Several of them were Aum scientists, bright graduates of top universities. Incomprehensibly, fifty years after Hiroshima, they conspired, produced and then released nerve gas on their fellow Japanese — one now says he just “had to follow the orders of the guru.”  We’ve heard that somewhere else.

But Tokyo has started to relax a little, and by the time the Millennium rolls around, I’m sure we’ll all believe that it’s really over.

[1] This sentence , written in 1995, is filled with irony for an American in 2005.

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