TOKYO - Kazumasu Takahashi, an assistant station master on the Chiyoda subway line in central Tokyo, was on duty when the 8:10 train pulled in on that Monday morning in March 1995. Many of the passengers were civil servants working in the government ministries in the Kasumigaseki district close by the Imperial Palace.
Before the doors shut, Takahashi noticed that some liquid had spilled onto the train floor. He mopped it up and waved the train on. Then he keeled over on the platform and died. Within minutes thousands of commuters were staggering out of the subway exits gasping for air, coughing, rubbing their eyes or foaming at the mouth.
Urban terrorists had planted sarin nerve gas at five widely scattered locations along three central city subway lines in the world's first and so far only use of a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) delivered in a bento (lunch) box. Thirteen people died in the attack. It would be a long time before any Japanese entered a subway without feeling trepidation.
Fifteen years have passed since this opening salvo in the Global War on Terrorism. Although the death toll was much lower than the attacks on New York and Washington, the number of injured surpassed 6,000, and many of the survivors are still bedridden with little or no prospects of recovery.
Suspicion quickly fell on a cult called the Aum Shinrikyo (Shining Light), and for a while the menacing portrait of its blind, hirsute guru Chizuo Matsumoto (alias Shoko Asahara) was as common then as portraits of Osama bin Laden are today. Perversely, one of his lieutenants in crime, Fumihiro Joyu, became almost like a pop idol to many teenagers. Girls thought he was kawai (cute).
The authorities were stunned when they discovered in the ashram's laboratory at the base of Mt. Fuji equipment capable of producing sarin gas in quantities sufficient to kill literally millions of people. Nor did the cult ignore any of the WMD branches; chemical, biological and nuclear. The cult even had a rudimentary nuclear lab in the Australian outback.
That an obscure doomsday cult with no known track record of international terrorism was able to manufacture sarin gas in such quantities so easily and spray it indiscriminately in the middle of the world's largest city is a timely reminder of what terrorists can do with chemical weapons.
It is also worth remembering that not all ideologies of doomsday or apocalyptic terror are incubated in Muslim madrassas - Juyo was a graduate of Waseda University, one of Japan's most prestigious institutions of higher learning. Nor did these dedicated terrorists have to brew their deadly chemicals in caves in remote border areas. They lived in the suburbs.
In the ensuing decade 189 Aum followers have been tried in Japanese courts. Twelve have received death penalties, although only two have been hanged. The guru himself was sentenced to death on Feb. 27, 2004, after a trial that lasted the better part of nine years (Japanese justice grinds slowly). He has yet to be hanged. Many think he may die of old age before he ever sees the hangman. By way of comparison, the Tokyo sarin attack occurred less than one month before the Oklahoma City bombing. Yet Timothy McVeigh has been tried, sentenced, executed and dead for more than eight years.
During all those years he was on trial the blind guru said nothing. He never testified in his defense, never tried to justify or set out any kind of rationale for the murders. When he was found guilty of mass murder, he accepted his sentence without a word; made no apology or admission of guilt.
And while the victims of the 9/11 attacks in America have received millions in compensation, the Japanese government was slow to provide any kind of specific compensation for the victims of the commuter train attack. Only in 2008, thirteen years after the attack, did the Diet pass a law providing about $30,000 for each surviving victim. The sect, which still exists and at one time had fairly large business interests, has paid an average of about $10,000 to each of the survivors or bereaved families.
Fifteen years later cults still flourish in Japan and continue to draw in more young people. They seem to fill a spiritual void at the heart of Japan's consumer society. The two traditional religions, Buddhism and Shinto, are basically empty shells. For the overwhelming majority of Japanese, their precepts are only practiced for rites of passage, such as marriages and funerals. Otherwise they are ignored.
Strangely, the Aum Shinrikyo was never outlawed. Renaming itself Adelf, it has about 1,300 members today, while a splinter group has a couple hundred. The authorities keep both under tight serveillance, and worry that it is recruiting impressionable youth who have little memory about Aum's crimes.
Japan's most famous contemporary novelist, Haruki Murakami, turned his attention to the cult in a book called Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attacks and the Japanese Psyche, first published in 1997. In his interviews he asked if any of its young followers regretted joining the cult. Almost all said no. "They found a purity of purpose they could not find in ordinary society," he wrote.
In a world presently worried about the dangers of terrorism eminating from failed states, it is worth remembering that the world's first and only terrorist attack with a WMD took place in a functioning democracy by indigenous young people with good education and prospects.