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The Aurora Tragedy and a Spring Day in Tokyo in March, 1995

July 22, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

This week during the midnight premiere of the summer Hollywood blockbuster “The Dark Knight Rises” (the third of director Christopher Nolan’s auteur Batman trilogy), a gunman opened fire in a Cinemark movie theater in Aurora – a fast-growing eastern Denver suburb with a population of nearly 340,000. He killed 12 people and injured 58 others.

The suspected gunman, later identified by police when apprehended as James Eagan Holmes, entered the theater dressed in black bullet-proof protective clothing like a Rocky Mountain ninja, set off gas grenades, and then opened fire with multiple firearms on the theatergoers. The gunman had a military-style AR-15 assault rifle (rumored to have a 100-round drum magazine), a 12-gauge shotgun, and a Glock handgun. A second Glock handgun was found in the suspect's car. With the dozen deaths and injuries above 70, the Aurora gun attack was the largest mass shooting in the history of the United States with regard to casualties.

Seventeen years ago, I was nearly a casualty in the infamous “sarin terrorist incident” in underground Tokyo subways. It is often described as an act of “domestic terrorism”, perpetrated by members of a cult religion named “Aum Shinrikyo” during the spring morning commuter rush on March 20, 1995, 50 years after the end of the Pacific War and also an unsettling economic time of a sudden Japanese yen rise vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar.

In five coordinated attacks, Aum Shinrikyo members released sarin gas, a “human killing” chemical agent developed by Nazi researchers during World War II (they obtained the chemicals and made the gas in special labs), in several trains of the Tokyo metro subway system. They left packets of liquid sarin on the train floors and then punctured the bags with the sharpened tips of umbrellas. The perpetrators then left the trains, leaving sarin to do its terrible poisoning: a single drop of sarin the size of a pinhead can kill an adult. This sarin or “nerve gas” affected passengers, subway workers, and those who came into contact with them, since the gas lingered on clothes or even human hair and skin.

One of the trains with sarin was on the subway line that I took daily to my Massachusetts Institute of Technology Tokyo office. However, when I walked to my station, passengers were streaming out and a subway station attendant, dressed in a blue uniform, was telling people that there had been a “mechanical failure” in a train, and the subway trains had halted. I stood in the bright sunlight (I recall it was a warm spring day), and fumed, since I was late for work. I would walk away and catch a cab, and when I reached my office, my spouse C. called me (in spring 1995 I did not carry a cel phone) and told me of thousands of people sickened throughout Tokyo. My office colleagues were listening to the NHK radio national news service. Today, my spouse C. and I discuss why I was late walking out of our house and missing the gas attack on the subway train, and really can’t come up with a single reason – perhaps I was searching for something (I have a penchant for “misplacing” my “important” things, yet my sunglasses or notebook seems -- in hindsight -- totally “unimportant” in light of the sarin poison gas attack). Everything – as survivors of the Aurora shooting would echo – seems so unimportant to health, to the pure joy of living.

If I had reached the station at my usual time, I would have boarded the train and then began to feel nauseated and my vision would blur, and I may have helped in opening the windows. By the next station, I may have panicked and rushed out of the subway train, and taken by ambulance to a hospital. On my train on the Hibiya line (multiple trains were attacked), one person was killed and over 500 were seriously injured – this line had stations at important government office areas.

On the day of the attack, nearly five thousand people reached hospitals; seventeen patients were deemed critical, thirty-seven had severe symptoms and 984 moderately ill with vision problems. Viewing 24-hour television programming, I saw subway stations with hundreds of injured, many with breathing difficulties, like a huge battle field – and if I had been at the station at my usual time, who knows what health problems I would have had, and a lifetime of illness and treatment.

Later, a huge police operation netted many Aum leaders and operatives, and the cult leader Shoko Asahara, after a lengthy trial, was sentenced to death by hanging (Japan has the death penalty), but his lawyers immediately appealed the ruling. Asahara lost his appeals, and he can be hanged any day (Japan does not announce dates of executions, in advance of them being carried out – families are notified without warning that the execution has been carried out).

By 2004 all the sarin-related trials had been completed, and of a total of 189 members indicted, 13 were sentenced to death, five were sentenced to life in prison, 80 were given prison sentences of various lengths, 87 were received suspended sentences, two were fined, and one was found not guilty. As recently as May and June of this year, the last two of the fugitives wanted by Japanese police in connection with the attack were arrested in Japan. (For years I saw “Wanted” posters of the two Aum fugitives – ironically in Tokyo subway stations.)

The Aum group attack caused the deaths of thirteen people, severely injuring fifty, and causing temporary vision problems for nearly a thousand others – in addition to post-traumatic syndrome for many people, lasting years and causing severe disruptions to college, careers, marriages, and families.

In the Aurora tragedy, only one 24-year old American citizen, in the process of withdrawing from a local university scientific Ph.D. program, buying several weapons and ammunition completely adhering to all applicable U.S. gun-purchasing regulations and laws in the last past two months*, was able to equal the death toll – in a few minutes -- of the “Sarin Attack Incident”, now seen as the greatest domestic terrorist attack in post-World War II Japanese history: a time and place etched permanently in my memory, as Fate played a lucky card in my life.

* Japan prohibits handgun possession by citizens or non-citizens living in Japan. That is, no one living in Japan can own a handgun**, even one’s grandfather’s Colt revolver or even an early 19th century antique flintlock pistol. However, shotguns and rifles for hunting or sports may be possessed upon completion of a licensing procedure that requires a police background check, successful completion of a safety course, passing of shooting, written, and psychological tests, and police verification of secure storage (which means the police can, and often will, inspect the homes of rifle applicants to ensure that firearms are under lock and key, and away from children or potential burglary) – all these steps prior to approval being granted by the police to purchase a firearm. After a gun purchase, gun owners must take a class annually and pass a written test. Hence, given all these regulations, very few Japanese own a firearm. Perhaps readers will understand why some Japanese tourists pay money to joyfully shoot pellet guns at Waikiki outlets. And also why Japanese (and many other people) find the news that the Aurora shooter could order 6,000 rounds of ammunition via an Internet site*** so incomprehensible in this age of post-9/11 terrorism (does anybody think that terrorists are unable to use the Internet to order ammunition?).

**Paradoxically and completely different than Japan (yet sharing the very low firearms homicide rate -- even lower than Japan with almost no guns), there is one country with assault rifles and pistols in nearly every home -- Switzerland (its population is equivalent to just eight Hawai'is). Swiss male citizens have mandatory military service (Swiss women can volunteer) and traditionally, the Swiss servicemen keep their rifles (over 500,000), pistols (over 600,000), uniform, and a military kit at home, ready to join their units immediately. Imagine every other Maui home having a M4 automatic carbine or Beretta semiautomatic pistol hanging over the Callaway golf bag in the bedroom storage closet. But what does this data point reveal about Swiss society, secure with teen-agers alone in the home with machine guns? This issue -- about societal programs and cohesion -- is the topic of a future blog post.

***In early 1963 Lee Harvey Oswald purchased a 23 year-old Italian military rifle via mail order for $19.95 plus postage and handling. That a World War II rifle could be so accurate to assassinate President John F. Kennedy in a moving limousine in Dallas was one of the issues raised by post-assassination conspiracy theorists, but in 2012 we would wonder aloud that a time existed that anybody could order a rifle with a telescopic sight and delivered to a home by a friendly U.S. postal worker.


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