Dark page in Tokyo history

9 years ago by in Travel

Most posts here are about beautiful, fun and exciting events and sights. Rightly so, as life needs to be celebrated and Tokyo is a great place to do this.

But Tokyo also has darker sides and has been the site of tragic events.

A tragic and shocking event in recent history was the gas attack in the Tokyo subway, on the morning of March 20, 1995, by the Aum sect. Thirteen people lost their lives in this terrorist attack, fifty were seriously injured and thousands affected by the gas.

I am currently reading Underground by Haruki Murakami. It’s a journalistic account of "The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche". The book is based around portraits of the people afflicted by the gas (extended with portraits of people involved in the sect that was responsible for the attack).

It shows how people that are going about their daily routine (commuting), even when confronted by an attack of this scale, have great difficulty understanding what is happening. Obviously, times have since changed, and people are much more alert to terrorist attacks. Still, it is fascinating – and chilling – to read how people noticed all sorts of signs that something was wrong with them, also saw people around them have similar problems – lots of coughing but also some very severe like fainting and even foaming at the mouth – but still tried to rationalize these away and play down their condition ("it is a sudden severe cold").

Many people – after having been exposed to the gas, and quickly feeling increasing sick and losing eyesight – went to great effort to still reach their work. Only when hours later the news broke on radio and TV of the poison gas attack that had happened in the subway, did people realize what had happened to them and sought help at hospitals.

Some people that had staggered out of the subways stations and collapsed in the streets where ignored by many passing commuters, who thought that they were drunks who had partied all night.

On the other hand, it also shows how many people immediately and effortlessly tried to help others – strangers – in problems, without thinking of the possible consequences to themselves. As official emergency staff was at that time not well equipped to react to a disaster of this scale, a lot of people were dependent on fellow travelers and passersby for help.

This picture I took at the Hachiko exit of Shibuya station in December 1995, so 9 months after the attack. A number of the perpetrators were still at large at the time, and the lanterns show the faces of these "most wanted" terrorists. A very eerie sight, seeing these hanging heads. They were even lighted at night.