I was as clueless as NHK's talking heads when they speculated on what could possibly be in that oily packet, which sat like so many thoughtlessly discarded newspapers on a platform where, only months before, yours truly stood waiting for an Ueno-bound train.
In the years since, whenever the mood took me, or whenever a reminder floated through my mind, I would occasionally revisit the moment, in newsclippings and new encyclopedia entries and televised retrospectives and Internet meditations and recollections. A decade later, and I have yet to glean a coherent message from the incident.
I have learned so much, yet I have learned nothing at all. I am as clueless as ever.
O-Isopropyl Methylphosphonofluoridate was discovered in 1938 by German scientists working towards more and more effective insecticides. Its common name is an acronym derived from the names of its discoverers: Gerhard Schrader, Ambros, Rüdiger and Van der LINde. Had the Nazis been able to mass produce it before the end of WWII, they still would not have used it against allied targets for fear of in-kind retaliation. But Saddam found it to be of great value against Iranian targets during the early 1980s (picture little Donny Rumsfeld clapping approvingly in the background), and once again against Kurdish civilians several years later.
In 1994, the twisted genius of Ken'ichi Hirose, honed at Waseda University, my host brother's alma mater, allowed the Aum Shinrikyo cult to synthesize its own stockpile of the weapon.
His fellow Japanese, fellow humans, were no more than insects to be exterminated in their own subterranean tunnels -- a pitstop on the fast path to salvation.
In many disasters, the number of fatalities is fewer than that of injuries. Naturally, after mourning the dead, there is a collective sigh of relief that it wasn't worse. It always floors me that our natural reaction is to see the word "injury," and allow it to become an afterthought. We think "well, at least so-and-so can recover from his broken arm or brutal viral infection or whatever." Extensive burns will leave their permanent scars. But the person remains, we think, and though it sucks and we feel sympathy, we're sure the victim will somehow rally, and can yet live his life fully.
This groaning, bedridden form is not Shizuko Akashi. Miss Akashi, a 31 year-old supermarket cashier, died on March 20, 1995, the moment her brain was so severely starved for oxygen that she permanently forgot her name, the face of her best friend from high school, and even her place of work. Not that she could work were her mind still present; the sarin gas that irrevocably corroded her nervous system has confined her to a wheelchair for the past decade, most of which has been spent in hospitals. In any case, she's no longer really there. There is someone there, someone who may dimly perceive that once she was something more: a whole woman who loved going out for noodles with her family, who maybe read young men's hipster fashion magazines when she was slacking off at work, who might have had a secret crush on the grim, stocky guy who came in several times a week to buy a pre-made lunch box. But that woman is no longer.
A presence has taken her place, living in the broken shell of the woman who was before. The presence is frightened, confused. The name of this new presence is Shizuko Akashi, but she has only recently learned how to say it. She has no memories of the life that the other Shizuko lived prior to the attacks. Miss Akashi's older brother, her primary caretaker, may sing to her or relate the latest family gossip when he washes her hair or assists her when she eats, but it is someone else he cares for and talks to. Shizuko Akashi is gone.
Among devotees of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, it was well understood that those who were thought to be spies or traitors faced dire punishment, including torture and possible death. Like so many other totalitarian, arms-stockpiling, pathologically controlling cults, once you're in, you're in. What amazes me (well aware as I am of the mentality of abuse victims that so closely parallels that of cult members) is that in the face of this, if he is to be believed, Dr. Ikuo Hayashi had even the slight pangs of conscience that he did. He knew that his actions would result in the deaths of scores, if not hundreds or thousands of innocent human beings -- the people into whose faces he looked even as he placed his packages, wrapped in newspaper like Piccadilly cod, on the train car's floor. And he actually hesitated. But in the end, the platonic perfection of the ideology on which this mass murder was predicated won out over the attackers' imperfect human emotions.
Had Dr. Hayashi and his confederates heeded those imperfect feelings that morning, we may have been deprived of a lesson we really didn't need. Miss Akashi might have quit her check-out job and finally married some sweet goofball middle manager; it's possible that this morning she'd be packing her kid's lunch and pinning a note for his teacher to his uniform jacket. It's a certainty that her brother would not be carrying her twisted body to the toilet.
Shoko Asahara taught those in his thrall that human feelings arise when we see the world in an incorrect way. The response to this seems obvious: in the face of the brutal inhumanity exhibited in the minds and deeds of people like Asahara, human feelings, for all their messiness and absurdity and illogicallity and frequent wrongness, are the best we've got. Indeed, more than Buddhist detachment or Christian apocalyptic zealotry or any sort of ideological disconnectedness, they may be, in the end, all that can truly save us.