Religion and nerve gas don’t normally go hand in hand, but t hat’s the combination that brought terror to Tokyo in the mid 1990s. A new Japanese religious group called Aum Shinrikyo (roughly translating as Supreme Truth) was founded by one Shoko Asahara in 1984, drawing on Buddhist and Christian influences to round out his interpretation of yoga. Though controversial, Aum Slunrikyo (also called Aleph) was known for its leader’s doomsday prophecy that saw all sorts of sinister conspiracies ending in World War III rather than for overt criminal activity. But all that changed in 1995.
Ten members of the group (five perpetrators, each with a getaway driver) carried out a sarin attack on one of the world’s busiest commuter systems, timed to coincide with the morning rush hour when Tokyo Metro trains would be packed. An impure form of sarin – a deadly nerve agent classified as a weapon of mass destruction – had been formulated. Bags of liquid sarin were dropped on trains at prearranged stations and punctured with sharpened umbrellas, leaking their deadly contents as the attacker escaped. Three different lines were targeted. On the Chiyoda Line one of two bags was punctured, resulting in two deaths and over 230 serious injuries. During the first Marunouchi Line attack one died and nearly 360 were seriously injured, while the second caused no loss of life but over 200 injuries. The combined death toll on two Hibiya Line trains was nine dead and over 800 injuries.
The attack caused chaos, with injured victims lying around inside the subway system or at its entrances. Emergency services were criticized for handling the attack badly, though 5,500 people eventually made it to hospital. By 2004 eight members of Aum Shinrikyo had received death sentences for their part in the attack, including cult leader Shoko Asahara.
When: March 20 1995
Where: Tokyo, Japan
Death toll: 12 died, over 50 commuters or station staff were left with long-term disabilities and more than 1,000 suffered temporary vision problems.
You should know: Forewarned was not forearmed – in 1994, members of Aum Shinrikyo released sarin from a refrigerated truck with a view to killing judges who were about to rule against the cult in a lawsuit. The judges survived, but seven people died and 500 were injured. The following year the much more dramatic Tokyo Subway attack occurred, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained.