Japan had warnings of gas attack

March 28, 1995|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Abundant information has emerged in the last week indicating that the Japanese media and the police had reason to be concerned about a poison gas attack, like the one that hit Tokyo subway riders last week.

Particularly, they had reason to be concerned about the No. 1 suspect in the case, the Aum Shinri Kyo religious sect.

As early as September, explicit warnings of gas attacks were delivered to Tokyo news organizations, according to the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest paper. The warnings targeted the city's subway; its major baseball park, the Tokyo Dome; and its major concert hall, the Tokyo Budokan. A second warning was delivered in January. Neither had been disclosed previously.

Included in the warnings, according to Yomiuri, were detailed reports linking the sect to a sarin gas attack June 27 in central Japan, where seven people died and 50 people were injured.

At the time, the Matsumoto incident was reported as an accident.

A weekly magazine drew the first explicit link between the Matsumoto attack and the sect.

According to the January issue of Shukan Shincho, the purchase by Aum Shinri Kyo of some property in Matsumoto led to a bitter legal battle with town residents.

A court decision had been expected in June, just when the poisoning took place. All three judges hearing the case lived in a special dormitory downwind of where the sarin was released and all were affected. One judge, Kiyoshi Aonuma, had to be hospitalized. In the aftermath of his injury, no ruling has been announced.

Other weekly magazines in late January noted that months before the word sarin was known even among the country's chemists, it was mentioned in an April 1994 sermon by Aum Shinri Kyo's leader, Shoko Asahara.

In February, the magazine Marco Polo ran a report by an American, Kyle Olson suggesting the Matsumoto attack was a trial run for a major terrorist incident.

The significance of the Olson article was lost in the furor over another article in the magazine denying that Germans gassed concentration camp inmates during World War II. That article provoked such outrage the magazine shut down.

In the aftermath of last week's nerve gas attack, the mainline Japanese media companies have begun publishing information collected over prior months. A just-released Kyodo Wire Service piece, for instance, was based on a February tour inside a sect facility in Kamikuishiki.

Sarin residue was found at the Kamikuishiki site in July, just after the Matsumoto attack, and the facility is now reported by the news media to be the heart of sect's poison gas manufacturing operations.

Included in the story, though with an uncertain time frame, is testimony from a sect member that the group had a special "chemical task force" in the building.

Why hadn't the article run when it had been reported a month ago? Fear of libel, speculated one Kyodo editor.

The sect has been quick and effective in using the courts to come down hard on any publication believed to be preparing a critical article. Even after the subway attacks, newspapers were extremely cautious in implicating the sect, referring to it largely in the context of its denial of any involvement, and only then including references to comments on chemical gas, and sarin, that had been made in the past by Mr. Asahara.

Every major news organization in Japan has likely had reporters looking into the sect for a long time, said Ryuji Nakazono, editor of the Daily Yomiuri, the English-language version of the Japanese paper. The Japanese media, however, is reluctant to breach privacy without hard evidence and is particularly concerned about intruding on the rights of a religious organization, he said.

In his article, Mr. Olson noted the lack of information on the Matsumoto poisoning provided to the public by the police. A reason, he said, according to a summary in the Japanese news media, was the potential for triggering panic. It was likely, he said, that an extensive investigation was quietly being conducted by Japan's intelligence and counter-terrorism groups.

Another story notable because of its absence has been about the prospect of further attacks.

The U.S. military radio station, the Far Eastern Network, has been running an announcement for the past four days targeted at its small, English-speaking audience, citing information provided by the police. The message says that 25 heavily populated areas have been threatened.

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