Arrest sparks relief and fear

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 May, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 May, 1995, 12:00am

IT was the day Japan was waiting for - when the Aum Shinri Kyo cult was officially implicated in the deadly March 20 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

But although many Japanese heaved a sigh of relief yesterday, few believed the country was in a position to relax now cult leader Shoko Asahara was in custody.

And to underscore their fears, yet another attack occurred hours after his arrest - the explosion of a parcel bomb in Tokyo's City Hall in the Governor's office.

Police, deployed in full force at train stations, and chemical warfare troops were on special alert.

'It's a relief that he's been arrested, but I'm afraid of what might happen now. We'll have to be even more careful,' said Ryo Sakuyama, a 19-year-old student.

Two months after it all began - X-Day, as it has been dubbed by some in the Japanese press - had finally come.

Two months of exhaustive police investigations, two months of front-page news stories, two months of riveting television coverage - two months of nothing but Aum - began to show signs of coming to an end on Monday, with the arrest of the cult's so-called 'intelligence minister', 25-year-old Yoshihiro Inoue.

It was seen as a clear sign that the arrest of Asahara, 40, was only a matter of time. And the city of Tokyo was more than ready for it. It is impossible to be in this city and not become fluent in the words Aum Shinri Kyo, or Supreme Truth, and have the name Shoko Asahara always on the tip of your tongue.

For eight weeks, Japanese television has run round-the-clock coverage of police raids on the Aum compound.

Panel discussions in television news studios seemed never-ending, reporters giving constant updates of the police progress had become the normal scene and detailed re-enactments of the events of that deadly March day served as a constant reminder.

The deaths of 12 people and the injuries to 5,500 others were relived every day.

But the television coverage at 9.45 am yesterday was no re-enactment.

The 'main event' had arrived, and word travelled incredibly fast.

On the subway, the bearded face of Asahara was plastered on the front pages of all the evening newspapers.

The radio was buzzing with only name, Aum, and televisions everywhere - in hotel lobbies, in homes and in shops - were tuned in to every last detail.

'This is a very big day for Tokyo,' said tax collector Saso Kazuyuki at the Kasumigaseki subway station, the 'epicentre' of the March nerve gas attack, where dozens of government offices and the main judicial officials are located.

'I think Aum Shinri Kyo is very dangerous.

'I hope now there will be no more Aum Shinri Kyo and no more sarin attacks,' said 24-year-old student Shinji. 'I am very happy.' But beyond the relieved surface of things, the arrest of Asahara and hundreds of other Aum followers over the past 56 days has not taken away the uncertainty that remains in the heart of the Japanese people.

In Tokyo, nobody is an innocent anymore. Fear has become a fact of Japanese life.

'I am still very scared to take the subway,' said 26-year-old Haruo Narushima on Sukarada-dori Avenue, where many of the injured were treated on the day of the attack. 'I think maybe it can happen again.

'Wherever I go, I feel I must always watch over my shoulder.

'Japan is a different place now.' Tokyo remained on a police-enforced state of high alert last night for fear of cult reprisals. But in the Japanese capital, where months earlier a state of alert would have been almost unheard of, it was just another event in a long-awaited day.

'Nobody in Tokyo feels so relaxed anymore,' said Ofe Shagan, an antiques dealer who has lived in the capital for about six years.

'The sarin attacks changed Japan,' he said.

'The people here now realise that the things that only happened in the United States or the Middle East can happen here, too. 'It has really destroyed the mood of the country.

'It has grown up, in a way, and it cannot become young again.

'A few arrests will not change that.'