Tokyo sarin attack widow says she wants cult members executed
Woman whose husband was one of 13 people killed by nerve gas in Tokyo subway says she won't rest until cult members are executed
On Thursday, Shizue Takahashi was in court for the 430th time to see a member of the apocalyptic Aum Shinri Kyo cult questioned and cross-examined over his role in a series of murders, abductions and bombings almost 19 years ago that shook Japan to its core.
She has seen Shoko Asahara, the founder of the cult, roll his eyes during hearings. She has seen his senior lieutenants cry and plead for mercy from the court. She has seen others defiant in the face of the law and profess their adulation for a nearly-blind guru who dreamed of overthrowing the Japanese government through an armed uprising.
Incredible as it seems today, it still took the deaths of 13 people in March 1995, when Asahara's followers released sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway system, for Japan to wake up to the threat that the cult posed. And as his church collapsed around him, the police quickly learned of the reach of an organisation that killed, abducted and maimed in order to get its own way.
It bought a Russian military helicopter to better release sarin over a wide area and was manufacturing its own assault rifles. Its chemists were concocting "truth serums" and nerve gas. It had even put into motion a plan to develop a nuclear device.
Outside court, Takahashi is warm and has a ready smile. She looks younger than her 66 years. Once inside the chamber where Makoto Hirata is being tried, she is a different person. The smile is replaced by a look of fierce determination edging towards anger.
The anger is not only because cult members killed her husband, Kazumasa, when they leaked sarin in five subway cars. It is also on behalf of the 6,000 commuters injured in that attack - many of whom still suffer debilitating illnesses - as well as hundreds of others personally targeted in other attacks by the cult or who lost family members or friends to its violence.
"All I really want to know is why my husband had to die ... and even after all this time, I don't have that answer," she says. "They say Asahara had charisma and people fell for his charm, but I've seen him and I just cannot understand why." Recalling the hearings of other cult members, Takahashi says Yoshihiro Inoue had cried in court but she believes it was a self-serving plea for clemency and certainly not an apology. It did not work in any case, and Inoue is on death row.
Toru Toyoda's face was "a mask" when he was given the death penalty, she says, and he apologised in a letter to her during the case. She would like the executions to be carried out just as soon as the last hearing in the final case against a cult member is carried out. It may bring her some closure, she feels.
"They deserve the death penalty because their victims lost their lives, their jobs, their families, everything," she says. "And it is continuing today for many people who are still ill, while they have an easy life in prison."
A man and a woman who were arrested in 2012, the final two fugitive members of the cult, are still awaiting trial.
Asahara was sentenced to death by hanging in 2004, and remains on death row.
Being back in court brought back memories of the day that changed Takahashi's life forever. "I was at work at the bank when I got a phone call from my husband's younger sister to say that he had been taken to hospital," she recalls. "But by the time I got there, he was already cold."
The senior station master at Kasumigaseki station, he had been summoned to a train on the Hibiya Line that was being evacuated.
Unaware of the danger he was in, Takahashi picked up a plastic bag wrapped in a newspaper that was leaking liquid sarin. He collapsed and died within minutes.
"I saw my husband off to work that morning and he was dead in the evening," Takahashi says. "Part of me still can't believe it."
On March 20, the 19th anniversary of the attack, Takahashi plans to visit her husband's grave and attend a meeting of the Tokyo Subway Sarin Incident Victims' Association. She says it is important that she continues to remind people of what happened, "because otherwise the case will be forgotten, and I can't let that happen".