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Sarin Gas Attack in Tokyo Subway

The Deadliest Terrorist Attack in Japan

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Picture of a train in Tokyo, Japan.

Tokyo, Japan metro train at platform.

(Photo by Raymond Patrick / Getty Images)
On March 20, 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult orchestrated a coordinated sarin gas attack on subway trains in Tokyo, Japan. The sarin gas killed a dozen people, injured thousands more, and is still considered the worst terrorist attack in Japan.

The Sarin Gas Attack in Tokyo

On Monday, March 20, 1995, five members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult boarded separate subway trains in Tokyo. Each cult member carried either two or three bags of sarin in liquid form, tightly enclosed in plastic, and then wrapped in newspapers. Each also carried an umbrella.

Around 8 a.m., the cult members dropped their packages onto the floor of the trains, then used the sharp end of their umbrellas to puncture holes through the plastic. As the liquid poured out of the holes, it seeped onto the train floors and started to turn into toxic sarin gas.

The cult members then exited their subway trains and were picked up in pre-arranged get-away cars, leaving the sarin gas, estimated to be 500 times more potent than cyanide gas, to dissipate among the passengers that remained in the subway.

Subway Passengers Get Sick

The Tokyo subway system, the busiest in the world, was packed with commuters during rush hour traffic. As the sarin gas spread, people on the trains started to become sick. At first, passengers suffered from runny noses and watery eyes. Then blurred vision and coughing.

However, not realizing that they had been exposed to sarin gas because it is odorless, many passengers stepped off the subway trains at the next train station, unaware they were helping to spread the toxic gas. Since sarin gas can cling to clothes for up to 30 minutes, these passengers spread the toxic gas throughout a number of train stations.

The train engineers also did not immediately realize a toxic gas had been released on their cars; thus, many of the trains continued on to station after station. At each stop, the sarin gas poured from the trains' open doors and into the stations.

The sarin gas spread to thousands of people within Tokyo's subway system. Some were lucky enough to receive only light exposure and thus suffer only from runny noses, watery eyes, blurred vision, coughing, rapid breathing, confusion, drowsiness, weakness, and headache. Others suffered from vomiting and diarrhea. Still others became paralyzed, began convulsing, went into a coma, or died.

While over 5,000 people were affected, twelve died from exposure. Many victims suffered long-term effects that still haunt them.

Aum Shinrikyo: The Perpetrators

In 1995, the religious cult of Aum Shinrikyo ("Supreme Truth") had approximately 40,000 members and a net worth of $1.5 billion. Founded in 1987 by Shoko Asahara, it had its basis in Buddhism, but had grown to include the Christian idea of an apocalypse in its beliefs.

Believing World War III was about to begin, Aum Shinrikyo began to stockpile weapons, even building several chemical factories to manufacture biological weapons. Much of their angst was focused against the Japanese government.

The March 1995 sarin attack was not the first use of biological weapons by the Aum Shinrikyo. In addition to several other unsuccessful attempts, the group is believed to have been behind a June 27, 1994 attack in the Japanese city of Matsumoto. During this attack, the group used a truck to release sarin gas into a neighborhood that housed three judges who were expected to rule against them in a court case. The attack left seven dead and about 500 more affected.

Unfortunately, because of the Aum Shinrikyo's protected religious status, the police were unable to arrest any of its members in 1994. Not so after the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo.

Within 48 hours of the 1995 sarin gas attack, police raided multiple locations of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. About 100 Aum Shinrikyo members were arrested. After a number of trials, thirteen Aum Shinrikyo members were sentenced to death, including the group's leader Shoko Asahara.

However, by 2010, none of these death sentences had yet been carried out.

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