The Tough Road to Overcoming Hardships: Atsushi Sakahara’s Experience Through The Tokyo Sarin Gas Attack

“Emergency personnel respond to the Tokyo subway sarin attack.” | 1996 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It was during the morning rush hour on 20 March 1995.1 Atsushi Sakahara, an office worker in Tokyo, Japan, was riding on the subway on his way to work. Everything for him was as usual that morning, until he realized that something was changing in his body. He felt something wrong with his eyes. He was not able to focus on objects, which made him wonder whether he had forgotten to wash his contact lenses that morning. He moved to the next car, sensing something strange. It was the right decision, because there was a package wrapped in newspaper nearby him in that car that contained sarin gas.2

“Coat of Arms of the Aum Shinrikyo” | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On that day, five subway trains in Tokyo were attacked at exactly the same time. The attackers were members of Aum Shinrikyo or Aum Supreme Truth, which is a Japanese religious group founded by Shoko Asahara. They released highly poisonous sarin gas on each train, resulting in innumerable numbers of wounded people.3 Atsushi became one of these victims.

His eyes still felt strange even after he left the car to go to the next one. The strange feeling was because of the sarin gas that he breathed in, despite its small amount. At the moment he began to feel his eyes burn, he looked back to the other side of the door he just left; he saw something. One of the men inside the other car started going into fits. That convinced him that it was indeed dangerous to be there, although he didn’t know actually what was happening. Actually, by that time a number of people had already been exposed to the gas, and some of them stood in great danger. He immediately got off the train before his planned stop, and took a taxi to go to his office. However, his sight remained blurred, as if he were seeing everything through a filter. The next thing he did, which may have saved his life, was to see a doctor instead of continuing to work.4 He judged things correctly and acted calmly.

“Dalai and Shoko Asahara” | April 3, 2008 | Courtesy of flickr

Fortunately, his injury was not a matter of life and death. Nevertheless, he still suffered from its after effects and some psychical trauma, which totally changed the rest of his life. Sarin is a nerve gas with high lethal potential that causes a variety of secondary diseases. It brings about, for example, blurred vision, eye pain, nausea, headache or dyspnea. Then, many of the victims continue to suffer from sicknesses such as headache or eye symptoms long after the attack.5 Atsushi had dysgraphia, fatigue, numbness of arms and legs, and blackouts subsequent to the attack. And the miserable experience deeply damaged his mind. Indeed, many other people also had mental problems, even after their physical problems were completely healed. Sometimes it is called PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and the patients suffer from nightmares, dizziness, palpitation, or insomnia.6

It was not easy at all for Sakahara to get over these hardships, after being involved in this act of terrorism. However, he succeeded in finding his own solution. He made movies about his experiences as a form of catharsis: a way to remove damaged feelings by emitting them. He retired his job in Tokyo and went to the United States. He then helped to create a short movie called Bean Cake. The film won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001. After that, he returned to Japan and took up a career as a film maker. And currently he is working on his own documentary film on Aum Shinrikyo, the religious cult that was responsible for the sarin gas attack that brought him and others so much pain. He never gives in to his misfortune, and he refrains from hatred against his attackers. In his interview with Japanese media, he said, “I want to believe in humanity. Even if people kill each other in the name of religion, even if people kill each other in the name of a country, or even if people kill each other in the name of race, I still want to believe in humans.”7

“Anti-Aum Shinrikyo protest” | Photograph of the Abasaa | November 21, 2009 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Tokyo sarin gas attack became the first large-scale terrorist chemical gas attack in the world resulting in 12 fatalities and 5,500 injured.8 Many of them are suffering from the effects of the attack even now, more than twenty years after it happened. Atsushi Sakahara’s upcoming film will help a lot of people to know, remember, and tell the next generation not only about this tragedy, but also about people’s power to overcome such painful experiences.

  1. Patterns of Global Terrorism 1995, 1996, s.v. “Year in Review.”
  2.  “Survivor’s tale: The Tokyo sarin gas attack 20 years later,” Newswires, 2015, EBSCOhost (accessed September 8, 2018).
  3.  Patterns of Global Terrorism 1995, 1996, s.v. “Asia Overview.”
  4.  “Survivor’s tale: The Tokyo sarin gas attack 20 years later,” Newswires, 2015, EBSCOhost (accessed September 8, 2018).
  5.  Tetsu Okumura, et. al., “Report on 640 Victims of the Tokyo Subway Sarin Attack,” Annals Of Emergency Medicine 28 (1996): 131.
  6.  Toshiyuki Ohtani, et al., “Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in victims of Tokyo subway attack: a 5-year follow-up study.” Psychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences58, no. 6 (2004): 626; “Survivor’s tale: The Tokyo sarin gas attack 20 years later,” Newswires, 2015, EBSCOhost (accessed September 8, 2018).
  7. “Survivor’s tale: The Tokyo sarin gas attack 20 years later,” Newswires, 2015, EBSCOhost (accessed September 8, 2018).
  8.  “Asia Overview,” Patterns of Global Terrorism 1995(1996): 3
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  • My only complaint about this article is that it is rather short, however that only encourages me to do my own research into the attack, the cult responsible for it, as well as the victims affected by their actions. I had at first excepted this article to be primarily focused on the Aum Shinrikyo cult and it’s leader Shoko Asahara, however i was pleasantly surprised to read that Atsushi Sakahara, one of the victims was the main focus of the article.Overall, while brief the article does manage to inform the reader quite a bit about Atsushi Sakahara, and leaves me wondering why the Daila Lama was photographed along side Shoko Asahara.

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