Japan Tries to Find Its Balance Again after Experiencing What May Be the First Terrorist Use of Chemical Weapons, the Japanese Are Reflective

Article excerpt

ONE day after unknown assailants released nerve gas on five train coaches in the Tokyo subway system, Japanese celebrated the spring equinox, 24 hours of perfect balance, when night is only as long as day.

For the most part, people marked the holiday by staying home. Some visited cemeteries to pay respects to their ancestors. Tokyo seemed quiet and reflective, as if the city had regained a solemn equilibrium.

Police, according to local news reports, announced they would question a hospitalized man who witnesses say left a newspaper-wrapped parcel containing the gas on one train, but are waiting for his recovery. Service returned to normal on subway lines disrupted by the attack, which left eight people dead and injured almost 5,000.

But behind the return to stability was a profound sense of unease. In addition to predictable expressions of concern about Japan becoming a more dangerous place, the event's odd characteristics have left deeper worries among Japanese.

Many people are puzzled by both the novelty of the method -- some experts have said the incident may be the world's first use of chemical weapons by urban terrorists -- and the silence of the perpetrators. These factors suggest something different from ordinary terrorism is at work.

The event comes at a time of turmoil in Japan -- the country's political establishment is in a long period of realignment, the economy is in a protracted stall, and some Japanese complain about a lack of national purpose. Many people, in and out of Japan, criticize the government for regulating the society tightly, but there is also an unspoken feeling of comfort with the society that government has created.

"I don't think the criminals targeted the bureaucracy," says a young man at one of the subway stations where the gas struck. Declining to give his name, he argued that one could have targeted government institutions more directly. "The group has some dissatisfaction against society as a whole," he says. "They wanted to release their frustration against this society."

The mystery has led some people to raise the possibility that one of Japan's small religious groups may be involved. A sect called Aum Shinri Kyo, or Aum Supreme Truth, has been linked to a previous appearance of the kind of gas used in Tokyo. But the group has twice denied any connection to the attack. …