In Japan, a Year for Poignant Memories

One Monday morning in 1995, Kazumashita Takahashi , an assistant station master on the Chiyodu Subway line in central Tokyo, was on duty when the 8:10 train pulled in. Many of the passengers were civil servants, whose offices were in the nearby Kasumigaseki government district next to the Imperial palace.

Before the doors slammed shut Takahashi noticed some liquid spilled on the train floor. He mopped it up and waved the train on. Shortly after he collapsed on the platform and died. Within minutes commuters were staggering out of the subway exits gasping for breath, coughing, rubbing their eyes and foaming at the mouth.

Urban terrorists had planted Sarin nerve gas at five widely scattered locations along three downtown subway lines in what must have surly been the world’s first use of a weapon of mass destruction delivered in a waste basket. Twelve people were killed and 50 others were injured.

This year Japan will be commemorating and contemplating the meaning of several poignant anniversaries. In addition to the 20th anniversary on March 20 for the sarin nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway system, there is the 20th anniversary, just past, of the Kobe earthquake.

Looking further back is the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. Even though the date, August 15, is months away, much speculation is building in Japan as to what the conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, will say on that occasion.

The earthquake that struck Kobe early on the morning of January 17 was the most severe to hit Japan between the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. Some 6,434 people died in the Kobe quake.

The magnitude 7.3 quake shattered the safety myth of urban life in modern-day Japan. The collapse of elevated expressways, which became the iconic symbol of the disaster, and fires that burned down whole neighborhoods underscored the vulnerability of the country to natural disasters.

The more recent March 11, 2011, Great East Japan quake was even bigger and deadlier, but most of the victims drowned in the tsunami that followed the quake, where as most of the victims of the Kobe quake were crushed in collapsing houses and buildings.

Kobe did not regain its pre-quake population until 2004, and today about 44 percent of the population has no first-hand experience with the event, underscoring the need to keep knowledge and memories of the disaster alive.

It is also hard to forget the nerve gas attack in Tokyo, when, 20 year after the event, there are still accounts to be settled. The trial opened on January 16 for one of the alleged members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult that perpetrated the attack.

Katsuya Takahashi, now 56, went on trial for murder and several other crimes relating to the cult’s nefarious activities. A fugitive for 17 years after the attack, Takahashi was finally apprehended in June 2012. His trial is expected to last for four months with a verdict announced in April. He has pleaded not guilty.

If the trial progresses along this timetable, it will seems like the speed of light compared with the trial of the cult’s mysterious leader Shoko Asahara. He was convicted and sentenced to death after a trial that lasted nine years.

Asahara is still alive and awaiting execution. In Japan they are never announced in advance. He will know he has met his date with the hangman only the morning when it actually happens. During his lengthy trial, Asahara never spoke out or offered any kind of excuse or reason for his cult’s bizarre attacks.

Of course, the most eagerly anticipated anniversary of 2015 will be the 70th year following Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945. This would be a pregnant date under any circumstances, but it is made all the more interesting in anticipation of what Abe will say in the inevitable anniversary declaration.

Abe is known to question the veracity many of the war crimes that Japan has been accused of fomenting during its invasion of China. Indeed, he has even questioned whether “aggression” is the correct term to describe Japan’s actions.

However, he is also responsible for Tokyo’s diplomacy abroad, so he will have to suppress many of these private convictions in order not to stir more trouble with neighbors China and South Korea. Properly phrased it might even help to alleviate some of these tensions.

Naturally, his government, including Abe himself has been eager to put a positive spin on the event, saying he hoped that any statement would be forward looking as well as expressing remorse for Japan’s actions in World War II.

“I would like to write Japan’s remorse on the war, its post-war history as a pacifist nation and how [Japan] will contribute to the Asia Pacific region and the world,” Abe said in his first press conference of the New Year. “We hope Japan can match its words with actions, honestly facing up to its history.” countered a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman.

Abe’s statement will be even more closely scrutinized than the one issued by former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of the close of the war. The premier acknowledged in that statement that Japan bore responsibility for wartime atrocities and for it colonization of Korea. It has been viewed ever since as an unambiguous, formal apology.

However many on the far right in Japan believe that Murayama’s statement went too far. That it was issued by the only socialist prime minister Japan has had since the days right after the war, adds to their contempt probably unrealistic hope that Abe might retract part of it.

That is certainly not in the cards from a premier who, though personally something of a historical revisionist, is also keen on restoring Japan’s relationships with its near Asian neighbors.