My coat pockets are filled with scraps. I dredge up chewing gum wrappers and konbini receipts when I fish for change. There’s no garbage on the street, but there aren’t garbage cans, either; everyone just carries their trash with them.
Some say rubbish bins are rare because of recycling laws, or because people don’t walk and eat at the same time. But the real reason is something nobody wants to talk about.
You can’t find a rubbish bin in Japan because of a religious cult that killed 13 and injured 5,500 while trying to install a messianic yoga instructor as the new Emperor of Japan.
Jesus and Nostradamus
Shoko Asahara was 29 when he started a yoga and meditation class in downtown Tokyo, the Aum Club. Asahara had lost most of his vision to childhood glaucoma and had followed a Japanese tradition of blind acupuncturists.
He had opened an unlicensed Chinese Medicine shop in 1981 and began to tie various Chinese philosophies – as well as Christian doomsday prophecies and the writings of Nostradamus – together into a single practice, united by a penchant for science fiction stories.
After his business was fined for selling medicine without a license, Asahara quickly achieved enlightenment after a brief trip to India in 1984.
The Aum Club began to reach out to the public through pamphlets, books, anime and music cassettes. The club grew so quickly that Aum Shinrikyo was officially recognized by the Japanese government as a new religion, and promptly established a monastic order. But nasty rumors had already been circulating – stories of kidnapping and extortion.
Blood of Buddha Oil
Asahara began selling byproducts of his body to followers. They’d drink his bath water at outrageous prices, or brew tea with his beard trimmings. Some would consume small vials of his blood with vague promises of spiritual benefits.
An anti-cult lawyer, Tsutsumi Sakamoto, saw an opening. Test the blood for its so-called special properties and then charge the cult with fraud. He convinced Asahara to submit to a blood test.
When the results showed Asahara was human, Sakamoto taped an interview with Japanese television broadcaster TBS. TBS – for reasons no one can explain – showed the tape to the cult.
Shortly afterwards, Sakamoto, his wife and their 14-month-old child disappeared. 10 years later, investigators found that they were beaten and injected with potassium chloride, their bodies shoved into metal barrels and hidden by Aum Shinrikyo cult members.
The New Religions
After World War II, Shintoism had lost both its legal protection and its appeal as a state religion. The American occupation invited thousands of missionaries to come and convert the Japanese to a more American-friendly faith, perhaps dreaming that a Japan full of congenial Episcopalians would be easier to manage than a swarm of disillusioned Shintoists.
No one anticipated that this kind of cross-pollination of religious ideas would cause a long-term bloom in small fad religions, or that it would eventually make it nearly impossible to throw away used chewing gum.
For Aum Shinrikyo, hastening the apocalypse was the first order of business. Asahara’s crew recruited scientists and invested millions (earned through donations, and the sale of Asahara’s books, blood and bath water) into laboratories designed to build weapons straight out of their beloved science fiction novels.
Recruiting top minds from universities and medicine, the cult had built a military-grade laser beam capable of cutting iron plates in half and had destroyed the body of an escaped cultist’s brother using a giant microwave incinerator.
One of Asahara’s apocalyptic ambitions was to create a laser so powerful that it would illuminate the sky – the white sword of the end times, as mentioned in the Bible – and use it to destroy the world.
Interestingly, despite its technological skill, the cult failed to produce its own machine gun factory, consistently failing to produce a home-grown AK-47.
Aum Shinrikyo had far greater success with biological weapons.
The Tokyo Metro is the busiest subway in the world, with trains departing every 5 minutes to carry 6.3 million people a year through the heart of the largest city on Earth.
At rush hour on March 20, 1995, these trains became sarin gas chambers. Cult members pumped the liquid into plastic bags, wrapped the bags in newspapers and then poked them with umbrellas, releasing vapors into a tightly compressed space with limited air.
Five members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult participated, including a heart surgeon who had administered electric shocks to disloyal cult members; and three physicists, two of whom worked on the cult’s laser beam project. The fifth member had been suspected of disloyalty, and his role in the attack was a way to reassure the cult of his allegiance.
Each man entered a different train and punctured the bag before getting off the car. The liquid form of the gas would leak through the newspaper, slowly transforming into a gas. Sarin vapor penetrates the skin, causes difficulty breathing, and then leads to a loss of muscle control, causing seizures. The gas can also cause blindness, a grimly ironic result of a terrorist attack masterminded by a blind acupuncturist.
Interviews with victims from Haruki Murukami’s book, Underground, had witnesses describing what would be a surreal scene by American standards: People on a bus, coughing and falling to the ground, but no one asking each other what was going on or trying to help the most distressed victims.
Most people, perhaps traumatized or otherwise conditioned by a lifetime of minding one’s own damned business, simply left the train cars and went on to work.
By the time train station employees had cleared the trains, 5,510 people had been injured. Hospitals weren’t prepared for the onslaught, and many hospitals turned patients away. In another highly criticized response to the attacks, media trucks – despite having already been unloaded of camera crews – initially refused to drive the injured to hospitals.
None of this would yet explain the shortage of trash cans on the sidewalks of Japanese cities. To understand that, you need to know about the aftermath of the gas attacks and the hysteria that it sowed.
After Sept. 11, when anthrax arrived in envelopes addressed to media figures and politicians, friends would talk about seeing snow and panicking that it was a biological attack.
The Aum Shinrikyo attacks spawned similar fears. For a month after the attack, its leaders were still at large and compound raids revealed an almost incomprehensible range of potential weapons: Live Ebola cultures, Anthrax, a military helicopter.
Ten days after the attack, the chief of the National Police Agency had been shot and wounded, and Asahara – still at large – warned of a major attack on April 15. That day passed without incident, but on May 5, a bag of burning cyanide was found near one of the ventilation ducts in a Tokyo subway station. Undetected, it could have killed 20,000 people.
Japan was reasonably swept up into a hysteria, and people demanded action. Dumbfounded managers and politicians stamped approval on all sorts of security measures.
Just as Americans began fingerprinting foreigners, checking passports at the Canadian border, and routinely removing our shoes to check for bombs in the soles, Japan went ahead with its own acts of “security theater,” actions that make people feel safer but don’t do anything to actually prevent terrorist attacks.
One of these security performances was the removal of rubbish bins from public streets, parks and subway stations. Which is why you can’t find one in Japan.
“One small, but remarkable, lingering effect of the terrorist incident on the Tokyo population is the lack of garbage cans in public areas; even 10 years later, they are still associated with the sarin attack. This incident vividly illustrates the large-scale panic and disruption that chemical terrorism can produce in major urban areas.” - Margaret Kosal, Strategic Insights
Anyone tempted to dismiss this as excessive, or part of a “wacky Japan” reaction to terrorism, should look again at the irrational reactions to fear in our own culture.
It seems as if there is an innate human need to translate overwhelming trauma into something within our sphere of control, no matter how small. Americans throw water bottles away at the airport, the Japanese carry them home.
Not so different, really.
The Skeptic Report: Heavenly Terror
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