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TOKYO – A snapshot, through the eyes of a survivor, of a poison gas attack that shook Japan 20 years ago Friday. The release of sarin gas into the Tokyo subways by the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult killed 13 people. The March 20, 1995, attack shattered a sense of safety in daily life. After apologizing for appearing in the casual attire of a filmmaker, Atsushi Sakahara told his story this week at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan:
NAME: ATSUSHI SAKAHARA
A NEAR BRUSH WITH DEATH: Then in his late 20s, Sakahara noticed a package on the floor wrapped in newspaper after boarding the subway to go to work. It was the sarin gas. His eyes began to feel strange and lose focus, and he wondered if he had forgotten to rinse his contact lenses. Sensing something was wrong, he moved to the next car. Looking back to the first car, he and others saw a middle-aged man had lost consciousness. At the next stop, passengers carried him and another person out. Sakahara later heard that one had died. He also got off, and flagged a taxi to continue to work. His vision started to get darker, and he saw a TV news crew scurrying about. He said he could look right at the sun as if he were wearing very strong sunglasses. He left a note to his boss at his office and walked to a nearby hospital. He didn't get the antidote as his injuries were not serious enough. After lying down for a while, he went home.
HIS LIFE AFTERWARD: The experience made him realize that life can be shorter and more valuable than he thought. He left his job at Dentsu advertising agency and consulted with a rabbi in the United States whom he had guided around Japan when he was a university student. He went to the U.S. and spent about a year with the rabbi. He later helped a friend in Hollywood make a short film, "Bean Cake," which won the Palme D'Or at Cannes in 2001. He returned to Japan, and had a short-lived marriage with a former member of the Aum cult. In 2010, he published an autobiography, "Sarin Gas and Bean Cake," but he still felt unsettled. "I guess the catharsis was not enough," he said. He decided to make a documentary on Aum, which has since split into two groups, focusing on a man who is the public relations director of the larger group, "Aleph." Sakahara says he still suffers from sleeping problems, fatigue, numbness in his limbs and sometimes blackouts.
HIS MESSAGE: "I want to believe in humans. Even if people kill each other under the name of religion, even if people kill each other under the name of a country, or even if people kill each other under the name of race, I still want to believe in humans."