The hit squad drove out of Mount Fuji at sunset. There were five of them – one doctor and four vice ministers in the Science and Technology Ministry. The men chosen to unleash terror in the heart of Tokyo were among Aum's, and Japan's, brightest minds.
The first was Dr. Ikuo Hayashi. As the brains behind Aum's clinics, the good doctor had coldly presided over the wholesale doping, torture, and death of many followers. Still, he found it hard crossing the line from gross medical malpractice to mass murder, if later reports are to be believed. "I didn't know why I was chosen for the attack," Dr. Hayashi said. "I wanted to refuse, but the atmosphere didn't allow it."
Less likely to refuse the mission was the squad's second member, Yasuo Hayashi. The good doctor's namesake was a 6-foot-tall ethnic Korean who had grown up in Tokyo. Hayashi was a mean-looking 37-year-old with Neanderthal brows and a fur of acne on each cheek. His qualifications included an electrical engineering degree and a criminal record of substance abuse. His fascination with the supernatural had led him to India, then to drugs, and then to Aum. He became a monk in 1988, and proved adept at abduction, wiretapping, and intimidation. The subway attack would earn him a new nickname from Japan's media: "Killer Hayashi."
The next man, 30-year-old Kenichi Hirose, had graduated at the top of his class in applied physics from Waseda University in 1987. He turned down a job at a big electronics firm to join the cult, but often returned to the university to question his professor about laser research. The professor was baffled by Hirose's choice. "Floating in the air violates the law of inertia," the professor once said, referring to Asahara's trick of appearing to levitate. "Why would a student of physics believe such an outrageous thing?" Hirose replied: "Because I saw it."
Masato Yokoyama, 31, was another graduate in applied physics. His classmates at Tokai University outside Tokyo remember him as a quiet student who dressed in preppy clothes and enjoyed bowling. On graduation he joined an electronic parts maker and secretly attended Aum yoga classes. Then one day Yokoyama presented his boss with a cult book. "Please read this and study," he said. On the last page of the book, he had scribbled: "Those who handle this book carelessly will pay for it." Soon after, Yokoyama quit work and joined Aum – "to save mankind," he told his protesting family.
The fifth and final attacker was 27-year-old Toru Toyoda. He studied particle physics as a graduate student at Tokyo University, Japan's top school, where his copious note taking made him popular among classmates. Toyoda was relatively outgoing. Before joining the cult, he entertained his fellow lab rats with a mean impersonation of Shoko Asahara during Aum's 1990 election campaign. The guru had the last laugh. Toyoda was converted to Aum by another Tokyo University student and, in the spring of 1992, signed up.
On the morning of March 20, 1995, these five Aum members blended with the rush-hour crowds in Tokyo's subways. The cultists boarded five trains at different ends of the vast network. They knew the exact times and locations for each train and each station. They also knew that by 8:15 a.m., all five trains would converge upon Kasumigaseki, the center of power in Japan, home to the bureaucracies that rule more than 125 million Japanese.
It was here that Aum's high-tech terrorists would strike their preemptive blow – to paralyze the Japanese state and begin the cult's historic mission of world domination. Police were threatening to raid cult facilities, leaving Aum no choice but to attack first.
By 7:45 a.m., each member of the hit squad sat in his designated train, clutching a cheap umbrella and a package of sarin wrapped in newspaper. A few stops from Kasumigaseki, the cultists laid their bags on the car floors and punctured them with the umbrella tips. Then, as the car doors opened, they darted into crowds and out of the station, where getaway cars waited.
Only one cultist seemed aware of the carnage ahead. Aum physician Hayashi was standing on the Chiyoda line platform. The doctor was having a last-minute fit of morals. He looked around and saw a young girl waiting in line behind him. Go away, he thought. If you get on here, you'll die.
The train pulled up. Dr. Hayashi boarded the first car, as instructed, and sat close to the door. He caught the eye of a woman in her 30s and quickly looked away. You too will be dead soon, he thought. His sarin package was wrapped in two newspapers: Red Flag, the Japanese Communist Party daily, and Seikyo Shimbun, published by a rival religious group. Dr. Hayashi hoped the choice of reading would later throw police off.
His station was announced over the intercom, and the train slowed with a lurch of brakes. Kasumigaseki was now four stops away. Dr. Hayashi placed the package at his feet and stuck the umbrella in several times. He felt one of the bags rupture, but wasn't sure about the second one. He wasn't waiting around to find out.
By 8:10 a.m., Dr. Hayashi and the four other cultists were back on the street, looking for their drivers. Soon after, the cars were nudging through morning traffic, heading back to the hideout. In the tunnels below, 11 bags of nerve agent on five subway cars thundered toward the city center, along with thousands of unlucky commuters.
Within minutes, the air in the cars was thick with choking, invisible fumes, and passengers were groaning with nausea. On one train, a man kicked the offensive package onto the platform when the doors opened, but not before two commuters collapsed on the ground, their bodies shuddering with spasms. Incredibly, the train did not stop, but pulled out a minute later, bang on time. It would make two more stops until the growing panic inside the cars reached critical mass. Passengers tumbled from the train, gagging and vomiting, clutching handkerchiefs across their faces, gasping for breath. Five collapsed on the platform, foaming at the mouth. Three others lay inside the car, their bodies jerking violently. As commuters staggered toward the exits with pinhole vision and crashing headaches, an announcement echoed across the station: "Evacuate, evacuate, evacuate."
Above ground it was pandemonium. Pavements and roads were blanketed with casualties. The victims were eerily quiet – the nerve gas had crippled their lungs and stolen their voices. Soon ambulance sirens cut through the silence, and TV helicopters throbbed overhead. Even as police tried to work out what had happened, more reports were coming in. Another subway line had been hit Š and another, and another.
Soon, wave after wave of blind, disoriented victims flooded nearby hospitals, baffling doctors with their symptoms. Meanwhile, Tokyo's brutally efficient subway continued to spread Aum's killer chemical. One train passed through Kasumigaseki three times before its deadly cargo was discovered.
By the time the subway system finally ground to a halt, the whole nation reeled at the news. The death toll eventually climbed to 12. More than 5,500 were afflicted, many with appalling injuries. At least two passengers now slept eternally in vegetative comas. One woman was admitted to a hospital in agony after the nerve agent had fused her contact lenses to her eyeballs. In the end, she had both eyes surgically removed.