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By Shizue Takahashi

A different anniversary

The widow of a Tokyo sarin attack victim visits Ground Zero-and finds a strong culture of support

This July, ten years after the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo and three years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, I traveled to New York City. I had always wanted to see a Broadway musical, so the trip allowed me to fulfill that dream. When I informed a friend who lives in the city about my visit, he arranged a meeting between me-the kin of a sarin gas attack victim-and relatives of 9/11 victims and their supporters.

Shizue Takahashi is the representative for the Subway Sarin Incident Victims Association

In 2000, I had been to several US cities to receive training in victim support, and I spoke to the family members of those affected by crime. What dawned on me then was that Japan needed the same institutionalized support for crime victims from an early stage. So during my most recent trip, I really wanted to find out what kind of support the victims of 9/11 were receiving.

I visited Ground Zero for the first time. Around the huge hole surrounded by a wire fence, many people had come to see with their own eyes the effects of the tragedy. I met one man who had lost his son, a firefighter. He led me to a room in a nearby building, provided by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, from where Ground Zero could be viewed in its entirety. On the door was a sign that read "Family Room"; inside, it was filled with photographs of victims and other memorabilia. Bereaved families can visit whenever they like, and especially for those who were unable to retrieve the bodies of their fallen relatives, it's a precious place where they can feel close to their loved ones.

I also found that church-financed organizations are heavily involved in victim support. They provide information, counsel the victims and their loved ones, collect contributions, and otherwise play active roles helping families of victims recover. St. Paul's Chapel, located on the west side of Ground Zero, sells videos, photographs and other products related to the attacks. The proceeds go to victims and to the Children's Benefit Fund.

One month after 9/11, New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene started the WTC Health Registry, which will examine all health issues affecting victims every two years for the next two decades. An official told me that the first batch of data is due to be released this year, and can be viewed on the agency's website.

Based on what I saw in New York, I feel that victims are receiving substantial support. But Japan still has much to learn.

We victims of the sarin attacks are firmly convinced that if the Japanese government, and especially the police force, had earlier investigated Aum Shinrikyo-an organization with a criminal history-the attacks could have been prevented. Responsibility, therefore, lies not only with Aum, but with the federal and city governments. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is responsible for officially recognizing the group as a religious organization in 1989, even though Aum had already committed murder. The government is also accountable for failing to provide any assistance whatsoever to the victims, even though the target of the attack was Kasumigaseki, located in the heart of their city.

Twelve people were killed in the sarin attacks, and two others sustained injuries so serious that they'll need nursing care for the rest of their lives. Even today, it's believed that 20 percent of the 5,500 other victims suffer from serious post-traumatic syndrome. I say "believed" because no organization exists to monitor the damage done to the victims of the attacks.

As we've done each year on the anniversary of the tragedy, this March we asked Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara to provide compensation to the victims; to track all victims and their health conditions; to conduct regular medical checkups on the wounded and their families; and to organize effective medical treatment for all sarin patients. Sadly, to this day, neither the national government nor the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has taken any of these steps to aid the sarin attack victims.

"Unbelievable!" said supporters I met in New York, who were moved by the fact that the Subway Sarin Incident Victims Association, of which I am the representative, does not receive any financial support from the government, or that the victims themselves do not receive compensation.

Is it right to say, "You were unlucky," and to close the door on innocent people who happened to be caught in a disaster while going about their daily lives? We don't think so, and we'll continue to lobby the Japanese government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to compensate the victims of the sarin attacks.

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