Subway Attack Deepens Sense of Malaise in Japan


Was it just a few years ago that Japan was flying on a cloud of indefatigable self-confidence? Were there really the Roaring ‘80s, when the Japanese laced their food with gold, owned the world’s priciest stocks and land, overtook American leads in crucial technologies and maintained an enviable social stability?

Toshiko Oguchi can hardly believe it now.

Not when unknown terrorists release lethal poison gas in the subways of her supposedly safe, well-ordered nation. Not when a killer earthquake racks a region that was never supposed to suffer such shaking. Not when a soaring yen and prolonged recession shatter the national assumption of an ever-buoyant economy.

One by one, Japan’s beliefs about itself have been turned upside down--and the national mood has swiftly turned black, she said.


“Compared to five years ago, it’s like heaven and hell,” said Oguchi, a Japanese-language instructor who abruptly decided to shear her hair short to clear her head of despair. “There’s been a total mood swing. Everyone is depressed, so depressed. And there seems to be a lack of energy to do anything about it.”

Even as Tokyo’s transit system slowly returned to normal Tuesday after an unprecedented poison gas attack killed 10 and afflicted more than 4,700, the subway assault has fueled a growing sense of unease among people here about themselves and their society.

That is not readily apparent in Shibuya, where screaming neon and towering buildings filled with karaoke rooms, trendy ethnic restaurants and video arcades draw flocks of the young. To a blaring backdrop of Mariah Carey’s “Hero,” shoppers clustered around stands selling jewelry and compact discs on this national holiday of Spring Equinox.

Here was Shunsuke Kosaka, 20, a Waseda University student who wears faded jeans and tinted hair.


“I don’t have a very good feeling about the future,” he said. “We’ve become too rich, but our hearts are dry. In the 1950s and 1960s, we didn’t have many material goods, but everyone pitched in and worked hard together to rebuild Japan. Now, no one knows what to do in the future.”

Similar laments were offered by a remarkable number of people.

“Japan is funny now, but I don’t know what it is,” said Mie Iimori, 26, a commodities trader waiting for friends at Hachiko, Shibuya’s famous bronze dog statue. “I feel a bit scared, but I don’t know what I can do about it.”

Aboard the Hibiya line, a deathtrap of toxic fumes just a day earlier, the sense of unease was palpable. Monday morning’s attack had made passengers wary about the present--and especially about the future, for all manner of reasons.

To Shigeo Taguchi, manager of a Ginza jewelry store, the vicious corporate restructuring fueled by Japan’s prolonged recession threatens the cornerstone of stability for businessmen like himself: the lifetime employment system. The breakdown of such quintessential Japanese traditions, along with a growing gap between rich and poor in a nation long proud of its economic equality, worries him.

“We’ve caught up economically with the West, and now we’ve lost our purpose,” he said. Like several others, he said it was time for Japan to turn from self-interest and embrace more global concerns.

To another passenger, a man in his mid-40s, Japan’s aging society and educational system pose serious worries. Competing to enter elite universities, most children spend the bloom of their youth in cram schools, mainly memorizing facts to regurgitate on national exams--no way to produce vibrant, creative children, he said.

“Look at all the children who wear glasses. Look how pale they are,” he said. “I myself went to Tokyo University, which is the pinnacle of this hierarchy, but I don’t necessarily think it’s good for children to climb up this ladder to catch happiness. We aren’t brave enough to find our own path.”


But this passenger--who missed Monday’s gas attack by just 30 minutes as he was traveling to the government nerve center of Kasumigaseki--said he refuses to let his personal unease about Japan’s direction interfere with his job of helping the nation find its way. He turned out to be Eiichi Hasegawa, director of the Asian affairs division of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

Even Japan’s widely admired social stability has lately come into question here, with growing instances of school bullying leading to suicides, for instance, and an increase in guns that prompted the National Police Agency to propose stiffer laws this month.

Some religious groups--and even non-religious people such as 22-year-old Takeshi Ikezawa--attribute Japan’s current trials to divine comeuppance for excessive materialism and national arrogance.

Ikezawa, a Kyorin University student, said that gloomy predictions about the century’s end may be materializing and that Japan, and especially individual Japanese, should step up international cooperation. “I have a feeling that things are going to get worse and worse,” he said.