Failure to take prompt action blamed

The massing of thousands of police to crack down on the Aum Shinri Kyo sect two days after the nerve gas attack in Tokyo is unlikely to stem criticism that the authorities have again failed to react decisively to disaster.

After the Kobe earthquake two months ago, in which 5,500 people died, the Japanese military and foreign rescue teams remained idle while bureaucrats dithered. It was claimed that many of the deaths occurred because Japan's famous instinct for consensus meant that no one was prepared to take charge. Now it appears that the same problem prevented action being taken against the sect, despite evidence dating back two years that it was producing poison gas.

Since Monday, the newspapers have reminded the nation that the police have yet to arrest anyone in connection with the deaths of at least seven people in a mysterious nerve-gas poisoning last year in the town of Matsumoto. And arrests have still to be made in an incident that occurred 12 days later, when people living near an Aum Shinri Kyo commune at Kamiku-Isshiki, on the slopes of Mount Fuji were sickened by fumes that fitted the same pattern. Traces of a nerve gas by-product were found near by.

More questions have been raised about why police failed to do more after 10 passengers on a train in Yokohama fell ill earlier this month from mysterious fumes, and cases emitting vapour were found in several Tokyo stations last week.

Even yesterday, police refused to confirm that raids they had carried out were anything to do with Monday's gas attack, saying they were investigating the disappearance of a lawyer allegedly kidnapped by the cult.

The growing frustration was reflected by residents near one of the cult's centres in Tokyo. "If they had done something two years ago, this might not have been necessary," said Yoshio Ito. Several of his neighbours were taken to hospital because of pungent fumes coming from the sect's property. Aum Shinri Kyo said the fumes were caused by the burning perfume and other materials, and promised to be more careful. Police were unable to search the building. "All they did was tell us to let them know if we saw anything suspicious," Mr Ito said.

This week's events,have shaken the ingrained belief of the Japanese that theirs is the world's safest society. The Asahi Shimbun newspaper lamented that Japan is on the verge of losing its most precious asset - the ability to maintain social order. "While it is hard to build a safe society, it is very easy to destroy it.It is hoped the police will solve the case as swiftly as possible."

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