The Japanese authorities last night faced the humiliating fact that, despite an intensive police investigation and a nation-wide security effort, another terrorist attack had been carried out under their noses.
Yokohama, where phosgene gas poisoned nearly 400 people yesterday, is 15 miles from central Tokyo; it is Japan's second- biggest city and its largest port. Like everywhere else in the country, it has been subjected to unprecedented security in the past few weeks. Since the sarin nerve- gas attack which killed 12 commuters on the Tokyo subway on 20 March, extra police have been deployed on the streets, spot-checks have been carried out on motorists, and stations and other transport terminals have regularly issued warnings about suspicious packages. But 22 people were in hospital last night after the phosgene fumes spread through Yokohama's main station, possibly from bags left in a passageway.
The attack demonstrated how effectively the security of Japan's cities has been destroyed by recent events. After the first signs of the gas, witnesses said, panic spread. "No one working in this area noticed any smell but then someone started talking about funny fumes and the fear spread," said the manager of a kiosk at the station. "After the ambulance and police arrived it was a chain-reaction. Unconsciously, sarin is on everyone's minds and I reckon it was the sight of the police that made them feel sick."
Naokatsu Hori, who was scrubbing the floors of the station two hours after the attack, said: "Everyone who works here is pretty scared. We're always being warned about suspicious parcels and what to do if we see something but then this happens. It seems as if there's nothing you can do."
Investigators appeared to be torn between the need to gather evidence and the wish to maintain services and prevent panic. Cordons, which were removed yesterday afternoon, were back in place last night as investigators sought evidence on floors already trodden by thousands of commuters.
Suspicion will undoubtedly fall on Aum Shinri Kyo, the cult still being investigated in connection with the Tokyo attack.For more than a month police have been raiding the cult's laboratories and offices, removing gun parts, chemical and biological- weapon ingredients and evidence that the sect was planning to buy tanks and even make nuclear weapons. Kiyohide Hayakawa, the sect's second in command, was arrested last night but, like most of the 90 cult members in custody, he was held on a minor charge.
Earlier yesterday the Diet had enacted a bill banning use, production, import or possession of sarin, but with the use of phosgene, events seem to have overtaken it again. "The most important thing for the criminals now is that they leave no evidence," said Professor Keiichi Tsuneishi, a chemical-weapons specialist at Kanagawa University. "If sarin had been used, it would have left traces and the investigators could identify whether the sarin used in Tokyo and Yokohama was the same. I reckon that the perpetrators wanted to show that, even with this new law enacted, they can still get away with terrorism.''