Japan's prime minister met on Wednesday with people forced from their homes by devastating rains that have killed at least 179 people, as the government said it would review its disaster management plans. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who cancelled a foreign trip planned for this week as the disaster worsened, met some of the thousands of people still in shelters during a trip to the flood-ravaged Okayama area. He made no public comments, speaking briefly and privately with individuals, including an elderly lady who bowed slightly as the prime minister approached. Dozens of people are still missing and the toll from the worst weather-related disaster in Japan in over three decades is expected to rise further. With questions mounting about why the rains were so deadly, top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said disaster management policies would be reexamined. "In recent years we have seen damage from heavy rains that is much worse than in previous years," he said. "We have to review what the government can do to reduce the risks." Rescue efforts are beginning to wind down, nearly a week after the rains began, and hopes that new survivors could be found have faded. Over 10,000 people are still in shelters across large parts of central and western Japan, local media said, including at a school in the town of Kurashiki in Okayama prefecture. Around 300 people spent the night at the Okada Elementary School, many of them sleeping on blue mats laid out in the school's gym. Hiroko Fukuda, 40, was there was with her husband, but they had sent her young daughter to stay with relatives after she became so distressed by the evacuation that she stopped eating. The family fled their home on Friday night, and returned on Monday to discover the entire ground floor had been submerged beneath floodwaters that ruined everything from electronics to photos. 'Memories are gone' "We can accept losing things like home appliances, but memories," she said, her voice trailing off. "We can't get back photos of her at three years old," she said of her daughter. "It hurts that our memories are gone." Among the things ruined by the flooding were Fukuda's kimonos, including a "furisode" worn on special occasions. "I had wanted my daughter to wear it," Fukuda said, her eyes filling with tears. The days of record rainfall transformed roads into rivers, and waves of mud swept down hillsides, carrying cars and trees with them. In Kurashiki, the receding floods have left a layer of silt on everything that was underwater. Crushed cars and fallen trees moved by work crews to either side of one main street formed piles of debris lining the road. New risks And despite the let-up in the rains, new flood warnings were still being issued on Wednesday. The town of Fukuyama in Hiroshima prefecture issued an evacuation order over fears that a small lake could burst its banks. A similar order was issued on Tuesday in the town of Fuchu, also in Hiroshima, after driftwood backed up in a river, causing water to crest over its banks and submerge surrounding neighbourhoods. Authorities downgraded the order on Wednesday but warned that some risk of flooding remained. Government officials have also warned about the possibility of fresh landslides, with the torrential rain loosening earth on hillsides around residential areas. And with the end of the rains, searing heat brought new risks, as blazing sun and temperatures up to 35 Celsius posed challenges for people living in modestly equipped shelters or damaged homes with no electricity or running water. "Today thunderstorms are expected in parts of the country, and even if it doesn't rain, there is a risk of landslides," said top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga. "Sunny and hot days are expected, and we urge people who have evacuated and those working on repairs to be careful to avoid heatstroke."
* At least 155 dead, the worst toll in floods since 1982 * Survivors in focus as temperatures rise and water scarce * Government pledges $4bn for initial aid budget Japan struggled on Tuesday to restore utilities after its worst weather disaster in 36 years killed 155 people, with survivors facing health risks from broiling temperatures and a lack of water, while rescuers kept up a grim search for victims. Torrential rain unleashed floods and landslides in western Japan last week, bringing death and destruction, especially to neighbourhoods built decades ago near steep slopes. About 67 people are missing, the government said. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cancelled an overseas trip to cope with the disaster, which at one point forced several million from their homes. Power had been restored to all but 3,500 households but more than 200,000 people remain without water under scorching sun, with temperatures hitting 33 Celsius in some of the hardest-hit areas, such as the city of Kurashiki. "There have been requests for setting up air-conditioners due to rising temperatures above 30 degrees today, and at the same time we need to restore lifelines," Finance Minister Taro Aso told reporters after a cabinet meeting. Roads caked in dried mud threw up clouds of dust when rescue vehicles or other cars drove by. Stunned survivors recounted narrow escapes. "It was close. If we had been five minutes later, we would not have made it," said Yusuke Suwa, who fled by car with his wife early on Saturday when an evacuation order came after midnight. "It was dark and we could not see clearly what was happening, although we knew water was running outside. We did not realize it was becoming such a big deal." A quarter of flood-prone Mabi district of Kurashiki, sandwiched between two rivers, was inundated after a levee crumbled under the force of the torrent. The government has set aside 70bn yen ($631mn) in infrastructure funds with 350bn yen ($3.15bn) in reserve, Aso said, adding that an extra budget would be considered if needed. "When necessary amounts firm up ... we would consider an extra budget later on if these funds prove insufficient." Japan issues weather warnings early, but its dense population means that almost every bit of usable land, including some flood plains, is built on in the mostly mountainous country, leaving it prone to disasters. 'Decades without disaster' Some residents of Mabi had shrugged off the warnings given the area's history of floods. "We had evacuation orders before and nothing happened, so I just thought this was going to be the same," said Kenji Ishii, 57, who stayed at home with his wife and son. But they were soon marooned by rising flood waters and a military boat had to pluck them from the second floor of their house, where they had taken refuge. Most of the deaths in Hiroshima, one of the hardest hit prefectures, were from landslides in areas where homes had been built up against steep slopes, beginning in the 1970s, said Takashi Tsuchida, a civil engineering professor at Hiroshima University. "People have been living for 40 to 50 years in an area that had latent risk, but decades went by without disaster," he said. "But intense rainfall has become more frequent, and the hidden vulnerability has become apparent," he said, adding that people live in many such dangerous areas. Though the weather has cleared up, the disaster goes on. A new evacuation order went out on Tuesday in a part of Hiroshima after a river blocked by debris overflowed its banks, affecting 23,000 people. Another storm, Typhoon Maria, was bearing down on outlying islands in the Okinawa chain but it had weakened from a super-typhoon and was not expected to have any impact on Japan's four main islands.
Rescuers in Japan dug through mud and rubble yesterday, racing to find survivors after torrential rain unleashed floods and landslides that killed at least 114 people, with dozens missing. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cancelled an overseas trip to deal with Japan’s worst flood disaster since 1983, with several million people forced from their homes. Officials said the overall economic impact was not clear. Rain tapered off across the western region yesterday to reveal blue skies and a scorching sun that pushed temperatures well above 30 Celsius (86 Fahrenheit), fuelling fears of heat-stroke in areas cut off from power or water. “We cannot take baths, the toilet doesn’t work and our food stockpile is running low,” said Yumeko Matsui, whose home in the city of Mihara, in Hiroshima prefecture, has been without water since Saturday. “Bottled water and bottled tea are all gone from convenience stores and other shops,” the 23-year-old nursery school worker said at an emergency water supply station. Some 11,200 households had no electricity, power companies said yesterday, while hundreds of thousands had no water. The death toll reached at least 114, NHK public television said, with 61 people missing. Though the persistent rain had ended, officials warned of sudden showers and thunderstorms as well as of more landslides on steep mountainsides saturated over the weekend. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Prime Minister Abe had cancelled his trip to Belgium, France, Saudi Arabia and Egypt because of the disaster. He had been due to leave tomorrow. Industry operations have also been hit, with Mazda Motor Corporation saying it was forced to close its head office in Hiroshima yesterday. The automaker, which suspended operations at several plants last week, said the halt would continue at two plants until today because it could not receive components, although both units were undamaged. Electronics maker Panasonic said operations at one plant remained suspended after the first floor was flooded. Refineries and oil terminals were not affected but blockages in roads leading to one Showa Shell oil terminal in Hiroshima caused gas and diesel shortages nearby. Elsewhere, people soldiered on with a grim recovery. The floodwaters slowly receded in Kurashiki city’s Mabi district, one of the hardest hit areas, leaving a thick coat of brown mud and cars turned over or half-submerged, as residents returned to tackle the mess. “I’ve never experienced anything like this is my life, and I’ve lived for more than 70 years,” said Hitoko Asano, 71. “The washing machine, refrigerator, microwave, toaster, PC — they’re all destroyed,” she said as she cleaned her two-storey house.
* At least 109 killed in worst flood toll since 1983 * Rescuers race to find survivors as temperatures rise * As many as 79 missing * PM Abe cancels trip to Europe, Middle East * Too early to estimate economic impact, but most likely limited Rescuers in western Japan dug through mud and rubble on Monday, racing to find survivors after torrential rains unleashed floods and landslides that killed more than 100 people, with dozens missing. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cancelled an overseas trip because of the disaster, a ruling party source said. The trip would have taken him to Belgium, France, Saudi Arabia and Egypt from Wednesday. Rain tapered off across the region battered by the downpour, revealing blue skies and scorching sun forecast to push temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius, fuelling fears of heatstroke in areas cut off from power or water. "We cannot take baths, the toilet doesn't work and our food stockpile is running low," said Yumeko Matsui, whose home in the city of Mihara has been without water since Saturday. "Bottled water and bottled tea are all gone from convenience stores and other shops," the 23-year-old nursery school worker said at an emergency water supply station. Nearly 13,000 customers had no electricity, power companies said on Monday, while hundreds of thousands had no water. The death toll reached at least 110 after floodwaters forced several million from their homes, NHK public television said, the worst flood disaster since 117 people were killed in heavy rains in 1983. A nine-year-old boy was among the dead. "He always used to come to our house to play games and things," a teenaged neighbour told NHK. "It's very sad." Another 79 people were missing, NHK said. Though continuous rain had ended, officials warned against sudden showers and thunderstorms as well as the risk of further landslides on steep mountainsides saturated over the weekend. Industry operations have also been hit, with Mazda Motor Corp saying it was forced to close its head office in Hiroshima on Monday. The automaker, which suspended operations at several plants last week, said the halt would continue at two plants until Tuesday because it cannot receive components, although both units were undamaged. Daihatsu, which suspended production on Friday at up to four plants, said they would run the second evening shift on Monday. Electronics maker Panasonic said operations at one plant remained suspended after the first floor was flooded. Grim recovery task Refineries and oil terminals were not affected but blockages in roads leading to one Showa Shell oil terminal in Hiroshima caused gas and diesel shortages nearby. Shares in some firms fell but losses were modest, with Mazda even gaining as investors bet damage was limited. "If the rainfall affects supply chains, there will be selling of the affected stocks," said Norihiro Fujito, chief investment strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities. "Otherwise, the impact will be limited." Elsewhere, people soldiered through the grim task of recovery. At one landslide in Hiroshima, shattered piles of lumber marked the sites of former homes, television images showed. Others had been tossed upside down. "Nobody's heard from my next door neighbour," one man told NHK. "I hope they find him soon." Water still covered much of the hard-hit city of Kurashiki, despite ebbing floods that opened the route to a hospital where nearly 100 patients and staff were stranded on Sunday. Thousands flocked to evacuation centres in its Mabi district. "Nobody has anything to wear. We need shirts, trousers, underwear, socks and even shoes," its mayor, Kaori Ito, told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Although evacuation orders were scaled back from the weekend, nearly 2 million people still face orders or advice to keep away from homes, fire and disaster officials said. Economists said it was too early to assess the overall impact but it was likely to be limited. "Unusual weather patterns are a factor that corporations have to consider when making economic projections, but there is not much one can do," said Koya Miyamae, a senior economist at SMBC Nikko Securities. Japan monitors weather conditions and issues warnings early, but its dense population means every bit of usable land is built on in the mostly mountainous nation, leaving it prone to disasters.
The death toll from torrential rain and landslides in western Japan rose to 81 people yesterday, with dozens still missing after more than 2,000, temporarily stranded in the city of Kurashiki, were rescued. Evacuation orders were in place for nearly 2mn people and landslide warnings were issued in many prefectures. In hard-hit western Japan, emergency services and military personnel used helicopters and boats to rescue people from swollen rivers and buildings, including a hospital. Scores of staff and patients, some still in their pajamas, were rescued from the isolated Mabi Memorial Hospital in boats rowed by members of Japan’s Self Defence Forces. A city official said 170 patients and staff had been evacuated while public broadcaster NHK later said about 80 people were still stranded. “I’m most grateful to the rescuers,” said Shigeyuki Asano, a 79-year-old patient who spent a night without electricity or water.”I feel so relieved that I am now liberated from such a bad-smelling, dark place.” Kurashiki, with a population of just under 500,000, was among the hardest hit by rains that pounded many parts of western Japan, with the death toll exceeding the 77 killed in heavy rains and landslides in 2014 and the highest since a typhoon that killed 98 people in 2004. Television footage showed a massive rescue operation, with 2,310 rescued in the city by evening, according to NHK, while search and rescue teams continued to look for others. The overall death toll from the rains in Japan rose to at least 81 yesterday after floodwaters forced several million people from their homes, media reports and the Fire and Disaster Management Agency said. Another 58 were missing, NHK said, and more rain was set to hit some areas for at least another day. The rain set off landslides and flooded rivers, trapping many people in their houses or on rooftops. “This is a situation of extreme danger,” an official at the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) told a news conference. A three-year-old girl whose home was hit by a landslide in Hiroshima prefecture was found dead by a search team. “It’s very painful,” said one elderly man watching nearby.”I have a granddaughter the same age. If it were her, I wouldn’t be able to stop crying.” Japan’s government set up an emergency management centre at the prime minister’s office and some 54,000 rescuers from the military, police and fire departments were dispatched across a wide swath of western and southwestern Japan. “There are still many people missing and others in need of help, we are working against time,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said yesterday morning. Two sisters from an elementary school of just six pupils on the small island of Nuwa in Ehime prefecture were among the dead. The younger, a first-grader, was a star and the hope of the depopulated island, the principal told NHK. “It was such a sudden disaster, I just cannot come to grips with it,” the principal said. Emergency warnings for severe rain in 11 prefectures — the most since a new warning system was introduced in 2013 — had been lifted by evening, but advisories for heavy rain and landslides remained in effect in many areas. TV footage showed convenience stores with shelves mostly bare while elsewhere, residents lined up to receive water. Some 276,000 households were without water supply, Kyodo said. Roads were closed and train services suspended in parts of western Japan while Shinkansen bullet train services resumed on a limited schedule after being suspended on Friday.
* About 1,000 people isolated in Kurashiki in western Japan * At least 66 killed, dozens missing after torrential rain * 'A situation of extreme danger' - meteorological agency * Rain to continue in some areas until Monday * Some 54,000 military, police dispatched for search and rescue Unprecedented rains that have killed at least 66 people also stranded 1,000 in the western Japanese city of Kurashiki on Sunday, including about 100 at a hospital, with rescuers using helicopters and boats after rivers surged over their banks. Kurashiki, with a population of just under 500,000, has been hit hardest by the torrential rains that pounded some parts of western Japan with three times the usual precipitation for a normal July. Television footage showed people, apparently patients and staff, waiting to be rescued on a balcony at Mabi Memorial Hospital, while many cars floated in muddy water and a person was rescued by helicopter from an elderly care facility. The overall death toll from the rains in Japan rose to at least 66 on Sunday from 49 overnight after floodwaters forced several million people from their homes, media reports and the Fire and Disaster Management Agency said. Another 60 were missing, national broadcaster NHK said, and more rain was set to hit some areas for at least another day. The rain set off landslides and flooded rivers, trapping many people in their houses or on rooftops. "We've never experienced this kind of rain before," an official at the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) told a news conference. "This is a situation of extreme danger." Among the missing was a 9-year-old boy believed trapped in his house by a landslide that killed at least three others, including a man in his 80s. "All I have is what I'm wearing," a rescued woman clutching a toy poodle told NHK. "We had fled to the second floor but then the water rose more, so we went up to the third floor." Japan's government set up an emergency management centre at the prime minister's office and some 54,000 rescuers from the military, police and fire departments were dispatched across a wide swath of southwestern and western Japan. "There are still many people missing and others in need of help, we are working against time," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said. Evacuation orders Emergency warnings for severe rain remained in effect for three prefectures, with 300 mm predicted to fall by Monday morning in parts of the smallest main island of Shikoku. Evacuation orders remained in place for some 2 million people and another 2.3 million were advised to evacuate, although rain had stopped and floodwaters receded in some areas. Landslide warnings were issued in more than a quarter of Japan's prefectures. "My husband couldn't make it home from work since the road was flooded, and since it was pouring down rain I didn't have enough courage to walk to an evacuation centre with two infants after dark," one woman wrote on Twitter, without giving further details. The rain began late last week as the remnants of a typhoon fed into a seasonal rainy front, with humid, warm air from the Pacific making it still more active - a pattern similar to one that set off flooding in southwestern Japan exactly a year ago that killed dozens. The front then remained in one place for an unusually long time, the JMA said. Roads were closed and train services suspended in parts of western Japan. Shinkansen bullet train services resumed on a limited schedule after they were suspended on Friday. Automakers including Mazda Motor Corp and Daihatsu Motor Co suspended operations at several plants on Saturday due to a shortage of parts or dangerous conditions. They were set to decide later on Sunday on plans for the coming week. Electronics maker Panasonic Corp said one plant in Okayama, western Japan, could not be reached due to road closures, although it had been closed for the weekend anyway. A decision about next week would be made on Monday, it said. While the Japanese government monitors weather conditions closely and issues warnings from an early stage, the fact that much of the country outside major cities is mountainous and building takes place on virtually every bit of usable land leaves it vulnerable to disasters.
Forty nine people have been killed and 48 are unaccounted for in western and central Japan as torrential rain pounds the area, public broadcaster NHK said yesterday, with more than 1.6mn evacuated from their homes. Japan’s Meteorological Agency retained special weather warnings for three prefectures in the main island of Honshu, down from five, and urged vigilance against landslides, rising rivers and strong winds amid what it called “historic” rains. Helicopter footage showed people on their roofs waving for help in Kurashiki, and Japanese soldiers rescuing children by boat from a flooded river in Hiroshima. In Motoyama, a town on Shikoku island, about 600km from the capital Tokyo, 583mm of rain fell between Friday and yesterday morning, the agency said. Although a weather front had settled between western and eastern Japan, there was a risk heavy rains would continue as warm air flowed towards the front, it added, with already-saturated areas facing more rain today. Among the dead were a man who fell from a bridge into a river in western Hiroshima city, and a 77-year-old man in Takashima, 56km east of the ancient capital of Kyoto, who was swept into a canal as he worked to remove debris, NHK said. Four people in Ehime, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi prefectures were in critical condition after being injured in landslides, it added. By yesterday morning, more than 1.6mn people had been ordered to evacuate their homes for fear of flooding and further landslides, with 3.1mn more advised to leave, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency said. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said about 48,000 police, firefighters and members of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces were responding to appeals for help. The weather also hit industry. Some automakers halted production as the rain and flooding disrupted supply chains and risked workers’ safety, Kyodo news agency said. Mitsubishi Motors Corp halted operations at one plant because it could not get parts, Kyodo said. Mazda Motor Corp stopped production lines at two plants so employees would not have to travel in hazardous conditions. Reuters could not reach the firms for comment outside business hours.
Record rainfall devastated parts of Japan on Saturday, killing at least 30 people, as homes disappeared beneath floodwaters and landslides, and authorities ordered over 1.9 million evacuations. The unprecedented downpours have wreaked havoc primarily in the west of the country, with flash floods and landslides leaving dozens more missing in addition to those killed. A local official in Ehime, in western Japan, said the toll in his area had jumped from six to 16, bringing the official national fatality figure to at least 30 dead since the massive rains began Thursday. But that figure was expected to rise further, with public broadcaster NHK saying the toll was at 49. "The number of casualties is expected to increase as we are still in the middle of collecting information," Yoshinobu Katsuura, a disaster management official of Ehime prefecture, told AFP. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned "the situation is extremely serious" and ordered his government to "make an all-out effort" to rescue those affected. The floods have blanketed entire villages, submerging streets up to roof level. In some places, just the top of traffic lights could be seen above the rising waters. "My house was simply washed away and completely destroyed," Toshihide Takigawa, a 35-year-old employee at a gas station in Hiroshima, told the Nikkei daily. "I was in a car and massive floods of water gushed towards me from the front and back and then engulfed the road. I was just able to escape, but I was terrified," 62-year-old Yuzo Hori told the Mainichi Shimbun daily in Hiroshima. Authorities have issued their highest level of alert for the rains and ordered more than 1.9 million people to evacuate their homes, mostly in western Japan. But the orders are not mandatory, and many people have become trapped inside homes that were engulfed by floodwaters or hit by landslides. 'Rescue us quickly' The deadly rains began earlier in the week, claiming their first victim on Thursday when a construction worker was swept away by floodwaters in Hyogo prefecture in western Japan. The toll has risen steadily since then, with many of those reported missing later confirmed dead. The victims included a man in his sixties whose body was found near a bridge in Hiroshima on Saturday. Another man was killed in the same region when a mudslide struck his house, a local government official said. The conditions hampered rescue operations, with some desperate citizens taking to Twitter to call for help. "Water came to the middle of the second floor," a woman in Kurashiki, Okayama wrote, posting a picture of her room half swamped by flooding. "The kids could not climb up to the rooftop," she said. "My body temperature has lowered. Rescue us quickly. help us." In Okayama region, residents were sitting on top of their homes waiting for help as the rainwater swirled below. Helicopters were being flown over several affected areas to help airlift those affected to safety. In Hiroshima, a wooden bridge was washed away entirely by a rain-swollen river and rescuers dug through the dirt as landslides crushed houses in the same region. The government has deployed nearly 50,000 troops, police and firefighters for rescue operations, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said. Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said another 21,000 troops were on stand-by, adding: "I instructed them to carry out rescue operations by using every possible means of land-sea-and-air forces." Several major manufacturers, including carmakers Daihatsu and Mitsubishi, said they had suspended operations at plants in the affected areas, Kyodo news agency reported. Japan's Meteorological Agency has issued warnings at the highest level of its alert system -- only issued when the amount of rain is expected to be the highest in decades -- for large parts of western Japan. By Saturday night, the agency had begun lifting its warnings in part of the country, though its officials told reporters heavy rain was forecast to continue until Sunday in western and eastern Japan.
The leader of the Japanese doomsday cult that carried out a deadly 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway was executed Friday along with six of his followers, decades after the horrific crime. Shoko Asahara, the charismatic near-blind leader of the Aum Shinrikyo sect, had been on death row for more than ten years for crimes including the nerve agent attack, which shocked the world and prompted a massive crackdown on the cult. Japan's Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa confirmed the seven executions, saying the Aum members were responsible for "extremely atrocious and grave acts that were unprecedented and should never happen again". The hangings are the first executions in connection with the attack, which killed 13 people and injured thousands more. A further six cult followers remain on death row. Japan is one of the few developed nations to retain the death penalty, and public support for it remains high despite international criticism. Relatives of those killed in the attack, and others who were injured welcomed the executions. "I reacted calmly... But I did feel the world had become slightly brighter," said Atsushi Sakahara, a film director who was injured in the sarin attack at Tokyo's Roppongi station. "I've been in pain for years," he told AFP. "It will be impossible to ever forget the incident, but the execution brings a kind of closure." Shizue Takahashi, whose subway worker husband was killed in the attack, told reporters she felt Asahara's execution was entirely appropriate. "He of course deserves death," she told reporters. "The execution was processed as it should be... so no tears for me at all." Horror commute The attack during the capital's notoriously crowded rush hour paralysed Tokyo, turning it into a virtual warzone. Members of the group released the chemical in liquid form at five points through the subway network, and soon commuters began struggling to breathe, staggering from trains with their eyes watering. Others keeled over, foaming at the mouth, with blood streaming from their noses. Sakae Ito, who was on the crowded Hibiya line that day, recalled commuters coughing uncontrollably. "Liquid was spread on the floor in the middle of the carriage, people were convulsing in their seats. One man was leaning against a pole, his shirt open, bodily fluids leaking out." Panic soon set in, with subway workers screaming at people to evacuate and passengers convulsing on carriage floors. Japanese Self-Defense Force members dressed in hazmat suits and gas masks descended into the depths to help the injured and deal with the poison. Sarin stockpile Though concerns about the Aum had already been raised, the attack prompted a massive crackdown on the cult's headquarters in the foothills of Mount Fuji, where authorities discovered a plant capable of producing enough sarin to kill millions. Asahara was sentenced to death after a lengthy prosecution during which he regularly delivered rambling and incoherent monologues in English and Japanese. Born Chizuo Matsumoto in 1955 on the southwestern island of Kyushu, he changed his name in the 1980s, when the Aum cult was being developed. A charismatic speaker, he cloaked himself in mysticism to attract recruits, including the doctors and engineers who manufactured nerve agent for the group. The Aum cult, now renamed Aleph, officially disowned Asahara in 2000, but it has never been banned and experts say the former guru retained a strong influence. A new 'guru'? Despite the horror that persists over the Aum's subway attack and other crimes, some experts had warned against the execution of Asahara and his acolytes. They said his death could trigger the naming of a new cult leader, possibly his second son, and his followers could be elevated to the status of "martyrs" among remaining adherents. Japanese authorities said they were on alert for potential retaliation after the executions and local media reported police were visiting groups linked to the Aum and successor cults. Friday's hangings were the largest simultaneous execution in Japan since 1911, when 11 people were hanged for plotting to assassinate the emperor. They were criticised by rights group Amnesty International, which described the cult's acts as "despicable" but said "the death penalty is never the answer".
Japan has lowered its military readiness level against North Korean missiles as Washington embarks on delicate nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang, a report said Sunday, citing multiple unnamed sources close to the matter. The report came as Japan finds itself under pressure to soften its hardline stance against Pyongyang following US President Donald Trump's landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last month. Japan's Self Defense Forces on Friday dropped their programme to always deploy Aegis warships in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) that detect and intercept incoming missiles, the Asahi Shimbun reported. But Japanese forces will remain ready to intercept missiles detected via spy satellite images, the newspaper said. Japanese defense officials told the Asahi that Tokyo was following in the footsteps of the United States, which has already lowered its alert level in the Indo-Pacific region. Japan has also suspended public evacuation drills simulating a North Korean missile attack. Japanese defense ministry officials were not available for immediate comment. Japan has long maintained a tight-lipped stance about its exact defense posture against North Korea, including the locations of the high-tech Aegis vessels. As concern has grown in Tokyo about Japan being left on the sidelines in the diplomatic negotiations with North Korea, hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month said that his government has approached Pyongyang to arrange a summit with Kim. After his own meeting with Kim, Trump unexpectedly announced plans to suspend joint military exercises between the US and South Korea that had previously been seen as a vital measure to contain the North Korean threat. South Korea's new president Moon Jae-in also favours a softer approach towards Pyongyang and has met Kim twice during the recent remarkable detente on the Korean Peninsula. But the outlook of the North's denuclearisation efforts remain unclear at best, with the Washington Post reporting Saturday that Pyongyang plans to keep some of its nuclear stockpile and production facilities while potentially concealing them from the US.
A rocket developed by a maverick Japanese entrepreneur and convicted fraudster exploded shortly after liftoff yesterday, in a major blow to his bid to send Japan’s first privately backed rocket into space. Interstellar Technologies, founded by popular internet service provider Livedoor’s creator Takafumi Horie, launched the unmanned rocket, MOMO-2, at around 5:30am (2030 GMT Friday) from a test site in Taiki, southern Hokkaido. But television footage showed the 10-metre (33-foot) rocket crashing back down to the launch pad seconds after liftoff and bursting into flames. No injuries were reported in the spectacular explosion. The launch was supposed to send the rocket carrying observational equipment to an altitude of over 100km. The failure follows a previous setback in July last year, when engineers lost contact with a rocket about a minute after it launched. Interstellar Technologies said it would continue its rocket development programme after analysing the latest failure. The outlandish, Ferrari-driving Horie — who helped drive Japan’s shift to an information-based economy in the late 1990s and the early 2000s but later spent nearly two years in jail for accounting fraud — founded Interstellar in 2013. However, privately backed efforts to explore space from Japan have so far failed to compete with the government-run Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
A sleek ‘Hello Kitty’ bullet train festooned with images of the global icon from Japan began services on Saturday, drawing hundreds of fans to its opening ceremony. The special white and shocking pink shinkansen or bullet train departed from Hakata station in Fukuoka for Osaka, waved off by a conductor dressed in a Hello Kitty outfit -- complete with the character's trademark pink ribbon -- and watched by a crowd of some 400, according to local media. The train will run for the next three months between the western cities of Osaka and Fukuoka, the West Japan Railway Company said, hoping that one of the country's most famous exports will boost tourism. Inside the train, Hello Kitty smiles down from the shades of every window, while one car features a ‘life-sized Hello Kitty doll’ for fans to take selfies with. Another car will have no passenger seats but offer regional specialities, including a selection of goods and foods, in a bid to boost the local economy and tourism. Hello Kitty has spawned a multi-billion-dollar industry since Sanrio introduced it in 1974, adorning everything from pencil cases and pyjamas to double-decker buses and airliners. In 2015 the West Japan Railway Company unveiled a ‘Hogwarts Express’ Harry Potter themed bullet train that ran between Osaka to Kagoshima in western Japan.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis pledged on Friday to maintain and strengthen the US security alliance with Japan amid fears that talks with North Korea could water down Washington's longstanding security commitments in the region. Mattis said the United States and its regional allies will maintain a "strong collaborative defensive stance" on North Korea, and that Japan will remain a "cornerstone" of regional stability. In meetings with Japanese officials, Mattis sought to address Tokyo's worries that its security interests could be left behind in President Donald Trump's push to reach a denuclearisation deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. "We're in the midst of very unprecedented negotiations right now with North Korea, but in this dynamic time, the longstanding alliance between Japan and the US stands firm," Mattis insisted next to his Japanese counterpart Itsunori Onodera. "There is absolute reassurance between the two of us that we stand firm," he pledged. Regional allies were caught wrong-footed by Trump's unexpected announcement on June 12 to suspend joint military exercises between the US and South Korea that had previously been seen as a vital measure to contain the North Korean threat. Following the historic summit in Singapore between Trump and Kim, the US president said he wanted a halt to the drills, describing them as "expensive" and "provocative". But US allies did not appear to be forewarned. Mattis said the decision was taken "to create space for our diplomats to negotiate strongly and increase the prospect for a peaceful solution on the peninsula." "At the same time, we maintain a strong collaborative defensive stance, to ensure our diplomats continue to negotiate from a position of unquestioned strength," he said. Onodera said the drills were "important for the stability of the region," but acknowledged that the decision to suspend them was valuable for diplomatic efforts to get Kim to give up his nuclear threat. 'You have a friend' Japan and South Korea both feel a particular threat from Pyongyang's proven short and medium range ballistic missiles and its possession of chemical and biological weapons. North Korea, which has previously vowed to sink the Japan into the sea, fired two test missiles over the island nation last year, with others splashing into the sea nearby. Tokyo and Seoul fear US negotiations will focus on the intercontinental ballistic missiles that North Korea showed last year could reach US territory and potentially deliver a nuclear warhead, rather than shorter-range missiles. Onodera called for Japan and the US to seek the dismantlement of all North Korea's weapons of mass destruction "and ballistic missiles of all ranges". Mattis did not directly address that wish saying only that both sides should work to ensure the diplomats doing the negotiations were "backed up by a very firm military instrument". Underscoring the point, he presented a blue tie with a Pentagon motif to Onodera, telling him "to remember you have a friend in the Pentagon". He said the two sides had discussed "opportunities to increase our alliance's capability, to deepen our cooperation", though without offering details. And he said the issue of Japanese kidnapped by North Korea, a highly emotive subject for Japan, was "a humanitarian issue always present in our deliberations". Mattis arrived in Tokyo from South Korea, where he also sought to tamp down worries that Washington would let down its guard as the denuclearisation talks move ahead. He said even with the cancellation of the exercises, Washington would be "maintaining the current US force levels on the Korean peninsula". The US-South Korea alliance was "ironclad," Mattis stressed.
The southern Japanese island of Okinawa paid tribute yesterday to more than 200,000 war dead, including Americans, on the 73rd anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. Bereaved families and islanders along with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended a memorial service at the Peace Memorial Park in Itoman City, the site of the final stage of the battle that killed a quarter of Okinawa’s civilian population. Following one of the deadliest battles of World War II in the Pacific, Okinawa was captured by US forces on June 23, 1945, nearly two months before Japan surrendered in the conflict. In 1972, 20 years after the US military occupation ended in most parts of Japan, Okinawa finally reverted to the country. However, US bases remain and continue to cause friction with local residents. Okinawa, which accounts for less than 1% of Japan’s total land mass, hosts about 70% of US military facilities across the country. Islanders have long complained about noise, accidents, environmental degradation and occasional crimes including rape committed by US troops. A series of incidents involving US forces on Okinawa in recent years have angered many locals in the island prefecture, located 1,600km south-west of Tokyo. In December, a US military helicopter’s window fell onto an elementary school’s grounds in the city of Ginowan, setting off anger among parents and local officials. Nobody was injured.
A Japanese volcano that figured in a 1960s James Bond movie erupted explosively on Friday for the first time since April, sending smoke thousands of metres into the air, less than a week after a strong earthquake shook the country's west. Shinmoedake, in a mainly rural area about 985 km from Tokyo on the southernmost main island of Kyushu, had quietened down since the earlier eruption, although admission to the 1,421-metre-high peak remained restricted. Television images showed smoke and ash billowing into the air above the peak, which featured in the 1967 spy film, You Only Live Twice. TBS television said rock was thrown as far as 1,100 metres from the mountain. Japan has 110 active volcanoes and monitors 47 constantly. When 63 people were killed in the volcanic eruption of Mount Ontake in September 2014, it was the country's worst such toll for nearly 90 years. In January, a member of Japan’s military was struck and killed when rocks from a volcanic eruption rained down on skiers at a central mountain resort. On Monday, an earthquake of 6.1 magnitude struck Osaka, Japan's second largest city, killing five, including a nine-year-old schoolgirl, and injuring hundreds.
A Japanese city official has been reprimanded and fined for repeatedly leaving his desk during work hours -- but only for around three minutes to buy lunch. The official, who works at the waterworks bureau in the western city of Kobe, began his designated lunch break early 26 times over the space of seven months, according to a city spokesman. "The lunch break is from noon to 1 pm. He left his desk before the break," the spokesman told AFP on Thursday. The official, 64, had half a day's pay docked as punishment and the bosses called a news conference to apologise. "It's deeply regrettable that this misconduct took place. We're sorry," a bureau official told reporters, bowing deeply. The worker was in violation of a public service law stating that officials have to concentrate on their jobs, according to the bureau. The news sparked a heated debate on Japanese social media, with many defending the official. "It's sheer madness. It's crazy. What about leaving your desk to smoke?" said one Twitter user. "Is this a bad joke? Does this mean we cannot even go to the bathroom?" said another. The city had previously suspended another official in February for a month after he had left his office numerous times to buy a ready-made lunch box during work hours. The official was absent a total of 55 hours over six months, according to the city.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un briefed Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday about his historic summit with US President Donald Trump, a visit that underscores Beijing’s efforts to remain at the centre of fast-moving nuclear diplomacy. Xi urged the US and North Korea to implement the agreements reached at the June 12 summit in Singapore, while Kim thanked Xi for his role in the diplomatic efforts, according to Chinese state media. Kim’s third trip to China since March comes as Beijing tries to strengthen its role as a mediator between the US and the North, where it claims compelling security and economic interests. The North’s leader, who is believed to have landed in the Chinese capital yesterday morning, was greeted with a military honour guard at the ornate Great Hall of the People, as the Cold War-era allies repair ties that worsened when Pyongyang tested nuclear weapons and Beijing backed UN sanctions. Kim “felt thanks for and highly praised China’s promotion of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and its important role in protecting the peninsula’s peace and stability,” state broadcaster CCTV said. North Korea “hopes to work with China and other concerned parties to promote and establish a solid, long-lasting peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula and make joint efforts to achieve a lasting peace on the peninsula.” For his part, Xi told Kim he “wants North Korea and the US to carry out the results of their leadership summit”, the report said. Trump and Kim pledged in a joint summit statement to “work toward the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”. In return, Trump made the shock announcement that he would stop joint military drills with South Korea, long seen as a provocation by Pyongyang and Beijing. The US and South Korean militaries confirmed they have called off a major joint exercise. Kim told Xi his summit with Trump “achieved results that are in line with the interests of all parties and the expectations of the international communities,” according to CCTV. “If the two parties can solidly implement the summit’s consensus step by step, it will open a new, important phase of the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.” The United States relies on China to enforce UN economic sanctions against the North, giving Beijing potential leverage in its looming trade war with Washington. “I think that North Korea can be another card Beijing can play to win leverage in negotiations with Washington,” Yang Moo-jin, professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, told AFP. Following the Singapore summit, China suggested the UN Security Council could consider easing the economic restrictions. Wang Dong, an international relations expert at Peking University, said he expected Kim to ask China for help in easing the sanctions in return for his pledge to denuclearise. “The Chinese and North Korean leaders are carrying out consultations on how to jointly move the Korean nuclear issue forward,” Wang said. China may not have been at the table in Singapore but it retains strong influence behind the scenes, Wang said. Yesterday’s visit shows that “China is indispensable to the entire Korean nuclear issue,” he said. Trump had hailed Kim’s denuclearisation pledge as a concession. But critics said the stock phrase long used by Pyongyang stopped short of longstanding US demands for North Korea to give up its atomic arsenal in a “verifiable” and “irreversible” way. It was urgent for Xi and Kim to discuss how North Korea would work towards meeting US demands, said Beijing-based international relations commentator Hua Po. “There may be differences ahead between the DPRK (North Korea) and the US in regards to denuclearisation, because the US wants irreversible and verifiable denuclearisation. It may be difficult for Kim Jong-un to accept,” Hua told AFP. “Therefore, both China and the DPRK want to strengthen communication and form an overall strategy to deal with the United States going forward,” Hua added. Analysts saw the summit outcome as a sign of China’s influence. Beijing has repeatedly called for a “suspension for suspension” approach, under which the North would stop its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the US and South Korea halting military exercises. Washington had previously rebuffed the proposal. Kim will be in Beijing today, state media reported. His two previous trips to China, including his maiden official voyage abroad in March, had been kept secret until he returned home. “I think that China convinced North Korea that high-profile trips like this can no longer be kept secret for so long,” said Yang, the Seoul analyst. “Also Kim Jong-un is seeking to establish this image as a normal leader of a normal country in the international community.”
The death toll in a powerful earthquake that rocked Japan’s Osaka on Monday has risen to five, with some 370 injured, officials said yesterday, urging vigilance against landslides ahead of heavy rains. The fifth fatality was a 66-year-old man who was found dead yesterday under a number of books and CDs in his home, a local government spokeswoman said. The other casualties were a nine-year-old girl who was killed when a wall collapsed at her school following the 5.3-magnitude quake, along with two men and a woman, all in their 80s, who were trapped under a wall or furniture. “The government will keep up efforts to rescue people,” top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters, though he added that there were no reports of missing people. And he said officials would do “everything we can” to quickly restore gas and running water to homes cut off after the quake. Japan’s meteorological agency meanwhile warned that heavy rains expected in Osaka on Tuesday and Wednesday could cause landslides in the region, with the quake potentially having loosened earth. Suga also called for residents to be on alert, saying “landslide disasters are possible in the region that experienced strong tremors, even if rains are light.” The weather agency said the region could see 50mm of rain by today morning and up to 100mm in the 24 hours after that to tomorrow morning. “Normally we don’t issue warnings with this level of rains, but after the quake it could cause landslides, floods and swelling river streams,” official Masakatsu Oya told AFP. Authorities have also warned of the possibility of strong aftershocks in the coming week and especially in the next two to three days. A 4.0-magnitude aftershock hit the region early Tuesday, the meteorological agency said. Electricity outages caused by the quake have been resolved, but restoring gas and water will take longer, officials said. Some 1,700 people remained in shelters by yesterday morning as some 250 houses were damaged, local media said. The education ministry also told AFP that it would instruct education boards nationwide to inspect school buildings, after the death of the nine-year-old girl at her school. More than 500 primary and secondary schools in Osaka and four other prefectures suffered damage to their buildings including collapsed ceilings and broken window glass, the ministry official said.