With the execution of the Aum Shinrikyo leader and six of his followers, Japan looks to leave behind an era of tragedy.
On July 6, 2018, Japanese authorities executed seven members of the religious movement Aum Shinrikyo (Aum true religion, or supreme truth), which carried out the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack and a series of other atrocities. None of the executed men were directly involved in releasing the gas on that tragic day; four of those who did remain under a death sentence, and their executions may be imminent.
The seven executed were involved in planning and organizing the various crimes committed by Aum. Asahara Shoko (born Matsumoto Chizuo) was the founder and leader of the movement, having developed the doctrinal system instrumental to Aum’s violence and its concept of a final cosmic war of good (Aum) against evil (the corrupt material world and everyone — from the Japanese government to the general public — who lived in it). Asahara is believed to have given the orders for the attack, although it was not the case (as claimed by some) that he “mind controlled” all who acted on his orders as virtual automatons.
The others executed were all senior figures central to Aum’s campaign of violence and its production of chemical weapons. Hayakawa Kiyohide was a senior member of the group, involved in early acts of murder against dissidents and opponents. These included the murder of Sakamoto Tsutsumi — a lawyer who was threatening to sue the group — and his family in 1989, in what was Aum’s first external act of violence, as well as its strategy and arms procurement, including obtaining the materials to make biological and chemical weapons.
Niimi Tomomitsu and Inoue Yoshihiro were hardline enforcers of discipline who killed dissident members suspected of planning to defect and were involved in most of Aum’s violence. Nakagawa Tomomasa was also involved in the killing of the Sakamoto family among other murders, as well as in Aum’s chemical weapons program. Tsuchiya Masami and Endo Seiichi made the sarin and other weapons used in the Tokyo subway attack.
Some, including Niimi and Tsuchiya, displayed no remorse for their acts during their trials, emphasizing their belief that they were taking part in a righteous cause, while others became very critical of and renounced their faith in Asahara. Nakagawa renounced his belief in 2017, while Inoue testified as a prosecution trial witness in several cases. Inoue was viewed by many of those loyal to Asahara as having given false testimony in a bid to save himself, and while his evidence was accepted in Asahara’s trial, court records indicate that it was discounted in other cases. The campaigning journalist Egawa Shoko, who has written extensively about Aum and covered many of the trials, has drawn attention to the lack of evidence to corroborate Inoue’s testimony.
Six other people remain under sentence of death. Two were involved in the Sakamoto family murders, and four released the sarin gas on the subway. The fifth subway attacker, Hayashi Ikuo, was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was the first to confess and helped the police with its inquiries, leading to the arrest and charges against Asahara and others. In addition, he appeared to show remorse from the outset and was one of the earliest to renounce his faith and denounce Asahara. At the time of sentencing, it is believed these factors (notably the remorse) led the court to sentence him to forgo the death penalty.
The police raids on Aum Shinrikyo began in March 1995, shortly after the subway attack that killed 13 and injured 6,000. Arrests of senior figures started shortly afterward, including Asahara’s on May 16. The trials — each of the accused was tried individually — stretched for years, as is common in Japan, largely due to a judicial system struggling under a heavy load of cases, meaning that sometimes a court will sit on a particular case only occasionally.
Asahara’s trial started in 1996 and ended in 2004, but there were appeals and other factors to be taken into account. Niimi, for example, was charged in 1995, but his trial ran until 2002, when he was sentenced to death, with the sentence not finalized until 2010, after all the appropriate legal procedures had taken place.
Many of the charges were related to conspiracy to murder (as in the case of Asahara, who never directly took part in murder), and it is a principle in Japan that the final sentences in conspiracy cases are not carried out until all those charged with conspiracy have had their trials and appeals finalized. In the case of Aum Shinkrikyo, because some people involved in the affair were not captured until 2012, this meant there were still trials pending until very recently. The end of the entire Aum trial and appeals process occurred in January 2018.
In Japan, it is not uncommon for people to remain under sentence of death for many years, as with the people convicted in the Aum trials. In a system where there are many people awaiting a death sentence, it is never clear why some are executed and why the minister responsible signs a death warrant. In the case of Aum Shinrikyo, however, one can make certain suggestions. There are pressure groups (including anti-cult and victims’ groups) that have been asking for years why the perpetrators — and especially Asahara — had not been executed. Such pressure had grown in the recent period after the final trials and appeals ended. Moreover, the Japanese government has showed no inclination to abolish the death penalty, citing public support, using it to boost the government’s hardline credentials in recent years.
In this context, the most likely reason why the executions have been carried out now is that on April 30, 2019, the current emperor will abdicate, with a new era set to begin on May 1. The official Japanese calendar is based on imperial eras; this year is Heisei 30, the 30th year since the current emperor, Akihito, ascended the throne. Next year will be the end of Heisei. It will be the first time in modern Japan that an era change has happened without the death of an incumbent, so the era change will not be tinged with mourning for the death of the previous emperor. In a period intended to be celebratory, the government, it is thought, did not want to cause potential controversy by conducting a very high-profile set of executions.
The same held true for delaying the executions until the following year, 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics will take place, and when Japan is intent on promoting a positive image of itself to promote tourism and raise its international profile. The timing of the executions seems pragmatic. As a senior official of the Ministry of Justice commented: “These cases, which symbolize crime in the Heisei era, must be resolved before the era comes to a close.” That, in itself, indicates to us that the final six under sentence of death will be executed this year.
There has been a mixed response to the executions in Japan. Some have welcomed the news, notably those in pressure groups, albeit wondering why it took so long. Takahashi Shizue, whose husband died in the subway attack and who has been a public voice speaking for many Aum victims, said Asahara deserved to be executed, and that she had been waiting for this day for many years. At the same time, however, she expressed disappointment about the executions of other members because, as she had expressed on other occasions, she believes they could still provide important information regarding the crimes and about the sarin gas attack in particular.
Some who campaigned against Aum have not welcomed the news. Takimoto Taro, a prominent lawyer who represented people who had made complaints against Aum prior to the subway attack and who was himself targeted by the group, has long argued that only Asahara should be executed and the other 12 reprieved. Takimoto’s argument is that Asahara was the center of the conspiracy and that, as leader, he had manipulated and mentally controlled his followers, making them carry out heinous acts. The authorities, by executing others, have showed that they do not accept this argument — something that is widely opposed also by scholars who have researched the affair.
However, Takimoto remains a strong opponent of further executions, as is Egawa Shoko. There are many people, even among those who supported the death penalty, who felt that rather than executing the others, the authorities should have conducted thorough investigations into their motives. Although the court evidence (which focused on the criminal deeds rather than the motives), along with many academic studies, have examined the main factors behind Aum’s violence, there has been no concerted investigation to find out what exactly motivated each participant, to understand the dynamics within the movement and what this might tell us about religion, terrorism and violence more generally.
There have been various calls for a state-appointed commission of experts with access to the convicted to this end, but now these opportunities have been lost — something that the prominent liberal newspaper, Asahi Shinbun, lamented after the executions.
For those who oppose the death penalty, this spate of executions will merely intensify their opposition. In addition, it has been evident for many years that Asahara, a guru who believed he had a mission to transform the world, suffered a mental breakdown as his visions disintegrated, plunging the group into violence and chaos. In the years since his arrest, it became clear to many observers that he was in no state to stand trial, although Japanese authorities avoided dealing with this issue by never conducting a thorough mental examination. A recently formed group of lawyers, journalists and other figures had only last month called for a proper mental assessment and treatment of Asahara in order to clarify the reasons behind the Tokyo attack. In the eyes of some people, the authorities have executed someone who was not mentally fit to be tried or sentenced.
Life After Asahara
Asahara’s family responded to the execution through his third daughter, Matsumoto Rika, who had previously openly campaigned for a mental assessment of her father. In a statement published on her personal blog, she objected to the fact that the family (including her mother) were not allowed to see Asahara’s body, which was cremated in prison after the execution. At present the ashes remain in possession of the Ministry of Justice.
Several media outlets reported that Asahara had requested for the ashes to be given to his fourth daughter. However, she has been estranged from the rest of the family and has been highly critical of her father, so there are doubts about whether Asahara did make this request or, indeed, whether he was mentally able to so do. The rest of his family disputes this matter.
DIY chemical weapons, Japanese style. The inside of Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin factory. Basically, it was a failure. pic.twitter.com/JHnaJQQCXo
— Brian Whitaker (@Brian_Whit) July 6, 2018
It may be that the authorities are worried about handing the ashes over to the family, who remain close to Aleph, a movement that grew out of Aum. Although Aum formally announced it was ceasing all activities in 1999, some of its members then formed a new group, Aleph, that continues to follow some of Aum’s teachings and that still regards Asahara as a true spiritual teacher. A representative of Asahara’s fourth daughter has announced that, if she is given the ashes, they will be scattered at sea, which would certainly assuage any concerns about that the Ministry of Justice might have about their subsequent use by Aleph.
As yet, Aleph has released no official statement on the executions. The other splinter group that emerged out of Aum, Hikari no Wa (circle of the rainbow light), which was established in 2007 by Aum’s former spokesperson Joyu Fumihiro, held a press conference after the executions to express apologies to the victims and to restate that they left Aleph 10 years ago and did not have any particular feelings toward Asahara. The splinter groups — notably Aleph — continue to be viewed with suspicion by the authorities in Japan, and a heavy police presence was mounted around Aleph centers in the wake of the executions, ostensibly to prevent any response by the group.
The police presence was more symbolic, serving to promote the government line that Aleph, although very small and with virtually no resources, remains a threat because of its associations with Aum’s teachings. The Japanese security agencies have portrayed the Aum affair as one related to terrorism and have justified stringent control and monitoring of the group on these grounds ever since 1995. The executions appear likely to maintain this notion.
They have also generated what has become a public response in the social media age, namely a flood of online hate messages directed at people associated with Asahara and his movement. His daughter Rika, for example, has received countless hate messages on her Twitter account as a result.
The executions may have helped bring closure to events that rocked Japan in the mid-1990s, but they also provid a reminder of the painful events that shook Japanese society at the time. Back then, the Aum Shinrikyo affair provoked public debates about the direction of Japanese society, which had given rise to Aum; about the activities of religious groups that were afforded protection from state interference under the Japanese Constitution; and about the education system, since most of the senior figures of Aum had graduated from Japan’s elite universities).
How much the executions will revitalize such debates — which have never really gone away — is unclear. But they have certainly brought the issue of the death penalty more fully into public focus, while the recapitulations of the affair that have been produced in the mass media, along with the concerns raised by those such as Takimoto and Egawa. These critics, while opposing Aum and condemning Asahara, are again voicing concerns about the ways the affair has been handled in Japan, indicating that the Aum Shinrikyo legacy remains very much a contemporary issue in Japan.
*[Updated: July 14, 2018, at 20:10 GMT.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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