The recent sentencing of Chizuo Matsumoto, known as Shoko Asahara, the former guru of Aum Shinri-kyo, is unlikely to resolve questions of religious freedom and extremism that mark Japanese society a decade after the group led attacks on the public.
Asahara, who received the death penalty, led the group in the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack that killed 12 and injured more than 5000 people, along with a series of other crimes, including attempted murder and a separate nerve gas attack in Nagano prefecture in 1994. For these crimes, 12 former cult members have also been sentenced to death.
This case of indiscriminate terrorism served as a wake-up call to the Japanese, whose faith in the myth of a safe society had already suffered from the aftereffects of the collapsed economic bubble. Within a few months, some cultists including Asahara were arrested by the police who had suspected Aum Shinri-kyo of murdering a lawyer, who was dealing with parents of the Aum devotees, and his family in 1989.
The apprehension of key members, however, did not mitigate the public’s fear of the cultists. The public Security Intelligence Agency (PSIA) applied for the Subversive Activities Prevention Act, originally enforced against leftist activities in the 1950s, to disband Aum. Yet, it was rejected by the Public Security Examination Commission because Aum was no longer seen as a threat.
The stiff opposition of local residents also forced several municipal governments to reject resident registration for Aum members. In Japan, registration allows people to receive such benefits as national health insurance and suffrage. Some children of the cultists were also denied admittance into public schools. Nine years after the gas attack, a daughter of Shoko Asahara was denied enrollment in a private university last month.
These consequences have provoked public debate over whether authorities should put the safety and security of the public before the fundamental human rights of cultists. After the subway gas attack, Aum Shinri-kyo changed its name to aleph (the first letter of the alphabet in Hebrew), denounced Asahara, made apologies for their crimes and sought to reform its organization. The sect also has been recompensing the victims of their crimes, which totals about 1.5 billion yen so far.
Despite the existence of some non-governmental support groups, many victims have still been unable to receive enough support for their treatment. After the verdict was handed down against Asahara, delegates of the victims filed a petition for further government support.
Although Aleph is kept under constant surveillance, the PSIA reported last year that the original Aum teachings are influencing the new group, with members listening to mantra tapes and watching meditation videos by Shoko Asahara.
There are now even splinter groups devoted to Asahara’s teachings. Promoting mutual understanding and trust may well be the most effective crime deterrent, yet the members are still secluded from local communities and find little tolerance.
— By Sairenji Ayako, a New Jersey-based freelance writer and researcher