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Japanese people used to be proud of their excellent public safety, considering it the country’s crowning virtue.

But not since 1995, when Japan came to fear Shoko Asahara and his disciples in the Aum Shinrikyo cult. That was the year of the deadly nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, which killed 12 people and injured more than 5,500 in the heart of one of the safest cities in the world.

Many people now remember the subway attack as shattering the myth of Japanese public security.

“The Aum Shinrikyo incident was a very big turning point,” said Yasuhiko Tajima, a professor at Sophia University and an expert on media law. “The impact (of the sarin attack) was really grave.”

Take a look at the biannual government survey asking respondents what they are proud of in Japan. From 1987 to 1994, “the good condition of public safety” was at the top of the list.

But the same poll conducted in December 1995 found public safety had plummeted to fourth place, no doubt because of the Aum sarin attack eight months earlier.

The latest survey, in 2004, saw public safety fall to sixth, with only 20 percent of the respondents saying they consider it the country’s best virtue.

Indeed, people looking back on 1995 should still be able to recognize the faces of almost all of Aum Shinrikyo’s major leaders, let alone Asahara.

Following the subway attack, Aum leaders appeared on TV gossip shows almost every day, both in the morning hours for housewives and evening prime time for everyone, to claim their innocence. This only fanned public fear and anxiety over the doomsday cult.

Members of the cult were accused of murdering subway victims, producing nerve and germ weapons, brainwashing members, recruiting Ground Self-Defense Force personnel and even planning to take over the government.

The growth in public fear prompted many people to place more importance on security than individual freedom, Sophia’s Tajima said.

“People now believe rights of individuals should be restricted to ensure public safety,” he said.

For example, taking advantage of the fear that Aum Shinrikyo could launch another deadly attack, police arrested many cultists on minor charges to detain and interrogate them.

Before the Aum attack, railway companies were reluctant to set up surveillance cameras out of concern passengers would consider them a violation of privacy, according to a transport ministry official in charge of crisis prevention at railway systems.

But now railways, including the Tokyo subway operator, have installed thousands of cameras in their stations, the official pointed out.

For instance, Tokyo Metro Co., the main subway operator in the capital, has 2,400 surveillance cameras at 168 stations. Before the 1995 attack, it had no security cameras except those for natural disaster-prevention, company officials said.

The 1995 sarin attack was a landmark event that has transformed the mind-set of railway companies, the officials said.

In addition to the Aum attack, terrorist attacks overseas became commonplace in the past decade.

“Those include the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. of 2001, a railway bombing in Madrid in 2004, subway attacks in London in 2005, which all prompted railway companies in Japan to set up more cameras and make them more visible,” the transport ministry official said.

Koichi Hori, a public relations officer for the Japan Security Systems Association, a national group of firms related to crime-prevention business, said in the decade following the sarin attack there was a rise in crime in Japan, which has helped transform people’s awareness over public security.

The number of crimes recognized by police was about 1.78 million in 1995, but it increased to a peak of some 2.85 million in 2002. In 2004 the number was 2.56 million, according to the National Policy Agency.

According to another survey by the Cabinet Office conducted in 2004, 86.6 percent of 2,097 respondents said they felt security conditions in Japan had deteriorated in the previous 10 years, while only 7.1 percent said they had improved.

“The market (for crime-prevention companies) has grown accordingly,” Hori said.

From 1995 to 2003, sales of crime prevention tools and facilities, such as monitoring cameras, intruder-detection sensors and access-controlling entrance gates, skyrocketed, according to JSSA.

The Japan International Transport Institute, a government-backed nonprofit organization, conducted a controversial experiment to test a facial recognition camera system in May.

A biometric camera was set up near one of the ticket gates at Kasumigaseki Station in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, to film passersby.

The state-of-the art system collates the facial characteristics of each passenger with a database of specific targets, and sets off an alarm if a match turns up.

The would-be targets of the biometric camera are potential terrorists among thousands of passengers on a railway system. The experiment was planned in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London, said Jiro Hanyu, president of JITI.

But Big Brother-like measures to secure public safety, if taken too far, can draw a public backlash.

Some citizens concerned about violation of privacy have already protested.

In January, the Group Against Surveillance Society, a Tokyo-based citizens’ group, submitted a written request to the transport minister to cancel the experiment, arguing that such cameras, if ever introduced to film the general public, would violate Article 13 of the Constitution, which secures the people’s rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

JITI President Hanyu agrees that human rights issues regarding the introduction of the biometric camera should be discussed — but not yet.

“This is just an experiment to see if this camera works or not,” he said. “The debate over privacy should definitely be discussed.”

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