As Japan readies for the 20th anniversary this week of the deadly terrorist attack perpetrated by doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo on Tokyo’s subway system, a number of those who fought the cult in its heyday gathered Saturday to reflect on their missteps in handling the crisis — and renew their vow to prevent a recurrence.
Friday will mark the 20th anniversary of the attack, in which Aum members controlled by guru Shoko Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, sprayed deadly sarin nerve gas on several lines of the Tokyo subway system in March 1995. The unprecedented attack killed 13 and injured more than 6,000.
Hosted by victims’ families and anti-Aum lawyers, Saturday’s symposium in Tokyo invited professionals from the judiciary, law enforcement and the media to review their approaches to the attack as panelists at the gathering.
Former Metropolitan Police Department officer Isao Inatomi, who directed a raid on the cult’s cell in Yamanashi Prefecture shortly after the sarin attack, said in those days, the police force was divided by sectionalism. There was no clear consensus on which sections should handle cult-related problems, he said, and none were eager to shoulder the burden.
A rigid top-down mindset had also permeated the organization’s leadership, keeping lower-ranking officers like him constantly in the dark about the details of its strategy against Aum, the former assistant police inspector said.
“If you pried, you were bound to get chewed out by the boss. That’s how our system was,” Inatomi said.
Former Judge Megumi Yamamuro, who sentenced cultist Ikuo Hayashi to life imprisonment in 1998, likewise accused authorities of opacity and rigid officialdom. But he said the judiciary, too, disgraced itself by failing to maintain order in some Aum trials. Accused cultists, including Asahara, were often allowed to turn the trials into a circus by becoming overly emotional or acting insane.
“Many parties are responsible for the terrorist attack — the state, police, mass media. The judiciary didn’t do well in coping with its aftermath, either,” Yamamuro said.
“But what we need to do is not to determine who messed up most, but examine why we mishandled the crisis the way we did” and avoid the same mistakes, he said.
Although not among the panelists, freelance journalist Shoko Egawa, who has for years extensively covered Aum-related issues and who herself was attacked by the cult, spoke out during the symposium and pointed out that the media, too, bears some responsibility.
The mainstream media, she suggested, should have reported more aggressively on the 1989 murder of anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family when it happened. Most media, she said, opted to stay tight-lipped about the case and Aum’s alleged role in it, apparently for fear of lawsuits or retaliation — an attitude she believes emboldened Asahara and encouraged his more heinous machinations in later years.
“I think there are lots of things journalism could have done,” she said.
Shizue Takahashi, who was among the chief organizers of Saturday’s symposium, said she is worried that young people today seem increasingly indifferent to, or worse, unaware of, the attack.
“The past 20 years has not been easy for me,” Takahashi, who was widowed by the sarin attack, told reporters after the symposium.
“I think cult-related terrorist attacks like this will happen again sometime in the future if we stop looking back on it. . . . We need to make sure such a tragedy will never happen again.”
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