On what otherwise would have been an ordinary Friday morning, Shizue Takahashi was watching an NHK program when a breaking news headline sent a shock wave across the nation and beyond: Shoko Asahara, the guru of the notorious doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, had been executed.
Upon learning of his demise, the 71-year-old widow, whose husband, Kazumasa, was killed by the cult’s sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system in 1995, said she found herself feeling rather void — not relieved or vindicated as some might expect.
“When the news of his death came in, all I did was process the information that he had been executed,” Takahashi calmly told a packed news conference convened soon after the hanging of Asahara and six other former senior members of the cult. Asahara’s real name is Chizuo Matsumoto.
“It was a matter of fact that he was executed. It’s everybody’s thought, I guess, given kin of victims and some others saw their lives completely ruined by the cult. It was a horrendous thing they did,” she said. “So he deserved to be executed no matter what. I had been waiting for it to happen, and today just happened to be that day.”
Takahashi’s true moment of shock came later when a Justice Ministry official personally called her to convey the news firsthand that six other Aum death-row inmates had also been sent to the gallows, identifying every single one of them.
“When the official read out all the names — Inoue, Niimi, Tsuchiya, Nakagawa, Endo and Hayakawa — I felt my heart throbbing. What I mean by this is that there are lots of things I wanted them to talk about so we can learn more about future counterterrorism. I really wanted them to speak to experts, for example,” Takahashi said. “It’s a disappointment that they can no longer do this.”
But at the same time, Takahashi said she found a silver lining in the fact the ministry directly let her know who was executed — a surprising departure from the opacity that has long pervaded the ministry’s handling of information on death row inmates.
Takahashi said she has long petitioned the ministry to disclose more details on the prisoners sentenced to death, who, unlike those given a definite or indefinite term, are kept strictly behind a veil of secrecy and are said to receive only a few hours of advance notice about their impending hangings.
“We were requesting that we be allowed to watch them be executed firsthand, because we wanted to be there when it happened,” Takahashi said.
The ministry’s action on Friday is a possible testament to its changing attitude, she said. “Eventually, I hope we will be allowed to witness executions.”
One of the sarin attack victims, Kanagawa-based company employee Akiko, 50, who only gave her first name, said the news of Asahara’s death gave her “goose bumps.”
“I felt it’s finally over,” said Akiko, who happened to be commuting on the same train that was attacked by Aum on that fateful day and later temporarily suffered an eye injury and head pain.
“My personal experience with Aum came to a close, although technically speaking, the whole Aum thing is not over yet. I know there are its successors and I even read an article saying some may deify him now that he’s dead,” she said.
Lawyer Yuji Nakamura, who has long pursued Aum-related cases, told a news conference that he was “surprised” the Justice Ministry hanged seven Aum cultists at once.
Why those particular seven cultists were chosen remains a mystery, Nakamura said, noting that the lineup seemed almost random, irrespective of when each of their death penalty sentences was finalized or the nature of their crimes. This apparent incoherence, Nakamura said, might “greatly confuse” the remaining six inmates waiting for executions, he said.
Nakamura imagined himself thinking what he would say to anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, who had been helping parents seeking to free their children of Aum’s control. He was viciously murdered by the cult’s members along with his wife and 1-year-old son at their home in Yokohama in 1989.
“That triple murder was an act of inhumanity that only a destructive cult like Aum could have pulled off,” Nakamura said.
Nakamura, who studied together with Sakamoto in their legal apprenticeship, recalled the slain lawyer being a “hardcore liberal” and imagined he was probably against capital punishment.
“I don’t know what I would say to him if I were to visit his grave … But I think I want to ask him some questions. What is justice? What is life? What is capital punishment? I want to discuss these questions with him,” Nakamura said.
Sakamoto’s mother Sachiyo, 86, expressed relief. “It’s been a long time since the tragedy. I want to tell Tsutsumi and his loved ones, ‘It’s finished, rest in peace,'” she said in a statement issued through the law firm his son worked for.
Shuichi Kojima, a lawyer and Sakamoto’s co-worker at the time, regretted that investigations did not focus on how Aum followers, including highly educated youths, had come to commit the heinous crimes.
“I wanted the authorities to get to the core of the case rather than to carry out the executions,” Kojima said.
Minoru Kariya, 58, whose father Kiyoshi was abducted by the cult in 1995 and died, said, “He must be relieved.”
Fusae Kobayashi, 76, who lost her son Yutaka in a 1994 sarin gas attack in the city of Matsumoto, said, “I have always thought executions will be carried out, so my immediate reaction was ‘finally.’ ”
Kobayashi said she was surprised Asahara was among the first group of 13 death row inmates to be executed, because she had expected his execution to come last.
“It’s a pity that we were not able to close in on the truth” regarding the cult’s crimes, said Yoshiyuki Kono, a victim of the attack in Matsumoto.
Kono was initially investigated as a culprit of the nerve gas attack in which eight people died.
VS Forum, a Tokyo-based lawyers’ group supporting crime victims, said in a statement that it approved of the executions that were carried out in accordance with the law, describing pledges made by some inmates to reveal the truth and atone for their crimes as attempts to buy time.
Shunji Date, a lawyer for executed Yoshihiro Inoue, who filed for a retrial in March, said he would lodge a protest with the Justice Ministry.
Inoue’s father said he did not know about his son’s execution until he was interviewed by media Friday morning.
Inoue’s parents went to see him frequently since he was transferred in March to the Osaka Detention House. The father said the mother is upset and unable to speak.
Information from Kyodo added