National / Crime & Legal

Japanese have mixed opinions on execution of Aum leader Shoko Asahara and six accomplices

by Maya Kaneko and Cory Baird

Staff Writers

A wide-range of reactions were heard Friday to news of the executions of Shoko Asahara and six former senior members of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo — which carried out the deadly 1995 sarin nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway system — with some saying it was good the sentences were finally carried out and others recalling the devastation inflicted by the group.

“There are people who both support and oppose the executions, but it had to happen eventually, didn’t it?” Motokatsu Hosaka, 81, from Tochigi Prefecture, said at Tokyo Station.

“I am not a person who supports the death penalty but in this instance the crime was indiscriminate and unforgivable,” said a 71-year-old woman from Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture.

In the attack on March 20, 1995, 13 people were killed and more than 6,000 were injured.

“After all these years I thought it would never happen but I think it’s good they finally carried out the executions,” said a 37-year-old woman from Tokyo’s Koto Ward, who asked not to be named.

Asahara was sentenced to death in 2004. The sentence was finalized by the Supreme Court in 2006.

A Tokyo resident in his 60s who was on a Hibiya Line train on the morning of the sarin attack also welcomed the hanging of the cult founder. But the man, who was not on a train where the deadly nerve gas was released, said, “Rather than executing him, I rather wanted him to experience a living hell.”

Some people had vivid memories of the attack, which occurred during the busy morning rush hour in central Tokyo.

“The incident happened next to my company. By pure coincidence on that day, many people took a different route to work, and it may have saved their lives,” said 61-year-old Yokohama resident Yuichiro Hoshina.

“I remember that after the incident, many passengers would be suspicious of any baggage left unattended on the train. It lasted for about a year. It feels like it’s finally over,” he said.

“My company had a branch in Higashiginza and many of my colleagues were affected by the incident. Initially I heard some explosions had occurred and it was shocking,” a woman in her 50s said.

“Since I have an acquaintance who was injured in the attack, I remember it well. (The acquaintance) was admitted to the hospital and had surgery, but has no long-term damage,” said Yuri Ito, 59, a resident of Tama, in western Tokyo. “I was surprised that incidents like this can happen in Japan.”

“Even though they were executed, there are still remnants of the cult left. So I don’t think the story is completely over,” she added.

Aum renamed itself Aleph in 2000 and two splinter groups have since been formed. The followers of the three groups total about 1,650 in Japan and 460 in Russia, according to the Public Security Intelligence Agency, which continues to monitor the cult.

Some people wondered about the true reasons behind the sarin attack and other heinous crimes committed by Aum, with the executions permanently eliminating any chance of hearing accounts of them from Asahara and six of his closest followers.

“I have a hard time understanding why they carried out the attack,” the Fujisawa woman said.

“I wonder what he (Asahara) wanted to achieve,” said a 56-year-old man from Nara Prefecture who was in Tokyo on Friday on a business trip.

Recalling that the subway attack occurred six years into the reign of Emperor Akihito following the collapse of the country’s asset-inflated bubble economy, the man said he felt the executions mark “an end of an era.”

Zoe Chan, a 28-year-old Chinese woman who lives in Tokyo’s Koto Ward, said of the Aum subway attack, “It’s famous worldwide. I think if it went through a trial then we should support it (the hanging.)”

She said Japan should boost security measures to prevent similar terrorist attacks.

“In China, we get checked before we enter the trains, but in Japan there is no security. It is kind of unbelievable. I think something should be done before the Olympics to keep us safe,” she said.