The six remaining Aum Shinrikyo cult members on death row were executed Thursday morning, the Justice Ministry said, with all 13 of the cult members sentenced to death now having been hanged over the span of three weeks.
The executions followed the hanging of Shoko Asahara, the founder of the doomsday cult, and six former senior members of the group on July 6.
The six hung Thursday were Satoru Hashimoto, 51; Toru Toyoda, 50; Kenichi Hirose, 54; Yasuo Hayashi (later named Yasuo Koike), 60; Masato Yokoyama, 54; and Kazuaki Okazaki (later named Kazuaki Miyamae), 57. Hayashi and Okazaki changed their surnames after they were imprisoned.
The 13 high-level Aum members were sentenced to death for committing crimes including those involving the cult’s sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system in 1995; another sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in 1994; and the murder of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family in 1989.
It is rare for the government to execute this many death row inmates over a short period of time. Until now, the shortest time span between executions since November 1998, when records of executions were made public, was 47 days.
Media outlets have speculated that the Justice Ministry wanted to close the curtain on the shocking crimes and dramatic events before the end of the Heisei Era, which began in 1989. The era is set to end next year as Emperor Akihito plans to abdicate on April 30.
The cult had attracted many young people, including those who were highly educated at top-level universities. Some followers were believed to have become disillusioned with the materialism seen amid the euphoria of the bubble economy in the 1980s.
The indiscriminate murders by Aum, in particular those in the Tokyo subway attack, deeply shocked the nation and are still remembered as key events that damaged a long-held sense of security felt by many in postwar Japan.
“The majority of the public believe that there is no other option than to execute those who have committed brutal crimes,” said Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa during a news conference in Tokyo.
Polls have long shown a majority of Japanese people support capital punishment.
Kamikawa declined to reveal if any of those executed Thursday had been calling for the reopening of their trials, as has been reported by some media outlets.
Aum Shinrikyo split into three smaller religious groups after the arrest of Asahara. Local residents living around those groups’ facilities are worried, believing some of the followers still worship Asahara and the senior Aum members who were executed.
“The incidents that happened in the Heisei Era have finally ended. But for local residents, (their worries) won’t end unless (successor groups) are disbanded,” Hisashi Mizukami, 73, who heads a group of local citizens in Tokyo who live near the main office of Aleph, one of the successor groups, was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.
Human rights activists argue that those calling for retrial should not be executed unless all pending legal processes have been completed. The executions immediately drew condemnation from activists calling for the abolition of capital punishment.
Kamikawa said that the Justice Ministry does not believe that an execution should be delayed because an inmate is seeking a retrial.
The Japan Federation of Bar Associations has long called for the abolishment of the death penalty, arguing for lifetime imprisonment without parole instead. JFBA President Yutaro Kikuchi issued a statement on Thursday protesting Thursday’s execution.
“Criminal punishment should not be given just as retaliation but for something helpful in preventing the recurrence of a crime, such as achieving the rehabilitation (of a criminal) into society,” Kikuchi said.
Hiroka Shoji, East Asia researcher at Amnesty International, wrote on the group’s website, “This unprecedented execution spree, which has seen 13 people killed in a matter of weeks, does not leave Japanese society any safer. The hangings fail to address why people were drawn to a charismatic guru with dangerous ideas.”
Asahara founded the precursor of Aum Shinrikyo in 1986. Many members of the group were featured on TV shows numerous times in the 1990s to passionately defend the cult in public.
In March 1995, Aum Shinrikyo members released sarin gas inside subway cars during Tokyo’s morning rush hour, killing 13 and injuring thousands. That was soon followed by a police raid and the arrest of Asahara at the cult’s facilities in Kamikuishiki, Yamanashi Prefecture. The murders highlighted the dangerous nature of the cult, some of whose members would be willing to kill if ordered to by Asahara.
All the trials related to members of the cult were finalized in January this year, causing the media and the public to speculate that the death sentences would be carried out shortly.
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