National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Aum executions fail to end debate over cult’s motives

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

The execution of 13 members of the religious group Aum Shinrikyo in two rounds on July 6 and 26, including the group’s 63-year-old leader, Shoko Asahara (whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto), for the 1995 subway sarin attack and other crimes, was hardly a shock. Several months ago, after exhausting their appeals, some of the Aum members on death row were moved, thus suggesting that executions were imminent.

Executions are never announced beforehand, but the press seemed to know what was going down. NHK was at the Tokyo Detention House on July 6 on the morning Asahara was hanged and filmed witnesses to the execution going into the facility. The footage turned out to be the perfect introductory image two days later for the special program NHK aired. It had obviously been in the works for some time.

Although the public is relieved that the two-decades-plus Aum ordeal is finally over, news outlets are still obsessed with it, citing a lack of closure regarding motives for the crimes, which they claim victims still desire. As one of the judges at Asahara’s trial said during the program, his job was to try to pry information from the defendant about the reason for the killings. However, the guru never explained his actions or those of his followers, so in that sense, the judge said, he failed in his duties.

In the special, NHK offered new information about these motives, taken from transcripts of conversations between Asahara and his lawyers that had never been made public, as well as from letters that Aum executives had written from death row to various groups.

The lawyers’ transcripts, which covered the eight-year trial of Asahara starting in 1996, showed that he was relatively talkative in the beginning and admitted, up to a point, that he had ordered the murder of Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family in 1989 after the attorney tried to help parents who wanted to remove their children from the cult. However, at another point in the transcripts he implied that the order was a “joke” and the murder was the idea of one of his senior members, Kiyohide Hayakawa. None of these statements were entered as evidence during the trial. Hayakawa admitted in a letter that it was “wrong” to kill the Sakamotos, but that he was only carrying out what he felt was Asahara’s will.

Over the years, much of the media coverage was built on determining why the men closest to Asahara carried out such heinous crimes. They were the best and brightest of their generation, graduates of Japan’s finest universities. They left college when Japan was at the height of its economic power, and could have had any jobs they wanted, but instead decided to follow an acupuncturist who turned a yoga business into a hybrid religion with more than 4,200 followers.

According to letters from Tomomasa Nakagawa, Asahara had “two faces”: a beneficient one he showed to the bulk of his followers and a more calculating one he presented to his inner circle of elites. He did not have confidence in any member whom he perceived was not sympathetic to his militant ideas, which held that the world needed to be “reset” by means of violence. However, Nakagawa said Asahara never sufficiently “explained” his thoughts about the “end of the world.”

Asahara’s conviction turned on a conversation that supposedly occurred during a limousine ride from Tokyo to the Aum compound in Yamanashi Prefecture several days before the subway sarin attack. His inner circle was present, and NHK’s recreation of the conversation followed court transcripts, showing that Hideo Murai proposed the attack as a countermeasure to police pressure against the cult. Asahara agreed and asked Seiichi Endo to make enough sarin for the plan. In the lawyers’ transcripts Asahara claimed he was against the attack but that it had already been set in motion by Murai and Yoshihiro Inoue and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Letters from various members contradicted this version and, as Nakagawa pointed out, followers would never act without the guru’s blessing.

The confusion is not surprising. Although Asahara had been characterized in the press as having become catatonic as the trial progressed, at an early stage he deflected responsibility like any murder suspect. Likewise, the men who carried out the attack tried to protect themselves by claiming it was Asahara’s idea all along.

Lawyer Yasuhiro Yasuda, who was set to represent Asahara at a retrial requested after new evidence about the limo conversation came to light, said during a discussion on the web program DemocraTV that an unnamed person in the limo said that Asahara was asleep during the whole ride and so couldn’t have approved the attack. Since that conversation was the basis for Asahara’s conviction, a new trial should have been called, but the government ignored Yasuda’s request.

Reportedly, the government wanted to end the Aum matter before the ascension of a new emperor next year. Left in the lurch for a motive, the media turned to the usual suspects. In an Asahi Shimbun column, Genichiro Takahashi, who started covering Aum in the 1980s, wondered how Asahara’s banal teachings could have been taken seriously by such men, and compared their self-destructive loyalty to that of the nation before and during World War II, not to mention the idealistic youths who joined the Japanese Red Army in the 1970s and then proceeded to slaughter one another. In the Mainichi Shimbun, religious scholar Hiromi Shimada wrote that Aum “reflected on a special generation” that came of age during a time when “subcultures” associated with science fiction and the occult were popular.

The judge interviewed by NHK said it was important to clarify the motive for Aum’s actions so that they would never be repeated but, according to Shimada, Aum’s crimes were the product of specific circumstances of the times in which they took place, and those circumstances no longer apply.