One year after the founder and 12 former senior members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult were executed for crimes including the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system, the debate over the death penalty remains a muted affair in Japan despite international calls for its abolition.
The unprecedented executions of Aum founder Shoko Asahara and his former followers on July 6 and 26 last year has not led to any major anti-death penalty movement in the country, and past polls have suggested many are supportive of capital punishment.
Altogether, 15 people were executed in 2018 according to the Justice Ministry, up from four the previous year.
Human rights organization Amnesty International said Japan is among 56 countries and regions that conduct capital punishment while more than two-thirds of world states have abolished it in law or in practice as of the end of 2018.
A 2014 opinion poll by the Cabinet Office showed only 9.7 percent believed the death penalty should be abolished while 80.3 percent said its existence “could not be helped.”
In the latter group, 57.5 percent did not support its abolition in the future, although 40.5 percent did “if the situation changes.”
Yoshio Urushibara, a former politician and adviser to Komeito, the coalition ally of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, argues for the abolishment of executions due to the possibility of wrongful convictions.
“It would mean that the state kills innocent people,” Urushibara, a lawyer, said.
But he also believes that any future legislation to abolish the death penalty will have to take into consideration the feelings of the families of victims.
Many such families have mixed feelings.
“What about the lives of the victims who were killed as if they were worth less than bugs?” said Minako Ogino, whose 21-year-old daughter, Yukari, was murdered 10 years ago.
Without the death penalty, “I would like a punishment that makes (the perpetrators) feel that being alive is excruciating,” she said.
Although no changes have been made relating to the death penalty, the former Aum members’ executions may have stirred something.
“It would have been impossible to have a discussion about capital punishment prior to the executions,” a senior ministry official said, suggesting people may now feel more open to discussing the use of the death penalty.
Lawmakers formed a cross-party group last year, calling for “a candid discussion” involving both sides of the debate.
Public safety authorities remain wary, meanwhile, of potential violence by Aum’s successor and splinter organizations and have been monitoring their activities as the influence of Asahara, whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto, continues to be felt even after his death.
Police sources say members of the successor organization, which branded itself Aleph, have walked around the Tokyo Detention House where Asahara was held for a long period of time before his execution, believing it emanates mystical energy.
The members have recently been doing so individually in order to attract less attention, the sources say.
Authorities also remain vigilant of a movement among the members to name Asahara’s second son as their leader.
“We cannot deny the possibility that a new charismatic sect leader could appear,” one of the sources said.
Recruitment is also a point of concern, especially among youths who may know little of Aum’s destructive past.
The organizations have a total of 1,650 members with Aleph gaining 100 new members annually, according to the police.
Recruiters often engage their targets at public events, only later revealing their affiliation as relationships deepen, according to the sources.
“There are many young recruits who do not know the past cases (caused by Aum). We are afraid of them blindly accepting dangerous beliefs and becoming violent,” said a former investigator who was involved in the cases.
Authorities are also concerned about the future of Matsumoto’s remains, which they fear may lead to his “deification” or spark a violent leadership fight.
His remains are currently being kept at the detention house, as family members dispute who should receive them.
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