The Supreme Court on Monday upheld the Tokyo High Court’s death sentence to former Aum Shinrikyo member Seiichi Endo for his involvement in two indiscriminate sarin gas attacks carried out by the Aum cult — one in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, on June 27, 1994, and the other in five trains on three subway lines in Tokyo on March 20, 1995.
The ruling ended a series of trials related to crimes committed by Aum Shinrikyo. A total of 189 defendants were tried, and the death sentences of 13 Aum Shinrikyo members, including Endo and the top leader Shoko Asahara, have been finalized. Technically, Endo may ask for a “correction” within 10 days from the day after the ruling, but no rulings have ever been changed this way.
Although the Aum criminal trials are over, the families of those killed in the sarin attacks continue to mourn the loss of loved ones. Survivors of the sarin attacks still suffer physically and psychologically. Some of them cannot go outside their homes because of haunting fears. It is important that all of society prevent the memories of the Aum crimes and their effects from fading away. Two successor groups of Aum Shinrikyo are still active.
In the Aum criminal trials, some defendants spoke clearly of their roles in the crimes and a partial picture of the cult’s crimes unfolded. But little light was shed on the motives behind the crimes. That’s because the top leader Asahara kept silent for the most part. At the outset of his trial, which lasted nearly eight years, he spoke on what may be his views of religion, but after that, he repeated incomprehensible monologues and demonstrated behavior so strange that he was often ordered out of the courtroom.
In February 2004, the Tokyo District Court sentenced Asahara to death for killing 27 people in 13 crimes, including the two sarin attacks. As his lawyers were unable to communicate with him, they failed to submit in time a statement of the reasons for an appeal of the first ruling. Thus the district court decision became the final ruling for him, although the case went to higher courts.
The Aum trials have generally failed to make clear how and why the cult turned into a organization that committed heinous crimes and why some people were attracted to the cult’s doctrine. A family member of a person killed by Aum Shinrikyo observed that, while the court decided on criminal punishment, the trial did not clarify crucial aspects concerning motives for the crime.
Many people with advanced academic backgrounds, such as medical doctors and science specialists, became Aum members. It is said that, at one point, the cult had some 1,400 believers who had left the real world plus more than 10,000 lay believers.
Asahara established the yoga group Aum Shinsen-no-kai in February 1984. Its name was changed to Aum Shinrikyo, meaning literally Aum truth teaching, in 1987. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government approved it as a religious corporation in 1989.
The first serious crime committed by Aum Shinrikyo was the killing of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife and 1-year-old son, after Sakamoto had called the organization antisocial. In November 1989, the family was found to have gone missing from their apartment in Yokohama. Although an Aum Shinrikyo badge was found at the scene, the Kanagawa prefectural police did not carry out a criminal investigation. Remains of the three bodies were found in September 1995 in a mountain of Niigata Prefecture.
The cult’s sarin attack in Matsumoto killed seven people and injured some 600 others. The wife of Mr. Yoshiyuki Kono, the first person to notify the police of the attack, never recovered consciousness and died in August 2008. The news media made the mistake early on of reporting Mr. Kono as the alleged perpetrator.
The sarin attack in the three Tokyo subway lines in Tokyo killed 13 people and injured more than 6,000. As late as June 2008, a law was enacted to provide relief to sarin attack victims; it took effect in December that year.
Summarizing the character of Aum Shinrikyo’s crimes, the Supreme Court’s ruling against Endo said the cult carried out the crimes systematically and in an organized fashion as a “defiant act against a country ruled by law.” The court denounced the crimes as antisocial in view of how lightly the perpetrators treated people’s lives. It said the sarin attacks in Matsumoto and the Tokyo subway lines were cruel, inhumane and without comparable precedent. Endo, chief of Aum Shinrikyo’s “health and welfare ministry,” studied gene engineering at university and played a central role in producing chemical weapons for the cult.
What has emerged from the Aum Shinrikyo trials is that young people like Endo with advanced academic backgrounds, who sought the deliverance of their souls, blindly followed instructions from Asahara to kill people. The key question — why they behaved as if they thought what they were doing was right — must be asked continually of Aum believers who are serving prison terms.
People should not forget the possibility that, given the current social and economic conditions in which young people see little hope, some may be attracted by organizations that appear to offer an easy way out of their difficulties while numbing their judgment with promises of “salvation,” “enlightenment,” etc. Such organizations must be monitored carefully.
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