Despite hangings, nation remains mystified by Aum

The execution of Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara and six other members of the doomsday cult convicted of numerous deadly crimes, including the 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo subway trains, may provide a sense of closure for the victims, their families and others who were affected by the Aum members’ unprecedented crimes. But following marathon trials of roughly 190 cultists, which finally wrapped up in January, many of us remain mystified as to how and why the crimes took place, leaving a total of 29 people dead and more than 6,000 injured.

Asahara, whose death sentence as the mastermind of his cultists’ heinous acts was finalized in 2006, nine years after his arrest in 1995, never spoke clearly during the trial about his motives behind the cult’s crimes. He mostly just made incoherent remarks in the courtroom — at one point being evicted by the presiding judge for his irregular behavior — until he began to clam up, even to his lawyers and family members. On the other hand, many of his followers, including those put on death row along with the guru, apologized for their acts and blamed Asahara for ordering them. With the execution of Asahara, whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto, the chance to hear his own account of the cult’s acts is now lost.

The horrific nature of the crimes perpetrated by the convicted Aum Shinrikyo members shocked the nation and changed people’s sense of public safety. In 1989, Aum cultists killed Tsutsumi Sakamoto, a lawyer supporting parents trying to take their children back from the cult, his wife and baby son. In 1994, they sprayed the deadly nerve gas sarin on a street in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, targeting a judge handling a lawsuit related to the cult and killing eight residents of the neighborhood in the process. The March 1995 gassing, in which sarin was released on five Tokyo subway trains, killing 13 people and leaving over 6,000 injured, was allegedly intended to confuse police investigations into the cult.

What also sent shudders through society was how so many young people, including some with elite backgrounds and seemingly promising careers ahead, were so attracted to the cult and Asahara’s teachings that they, presumably under the guru’s mind control, came to commit the heinous crimes at his orders. Aum Shinrikyo, whose predecessor started out as a small yoga circle launched by Asahara in 1984, expanded into a cult group with more than 10,000 members in just 10 years. As Aum increasingly harbored hostility toward society following unsuccessful bids by the guru and other cultists for Diet seats in the 1990 Lower House election, Asahara ordered his senior followers to arm the cult and built an organization that mimicked a government, with key cultists assigned positions likened to those of Cabinet ministers.

In the end, prosecutors indicted a total of 192 Aum members. Death sentences were handed down and finalized on 13 cultists, and six other Aum members were given life in prison. The rest received lesser sentences and penalties, except for two who were found not guilty. Due to the complexity of the background for each of the crimes and the large number of people involved, the trials dragged on. The process focused on verifying a vast amount of facts related to the commission of the crimes, including the district court proceedings in Asahara’s trial, which took seven years and 10 months.

While the trials initially ended in 2011, they resumed after Katsuya Takahashi and two others on the wanted list were arrested the following year after 17 years on the run. Executions of death row inmates do not take place while trials involving their accomplices are still going on, but the conclusion earlier this year of Takahashi’s trial cleared this hurdle for the executions of the Aum cultists. Despite the marathon trials that lasted over two decades, however, it seems unclear as to whether the nation has fully come to grips with what was actually behind Aum’s deed.

When the crimes by the Aum cultists were taking place, Japan as a nation was insecure and at a loss after the collapse of the asset-inflated bubble boom of the late 1980s, seemingly drifting without a way forward. While the protracted Aum trials were going on, the nation was mostly mired in the “lost decades” of economic doldrums — from which it is finally pulling itself out. The execution of Asahara and his key cultists may signify an ending of sorts, but the sense of insecurity that gripped the nation at the time of the Aum crimes may still not be behind us.