When a 1994 chemical attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, left seven dead and four seriously injured overnight, local police immediately zeroed in on their number one suspect. Kōno Yoshiyuki was the first to make an emergency call, when his wife collapsed on the evening of June 27 and his two dogs went into convulsions in the garden outside. He was also among the hundreds treated in the days after the attack, spending a month in the hospital.
The Press Present a Guilty Verdict
The police believed that Kōno was the perpetrator as well as a victim. Officers discovered large amounts of sarin, identified as the substance used in the attack, in his pond and numerous chemicals stored in his house. The information was rapidly leaked to the press, which did not hesitate to spread the story of Kōno’s guilt. Although there were never any formal charges, this was enough to paint him clearly as the culprit in the public eye.
It was not until a second sarin attack, this time on the Tokyo subway in March 1995, that suspicions moved away from Kōno. Police raided the compounds of religious cult Aum Shinrikyō and found a sophisticated chemical weapons laboratory. The similarities between the two incidents were compelling, instantly throwing the earlier story into doubt, and investigators were able to plainly establish that cult members were guilty in both cases. Aum’s responsibility for other murders and crimes also became apparent.
Wary of Scapegoating
The evidence against Kōno had not been particularly strong in the first place. Most glaringly, it was not actually possible to manufacture sarin from the chemicals found in his house. It seems local police and the media found it easier to believe in an accident or lone criminal than an organized attack, ignoring any contradictions to their theories. When they were proved wrong, many newspapers publicly apologized to Kōno, but the Nagano police remained unrepentant.
Media coverage brought Kōno hate mail and local suspicion in the nine months between the two attacks. Many believed what they read and saw and turned against him, or at least kept their distance. At the same time, he was deeply concerned about his wife, Sumiko, who had fallen into a coma with serious brain damage. Kōno Sumiko lived for a further 14 years without regaining consciousness before her death in August 2008.
Kōno Yoshiyuki has said that the incident ended for him with his wife’s death. And he refused to allow his personal pain to become blind hatred of the Aum cult. Even shortly after the Tokyo attack, when Aum leader Asahara Shōkō was arrested in May 1995 and reporters eagerly asked for Kōno’s reaction, he insisted that they should question what exactly Asahara’s involvement was rather than simply assuming his guilt.
Over the years, Kōno has spoken out to defend people associated with the cult. He has met with convicted members in prison and made public statements against their execution. He has also criticized prejudice against followers of Aleph, Aum’s successor group. In 2011, he became an external inspector for the Hikari no Wa (The Circle of Rainbow Light) group, made up of former members of Aleph, hoping he could act as a bridge to wider society.
Having himself been labeled by society as a bad character, Kōno is wary of similar scapegoating. In September 2013, he became one of the representatives of Norikoe Net (the International Network to Overcome Hate Speech and Racism), a new group set up to tackle the growing problem of hate speech directed at Chinese and Koreans. Other representatives of this group include former Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi, politician Utsunomiya Kenji, and feminist Ueno Chizuko.
Consideration, Not Preconceptions
March 2014 saw the release of Hakamada Iwao, the former professional boxer who had spent 48 years on death row for the murder of a family of four. His was another case in which the police and media made up their minds early on and refused to change them. However, unlike with Kōno, the police were able to force a confession—which Hakamada later retracted—and push through a conviction.
The presiding judge who ordered Hakamada’s retrial considered the likelihood of his innocence to be so great, due to falsification of evidence, that he released him immediately, saying it would be unjust to detain him any further. Heeding Kōno’s repeated calls for measured consideration instead of preconceptions and prejudice would help prevent these kinds of injustices recurring. This is true whether the convictions are achieved through the law or, as in Matsumoto, only through the media.
A Judiciary System Guilty of Injustice
Confidence in Japan’s judiciary system has been shaken in recent years as false convictions come to light. One recent example is the 15-year imprisonment of a Nepalese man for a murder he did not commit. Sano Shin’ichi, a journalist who investigated the case, explains how an unjust verdict was reached and what the case reveals about Japan’s judiciary crisis.
(Banner photo: Kōno Yoshiyuki holds a press conference at his lawyer’s home on July 30, 1994. © Jiji.)
Translator and editor, Nippon.com. Received a master’s degree in modern and contemporary poetry from the University of Bristol in 2002. First came to Japan in the same year and taught English for three years in Chiba Prefecture. He has also lived in China and Korea. Worked in Imizu City Hall in Toyama Prefecture for five years until 2013, when he moved to Tokyo and started full-time translation. Joined Nippon.com in 2014.