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The Aum Shinrikyō Executions and a Society in Denial

Mori Tatsuya [Profile]


On July 6, former Aum Shinrikyō cult leader Asahara Shōkō (Matsumoto Chizuo) was put to death, along with six of his senior followers. Executions of the remaining six death row prisoners in the case followed on July 26. Asahara never spoke during his trial, and now that he is dead the possibility of ever learning what motivated the cult’s attack on the Tokyo subway has gone with him.

On the morning of July 6, Aum Shinrikyō cult leader Asahara Shōkō (originally named Matsumoto Chizuo), who was sentenced to death for his part in a series of deadly crimes including the sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995, finally went to the gallows. Six other senior figures in the cult were executed the same day.

The Ministry of Justice does not normally go out of its way to disclose details of executions, but on this day the ministry released the names of the executed prisoners to the press almost in real time. It was an exceptional case.

Why did the ministry depart from its usual modus operandi and allow the executions to become a public drama in this way? One popular explanation is that the ministry was acting on instructions from the prime minister’s office. Whether this theory is true or not, I can’t say. But if the theory is correct, as many people in the media insist, then the implications are clear. The prime minister or those around him must have decided that giving the go-ahead for a mass execution of those responsible for the Aum attack would help to bolster the prime minister’s wilting public support. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the real reason why the government cooperated with the media to ensure maximum coverage.

No group in postwar Japanese history has been so reviled as the Aum Shinrikyō cult. The group represents Japan’s first true “public enemy.” As the cult’s leader and guru, Asahara was so despised that even people normally in favor of abolishing the death penalty made an exception in his case. Asahara was widely seen as a “singularity”—an embodiment of evil so bereft of any normal sense of humanity that putting him to death was the only sensible solution.

And then, on July 26, just as I was finishing an earlier version of this article about the executions, another six members of the cult went to their deaths.

Interviews with the Condemned

Of the twelve cult members who were recently executed, I conducted interviews with six during the course of their incarceration: Niimi Tomomitsu, Hayakawa Kiyohide, and Nakagawa Tomomasa (who were executed along with Asahara on July 6), as well as Hayashi Yasuo, Okazaki Kazuaki, and Hirose Ken’ichi, whose death sentences were carried out on July 26.

The media often depicted Niimi as the most vicious of the cultists, but whenever I met him he always bowed politely and never spoke badly of anyone. Every now and then, the corners of his mouth would curl into an attractive smile. Hayakawa, the oldest of the former Aum believers on death row, had a real sweet tooth. I would always bring him sweets and candies when I went to interview him, and he used to jokingly blame me for making him fat: “Thanks to you, Mori, I’ve really put on weight,” he once wrote in a letter to me.

As Asahara’s personal doctor, Nakagawa probably spent more time at the guru’s side than anyone else. He was a painstaking, precise man—as well as being the personification of gentleness and kindness. I took my wife with me to visit him once, because I genuinely thought he was someone she should meet. Nakagawa beamed with happiness when I introduced my wife and kept bowing politely from the other side of the thick acrylic panels that separated us.

The media used to call Hayashi a “killing machine.” Perhaps because we were roughly the same age, we soon fell into talking to each other casually, without the distance of formal language. I once visited him in prison with his mother. She and I sat together during the visit, and when his mother started to tear up, Hayashi tried desperately to console her. Okazaki was very much an ordinary, down-to-earth character. He used to send me stacks of sumie ink wash paintings he had done in prison. Hirose spent his time in detention making mathematics reference books for schoolchildren. He was a serious, sober type of person with little time for joking around. He told me that during the attack on the subway, he kept constantly reminding himself that what he and his fellow believers were doing was for the sake of the salvation of the world.

But now, none of these people are alive. They have vanished from the world. They all told me separately they thought they deserved to die for the crime they had committed. Sometimes they fought back tears when they spoke of what they had done. Talking to them made it harder for me to know what to feel about the crime and those who had been responsible for it.

Individually, they were all kind individuals: gentle, peaceful, and good-natured. But it was beyond any doubt that they had deliberately caused the deaths of many innocent people, and injured and traumatized many more. Often as I sat talking to them in the prison visiting room, I would become confused and uncertain of my emotions. I no longer knew what to think about crime and punishment. Was it really necessary for them to be dispatched from the world?

Of course, all of us must die someday, whether in an accident, from illness, or simply because of old age. But these men did not die for any of these reasons. They were legally killed by the state.

A Lost Chance to Understand Aum’s True Motives

Right up until the death sentences of the six men were carried out, I visited them in prison numerous times and continued to correspond with them by letter. The perspective they gave me (the voice of the perpetrators) provided a valuable “auxiliary line” that can help us in our attempts to understand the Aum cult and its crimes.

Listening to the court proceedings during his first trial, my immediate feeling was that Asahara had suffered a mental collapse. His behavior as he sat in the defendant’s seat was clearly abnormal. At the time, I wondered if he was perhaps faking an illness. But now, having met many people involved in the case and having heard their accounts, and having carried out numerous interviews myself, I am convinced that he had indeed undergone a kind of mental breakdown and was unsound during his trial.

But no one mentioned this. If anyone had said anything, the trial would have come to an end and the chance to hang the singularity that was Asahara, the very embodiment of evil, would have been lost. Anyone who’d dared to speak up would have been abused and reviled by the whole of Japan.

And so the trial went on, with Asahara slumped in his defendant’s seat, often in dirty adult diapers, which he had worn since reportedly becoming incontinent in 2001. There was little doubt by this stage about why the guru’s followers had carried out their crime: they had been acting on instructions from Asahara. The radical doctrines of religion, which inverted the ordinary significance of death and life, also played a part. Believing firmly in the reincarnation of the soul, and telling themselves that what they were doing was for the sake of the salvation of the world, they went out and deliberately took the lives of innocent people. But why had Asahara ordered them to act in this way?

None of the people who carried out the attack heard the orders to release sarin from Asahara directly. Murai Hideo, one of the cult’s senior leaders, apparently conveyed Asahara’s instructions to devotees, but he was stabbed to death around a month after the attack. Inoue Yoshihiro testified that he had conspired with Asahara to release the nerve agent to ward off an impending criminal investigation into the cult, but he later retracted his testimony. Why did the cult members release sarin into the Tokyo subway that day? The only person who could tell the truth about the real motive was Asahara himself.

But in a state of mental collapse Asahara said nothing. He was in no state to spill the truth about his motives even if he’d wanted to. As a consequence, the motives behind the attack are still not known. The motive is the most important piece of evidence for understanding any crime. Without a true understanding of what happened, our anxiety and concern for the future will only increase.

  • [2018.08.09]

Filmmaker and author. Professor, Meiji University School of Information and Communication. Born in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, in 1956. In 1988 released A, a documentary based on his reporting on the Aum Shinrikyō cult, followed by the sequel A2 in 2001. Won the  Kodansha Non-Fiction Award in 2011 for his book A3, also about the cult. Other works include the 2008 Shikei (Capital Punishment), and Shikei no aru kuni Nippon (Japan and the Death Penalty).

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