The Aum Shinrikyō Executions and a Society in Denial


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.

Groupthink and the Banality of Evil

In the years since 1995, there has been an increasing tendency toward groupthink in Japanese society, provoked by mounting anxiety and fear. Groups bring together people linked by imagined ties of homogeneity or shared identity. Peer pressure and in-group solidarity lead to an urge to expel any foreign intruders from the group and encourage members to look for enemies outside the group.

This kind of group conformity both encourages and requires a strong, dictatorial political leader. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not something that we can comfortably consign to the past tense; it is happening now, in the present continuous. (This same growth in groupthink and factionalism has been spreading around the world in recent years, particularly since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.)

Anxiety and fear exacerbate this tendency to find comfort within the group. This is a human instinct—we are a tribal species that has made an evolutionary choice to live together in groups. But sometimes groups can stampede and run out of control. Once people allow their individuality to be subsumed within a group, they become capable of terrible atrocities. That is why it would have made more sense to have given Asahara the medical treatment he needed and then forced him to speak truthfully about his motives once he had recovered his faculties. I’ve come in for a lot of criticism for this opinion from experts and journalists, who claim either that Asahara was faking his illness or that he would never have told the truth in any case, even if he had been nursed to recovery.

Adolf Eichmann was one of the key figures in the Holocaust, responsible for transporting millions of Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz and the other Nazi camps. At his trial in Israel in 1961, he was asked what had motivated him to play such a central role in this crime against humanity. His only answer was that he had been following orders. Many people were disappointed by these words. But Hannah Arendt, who was attending the trial, drew on his words to formulate her famous concept of the “banality of evil.”

Eichmann was not sentenced to death because he personally killed people with his own hands. His crime was to have subordinated himself to an organization that had lost its imaginative sympathy for ordinary human values and behavior. Arendt’s observations about the nature of evil are helpful as we struggle to comprehend the whirlwind of negative passion that caused the Holocaust and led to a crazed attempt to wipe a whole people from the face of the earth. People do not commit evil because they are necessarily evil themselves. Sometimes they can commit evil because they have surrendered their individuality to the group. The 12 executed members of the Aum cult, too, became complicit in a plot to take innocent lives without ever ceasing to be individuals with kind and gentle personalities in other areas of their lives.

But men like Eichmann were never the main drivers of the Holocaust. Its chief protagonist took his own life in his bunker in Berlin as the country he had led collapsed into ruins around him. The Nuremberg trials had to be carried on without him. The trials could never deliver the final blow to the Nazi doctrine. As a result, admiration and even reverence for Hitler continue to smolder on in pockets even today, and revisionist ideas about the Nazis and the Holocaust continue to haunt the political landscape like revenant ghosts.

The Refusal of Interpretation

But Asahara did not take his own life. And therefore, he ought to have been given medical treatment and restored to a condition of sound mental health so that he could tell the truth. We ought to have pressed and harried him until he confessed everything. There are concerns that the straggling remnants of his cult (which live on under various names) will revere Asahara as a divine figure now that he is gone. But in this case, it would have made more sense to have restored him to his right mind and pressed him to talk while he was still alive. We should have lanced the boil and brought the full truth to light in a public setting. But the chance to do that has gone.

Like the Holocaust and the many other massacres and wars that blight human history, the Aum sarin attack shone a light on the serious genetic dangers that Homo sapiens has inherited from our ancestors’ decision to live in groups, and laid bare the fundamental dangers inherent in religion. Ultimately, however, Japanese society chose to misinterpret the event—or rather, refused to interpret it seriously at all. And the judiciary and media submitted to this view and went along with society.

Underlying my discomfort with the recent executions is this: It is simply wrong to execute a person who is in a state of mental incompetence. This is one of the most basic tenets of the modern judicial state.

Convicted prisoners condemned to death for their part in a single crime should all be executed at the same time. This ought to have been the basic principle on which the Abe government made its decision to carry out this mass execution. But Asahara and six other prisoners were executed on July 6. There was then was a gap of 20 days before the death sentences on the remaining six prisoners were carried out.

There has not yet been any clear explanation for why this happened. But it seems likely that the decision was prompted by the fierce criticism directed at Abe after the prime minister was seen wining and dining with his political supporters in the Akasaka region of Tokyo on the evening of July 5, while thousands of people in western Japan were being evacuated from their homes and the emergency services struggled to cope with some of the most devastating floods of recent times.

The remaining six men must have known that the first batch of executions had been carried out. What thoughts would have been in their minds for the remaining 20 days of their lives? It is terrifying to contemplate. I can’t help remembering their faces as I talked to them through those thick acrylic panels. What they were subjected to is torture: there is no other word for it.

Of course, the feelings of the bereaved relatives of the victims should come first. Some victims of the attack still suffer the lingering aftereffects to this day. Everything that can possibly be done to redress their suffering should be done. But personally, I do not believe that this is equivalent to the death penalty. In the end, all these sentences have achieved is to add 13 more deaths to the toll and increase the numbers of the bereaved.

In closing, there is a question I would like to direct to the government, and to Japanese society in general. The members of the Aum cult committed a grave crime, one that can never be undone, because they allowed themselves to become part of a group that had lost its sympathy for human values and human life. This is my question: Which side has lost sight of that imaginative sympathy now?

(Originally published in Japanese on July 26, 2018. Banner photo: A Tokyo newspaper worker hands out an extra edition on July 6, 2018, reporting the execution of former Aum Shinrikyō leader Matsumoto Chizuo and six of his followers. © Jiji.)

crime cult Aum Shinrikyō