Japan: Climate of Fear

Japan prepared to close one of the most bizarre chapters in its modern history as the two remaining murder trials involving former members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult drew to a close in October and November.

On Oct. 29, one of the doomsday cult’s most senior members, Tomomasa Nakagawa, was sentenced to death for crimes related to the 1995 sarin gas attack that killed 12 people on the Tokyo subway, a similar 1994 attack that killed seven in Nagano, and several other murders. In early November, the trial of the cult’s former leader, Shoko Asahara (also known as Chizuo Matsumoto), ended with the defendant’s stony silence on similar charges. A ruling in his case is expected on Feb. 27.

Though both trials have dragged on for more than seven years, the Japanese public has closely followed the developments. Yomiuri Shimbun reported on Oct. 31 that 73,000 people sought tickets to the public gallery during Asahara’s trial.

Few were surprised when Nakagawa became the 10th former cult member to receive the death sentence—the same sentence Asahara is expected to receive from the Tokyo District Court. “I want [Asahara] to be executed as soon as possible,” said Shizue Takahashi, a widow who lost her husband in the Tokyo attack, as quoted in Mainichi Shimbun (Oct. 31). Reinstated in 1993, the death penalty enjoys strong support in Japan, where press coverage of high-profile crime has helped stoke concerns about law and order.

In the months leading to the conclusion of the cult-related trials, the Japanese media played up the case of a 12-year-old Nagasaki boy who stripped, beat, and shoved a 4-year-old off a roof to his death in July. This followed the extensive coverage, weeks before, of the case of a Fukuoka family of four allegedly killed by Chinese exchange students, who dumped the bodies in Hakata Bay.

Cultural critics say the trend of sensationalistic news coverage began in earnest with the attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, whose members once numbered 14,000. (The group has changed its name to Aleph.) According to a commentator quoted in The Japan Times (Oct. 29): “The fear and hysteria toward Aum has brought Japan to where it is today—a nation that is afraid and seeks safety in the passage of laws designed to beef up police powers....Fear spread like wildfire, resulting in further hate, and, in turn, increased paranoia and a strong desire for public safety.” Indeed, the lengthy trials of Nakagawa and Asahara have sparked calls for legal reform. An editorial in Sankei Shimbun (Nov. 1) applauded legislative efforts to limit trials to two years or less.

With the Aum Shinrikyo trials finally ending, law enforcement officials hope that the harsh sentences will help alleviate concerns that Japan has become a more dangerous place. In 2002, Japan’s national police agency recorded 2.8 million crimes, a 60-percent increase from a decade earlier. Though fewer than 1 percent of these crimes fell into the serious crime category (such as murder, rape, and kidnapping), the incidence of such violent crimes soared by 75 percent between 1998 and 2002. Authorities concede that public anxiety is not all based on media hype.