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Tokyo gas attack executions leave many questions unanswered

Hanging of seven AUM Shinrikyo members fails to draw issue to close

Policemen wearing gas masks search the compound of the AUM cult in Yamanashi Prefecture in March 1995. (Photo by Mamoru Yago)

TOKYO -- Seven members of the cult behind the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack were hanged on Friday, the largest group of people to be executed in post-war Japan.

Shoko Asahara, the 63-year-old leader of the AUM Shinrikyo, or 'supreme truth,' cult was among those put to death. Six other members remain on death row for their involvement in the attack, which left 13 dead and thousands ill and shattered the myth of Japan being a safe society. 

The incident came to symbolize many of the problems facing the country following its post-war economic success -- the burst of the economic bubble, a long political paralysis and a creeping sense of insecurity.

The attack came just two months after the devastating earthquake in Kobe in January of that year, which left more than 6,000 dead. "Those were a double tragedy, which really shook the public’s faith in the government doing the one thing the government must do, which is to protect people's lives," said Jeff Kingston, professor at Temple University Japan.

The perceived poor handling of the incidents, along with other scandals involving senior government officials at the time, raised serious questions about the Japan Inc. model. "The whole lost decade was not just about money evaporating in bad loans: it was also a time of lost faith in the powers that be," said Kingston.

Asahara makes a speech at an AUM event in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park in October 1990.    © Kyodo

Friday's execution itself has left many questions unanswered. Asahara, whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto, refused to disclose his real motive, and investigations failed to establish how a small spiritual group managed to transform itself into a terror organization bent on controlling the country.

It has put renewed scrutiny on Japan's capital punishment laws. Asahara had refused to meet anyone for the last decade of his life, making it difficult to ascertain his mental health.

The European Union has long called for Tokyo to abolish the death penalty, arguing that there is no firm evidence that capital punishment reduces levels of serious crime.

Human rights group Amnesty International insists that governments should focus resources on long-term preventive measures to tackle the causes of violent crime.

"Silently burying the 13 will not make our society safer," Amnesty's Hiroka Shoji wrote in March. "It doesn't help address what caused such a cult to foster in Japanese society or why members were drawn to a charismatic guru with dangerous ideas."

The executions had been anticipated since the seven were transferred to detention facilities across Japan in March. Japanese law does not allow for executions to take place until all accomplices' cases have been concluded. That milestone came in January this year.

There have also been suggestions that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government wanted to draw a close to the issue sooner rather than later, with the coronation of a new emperor scheduled for 2019 and Tokyo hosting the Summer Olympics in 2020.

But with the investigation and trials failing to get to the bottom of the problem, experts warn that risks remain. There is a growing risk of isolated people being influenced by extreme thoughts through online forums and turning to terror, said Kimiaki Nishida, professor at Rissho University.

Kingston suspects political calculations lay behind the decision to carry out the executions on Friday. "What the death penalty does is it appeals to people's desire for vengeance and it allows the government to claim that belatedly they are doing their job," he said.

The move may well appeal to Abe's core supporters, for whom law and order is a key issue, he said.

"It's understandable how he would like to play this card for political advantage."

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