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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #37: May 19, 2003

New Religious Cults in Japan: Part Two -
The Impact of the Aum Shinrikyo Cult on Dealing with Other Japanese Cults

Ellis Krauss (Professor, Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, University of California, San Diego) and J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

A full list of articles in this series can be found here.


The following discussion is based upon comments made in the first article in this series (Pana Wave Laboratory Cult Claims Japan's Fate is Sealed).

Ellis Krauss: The "seemingly endless trial" of Aum Shinrikyo founder Chizuo Matsumoto (aka Shoko Asahara) is standard procedure for the Japanese judiciary, and always has been: Trials take forever.

J. Sean Curtin: While I totally agree that Japanese trials take an inordinate amount of time by American and British standards, Japanese prosecutors clearly stated at the outset of the process that they would push for a speedy conclusion because they wanted "A verdict before people forget about the case." However, they did not initially have a clear strategy for achieving this objective and because of this failing were forced to change tactics several times during the trial. This initial error allowed the defence to prolong the case. For example, in December 1997 prosecutors decided to focus on just 18 of Aum Shinrikyo's victims, abandoning the original idea of including all of the 3,938 victims of the nerve-gas attacks in Tokyo and Matsumoto City. Again, in October 2000, prosecutors dropped four indictments related to the illegal production of chemicals in an effort to move the trial process forward.

Ellis Krauss: It is not clear to me what your evidence is for saying that government policy has been so "seemingly ineffective" vis-a-vis these doomsday cults.

J. Sean Curtin: I think that a lot of Japanese people believe that the state's initial handling of the issue was totally inadequate and they later engaged in cover-ups to conceal their own incompetence. The image of the Japanese police was especially tarnished in this respect. For example, before the Tokyo subway gassings (20 March 1995), Aum had been involved in a gassing at Matsumoto (27 June 1994, seven died and 144 were injured) and a number of other killings going back years (for example, the murders of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife and 1-year-old son on 4 November 1989). Police appear to have ignored the clear evidence implicating the cult and many people believe this was in part due to political pressure.

Even after the devastating Tokyo gassing, police seemed slow and ineffectual, a point that was emphasized on several occasions. For example, the near fatal assassination attempt on a police commissioner by Aum. It eventually turned out that the would-be assassin was actually a police officer who was a member of Aum. The police suppressed this information to avoid embracement and the news only came to light when a tabloid ran the story. It was also later revealed that one of the cult killers of the Sakamoto family in 1989 had written the police a full confession, telling them where the bodies were buried, but the police thought the letter a hoax and basically ignored it.

Ellis Krauss: It may have made major errors in underestimating Aum's proclivity for violence, but since then? What are your indicators of "ineffectiveness?" You yourself say that Pana Wave is being monitored closely. Furthermore, the cult's facilities were raided by the police on May 14. And what can the government do in the absence of any crime being committed: it's not a crime to believe crazy stuff.

J. Sean Curtin: I agree that the police are now much more effective and many of the blunders made in its handling of Aum Shinrikyo have been rectified. Some commentators claim that the police now actually overreact and they say this is what is happening in the case of the Pana Wave cult. However, given the understandable level of public anxiety over doomsday cults, the police have to be seen to be thoroughly investigating Pana Wave before the cult's deadline for Armageddon. Besides, the police simply cannot afford another Aum like failure. I believe that the trauma of the Tokyo and Matsumoto nerve gas attacks will mean that it will take a decade or so before the police strike a proper balance in the monitoring of doomsday cults. As you indicate, the situation has certainly improved, but I believe the police still have to refine their methods.

Ellis Krauss: The issue of government vs. religion is particularly delicate in Japan, and under this administration, because of Komeito's being part of the coalition Cabinet. Komeito, because of its backing by Soka Gakkai, itself a 'new religion' that many considered a cult in earlier postwar Japan, is very sensitive to any legislation or government action impinging on freedom of religion.

J. Sean Curtin: I am in full agreement here and some commentators believe that the police did not adequately investigate Aum before the Tokyo nerve gas attack because of various kinds of political pressure exerted by Komeito and other groups. This is one of the reasons why I feel that government policy was ineffectual. Despite the fact that Aum clearly represented a threat to public safety as far back the 1980s, they were not properly investigated until they gassed 5000 people in March 1995.


Other Articles in this Series and Related articles

New Religious Cults in Japan: Part One Pana Wave Laboratory Cult Claims Japan's Fate is Sealed
Social Trends: Series #36, GLOCOM Platform, 12 May 2003


Japanese Cult Vows to Save a Seal and the World
Howard French, New York Times, 14 May 2003


Probing Pana Wave's nature
Editorial, Japan Times, 17 May 2003

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