New Religious Cults in Japan: Part Three - Asahara Verdict Highlights Police Failures
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
After nearly eight years of what felt like seemingly endless court sessions, finally a guilty verdict has been delivered in the trial of Shoko Asahara. He is the spiritual leader of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, which presently calls itself Aleph. Asahara was the mastermind behind a series of horrific crimes which culminated in the deadly 1995 sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. For many of the cult's thousands of victims, and Japan as a whole, the judge's long anticipated decision fails to provide any real sense of closure on the matter. One of the primary reasons for this is that the lengthy trial highlighted countless police failings which allowed the cult to kill unhindered for years prior to the Tokyo attack.
Asahara and his followers committed unparalleled acts of mass terror against the Japanese people, killing dozens, injuring thousands and traumatizing an entire nation. Astonishingly, Aum operated its own sophisticated arms factories, manufactured biological weapons, produced chemical agents, and even purchased a Soviet military helicopter. In many respects, Shoko Asahara is the Japanese equivalent of Osama bin Laden. The bin Laden comparison is useful as it helps put the scale of Aum's heinous crimes in context.
The Aum case graphically illustrates how Japan's police forces comprehensively failed in their duty to protect the public. Aum Shinrikyo committed its first high-profile murder in 1989, when the cult killed a young lawyer, Tsutsumi Sakamoto, and his family. Sakamoto had played a prominent role in exposing the wrong doings of the cult to the media, assisted parents who wanted their children to escape the cult's clutches and at the time of his death was preparing to file a lawsuit against the sect.
On 4 November 1989, Aum followers broke into Sakamoto's apartment in Yokohama's Isogo Ward attacking the sleeping lawyer with a hammer, before strangling him to death. Not only did they take the life of the crusading lawyer, but they also cold-bloodedly murdered his 14-month old son, Tatsuhiko Sakamoto, and violently bludgeoned to death his young wife, Satoko Sakamoto. The bodies were burnt, cut up, tossed into metal drums and then hidden in remote rural locations. Their teeth were also removed to avoid dental identification of the remains. Anyone who reads the harrowing account of the gruesome slayings realizes that Aum acted without mercy.
Police treated the disappearance of the Sakamoto family as a simple missing persons case, ignoring evidence linking the crime directly to Aum. Despite finding a cult badge at the crime-scene, the police dismissed the widely held public view that the family had been abducted and murdered by Aum. Police did inquire as to how a rare cult badge could possibly be found in Sakamoto's apartment, but the cult claimed that someone deliberately planted it in the apartment as a means of incriminating the sect. Ignoring an overwhelming body of evidence indicating some form of Aum involvement in the crime, police accepted the cult's child-like explanation. Through the tremendous efforts of Sakamoto's close kin, the family's disappearance became well-known. Had the police properly investigated the crime at the time, there is a strong possibility that they could have stopped the cult before it progressed to mass killing.
The next high-profile Aum outrage was the Matsumoto sarin nerve gas attack that killed seven and injured 144 people. Sarin is one of the world's most lethal chemical warfare agents. The incident occurred on 27 June 1994 in the city of Matsumoto in Nagano prefecture. The shocking attack should have awoken the police to the very serious national security threat posed by Aum. However, yet again the police's complete failure to adequately investigate the case allowed Aum to advance unhindered toward the devastating Tokyo attack in the following year.
Late on the evening of 27 June 1994, cult members sprayed sarin nerve gas around apartments and houses in the Kaichi Heights district of Matsumoto city. Hundreds fell ill, seven died and many more fell into deep comas. Shortly before the attack, witnesses saw a suspicious vehicle releasing some form of gas into the atmosphere. Samples taken from the area where the vehicle had been spotted tested positive for traces of sarin. This indicated that it was the probable origin point of the attack. Ignoring this line of investigation, the police instead decided to blame one of the surviving victims, Yoshiyuko Kono, who had been a former chemical salesman.
Almost unbelievably, police hypothesized that Mr. Kono had somehow accidentally produced sarin while mixing garden herbicidal chemicals together. International experts discounted this theory as it defied scientific fact which showed that it was physically impossible to produce sarin from the chemical compounds Kono had at his disposal. Although sarin can be made with publicly available chemicals, normally a sophisticated lab is needed to make it in a stable and pure form that can be harmful to humans. Weapons-grade sarin is difficult to manufacture, requiring a very high degree of expertise. It took the Nazis and Aum years to perfect the right technique.
Several international analysts pointed to the strong likelihood of terrorist involvement in the Matsumoto attack, citing the use of sarin as a tell-tale sign. Some also suggested the incident might be a practice run for a large scale attack. However, Japanese police discounted all these theories, deciding that the gassing was just a local matter.
At the time, several Japanese commentators were also pointing to Aum's fascination with sarin, clearly hinting at a probable cult link to the attack. The police also received an anonymous confession implicating the sect in the gassing. Additionally, there was an obvious motive linking the cult to the crime. A court case against Aum was being heard by three judges who were living in apartments hit by the gas attack. Aum had all but lost the fraud case being brought by several landowners and a verdict was imminent. It was in order to delay this decision that the cult targeted the area. The three judges were sickened in the attack, thus delaying the adverse judgment.
Once again, despite an overwhelming mountain of clues implicating Aum, police ruled them out of the investigation. Instead, they arrested the completely innocent Mr. Kono, who could not possibly have committed the crime. This breathtaking level of failure allowed the cult to proceed unchecked towards the even more devastating Tokyo attack.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of police incompetence was their total failure to notice that the cult had built up a formidable military machine. Under police noses, Aum was able to construct and operate relatively high-tech weapons production facilities, manufacturing firearms as well as producing weapons of mass destruction. Astonishingly, they made, and successfully tested, a wide range of biological agents that included botulinum toxins and anthrax spores. This was in addition to the mass production of the nerve gas sarin. Perhaps Aum's most astonishing feat in building up its deadly arsenal was their success at importing a Soviet military helicopter into Japan without the police trying to stop them.
In the end, it took the gassing of 5000 people on the Tokyo subway before the police finally took action against the Aum menace and even then they made a number of serious blunders.
Some people claim that the police were hindered from properly investigating Aum because of its status as a religious organization and pressure from other politically influential religious groups. This may to some extent be true, but the clear failure to properly investigate the Matsumoto sarin attack or any of the other reported murders, kidnappings and financial scams attributed to the cult makes police incompetence inexcusable. Despite almost nine years having passed since Aum unleashed its weapons of mass destruction on the Tokyo subway, the public has still not forgiven the police for completely failing in their duty to protect ordinary citizens.
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.