Spring 2001, Vol. 4, No. 1

Spring 2001

Related Articles:
"Cult Fighting in Massachusetts", Religion in the News, Fall 2000

"Waco Redux: Trial and Error", Religion in the News, Fall 2000

"Spiritual Victimology", Religion in the News, Fall 1999

Other articles
in this issue:

From the Editor:
Sacred is as Sacred Does

Palestinians and Israelis:
Rites of Return

Palestinians and Israelis:
Oh, Jerusalem!

Faith-Based Ambivalence

Ten Issues to Keep an Eye On

What Would Moses Do?:
Debt Relief in the Jubilee Year

Hide, Jesse, Hide

Faith in Justice:
The Ashcroft Fight

Left Behind at the Box Office

The Voucher Circus

Puffing Exorcism











































































































Hit Counter

Aum Alone
by Ben Dorman

Since its horrific sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995, the millennialist religious group Aum Shinrikyo has been a constant presence in the Japanese media. Criminal cases for fraud, kidnapping, and murder against Aum’s founder, Shoko Asahara, and other members of the group are still winding their way through the courts. Meanwhile, local governments throughout Japan are flouting the law in refusing to allow Aum adherents to settle and enroll their children in school.

Aum changed its name to Aleph in early 2000, but in the minds of many Japanese this was simply a cosmetic attempt to cover up the fact that Aum followers remain fanatics besotted by a megalomaniacal and destructive guru. Indeed, the group still elicits expressions of intense hatred from the public. Whether it actually poses a continued threat of violence, however, is difficult to tell.

For their part, the Japanese media have faced a juggling act when reporting on Aum. On the one hand, they position themselves as protectors of orthodox social behavior—responsible for reminding the public and the authorities of the real dangers Aum posed at its most violent phase. On the other, they feel some obligation to defend the civil liberties of all law-abiding citizens.

When dealing with established religious traditions, the Japanese media generally accentuate the positive: the cultural contribution of Buddhist temples, the millions of people tossing money into Shinto shrine collection boxes at the New Year, foreigners challenging themselves with Zen austerities. But there has been a different view of new religious movements going back to the period before World War II. Then, government authorities habitually persecuted as social pariahs groups like Omotokyo and Hito no Michi, whose views on the emperor conflicted with those of state-imposed Shinto—and the media played a significant role in galvanizing public opinion against them.

Although new religious freedom laws introduced by the Allied Occupation after Japan’s defeat in 1945 curtailed the prewar power of the authorities to interfere with religion, the media remained highly critical of the new religions whose numbers swelled in the postwar chaos. Often the reports were sensationalistic and wildly exaggerated. For example, in January 1947 Occupation officials noted that a number of Japanese newspapers spread false information on how the "living goddess" Jikoson, who had just been arrested, had strong links to Japan's wartime leaders and ultra-nationalists who were themselves discredited in society after the defeat.

What makes the Aum case exceptional is that a great deal that was reported about the group before the Tokyo gas attack turned out to be true.

A number of warning signs appeared in the media some years before the attack. After it was approved as a religious corporation in 1989, Aum became the subject of scandal because of its practice of secluding its followers from society. Sunday Mainichi, a weekly magazine connected with the leading national daily Mainichi Shimbun, published a series of articles entitled "The Insanity of Aum Shinrikyo." In November 1989, Tsutsumi Sakamoto, a lawyer working with concerned parents of Aum members, disappeared along with his family. Taro Takimoto, a colleague of Sakamoto’s, and Shoko Egawa, an independent journalist, were prominent in warning the authorities about the dangers of Aum, but it was not until the summer of 1994 that these warnings were heeded—and by then Aum members had already killed people.

The media did get some things terribly wrong. In June 1994, Aum released sarin gas in the town of Matsumoto 100 miles west of Tokyo. But as a result of inept policing and a feeding frenzy by the media to capture the story, a local resident named Yoshiyuki Kono—whose wife was severely handicapped in the incident—was publicly accused of the crime. One of the worst media offenders was the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho, which set the tone of the brief but vicious campaign of insidious innuendo about Kono’s family.

After the subway attack, the media saturated the public with reports about all aspects of the case—and was widely condemned for superficiality and sensationalism. Public cynicism about the media reached a peak in 1996 when executives of the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) television station admitted that in 1989 they had shown Aum officials a videotaped interview in which the lawyer Sakamoto presented his criticisms of the group. Concerned that Aum would launch a lawsuit, TBS never aired the interview. And when Sakamoto and his family were murdered by Aum members shortly thereafter, TBS failed to contact the police.

Official attempts to deal with Aum included a 1996 application from the Justice Ministry’s Public Security Investigation Agency (PSIA) to invoke the Anti-Subversive Activities Law of 1952—a law originally designed to deal with left-wing groups but never actually employed. Opponents of the proposal, including religious and human rights groups, felt that the law was draconian and likely to violate basic human rights. Some newspapers also expressed concern, drawing an analogy to the repressive conditions of wartime. The law, opponents said, harked back to the Peace Preservation Law of 1925, under which a number of religious and other groups were suppressed.

The rejection of the PSIA’s application in January 1997 received a generally positive evaluation from the press, acting in its role as a defender of civil liberties. Mainichi Shimbun labeled the ruling "sound," saying that it showed "reason is in good shape," while Asahi Shimbun, another leading daily, praised the commission for looking at the facts calmly. An editorial in the Asahi went so far as to call into question the very existence of the law and the PSIA itself. But the PSIA did survive and over the next few years appeared to strengthen its position.

In early 1999, a newspaper in Otawara, a city 80 miles north of Tokyo, got a scoop that some members of Aum were moving to town. Local anti-Aum groups began a series of angry protests that received extensive national coverage. The mayor of Otawara declared that city officials would reject the Aum members’ residency applications even though he knew it was unlawful. (Local governments are legally obliged to accept all such applications.) The anti-Aum activities in Otawara triggered similar movements elsewhere in Japan. Communities and their local assemblies requested that a national law be drafted to deal specifically with Aum.

After police arrested two Aum members in September 1999 on suspicion of imprisoning another member, reports in the press reflected the dominant view that Aum was still dangerous. An editorial in Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily, claimed that Aum’s activities had to be curbed to ease public anxieties. Holding that the recent actions were no different from previous ones committed by Aum members, the paper went on to argue that the main problem was their continuing connection to the incarcerated guru and his dangerous doctrines. The conservative daily Sankei Shimbun claimed that the only way to get rid of Aum was to pass specific laws against it.

Were new measures required? In an article posted on the website of the Center for Studies on New Religions (, Kenichi Asano, an ex-journalist turned scholar at Doshisha University in Kyoto, cites the comments of an Asahi Shimbun reporter who declined the opportunity to interview Aum members in their home in Otawara when it was under siege by anti-Aum groups. According to Asano, the reporter said that even though he knew the Aum members posed no threat, he did not enter the premises because he knew the level of anti-Aum feeling in the town—as if any uncritical reporting on the Aum would incur public opprobrium. On the other hand, the Mainichi Shimbun contended in September 1999 that the group remained extremely closed, that little was known about it, and that police should uncover what was going on behind its doors.

Under the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that in December 1999 the Japanese legislature passed a law allowing state security officials to enter and search the facilities of "groups that have committed indiscriminate mass murder over the past ten years." Three months later, after the PSIA made a request to the Public Security Examination Commission to invoke the law, Aum was officially made the target. Public opinion was cited as one of the main reasons why this law—which was rushed through—was necessary. And indeed, the Yomiuri Shimbun published a survey in March of last year that showed public opinion heavily in favor of applying even tougher measures against Aum.

Last July, the city of Otawara succeeded in rejecting the Aum members’ applications for residency. Officials justified their action by appealing to the Japanese Constitution, which waives the rights of individuals when they are deemed a threat to the public welfare.

In December, Justice Minister Masahiko Komura announced that jailed guru Asahara continues to wield enormous influence over his followers and that Aum still poses a threat to the public. During the first year of the new law, the PSIA carried out 15 inspections of Aum facilities and Aum submitted four compulsory reports to the agency. In a report of its own, the PSIA declared that Aum was trying to spread its message on the Internet, effectively turning itself into a "cybercult."

Critics claim that the PSIA has been instrumental in manipulating the media into inciting public outcry against Aum’s resurgence. Kenichi Asano, a longtime critic of the government’s actions in the case, believes that the intensity of public opinion against Aum continues to be fanned to a large extent by media reports. Asano claims that the PSIA has worked together with the media to label as murderous fanatics all Aum members identified by the agency as threats to public safety.

Critics like Asano and some human rights groups have pointed out that while the majority of Aum members have not been charged with any crime, they remain victims of guilt by association. The critics regard the state’s ongoing actions against Aum as indicative of a concerted attempt to strengthen and centralize powers that may lead to human rights abuses against anti-establishment groups generally.

There has even been some high-level support for this view. Writing in the Asahi Shimbun last September, Hiroshi Miyazawa, a former member of the Diet and governor of Hiroshima Prefecture, criticized the refusal of various municipalities to enroll the children of Aum adherents in school. Miyazawa also criticized the ministries of education and home affairs for ignoring so obvious a breach of human rights. Miyazawa’s opinion is noteworthy since he was the justice minister who in 1996 applied to invoke the Anti-Subversive Activities Law against Aum.

Nor have the media ever entirely abandoned their role as defenders of civil rights. On February 25, 2000 the Mainichi Shimbun published an interview with Osamu Watanabe, a professor of sociology at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo who argued against enforcement of the new law. The same month, the Asahi Shimbun raised concerns about the attitude of the surveillance authorities and recommended caution in the law’s application even as it supported the need to monitor Aum’s activities.

Moreover, concern for the resettlement of adherents has been a staple of Aum reportage ever since the subway gas attack in 1995, when the issue was highlighted by Shoka Egawa. Last December 30, for example, the English-language Japan Times called attention to the fact that the city of Ryugasaki, just northeast of Tokyo, had recently rejected the school applications of Asahara’s three young children.

There may be an element of self-interest in this attention to the civil rights of Aum members. For even if Asano’s charge of collusion between the media and the authorities in stirring up public opinion against Aum is true, the fact is that journalists are now facing threats to their own freedom of operation. In December, the Japan Times reported on a growing movement to pass legislation to curb "human rights abuses" by the media such as the Kono case in Matsumoto. But the media may have an uphill fight against such legislation, given public weariness of journalistic excesses and inaccuracies—and, in the case of the Tokyo Broadcasting Company, arguably criminal behavior.

The Aum story has, in sum, posed a dilemma for the media that reflects a broader challenge for Japanese society as a whole: how to deal effectively with a religious group still defined by its violent acts without sacrificing constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties to the encroachments of an aggressive state security apparatus.

Related Articles:

"Cult Fighting in Massachusetts", Religion in the News, Fall 2000

"Waco Redux: Trial and Error", Religion in the News, Fall 2000

"Spiritual Victimology", Religion in the News, Fall 1999