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Editorial: Japanese society needs to learn from AUM's heinous crimes

AUM Shinrikyo cult founder Shoko Asahara, who masterminded a series of murders and other serious offenses carried out by the cult, and six former followers were executed at Tokyo and other detention centers on July 6. The lives of many people were lost in the Tokyo subway gassing, which was an unprecedented terrorist attack in which highly toxic sarin nerve gas was released on subway trains in downtown Tokyo. The incident had a huge impact on society and its unique characteristics stands out in Japan's postwar crime history.

Members of the public need to squarely face lessons learned from this serious incident that occurred during the Heisei era.

The cult carried out a series of heinous crimes -- the murder of anti-AUM lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family, the subway gassing, a sarin gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, and a toxic VX gas attack. The crimes were masterminded by Asahara, who had said, "I'll be the king of Japan. Those who confront the truth must be killed."

The cult targeted the Imperial Household and even plotted to overthrow Japan. The details of the crimes and those who were involved in each of these cases have been clarified to a certain extent.

How followers became committed to AUM and the circumstances surrounding their lives at the cult's facilities were also clarified through the trials of cult members who were involved in the crimes.

Still, it remains unclear why these crimes involving many young people, who had previously been respected citizens, were carried out.

The root of these crimes lies with former cult leader Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto. At the early stage of his trial at the Tokyo District Court, Asahara made statements placing the blame on his followers. However, he began to repeat incoherent statements at the later stage of his trial and became silent, eventually withdrawing into himself.

What did the series of AUM crimes mean for Japanese society? This question is of great significance for members of the public as Asahara was executed without telling the truth about the crimes he masterminded.

Novelist Haruki Murakami pointed out in his book, "Underground," about the subway gassing incident that it is not sufficient to thoroughly consider and analyze the cult's logic and system. He then stated that, "It will lead us nowhere to just regard AUM Shinrikyo purely as someone else's affair while viewing it with binoculars from the other side of the river and seeing it as something abnormal and hard to understand."

The series of incidents involving AUM Shinrikyo occurred as people's sense of reality considerably decreased from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s -- from the start to the burst of the economic bubble -- and people tended to be attracted to something mystical. Young people were brainwashed to fully trust the sense of value shown by the then leader of the cult, who called for the salvation of human beings.

Many former AUM followers have been freed from such brainwashing, but there are obviously many who have kept silent about what happened in the cult. The thinking of cults has attracted worldwide attention. Therefore, there are many things that should be examined as what Murakami calls "the other side."

Social psychologist Kimiaki Nishida, professor at Rissho University, said in an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun three years ago, "In the modern age, society cannot be said to have matured compared with that time (when the AUM incidents occurred). The situation in which some young people give up on the real world remains unchanged."

We still face numerous challenges and it is difficult to find answers to fundamental questions. Yet we have no choice but to move forward while listening to diverse opinions.

The latest executions of the seven death-row inmates will have a huge impact on various fields.

The AUM Shinrikyo cult was split into three groups, including Aleph and Hikari no wa (The Circle of Rainbow Light), and these groups are said to have about 1,650 followers.

In January this year, the government decided to continue to place these groups under the surveillance of the head of the Public Security Intelligence Agency in accordance with the Act on the Control of Organizations Which Have Committed Acts of Indiscriminate Mass Murder. In particular, public security authorities believe that Aleph is still loyal to Asahara.

What should be done to prevent a recurrence of the AUM incidents? Public security authorities should pay close attention to the moves of these three organizations to prevent public anxiety about these groups.

It came as a surprise that the seven inmates including Asahara were executed on the same day.

Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa, who ordered the executions, said, "The victims' pain is beyond people's imagination. I issued the order after considering the matter extremely carefully."

More than 140 countries in the world have abolished the death penalty, far outnumbering countries that still carry out capital punishment.

The Japanese government takes the position that each country should decide whether to maintain or abolish such a penalty depending on their own circumstances. How Japan should deal with the death penalty system is also being called into question.

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