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AUM Shinrikyo cases still not closed: Author Haruki Murakami

Author Haruki Murakami (Mainichi)

By Haruki Murakami

    In this March 20, 1995 file photo, emergency workers try to save people poisoned by sarin gas near Tsukiji Station in Tokyo's Chuo Ward, after being exposed to the deadly nerve agent in the subway system. (Mainichi)

    On July 26, the second batch of executions of members of the AUM Shinrikyo cult were carried out following the first batch on July 6, meaning all 13 former members of the cult who were given the death penalty are now dead. Everything happened very quickly.

    As a general argument, I adopt a stance of opposition toward the death penalty. Killing a human being is a serious crime, and naturally, the crime must be atoned for. However, there is supposed to be a fundamental difference in meaning between one human being killing another, and the system, or institution, killing a human being. And the view that death is the ultimate form of atonement is, from a global perspective, starting to lose its position as the consensus. Moreover, the surprising number of wrongful convictions indicates that the current judicial system cannot completely exclude the possibility of making mistakes -- either technical or fundamental. In this sense, the death penalty, literally, can be described as an institution with fatal dangers.

    On the other hand, as someone who interviewed those who suffered or lost loved ones in the sarin gas attack on Tokyo's subway system for a full year during the process of writing the book titled "Underground" and witnessed their sadness, agony and fresh anger with my own eyes, I cannot publicly state, as far as this case is concerned, "I am opposed to death penalty." I have a painful awareness of the feelings of some bereaved families: "We cannot forgive these perpetrators. We want death penalty carried out as soon as possible." By encountering this incident, many people had the courses of their lives changed in one way or the other. There must be more than a few people who feel that they cannot return to their former lives in various senses, tangible or intangible.

    I rarely reread my own books and cry, but I find tears in my eyes when I go back and read some parts of "Underground," out of necessity. The atmosphere of the interviews, and the feeling and sounds and the air that existed, vividly return and choke me up. You may call me sentimental, but as a human being who writes books (novels), I don't want to suppress such natural feelings, and would like to convey them to readers if possible. I myself sense that something inside me surely changed over the process of writing this one book.

    The feelings of those who lost loved ones, however, are a difficult matter. For example, if a husband, whose wife and children were murdered, takes the witness stand and makes a tearful plea, saying, "I hate this culprit so much. Just one death is not enough. Execute him as many times as possible," the jurors would probably lean to some degree toward the death ruling. On the other hand, if the husband were to declare, "I hate this culprit so much that I want to strangle him. I just hate and hate him. But I don't want to see people die any more. Therefore, please spare him from the death penalty," the jurors would perhaps lean away from the death penalty. Is it a fair thing that "the feeling of bereaved families" can affect the life or death of one human being? I do not have a clear-cut answer to this. What do you think of this question?

    After publishing "Underground," I attended hearings in the trials on the sarin subway attacks held at the Tokyo district and high courts. I was travelling for business and could not attend every hearing, but I did listen in on the proceedings when I was in Tokyo and when time allowed. I mainly followed the trial of Yasuo Hayashi out of interest. The reason behind my interest in his trial was because the train carriage on the Hibiya Line heading to Nakameguro, in which he dispersed the sarin gas, had the largest number of victims, and eight of those people lost their lives. Most of the people I interviewed were in that carriage. Unlike other perpetrators who punctured two vinyl bags containing sarin solution with the sharpened tip of an umbrella, he voluntarily requested to have three bags, in which he pricked holes. That action is said to have led to the large number of casualties. What kind of person was this Yasuo Hayashi? Why did he come to commit such a serious crime? I wanted to see him myself. I wanted to learn first-hand information, not hearsay.

    Consequently, I came to develop the impression that Yasuo Hayashi was an individual carrying substantially complicated feelings. Asserting now, "He is this kind of person," is far beyond me. I observed his trials on many occasions, but it was difficult to determine his true feelings -- what he was thinking and feeling as he sat in the dock. It appeared to me that he tended to take the quiet approach of placing things that were dear to him inside a shell to hide them from others. This attitude might have incorporated something like the strong guard he had developed during his long period on the run. I also received the impression that he was holding inside himself a number of conflicting feelings, unable to consolidate or process them. I nevertheless heard that he regretted his own actions, and was cooperating with the trial process all the way till the end.

    According to testimonies of his former friends and acquaintances, he was originally a forward-looking, straight-thinking, mild young man. He had some weakness in his character and emotional scars, but he did have some will to control himself. Many people seemed to have favorable feelings toward him. However, it appeared that it had been difficult for him to place himself in a position in which he could effectively utilize his own sincere, positive inclinations. That is something one could say ran in common between many former AUM Shinrikyo followers judged in this trial ... And a new context named "training" would suck up their unfulfilled yearning deftly, effectively, and with malevolence in the end.

    One thing I remember very well about the trial of Yasuo Hayashi was the constant presence of his mother. Someone told me, "That is Hayashi's mother." A petit woman, she was often sitting in a seat in front of me. She never budged a bit throughout the proceedings, perhaps looking toward her son in the defendant's seat. The only time she did not appear in the court was the day when the judgment was announced. I wonder if she sensed that an ultimate penalty was going to be handed down on her son, and could not bear to hear it with her own ears. I feel pains when I think of her -- Is she still doing fine? What is she feeling regarding the news of the execution?

    Another thing that left a deep impression on me about the trial of Yasuo Hayashi is the fair and careful management of the trial by Kiyoshi Kimura, the presiding judge. An unspoken guideline of "giving death to perpetrators and life to their drivers" effectively existed from the beginning of the trial (although there was an exception for Ikuo Hayashi, who is serving a life sentence), and I thought that he must have had to overcome many difficulties to go ahead with the trial, but I also felt occasionally as I observed the proceedings, "Perhaps one could be resigned to accept a death penalty if it were handed down by this person."

    To be honest, at the district court and at the high court, I did occasionally encounter scenes that made me aghast or dismayed me. Some lawyers, prosecutors or judges surprised me, and I thought, "Doesn't this person lack common sense?" I also felt strongly, "If I am going to be judged in such trials, I cannot commit a crime." However, as far as the judgments of presiding judge Kiyoshi Kimura were concerned, I concurred with almost all of them. The text of the ruling was to the point, and full of serene, humane considerations.

    "Making a mistake in selecting one's mentor is the worst misfortune, and defendant Hayashi, in this sense, can be said to be unfortunate and unlucky ... considering the situations for defendant Hayashi as much as possible, this court has no choice but to deliver the ultimate punishment."

    I think that the ruling did strongly convey the judge's feelings, and it was good. After this long trial with almost no room for hope, the ruling was something like a thin spot of light that started to shine at all last.

    After hearing a death sentence for the first time in my life, with my own ears in a court of law, I had trouble returning to the normal course of life over the next several days. I felt like a blunt weight was inside my chest. The moment the presiding judge announced death penalty, death reared its head in the court.

    And now, after receiving the news that all 13 death row inmates in the AUM-related cases have been executed, I similarly feel the existence of that weight in my chest. A heavy silence that defies words exists inside me. The death that appeared in the courtroom took away its share.

    I suspect that it is not possible to assert, to make a black or white judgment, here and now that the decision to go ahead with the mass execution (I dare use the expression) of 13 people was right. The faces of too many people emerge in the back of my head, and the emotions of too many people are still in the air. Just one thing I can say now is that the AUM-related cases did not come to a close with the latest executions. If there was any intention of "bringing a closure to those cases," or an ulterior motive of making the institution called the death penalty a more permanent one by using this opportunity, that is wrong, and the existence of such a strategy must never be allowed.

    There are many things we, including myself, have to learn from in connection with those AUM-related cases, and the death of the 13 individuals did not close the door to such a learning process. What we should do is to think deeply again about the meaning of "unfortunate and unlucky" while facing their deaths and feeling the weight of their lives that are gone forever.


    Editor's note: Author Haruki Murakami contributed this article to the Mainichi Shimbun following the executions of 13 former members of the AUM Shinrikyo cult in July 2018.

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