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Debate on death penalty not spirited 1 year after AUM executions

In this July 28, 2018 file photo, a woman walks by a television screen in Tokyo showing six former AUM Shinrikyo cult members who had been executed earlier in the day.(Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- July marks one year since the founder and 12 former senior members of the AUM Shinrikyo cult were executed after being convicted of murders, including the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

The executions could have sparked a vigorous debate on the death penalty in Japan, but they have not led to any major movement calling for its abolition despite international criticism, and polls suggest many Japanese are supportive of capital punishment.

The unprecedented group execution of AUM founder Shoko Asahara, whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto, and the former senior members occurred on July 6 and 26, 2018.

It brought the total number of annual executions in Japan to 15 in 2018 from the previous year's four, according to the Justice Ministry.

Human rights organization Amnesty International said Japan is among 56 countries and regions that conduct capital punishment while more than two-thirds of world states have abolished it in law or in practice as at the end of 2018.

Approval of capital punishment is high in Japan.

A 2014 opinion poll by the Cabinet Office showed only 9.7 percent believed the death penalty "should be abolished" while 80.3 percent said its existence "could not be helped".

Among the latter, 57.5 percent did not support its abolition in the future, although 40.5 percent did "if the situation changes."

Yoshio Urushibara, a former politician and advisor to the Komeito party, the coalition ally of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, argues for abolishing executions due to the possibility of wrongful convictions.

"It would mean that the state kills innocent people," Urushibara, a lawyer, said.

But he also believes that any future legislation to abolish the death penalty would have to consider the feelings of the families of crime victims.

Many such families have mixed feelings.

"What about the lives of the victims who were killed as if they were less than bugs?" said Minako Ogino, whose 21-year-old daughter Yukari was murdered 10 years ago.

Without the death penalty, "I would like a punishment that makes (the perpetrators) feel that being alive is excruciating," she said.

Although no changes to the books have been made relating to the death penalty, the former AUM members' executions may have stirred something.

"It would have been impossible to have a discussion about capital punishment prior to the executions," a senior official of the ministry said, suggesting people may now feel more open to discussing the death penalty.

Lawmakers formed a cross-party group last year, calling for "a candid discussion" involving both sides of the debate.

Public safety authorities remain wary, meanwhile, of potential violence by AUM's successor and splinter organizations and have been monitoring their activities as the founder Asahara continues to wield influence even after his death.

Police sources say members of the successor organization, which branded itself as Aleph, have walked around the Tokyo Detention House where Asahara was long held and executed, believing it to emanate mystical energy.

The members have been recently doing so individually to attract less attention, the sources say.

Authorities also remain vigilant of a movement among the members to name Asahara's second son as their leader.

"We cannot deny the possibility that a new charismatic sect leader could appear," one of the sources said.

Recruitment is also a point of concern, especially among youths who either do not know or remember little of AUM's past.

The organizations have a total of 1,650 members with Aleph gaining 100 new members annually, according to the police.

Recruiters often engage their targets at public events, only later revealing their affiliation as relationships deepen, according to the sources.

"There are many young recruits who do not know the past cases (caused by AUM). We are afraid of them blindly accepting dangerous beliefs and becoming violent," said a former investigator who was involved in the cases.

Authorities are also concerned about the future of Matsumoto's remains, which they fear may lead to his "deification" or spark a violent leadership fight. The remains are currently being kept at the detention house, as family members dispute who should receive them.

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