Japan holds its breath for the Aum trial

The Tokyo gas attack case might force a nation to ask itself hard questions, says Richard Lloyd Parry
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Thirteen months and four days after it began, the most traumatic episode in post-war Japanese history is about to enter its final act. At 10am today, heralded by circling helicopters, divisions of police, and many thousands of onlookers, Shoko Asahara, guru of the Aum Shinri Kyo cult, will finally enter the Tokyo District Court for the start of his mammoth trial. He faces 17 charges, including abduction, manufacture of illegal chemicals, and the murder of 11 commuters with sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway last March.

The attack, carried out on Asahara's orders by 10 of his young disciples, was without precedent - the first time in history that a terrorist group had employed weapons of mass destruction, let alone in a country that prides itself on its crimelessness and social cohesion. The trial itself is the culmination of the biggest police investigation in Japanese history. It will go on for years, but by the end of the hearings, Asahara is almost certain to be sentenced to death by hanging for any one of two dozen killings.

But a curious emptiness pervades the build up to the trial. For all the media palaver, the legal overkill and the mountain of facts that have accumulated about the crime and its alleged perpetrators, the court proceedings will bring no sense of relief or resolution. The Japanese will be left with a lot of unanswered questions about the responsibility of their own society in fostering such a monster. What drew some of the cleverest young people in the country to a man so transparently fraudulent as Asahara? How could a group of religious crackpots amass an arsenal of deadly chemicals, and how could they go undetected for so long?

The dismal shortcomings revealed by Aum Shinri Kyo case exist at several levels, and the most obvious example can be seen in the work of the Japanese police. Since Asahara founded his cult in the mid-1980s, he had attracted numerous allegations of property fraud, harassment and holding disciples against their will. In 1990, a lawyer campaigning against the cult was murdered on the guru's orders along with his wife and baby son. A badge dropped by one of the killers, and bearing the Aum logo, was found in his abandoned house, but the police insisted that they lacked evidence for a full-blown investigation.

In June 1994, nine months before the horror on the subway, seven people were killed in an earlier sarin attack in a small castle town north of Tokyo. Circumstantial evidence once again pointed the finger at Aum, which the police knew to be amassing chemical ingredients in its mountain commune. But even after the subway attack itself, Asahara and his followers were allowed two whole days to cover their tracks before the raids finally began.

On paper, Japan's justice system is the most successful in the industrialised world, with tiny crime figures and a 99 per cent conviction rate. This remarkable record depends largely on confession evidence gathered, sometimes under suspicious circumstances, during long periods of interrogation. Memories of the Second World War, when the police acted as an arm of the authoritarian military government, have made undercover and surveillance operations something of a taboo. Faced with a suspect like Aum Shinri Kyo - highly organised, tightly knit and irrational - the police reacted with frowning bemusement.

The reasons for Asahara's success are deep and complex and will take years to be fully understood, but if analysts agree on anything, it is that they have to do with repression. Aum Shinri Kyo drew on an emotional underclass of highly educated young followers whose ambitions and potential were thwarted by a stiflingly hierarchical society in which talent and ambition yield place to the demands of rank and seniority. Most of its 10,000 members in Japan - among them scholars, scientists and soldiers - knew nothing of their leader's murderous intentions and were drawn instead to an organisation that promised an alternative to institutional careers.

In dealing with this situation, which served as a vote of no confidence by thousands of its own citizens, the only concrete measure produced by the government is, ironically, more repressive than ever. Sometime in the next few months, the government will put into action a plan to outlaw Aum Shinri Kyo under the Subversive Activities Law, a draconian piece of legislation devised during the 1950s to combat revolutionary political groups and never before used against an organisation. Aum Shinri Kyo will become an illegal group; meetings of its members and publication of its literature will be an offence. The cult, in other words, is being treated as an outsider, a Cold War adversary, when what it resembles above all is an enemy within.