"Cult Fighting in
Massachusetts", Religion in the News, Fall 2000
"Waco Redux: Trial and Error",
Religion in the News, Fall 2000
Victimology", Religion in the News,
in this issue:
From the Editor:
Sacred is as Sacred Does
Palestinians and Israelis:
Rites of Return
Palestinians and Israelis:
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
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
Aums 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 behaviorresponsible 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
Shintoand the media played a significant role in galvanizing public opinion against
Although new religious freedom laws introduced by the Allied
Occupation after Japans 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
Sakamotos, 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 heededand 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 Konowhose wife was severely handicapped in the incidentwas
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 Konos family.
After the subway attack, the media saturated the public with
reports about all aspects of the caseand 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 Ministrys Public Security Investigation Agency (PSIA)
to invoke the Anti-Subversive Activities Law of 1952a 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
The rejection of the PSIAs 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
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, Japans largest
daily, claimed that Aums 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
Were new measures required? In an article posted on the
website of the Center for Studies on New Religions (http://www.cesnur.org/testi/aum_018.htm),
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
townas 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 lawwhich was
rushed throughwas 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 Aums resurgence. Kenichi
Asano, a longtime critic of the governments 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 states 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. Miyazawas 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
laws application even as it supported the need to monitor Aums 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 Asaharas three young
There may be an element of self-interest in this attention to
the civil rights of Aum members. For even if Asanos 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 inaccuraciesand, 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.
Fighting in Massachusetts", Religion in the News, Fall 2000
Redux: Trial and Error", Religion in the News, Fall 2000
"Spiritual Victimology", Religion in the News, Fall 1999