Nearly 19 years after members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult used nerve gas to kill 13 people in Tokyo, the final trials are drawing to a close. But survivors warn the doomsday cult still poses a threat to Japanese society.
After being found guilty of involvement in the abduction and confinement of a public notary in February 1995 and the firebombing of a Tokyo apartment the following month, Makoto Hirata was sentenced to nine years in prison by the Tokyo District Court on March 7.
Hirata's conviction comes so long after the crimes because he was on the run until December 31, 2011, when he turned himself in at a Tokyo police station. A former senior member of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, Hirata's crimes were relatively minor in comparison with the attacks for which the religious faction has become infamous.
Thirteen people died when cult members released sarin gas in Tokyo subway carriages on March 20, 1995, with as many as 6,000 commuters requiring hospital treatment. For years, the organization had been convincing the young and the gullible for more than two decades that its leader, the half-blind former yoga instructor Shoko Asahara, was a reincarnated god.
Hopes for closure
There are hopes that these final court hearings will bring closure to those affected by Aum's crimes, but victims and relatives of the dead warn that Japan has not heard the last of the cult. "We need to keep talking about this as the 19th anniversary of the subway attack approaches because young people are still joining Aleph now," said Shizue Takahashi, referring to the splinter group that carries on the work of Asahara.
"We have a culture in Japan of forgetting the past very quickly when the memories are harsh; perhaps that's because we have suffered many disasters and trials throughout history," said Takahashi, whose husband, Kazumasa, died at Kasumigaseki Station as he tried to remove a leaking bag of sarin from a train.
Takahashi, who heads the Tokyo Subway Sarin Incident Victims' Association, plans to go to her husband's grave on the March 20 anniversary of his death before spending the rest of the day giving media interviews and attending meetings of survivors. "We have to make sure that this is not forgotten, that Aum can never rise again," she said.
Mitsuru Kono was on the rush-hour train on Tokyo's Hibiya Line the day of the attacks. "I never saw the attackers or the newspapers that they wrapped around the bags of liquid sarin before piercing them on the train, but the prosecutors showed me photos afterwards and I was only about 3 meters away," said Kono, who is 72 years old.
"There was a strong smell and the driver of the train announced that there had been some sort of bomb attack at Tsukiji Station, so I got out onto the platform," he said. After that, he doesn't remember much, he said. He awoke in a hospital, but his family was told it was unlikely that he would survive.
"I agree that we forget the bad parts of our culture," he told DW. "But we have to keep reminding people about the sarin case. If not, it could happen again."
According to the police, there were no fewer than 11,400 registered religious cults across Japan in 1995, ranging from modern-day soothsayers who claimed they could read people's fortunes from the shape of their feet to groups that dressed all in white and warned that a previously undiscovered 10th planet in the solar system was about to trigger massive earthquakes and tsunamis.
The number of cults dropped dramatically after the sarin attacks, but police say that numbers have started to rise again. Today, there are an estimated 1,650 cults in Japan.
"There are about 1,500 people still in Aum today, but we do not know the exact figure," said Yuuji Nakamura, a lawyer who has represented families in lawsuits against the cult. "And this is not just a Japanese problem," he told DW. "They had followers around the world, so that makes it a global concern.
"There are many people who are mentally weak and need the support of others they trust and admire," he said. "The cult perfected the technique of appealing to these lonely - but often very clever - people and bringing them into the organization by making them feel important."
Those tactics still work today on people who are sufficiently disillusioned with modern life in Japan to be susceptible to the approaches of the followers of the splinter group. Members of the group are thought to pass themselves off as a group of yoga enthusiasts and only reveal their true affiliations - and their ongoing devotion to Asahara - much later.
As his church began to fall apart, police finally pieced together a picture of Asahara at the centre of an organization that had political ambitions, abducted and murdered its opponents, required members to undergo "religious training" so severe that it had killed several of them and forced others to use halluconogenic drugs.
Litany of crimes
The cult has conducted a series of attacks. In June 1994, eight people died in an attack on a court hearing a case against the cult in the city of Matsumoto. Just a few months later, when the cult realized that a raid on its headquarters was imminent, it went on the offensive. The subway sarin attack was reportedly designed to destabilize the government and cause sufficient chaos to enable Asahara to seize power.
To date, 190 members have been indicted for crimes ranging from murder to abduction, the production of weapons and creating nerve gas. Thirteen have been sentenced to death, including Asahara.
The wanted posters featuring mug shots of the cult members who went on the run after police raided its compound, on the slopes of Mount Fuji, have been taken down and Japan has moved on. There are many young Japanese who have no memory of what it was like to live in a city that was the target of a domestic terror attack.