The talk of Tokyo is the trial of Shoko Asahara, which has been likened to judicial proceedings against O. J. Simpson. Mr. Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, stands accused of masterminding a widely publicized nerve gas attack in a Tokyo subway in 1995 that resulted in 12 deaths.
In Japan, Mr. Asahara is something of a celebrity-criminal, at one time claiming as many as 10,000 followers. His trial has proven to be an endless parade of frightful revelations of base malevolence. It has revealed, too, the weaknesses of Japan's judicial system, while at the same time highlighting the tenacity of the cult of personality. And, like the L.A. proceedings against the former football star, it just goes on and on.
Since April 1996, there have been 65 trials pertaining to Aum cult members. In addition to the Tokyo subway attack, five Aum members were convicted in a nerve gas attack in Matsumoto that killed seven people in 1994. Legal experts predict that Mr. Asahara's case, as well as others stemming from the March 1995 incident, could go on for more than a decade. Only one trial has ended in a conviction.
Mr. Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, is the quintessential modern guru, preaching an apocalyptic war from the rear seat of a Rolls Royce. Born half-blind, the 42-year-old studied Hinduism in the Himalayas, as well as his native Buddhism. From Hinduism he identified himself with the god Siva, who is considered lord over creation and destruction. From Christianity he borrowed second-coming analogies and identified himself with Jesus Christ (one of his books is called Declaring Myself the Christ ) in confronting Armageddon. He taught followers to embrace murder and violence as a way of both ridding the world of bad karma and bringing on final judgment. He harnessed scientists and physicians to speed the mass destruction with biological terror.
Mr. Asahara faces 17 charges: They range from murder (eight counts) to illicit manufacture of weapons and drug violations. He has 12 lawyers. None among them appears to have good communication with Mr. Asahara, however, so their tactics have tended toward minute cross-examination of other Aum cult members. The cult leader's eccentric behavior further slows procedures. According to a report by Hiroko Iguchi, a visiting scholar with the Rutherford Institute, he mumbles incoherently during proceedings, falls asleep, or harangues Aum witnesses who testify against him.
Judges face other obstacles in trials of Aum members. Their attorneys argue Mr. Asahara used mind-control techniques to such an extent that his followers did not understand the crimes they were committing. Lawyers for one defendant, Kazuaki Okazaki, say he was placed in an isolated meditation cell for days and deprived of food and sleep to make him amenable to Mr. Asahara's orders.
Mostly rounded up and reviled, the cultists have reportedly ceased large-scale terror operations. Reports persist that 6,000 followers remain, however, raising money for the cult by fronting businesses such as discount computer stores.
One of Mr. Asahara's medical proteges became a central figure in the courtroom drama last week. The medical mastermind behind the sarin gas attacks, Ikuo Hayashi, was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the 1995 subway attack. Mr. Hayashi, a former heart surgeon and head of Aum's "medical ministry," actually confessed to planting the deadly sarin nerve gas used in the subway attack. He, along with other cult members, carried plastic bags of the nerve gas onto morning trains, then poked them with sharpened umbrellas. In addition to the deaths, the rush-hour attack injured or sickened 6,000 other commuters. Some remain disabled.
Normally, such crimes would bring on the death penalty in Japan. But prosecutors shifted their tactic in Mr. Hayashi's case last March, stating that Mr. Hayashi "has contributed to the disclosure of the criminal nature of the cult and to the prevention of future crimes." His confession reportedly led to the arrests of Mr. Asahara and 40 other Aum members involved in the subway attack. Mr. Hayashi also apologized to families of the victims during his trial.
The lighter sentence, coming under a system that does not formally recognize plea bargains, received mixed reactions from Japanese legal experts and outrage from relatives of victims. Some criticized it for setting a precedent toward modifying the death penalty. Others are ready to applaud any progress in the protracted Aum cases. The debate will continue as Mr. Asahara's case progresses. Authorities worry that sentencing him to die will make him a martyr, while mounting evidence against him makes capital punishment more likely.
In the meantime, why is justice so long delayed?
First and foremost, say legal scholars, Japan's system is unused to criminal activity on the scale of the Aum cases. The sheer numbers have clogged judicial mechanisms accustomed to operating in the most crime-free country in the world. Until late last year, nearly 4,000 indictments for attempted murder were pending in connection with both the Tokyo and Matsumoto gas attacks. Takeshi Tsuchimoto, a criminal law professor at Tsukuba University, estimated that arraignments, under those circumstances, could have taken 20 years. Ms. Iguchi said dropping the indictments was an unprecedented move under Japan's "stubborn" system. "This was done so that the trial could be focused on the murder indictments for the 19 victims who were killed in the gas attacks," she said.
Murder cases lasting a decade are not unusual in Japan. There is no trial by jury. Cases are heard by an independent judge, although decisions in criminal cases are usually made by a panel of judges. Preliminary arraignments are often drawn out in order to nail down a conviction once the case is actually brought to trial. Prosecutors can appeal a not-guilty verdict all the way to the Supreme Court.
The Japanese Bar Association says there is only one judge for every 43,615 Japanese (in the United States, there is 1 judge per 9,504 residents). Judges in Tokyo's district court system average 250 cases on their docket at any given time, and, according to a Supreme Court study,10 percent of the cases reaching the Supreme Court take more than a decade to complete. Everyday crime-fighting tools used in the United States-plea bargaining, grants of immunity, or sting operations-are currently forbidden.
Pedro Moreno, the Rutherford Institute's international coordinator, was in Tokyo in May to attend a conference on religious freedom and to debate the implications of the Aum trials on the legal system. He said Japanese attorneys he spoke with are realizing that the legal system is also not prepared to deal with organized criminal activity on this scale. "They don't lock their doors at night," he said. "This has been a homogenous, secure society. Now they realize that the judicial system is too slow and restrictive. It needs new options to accelerate the process."
Quagmired legal proceedings have obscured the contents of testimony in the Aum cases, particularly the extent of the cult's involvement in germ warfare.
According to court testimony the cult sprayed botulism microbes at targeted sites around Tokyo in April 1990, including U.S. Navy installations in Yokohama and at Yokosuka, headquarters for the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet. A convoy of three trucks sprayed clouds of invisible mist containing the deadly microbes, but to no apparent effect. Altogether, court testimony revealed at least nine biological attacks carried out by the cult prior to the subway attacks; these apparently failed because the germs were not sufficiently virulent. The cult built plants at its Mount Fuji headquarters and 100 miles north, in Naganohara, for advanced production of deadly agents such as anthrax bacteria and sarin gas. Cult members even traveled to former Zaire, hoping to obtain highly contagious strains of Ebola virus. On May 27 Tokyo police discovered eight gas cylinders containing one of the chemical substances used for making the nerve gas sarin. The cylinders, containing hydrogen fluoride, were believed to have been deposited by cult members in a mountain near Nikko, 75 miles northwest of Tokyo.
Mr. Moreno says that, even as the hand of the law needs to be more swift in dealing with Aum Shinrikyo, due process and protection of religious freedom needs to be strengthened.
Japanese lawmakers are debating laws to restrict religious activity and anti-subversive activities in the aftermath of the cult's activities. Those measures, along with an effort to declare Shintoism Japan's official religion, could adversely affect Japan's Christian minority. "In the guise of controlling criminal activity," Mr. Moreno told WORLD, "there is a discriminatory attitude in Japan that could lead to restricting religious activity and blacklisting religious organizations."