Is the Japanese government executing members of the Aum cult for convenience?

By Hiroka Shoji, East Asia Researcher

When is the best time to execute someone? Regrettably, this could very well be the question that the Japanese government is pondering at the moment.

In 2019, the country will have a new emperor for the first time in three decades, while the following year’s Tokyo Olympics herald a return of the Summer Games to Japan after a gap of more than 50 years.

The eyes of the world will turn eastward and the country’s mood is, understandably, a celebratory one.

This could be the very reason that Japan’s government will most likely carry out several executions in the coming months. By getting these “negative stories” out of the way now, future celebrations need not be overshadowed – or so the thinking goes.

Executions in Japan are cloaked in secrecy so it is impossible to predict exactly when any of the 123 death row inmates will be sent to the gallows.

The death penalty has no place in any judicial system, even in this instance. It is the ultimate denial of human rights -- the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice.
Hiroka Shoji

Among those most at risk are 13 members of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo (Aum). They were convicted for their roles in the abhorrent 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway and other crimes. The attack left 13 people dead and thousands more suffering the effects of the nerve gas.

Choosing some of the Aum 13 for execution would fit a well-established pattern. Previous Ministers of Justice often emphasized the cruel nature and self-centred motivation of the crimes committed.

Two decades on, the subway attack remains vividly etched into the memory of many given its unprecedented scale. Some victims’ families have expressed outrage they have not received genuine apologies from the perpetrators.

These families deserve for those responsible for the attack to be brought to justice and punished for the crimes. But the death penalty has no place in any judicial system, even in this instance. It is the ultimate denial of human rights -- the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice.

It is unlikely to relieve the suffering of the families and it may prevent them from ever receiving the apologies they seek. 

While sentences for the 13 have been finalized for years, so far no one has been executed. Japanese law bans the execution of prisoners until the cases of all co-defendants are finalized. Until 2012, two Aum members, Katsuya Takahashi and Naoko Kikuchi, spent 17 years on the run, perhaps in an effort to spare their fellow accused.

With the Supreme Court confirming the acquittal of Kikuchi in December last year and upholding the life sentence against Takahashi in January this year, the other Aum’s 13 could be executed at any time. The Minister of Justice may sign their death warrants despite the fact that several are in the midst of pursuing a retrial.

Appealing against your conviction no longer guarantees a stay of execution in Japan. Of the four people hanged in 2017, three were in the process of seeking a retrial.

This is just one of several flagrant breaches of international law and standards on the use of the death penalty in the country.

No warning

Prisoners are typically only given a few hours’ notice before execution, but some may be given no warning at all. Inmates are kept in isolation suffering the anguish of never knowing when they are going to be put to death – sometimes for decades.

Their families are usually informed only after the execution has taken place. There is no way to know who could be next. Contact with the outside world is limited to infrequent and supervised visits from family, lawyers or other approved visitors.

Japan continues to sentence to death and execute prisoners with mental and intellectual disabilities, which is a clear violation of international law and standards.

Six psychiatrists hired by the lawyers for the Amu cult guru, Matsumoto, raised concerns about the deterioration of his mental health caused by detention on death row. According to one of Chizuo Matsumoto’s daughters, for the past ten years no external visitors, including his family and lawyers, have been able to meet him which makes it even harder to understand his current mental state.

Opposing the death penalty does not mean that those who are responsible for violent acts, such as the perpetrators of the subway attack, should not be held to account. It means asking governments to focus resources on long-term preventive measures that would effectively tackle the issue at its roots.

Silently burying the 13 will not make our society safer. It doesn’t help address what caused such a cult to foster in Japanese society or why members were drawn to a charismatic guru with dangerous ideas.

The mark of a civilized society is recognizing the rights of every individual, even those responsible for heinous crimes.

Organizers of the Tokyo Games want to “advance measures that will leave lasting legacies for future generations”. It is time for the Japanese people to reconsider if the country wants to leave a legacy of brutality for the next generation.

State-sanctioned killing is cruel and inhuman regardless, but for the executions to happen now, ahead of next year when the world will have its eyes on Japan would demonstrate an unprecedented level of cynicism and a chilling disregard for human life.