The execution of the Aum Shinrikyo cultists

This month, Japan executed 13 people related to the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which was responsible for a satin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

The 13 cultists had been on death row for some time. Why did the Ministry of Justice decide to execute all 13 this month? In Japan, the fact that a death row inmate has been executed is reported after the fact to journalists at a press club. No one besides the Ministry knows when an execution is to be heard.


The execution has brought back the sarin attacks, the Aum cult, and the death penalty apparatus into the spotlight in Japan.

According to the last Cabinet Office survey on the death penalty in 2015, 80.3 percent of respondents said that the death penalty was a necessary evil (死刑もやむを得ない). As to the reason why they thought so:


Asking the 1,467 respondents why they thought “the death penalty was a necessary evil (やむを得ない = lit. unavoidable)”, 53.4 percent of those respondents said “if the death penalty is abolished, the victims and their families cannot achieve closure in their feelings”, while 52.9 percent of respondents said “the cost of committing evil crimes is one’s life.”

Is it possible to have an abstract “debate” on the death penalty – the termination of a human life – without knowing what the death penalty actually entails in practice?

A close friend shared an op-ed written by Haruki Murakami in The Mainichi, the English language version of Mainichi Shimbun: 

I suspect that it is not possible to assert, to make a black or white judgment, here and now that the decision to go ahead with the mass execution (I dare use the expression) of 13 people was right. The faces of too many people emerge in the back of my head, and the emotions of too many people are still in the air. Just one thing I can say now is that the AUM-related cases did not come to a close with the latest executions. If there was any intention of “bringing a closure to those cases,” or an ulterior motive of making the institution called the death penalty a more permanent one by using this opportunity, that is wrong, and the existence of such a strategy must never be allowed.

Murakami published two books on the sarin attacks. Underground (extracts of which are translated into English) was a series of interviews where he received a lot of raw material about the Japanese psyche. Underground 2 (published only in Japanese) is the sequel, featuring interviews with Aum cultists themselves.

Vice News just so happened to send a correspondent to Japan right before Shoko Asahara, the cult leader, was executed.

At around the two minute mark, Dexter Thomas (a bilingual correspondent for Vice) interviews Asahara’s defense attorney, who offers the following explanation about the closure that the execution brings:

The Emperor will step down next year, ushering in a new era. They want to close out the case, by carrying out the executions before the Heisei Emperor abdicates. That’s one possibility. [The other possibility is that] Tokyo will soon host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. If Japan executed seven people right before the Olympics, how would that look to the international community?

What do Japanese executions look like?

Some years ago, a TV network in the UK made a ‘what-if’ documentary called The Execution of Gary Glitter, which one can easily find on YouTube. It was a response to a survey at the time which stated that a majority of people in the UK wanted capital punishment back. The ambitious broadcast wanted to reignite the “debate” by imagining, well, the execution of Gary Glitter, a British rock singer and child sex predator.

In any case, the producers deserve credit for what I’ve mentioned above: that a “debate” on the death penalty is fruitless without seeing and knowing what someone being sentenced onto death row is like.

A book I’ve been trying to finish for a long time is Shikei by Tatsuya Mori, who also made a number of documentary films about the Aum cult. A very readable piece of Japanese creative non-fiction, the book explores broadly what it means for Japan to continue having the death penalty without necessarily taking any sides in the “debate.” That the Japanese government is unapologetically opaque about the death penalty is a running theme, even towards the few Diet members who do care:

とても回りくどい語彙を使う国会式答弁の典型のような応酬だ。「これを公開するというのはなかなか難しいのではないかというふうにわれわれとしては言わざるを得ないわけでございます」という坂井矯正局長 [the minister responsible for correctional services (=矯正局)] の答弁の意味を要約すれば、「公開なんかできるわけがないって何度も言ってるだろ」ということになるのだろう。

In 2010, the Ministry of Justice allowed news cameras to enter 東京拘置所 (translated into English as “Tokyo Detention House”), which contains one of Japan’s seven execution chambers.

NHK made a longer documentary about the death penalty at the time but I think this short segment from a daytime news show called Miyaneya is to the point.

Some interesting parts from the broadcast on Nippon TV (affiliated with Yomiuri Shimbun) include:

  • The death row inmate may first speak to a Buddhist or Christian religious chaplain over manjuu and tea in a private room.
  • The last thing the death row inmate sees before his head is covered is a golden statue of Buddha (or a Christian cross).
  • Where the death row inmate’s head is covered is a plush carpet room. One side of the walls has a closed curtain. Beyond the curtains is the gallows.
  • Three prison officers each press an identical button at the same time to affect the execution. No one knows which button is the “real” one. The program explicitly says that this set-up is to reduce the officer’s psychological burden (of killing someone). (刑務官の精神的な負担を減らすための仕組みだ。)