TOKYO — AUM Shinrikyo cult founder Shoko Asahara, 63, who orchestrated the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack and other murders and six former members of the cult were executed on the morning of July 6, the Ministry of Justice announced.
The executions came 11 years and 10 months after the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that sentenced the former AUM leader to death in September 2006 as the “mastermind” of the series of crimes by the cult, which sent shockwaves through Japanese society and carved a place in the history of Japan’s Heisei era.
Along with Asahara, whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto, 12 other former top members of AUM Shinrikyo were also sentenced to death. The six other members executed on the same day as Asahara were Kiyohide Hayakawa, 68, at the Fukuoka Detention Center; Yoshihiro Inoue, 48, and Tomomitsu Niimi, 54, at the Osaka Detention Center; Masami Tsuchiya, 53, at the Tokyo Detention Center; Tomomasa Nakagawa, 55, at the Hiroshima Detention Center; and Seiichi Endo, 58, also at the Tokyo Detention Center. The death sentences for the six were finalized between 2009 and 2011.
The latest executions bring the total number signed off by Minister of Justice Yoko Kamikawa to 10, including during her previous run in the same position from October 2014 to October 2015. In addition, seven death row inmates is the highest number ordered executed in a single day in Japan since executions resumed in the country in 1993.
Asahara was born in Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture, in 1955, and established the predecessor of AUM Shinrikyo, “AUM Shinsen no Kai” in 1984. The organization attracted believers through yoga and meditation classes that claimed to give practitioners special abilities. In 1987, the organization changed its name to AUM Shinrikyo and became an incorporated religious body in 1989.
In 1990, Asahara himself and other followers ran as candidates for the House of Representatives, but none of them were successfully elected to office. Trouble continued with members leaving the cult and the payment of expensive “offerings,” attracting harsh criticism from the public.
After the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, Metropolitan Police Department raided the cult’s facility in the then village of Kamikuishiki in Yamanashi Prefecture, and arrested Asahara and other leaders of the cult, and subsequently indicted Asahara on murder and other charges in 17 cases. In order to speed up proceedings, the prosecution subsequently dropped relatively light charges against Asahara in four of these cases. The remaining 13 cases included the 1989 murder of anti-cult lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family, and a 1994 sarin gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in central Japan, which killed eight people. In total, 29 people died (27 confirmed by the court as victims) and over 6,500 people were injured.
When his trial began in the Tokyo District Court in 1996, Asahara asserted that he was almost completely innocent, claiming that it was his disciples who carried out the attacks. However, he was handed the death penalty 2004 on the grounds that “committing crimes that stole the lives of so many people based on fictitious fantasies is foolish and despicable and deserves maximum social condemnation,” citing that Asahara had “planned to expand the power of the religious cult by arming it, and imagined taking over Japan in the name of salvation and installing himself as king.”
A total of 13 former members were sentenced to death for their involvement in either the death of the Sakamoto family or the two sarin gas attacks, or a combination of the incidents. In addition, six received life sentences, 81 prison time, 87 suspended sentences and three were fined. Two former members were found not guilty.
Following the cult leader’s sentencing, because his legal group “could not communicate” with Asahara, they missed the deadline for submitting paperwork to appeal the court’s decision on the grounds that he was mentally unfit to stand trial. Because of this, the Tokyo High Court struck down an appeal in 2006. The Supreme Court also upheld the Tokyo High Court’s ruling, and Asahara’s death sentence was finalized the same year.
In 1995, the Tokyo District Court revoked the legal status of AUM Shinrikyo as an incorporated religious organization. In 2000, the group renamed itself Aleph, and a new group called “Hikari no wa” (The Circle of Rainbow Light) broke away in 2007.
The trials over incidents related to AUM Shinrikyo’s activities came to an end in January 2018. In March, the Justice Ministry moved seven of the 13 death row inmates, excluding Asahara, from where they were being held in the Tokyo Detention Center in the capital’s Katsushika Ward to five regional centers, and the details of the execution of their sentences and the timing started being considered.