TOKYO — The nerve-gas attack on the world’s busiest subway system was child’s play compared with what Sublime Truth really had in mind, or so says a tidal wave of increasingly fantastic reports on the doomsday cult in the Japanese media.
The group was planning to assassinate Emperor Akihito when he opened parliament in November, according to the weekly magazine Focus. Simultaneously, helicopters and balloons were going to drop nerve gas on major Japanese cities, hit squads would wipe out any surviving political, business and police leaders, and the cult’s allies in the Russian military would move in.
Shoko Asahara, the cult’s leader, was to become Holy Emperor, and Shin Kanemaru, a leading symbol of corruption in Japanese politics, was to be rehabilitated to make sure the government ran smoothly.
What’s more, reported Flash, a rival magazine, the cult had been developing Ebola virus to add to its arsenal of biological weapons since Asahara visited Zaire in October 1992. And it was moving heavily into the drug trade, too, Tokyo Sports said.
“The Japanese media is in a state of panic and hysteria,” Sublime Truth said in its own newspaper, which is distributed by white-suited cultists at subway stations.
But since the arrest of Asahara and dozens of his leading followers on May 16, the media focus here has shifted from tracking of terror to a pursuit of trivia so extreme that it makes US coverage of the O. J. Simpson murder trial seem sober and restrained. Almost all of it cites official sources.
“It’s natural that people are interested,” said Kinji Kawamura, professor of communication at Sophia University and a former Washington bureau chief for Asahi, one of the largest national daily newspapers. The nerve-gas attack on the subways, which killed 12 people and sickened more than 5,500 others, “is unique, strange. Nothing like this has happened in the postwar years.”
“But before the arrests, there was a feeling of immediate danger of some kind of further attack,” Kawamura said. Now, the media reports “are so wild — to attack the Diet with remote control helicopters, to kill the imperial family, to get assistance from the Russians. We don’t believe them.”
Whether the Japanese believe the reports or not, they are consuming them in vast quantities. News stands groan with piles of extra editions offering scoops on cult leaders. No detail, from the karaoke talents to the bathing habits of the cultists, is irrelevant enough to merit omission.
Consider the following excerpts from a seven-page interview with cult spokesman Fumihiro Joyu, published in the current edition of Josei Seven, a magazine aimed at homemakers.
Q. How many times a week do you take a bath?
A. I’m kind of lazy. I take one every two days.
Q. Do you brush your teeth?
A. No, not very often.
Q. What kind of underwear do you wear?
A. Just the ordinary kind, briefs.
Q. What color?
A. Nothing but white.
The media circus has made Joyu a celebrity, and not just among the teeny- boppers who are hanging his bare-chested picture on their bedroom walls and inundating him with flowers, handkerchiefs and letters.
“Joyu has astonished the Japanese media,” said a senior editorial writer for a large national newspaper. “In the United States there is always an argument between the prosecution side and the accused, but not in Japan — until Joyu began holding press conferences to defend” the cult. “This is the first time people opposed to government accusations have appeared in the media.”
That fact, added to immense public interest in the case and to the intricacies of the Japanese “press club” system, are at the heart of the current uproar.
Joyu and other Sublime Truth members chose to go on television rather than talk to print media, producing an overreaction from both delighted broadcasters and outraged newspapers and magazines, the editorialist said. Leaks from the police favored the old, conservative publications, he said, producing a further reaction among dozens of magazines and younger, more liberal newspapers.
“Before now, Japanese media always carried government-disclosed news, not investigative news like the US media,” he said. “This case has raised big questions of what we should do in the future. Even after this case is closed, there will be a long discussion of what is the media role.”