TOKYO, March 14–(Kyodo) The 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system has stirred public concerns over the security of Japanese society, leading people to support tougher punishments and the spread of surveillance systems, civil rights activists said.
Their remarks ahead of the 10th anniversary of the murderous attacks by several members of the AUM Shinrikyo cult, in which 12 people were killed and more than 5,500 injured, are underlined by a recent government survey which indicated the percentage of people expressing support for the death penalty is 81.4 percent, exceeding the 80 percent mark for the first time.
The activists now express doubts over the government’s policies on crime, with security concerns in the background, saying they have led to restrictions on human rights.
Yoshihiro Yasuda, one of the former defense lawyers for AUM founder Shoko Asahara, pointed out that the sarin gas attack, combined with the Sept. 11 hijackings in the United States in 2001, has prompted the public demand for the restoration of order, leading to the survey result on capital punishment.
“Japanese society as a whole has become just like a ‘school committee on discipline’ and seeks severe punishment for those who corrupt public morals,” Yasuda, also a well-known anti-death penalty campaigner, said.
Japan has repeatedly been urged by various international bodies, including the United Nations and the Council of Europe, to suspend executions.
Referring to recent moves, prompted by a series of fatal school intrusion cases, to press teachers to learn how to fight intruders or to allow police officers to patrol at schools, Yasuda said, “It seems to me that people in Japan now play at cowboys in the belief that only those who have guns and swords are strong.”
“They forget that the most important thing is to make efforts to maintain peace and order without a sword,” he said.
Yasuda also said he still feels regret at failing to make it clear why the sarin gas attack occurred and could not be prevented.
“Amid calls for fast-track court procedures, the trials of indicted AUM followers became a stage for portraying people as villains and imposing responsibility for the crimes on others,” he said.
Asahara, 50, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, was sentenced to death in February last year over 13 charges following an almost eight-year hearing at the Tokyo District Court.
“The Diet should at least have set up an investigation committee to seek explanations for the series of AUM incidents. We failed to use these incidents to produce a more stable society,” Yasuda said.
Makoto Teranaka, secretary general at Amnesty International Japan, shared Yasuda’s views, suggesting that the government-led “campaign to stir up public security concerns” has prevailed in Japanese society.
“The authorities have impressed on people the point that security in this society has deteriorated by focusing on crime victims, their families and crimes committed by foreigners and juveniles, so that they can promote tougher punishments rather than taking care of the victims or their families,” he said.
“We now need to question the campaign over security concerns, which has misdirected the government’s crime policies,” he said.
Meanwhile, Hidemichi Morosawa, chairperson of Tokiwa University in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, said the sarin gas incident was the jump-start for crime victims and their families to publicize their problems to society.
“The efforts of victims and their families led to the enactment of a law on Dec. 1 last year to enhance care for them,” Morosawa, who specializes in victimology, said.
The legislation stipulates the rights of victims, saying, “The central and local governments and the Japanese people are responsible for protecting crime victims,” and provides measures to protect crime victims and their families.
The university will launch Japan’s first master’s program of victimology in the 2005 academic year from April to foster specialists in supporting victims, including those of traffic accidents, and in policymaking for victim support.
Twelve students, of whom two-thirds are working people, have been accepted at the new graduate school, and Morosawa said, “We are planning to start a doctoral program in this field in the near future.”
Yasuda, the lawyer, pointed out that victim support should be considered a social welfare issue and should be put under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, rather than the Justice Ministry or the National Police Agency.
He also stressed the necessity of supporting recovery not only of victims but also of offenders in order to stabilize society, saying, “We need to foster mediators who can promote communication between victims and offenders so that the two sides can be rehabilitated.”
Amnesty’s Teranaka said problems surrounding offenders should also be considered a social welfare issue, proposing that authorities focus more on enhancing rehabilitation programs for convicts rather than introducing tougher punishments, such as by freeing them from prison work and providing them with more opportunities for counseling.