OTAWARA, Japan — Perched 20 feet up atop a rickety awning, Myoshi Kotani peeped through the surrounding cedar trees to get a better view of the shrouded buildings below.
“This is bad, very bad,” Kotani said, referring to the workmen assembling prefabricated housing for members of Aum Shinrikyo, the sect behind the 1995 nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway that killed 12 people and made 6,000 others ill. “We’ve got to stop them. We can’t let these murderers move into our community.”
As a black Toyota van drove out the gate of the clandestine complex, a group of farmers who were camped out front began to jeer and shake their fists. “We don’t want you here!” someone yelled through a bullhorn. “Go away, Aum!”
The residents of this tranquil farming village on the Nakagawa River, about 80 miles north of Tokyo, are on the front lines of a bitter nationwide campaign to banish members of the cult from Japanese society.
Anger at the cult runs high, and most Japanese seem untroubled by the campaign and its draconian tactics. But that widespread public tolerance is raising questions among some Japanese about the depth of Japan’s commitment to civil liberties.
Japanese and Americans differ on how to strike a balance between individual rights and the welfare of society. The Japanese believe that the United States often emphasizes individual rights at the expense of the society as a whole. They cite as one example the recent shootings by Americans belonging to hate groups. Many Japanese see Aum as a dangerous force that continues to threaten their nation.
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In recent weeks, dozens of municipalities across Japan have taken drastic steps to drive Aum cult members out of town. Many of their tactics are blatantly discriminatory and often violate the Japanese Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to live where they choose.
The most common anti-Aum tactic has been for municipal governments to refuse to accept members’ residency applications, which are a legal requirement to live in any Japanese city and qualify for social services. Without residency permits, people cannot receive medical care, pensions or other public services. They cannot vote or obtain employment, a passport or a driver’s license.
In some cities, residents will not allow children of cult members to attend public schools or to play in parks. Businesses will not sell goods to Aum followers, restaurants will not serve them and outdoor spas will not allow them to bathe. In one extreme case, three waste management firms have refused to pick up the cult’s garbage and sewage.
Sympathy for Aum followers is hard to come by in Japan, which was devastated by the nerve gas attack in the subway. Except for a few human rights activists and constitutional scholars, almost no one has criticized this country’s treatment of Aum followers.
Masayuki Tanamura, a law professor at Waseda University who specializes in civil rights law, said that Japan’s treatment of Aum followers sets a dangerous precedent for a democratic society.
“I’m very worried that this kind of suppression of basic democratic rights, of freedom of expression and religion will destroy Japan’s free society,” Tanamura said. “It’s not right to restrict or regulate people just because they have dangerous thoughts and believe in dangerous religions.”
Aum Shinrikyo is a doomsday cult whose teachings are based on tenets borrowed from Hinduism and Buddhism. At the center of the group’s beliefs is reverence for Shoko Asahara, Aum’s founder, who teaches that the end of the world is near. The police have portrayed the nerve gas attack as the cult’s way of hastening doomsday.
Many Aum followers are said to be people who were lost in Japan’s workaday society and seeking guidance or spiritual salvation. Police officials say the group has about 5,000 members.
Because of the widespread fury against the cult, national and local government officials have turned a blind eye to the violations of the cult members’ rights. Kijuro Tateno, Mayor of Sanwa in Ibaraki Prefecture, which has refused to allow 24 Aum followers to register as residents, said his town “may be violating the law in order to protect the safety of local residents.”
Asked about the issue at a recent press briefing, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka said: “I think the heads of the municipalities in those areas are put in an extremely difficult situation. As they are dealing with a group that had committed brutal crimes in the past, my feelings are that I can understand it is inevitable that they take such measures.”
According to a recent survey by Kyodo, Japan’s leading news service, at least 35 cities in 16 prefectures have taken steps to oust Aum members from their borders. But the report found that such efforts appear to have had little impact so far.
“This is the worst treatment of any group that I’ve ever seen in Japan,” said Kenichi Asano, a human rights advocate and communications professor at Doshisha University. “I saw a sign the other day that said: ‘Aum Get Out of the Earth and Go to the Cosmos.’ “
“I am not a defender of Aum, and if my daughter decided to join the group I would strongly try to persuade her not to do it,” Asano said. “But until they commit a crime, members of religious groups have the same rights under the Constitution as anyone else.”
Law enforcement officials, who are closely monitoring the situation, said that strong public opposition to Aum is fallout from the 1995 subway attack, which they described as the country’s worst terrorist attack in modern history. “They call Aum the doomsday cult, and for many people who were trapped in the subway that day, it really did seem like the end of the world,” a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity said. “You don’t easily forget that.”
Moreover, public anxiety over Aum has been mounting in the last year as the group stepped up its recruitment efforts, particularly on the Internet and at universities, and as its commercial ventures, mainly discount computer shops, have prospered, the officials said.
In recent months, the sect has purchased numerous properties across the country where it is constructing housing for its expanding membership. In addition, many Japanese fear that Aum may be planning another attack since several senior members, who recently finished serving prison terms related to the subway attack, have returned to the group.
While the Japanese have become more accepting of groups that are foreign to their largely homogeneous society and more willing to defend the rights of others, their tolerance wears thin when there is a threat, real or perceived, to social order.
Aum officials said that they are baffled by the widespread opposition to its members, who themselves have not been accused of any crime. Hiroshi Araki, acting chief of Aum’s public relations department, said the group has received no assistance from the Government.
“We can’t find any government organization that deals with this issue because it’s an unprecedented case,” the spokesman said. “We don’t quite know how to respond to what’s happening.”
The group has filed claims seeking help from Japan’s Bar Association and it has appealed the local governments’ denial of residency registration to the provincial courts, but so far it has had no success.
Araki said that denying Aum followers residency registration has caused great hardship.
“As such every single aspect of our ordinary, everyday lives is being deprived by these local communities,” Araki said. “And it’s possible that it can get worst. Stones are being thrown and trucks are being crashed into our facilities. The physical damage could escalate.”
Indeed, police officials have said that violent attacks against cult members are on the rise. One cult member was stabbed by two men while he was circulating flyers advertising a computer shop that is believed to be owned by Aum followers.
Yukinari Yamano, assistant director of the investigation division of the Justice Department’s civil liberties bureau, said that the agency is monitoring the Aum situation and that it does not normally involve itself in such matters unless a formal complaint has been lodged.
Yamano said that the agency is mainly set up to promote civil rights and does not engage in enforcement, although it can conduct investigations and recommend that the Justice Department become involved. “One must keep in mind that both the residents of these cities and the members of Aum have human rights that must be protected,” Yamano said.
In 1997, the Public Security Commission, an independent body, rejected the Government’s request to apply the country’s anti-subversion law to disband Aum.
The law allows the Government to outlaw subversive organizations that have engaged in terrorism and are likely to do so again.
At first, the Government said it was studying amendments to the law that would limit the cult’s activities, but it abandoned those plans after religious groups complained that such an amendment might also restrict their freedom.
Now the Government is considering new legislation aimed specifically at Aum. “We want to consider this carefully,” said Nonaka, the Cabinet Secretary. “But we must step up our effort within the government to diminish people’s concerns.”
Nowhere has opposition to Aum been more hostile than in Otawara, a place known for its pastoral way of life. Residents work hard tending the abundant rice fields and dairy cattle that dot the landscape, but they also take time to enjoy life and to get to know their neighbors, whom many here consider family.
Ever since 20 members of the Aum sect began converting an old inn into residential housing two months ago, local residents have made it clear that they were not welcome. The municipal government prevented the school registration of two children of Aum’s founder, Shoko Asahara, who is on trial on charges of masterminding the subway attack and a series of crimes, including murder.
Otawara’s Chamber of Commerce has advised city businesses to refuse to sell goods to cult followers, and many shops display posters that read “We do not sell any goods to people connected with Aum.”
Last month, the protests turned violent when a man whom police described as a right-wing activist rammed his truck into the front gate of the compound, sending two male Aum members to the hospital with minor hand and back injuries.
Two weeks ago, about 3,500 protesters from Otawara and nearby towns formed a human circle around the Aum compound and chanted “Aum get out!”