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Yoshiyuki Kono: We have no right to banish ex-Aum followers • Thursday February 6, 2003

Asahi New (Japan), Fe. 6, 2003 (Opinion, Yoshiyuki Kono)

While the voice of the people may not have the force of the law in an official sense, it can actually be more powerful. It is beyond description how my family and I suffered at the words of neighbors who told us to leave town. I feel sad that society has not learned the lessons of the Matsumoto tragedy.

The sarin gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in June 1994 left my wife in a coma. Her heart and lungs stopped when she inhaled the poisonous gas, and she had to be admitted to an institution providing round-the-clock care.

Although she survived the attack, she twice fell into critical condition. But she made it both times, and this year she was able to spend the New Year holidays with the family at home. Though she remains unconscious, it made me very happy.

In the eight and half years since the incident for which Aum Shinrikyo (which now calls itself Aleph) is held responsible, I have come to question the way society is dealing with the cult. In particular, I find it disturbing that local residents and communities are trying to ostracize Aleph followers unfairly and with disregard for the law.

The Public Security Examination Commission has decided to keep Alef under surveillance for another three years. The monitoring was authorized based on a law enacted to control dangerous organizations.

In requesting the extension to the commission, the Public Security Investigation Agency said the cult retains its dangerous character and could commit indiscriminate mass murders. The cult opposed the argument, saying its founder Chizuo Matsumoto, also known as Shoko Asahara, who is now on trial, is no longer an object of absolute devotion.

Which side is right? The commission heard Aleph’s views last month. But did the two sides have opportunities to fully exchange views?

I have heard that some people regard the organization control law itself as unconstitutional. Is it right to make an important decision based on such an inadequate premise?

At the time of the Matsumoto sarin gas attack, I became an enemy of society because I was considered the prime suspect. Not only I, but even my friends living in Matsumoto, were asked by neighbors to move out of their communities. Everybody and everything that had to do with me was renounced.

Once a person is publicly labeled “a bad guy,” and moves to oust that person from groups and local communities gain momentum, even the law becomes powerless. Consequently, human rights are violated. When that happens, the public tends to tolerate illegal behavior or unfair acts aimed at eliminating such persons. It seems that such forces are now directed at Aleph.

I was once asked by a female Aleph follower living in Matsumoto for advice. According to the woman, the media reported that the cult was establishing a new base in Matsumoto, when all she did was rent an apartment. She was evicted at the demand of the local neighborhood association. The woman rented another apartment, but when the lease expired, the landlord refused to renew. Real estate agents are also concerned about the “sentiments of local residents.”

Local governments across Japan have further flouted the law by refusing to accept followers’ applications for residential registration and denying their children enrollment at local public schools. Such acts by municipal governments are supposedly a reflection of “the voice of citizens.” Needless to say, they are against the law.

Freedom of religion and residence are the rights of the Japanese people under the Constitution. Yet Japanese society refuses to grant these civil liberties to Aleph followers. As a victim of the Matsumoto sarin gas attack, I personally see no difference between the violation of human rights of Aleph followers and the way society wrongly accused me of a crime I did not commit.

While the voice of the people may not have the force of the law in an official sense, it can actually be more powerful. It is beyond description how my family and I suffered at the words of neighbors who told us to leave town. I feel sad that society has not learned the lessons of the Matsumoto tragedy.

When people ask me why I am “helping” Aleph, I tell them, “It’s not right to expel people from local communities just because they happen to be Aleph followers.”

In fact, Aleph continues to pay compensation to victims of the incidents for which they are held responsible. Some followers have joined groups to support the victims and are taking part in relief activities. It is questionable how much the public takes into consideration such acts.

I sincerely ask citizens and local governments to treat Aleph followers sensibly.

* * *

The author is a victim of the 1994 sarin gas poisoning in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. He was the first to report the gas attack to the police, who mistook him for the perpetrator. He was harassed by the media until it became clear he was innocent. He contributed this comment to The Asahi Shimbun.

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