TOKYO — More than 3,000 Japanese crowded into the amphitheater of central Tokyo’s Hibiya Park early yesterday morning, each hoping to claim one of 56 seats reserved for the public at Japan’s “trial of the century.”
As helicopters clattered overhead and court officers struggled to maintain order, elegant young women, denim-draped students, businessmen in pinstripe and widows in polyester chattered about Aum Supreme Truth, the cult accused in the fatal gas bombing of the Tokyo subway system last March.
The case is not likely to put the legal system here on trial the way the O. J. Simpson case did in the United States, but the cult saga has inspired a similar hold on popular imagination in Japan, dominating the media, causing debate, and raising issues close to the heart of the country’s identity.
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“We know everything about O. J. from the television,” said Shizuko Mukawa, a widow in her 70s, as she waited with three friends to see if any of them would be admitted to yesterday’s session. “But we are much more interested in this.
“There are killings on both sides,” Mukawa said, “but look how many people they killed here.”
In fact, the number of deaths may not be known. And the list of crimes attributed to cult members has grown to staggering proportions.
The cult is alleged to be responsible for 23 deaths, 11 in the rush-hour gas-bombing of the subway, seven in an earlier gas attack in suburban Matsumoto, three in the silencing of an anti-cult lawyer and his family, one in the disappearance of a Tokyo notary public, and one in the execution of a disaffected cultist. Other deaths are under investigation.
In addition, some members have confessed to producing chemicals that could be used as anesthetics and truth serums and to committing industrial espionage in an effort to steal laser weaponry. Other members are accused of trying to blow up the mayor of Tokyo.
Many Japanese also believe widely circulated reports, so far unsubstantiated, that cultists planned to drop LSD on Tokyo from helicopters and killed the head of the National Police Agency.
Like the Simpson case in America, Aum is a fixture on Japan’s front pages and “wide programs,” the talk and feature shows that dominate daytime television. Every big TV station except NHK, the stodgy, noncommercial government station, is devoting at least two hours a day to the case, covering topics ranging from the sex lives to the mental states of cult members.
The 3,076 people who showed up at Hibiya Park for a chance at a seat for yesterday’s session was one of the largest crowds of its kind here in memory. Only once in Japan’s modern history, on the final day of the Lockheed bribery trial in 1983, have more residents sought admission to a court session.
The cult leader, Shoko Asahara, who prosecutors allege was behind almost all the cult’s actions, is not scheduled to make his first courtroom appearance until late next week. Current plans are for him to make 10 appearances before the end of the year.
From the beginning, Japanese have seemed to grow more and more united in their belief in the guilt of the defendants.
“They are murderers, amazingly bad,” said Yoshimi Uchida, a grandmother whose views matched those of students and businessmen questioned as they awaited the results of the seat lottery yesterday. “They are beyond imagination.”
Japanese lawyers have responded to such sentiments by shunning the cult defendants, Asahara in particular. Asahara could get only one lawyer to do work that even in a less complicated murder case would require two or three.
But deep divisions over the Aum case have also emerged, and are intensifying. Leaders of major groups fighting for abolition of capital punishment in Japan acknowledge that their cause has been set back severely, and a major political storm may be brewing over the desire of some political leaders to abolish the cult and tightly regulate the activities of religious organizations.
Conservative politicians are calling for the abolition of Aum under provisions of a law banning subversive activities, which had been used only against individuals. Leftists, reportedly including Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, a Socialist, are leery of such a step, fearing a revival of the religious and political purges that occurred before and during World War II.
Japan’s governing coalition, an alliance of the left and right, is moving to tighten monitoring of nonreligious activities of religious organizations, but has run into strong objections from the leading opposition party, which is backed by the country’s largest Buddhist organization.
“The O. J. and the Aum incidents raise highly ideological issues . . . directly connected to the basics of each society,” said Kuniko Miyanaga, professor of social anthropology at International Christian University. “With the O. J. case it was racism. In the case of Aum, it is religion.”
Although cameras are not allowed in the courtroom here except briefly at the beginning of each session, the flood of media attention is creating the same sensation of a real-life movie as the Simpson trial. The difference, observers say, reflects differences in the societies.
“The O. J. case was big because O. J. is a big star,” said Yoshimi Ishikawa, a writer noted for books about Japanese perceptions of America.
In the Aum case, as in many traditional Japanese stories, “there are many characters, each presenting his or her own drama,” Ishikawa said.
Mugi Hanao in the Globe’s Tokyo bureau contributed to this report.