Taro Maki: An intrepid media must chase down taboos

Article 20 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, a civil liberty that was denied before World War II. This article is as essential to the nation as the war-renouncing Article 9, and I believe both articles ought to be honored to the letter.

Unfortunately, however, Article 20 is open to abuse by anti-social organizations when they violate human rights and harm public welfare in the name of religious freedom.

Still, the mass media and law enforcement authorities have made it taboo to go after such organizations, lest they themselves be accused of “religious persecution.”

In that sense, the weekly Sunday Mainichi magazine broke this prohibition when it began running a series of stories to expose the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo (which now calls itself Aleph). I was the magazine’s editor in chief when I first learned of Aum and its obsession with money. I knew instinctively this was anything but an honest religious organization.

In retrospect, our anti-Aum campaign was not entirely in vain. But I also have regrets.

How Cult Apologists Defended AUM Shinrikyo

“One of the Americans, James Lewis, told a hostile and evidently incredulous roomful of Japanese reporters gathered at an Aum office Monday that the cult could not have produced the rare poison gas, sarin, used in both murder cases. He said the Americans had determined this from photos and documents provided by Aum.”
– Quoted at AUM and cult apologists

“He was accompanied by two Santa Barbarans – J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions, and James R. Lewis, director of the Association of World Academics for Religious Education–and Thomas Banigan of Anver Bioscience Design Inc. in Sierra Madre.”
– Quoted at AUM and cult apologists

“Another claim by the AUM apologists is that the trip to Japan was initiated and financed by AUM ‘dissidents,’ shocked by the acts of their leaders. The reality is that the trip was initiated by the NRM scholars involved, who contacted AUM to offer their help, and that there are no AUM dissidents.”
– Quoted at AUM and cult apologists

Foremost among my regrets concerns what befell attorney Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family. It was Sakamoto’s collaboration that made the Sunday Mainichi series possible in the first place.

Soon after the series began, we ran an insider account by a young man who denounced Aum for suckering gullible believers into undergoing an “initiation ritual” that purported to help them attain “special powers” by drinking the guru’s blood.

With his testimony, we felt confident we could nail Aum for fraud. But just then, an abduction attempt was made on this young man, and I was forced to make myself scarce for a while. I even took the precaution of staying away from my own home. It was during this period that Sakamoto was murdered together with his wife and their baby son.

As I would discover when the Aum trials began, I, too, was a target of poa-an Aum euphemism for murder. But because I was nowhere to be found, the cult went after Sakamoto instead. I also heard that there was a plot to blow up the Mainichi Shimbun building. By my decision to break the taboo, I may have endangered the lives of many innocent people. This realization reminded me anew of the incredible difficulty and danger one faces in going after an irrational organization and trying to expose it for what it is.

Yet, I still say today that one must not give up.

Many people have pointed out that even though Sunday Mainichi started the fire, so to speak, the magazine eventually let Aum get away.

Here is what happened. When the Sakamoto family disappeared, we were almost certain it was Aum’s doing. But we refrained from saying so, mainly because we had a feeling that this cult could really get out of control if provoked.

In addition, it would not have been right for us to keep focusing solely on the Aum issue, week after week, when there were other subjects that deserved public attention. And my health problems at the time did not help matters, either.

In the meantime, Aum improved its public image by promoting itself as a religious group capable of dialogue with high-profile religious scholars. In a sense, the notoriety generated by our series may have inadvertently aided the cult.

I understand guru Chizuo Matsumoto’s defense team asserted in its summation something to the effect that the mass media are to blame for pushing Aum off the deep end. This is utterly preposterous. We did not hit Aum hard enough.

It’s been 15 years since we ran our anti-Aum campaign. I concede I should not be making any simple comparison between the media back then and the media today, but I would still say this: I have grave doubts about the independence of the news media today.

With newspapers in particular, I see little evidence of investigative reporting. What I do see is an overwhelming abundance of reports that are patently Establishment-oriented.

Society is full of what I call “Aum-like” phenomena-something rotten and criminal lurking beneath a veneer of decency and respectability. But newspapers simply ignore clues to such conditions in society.

Had newspaper reporters chased down the Takefuji Corp. wiretapping scandal that broke late last year, for instance, I would bet Takefuji would have put wiretaps on their phones. Here is what I think: Newspaper reporters would not have missed signs of something Aum-like lurking in the shadowy loan industry-they just decided to steer clear.

When chasing a taboo story, one wrong move or one inaccurate report can destroy a reporter’s career, not to mention the ruthless retaliation he would face from the “wronged” party. Obviously, one could never be too careful. But fearing the worst and hiding behind the safety of inaction will surely encourage Aum-like entities to keep growing.

I am irritated to see that the lessons we are supposed to have learned from the Aum coverage have apparently not sunk in. I would not hesitate to chase down such taboo stories.

* * *

The author is a senior writer at Mainichi Newspapers Co. After joining the newspaper in 1967, he worked in the city news and political news sections until he became the editor in chief of the weekly Sunday Mainichi magazine in 1988. The following year, he directed an anti-Aum campaign through a series of articles titled “Aum Shinrikyo-no Kyoki” (Insanity of Aum Shinrikyo), for which he won the 1997 Nippon Kisha Club Award.

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The Asahi Shimbun, USA
Feb. 19, 2004 Opinion
Taro Maki

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday February 19, 2004.
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