Aum reflects Japan’s distrust of alien element

The Japanese people by and large have a strong sense of belonging to their community, and perhaps this is why they are naturally and strongly inclined to mistrust and reject any alien element that is outside that society.

In ”A2,” a documentary I made in 2002, I showed the Aum Shinrikyo from within.

In one telling scene, a ranking Aum member visits Yoshiyuki Kono, a survivor of the 1994 sarin gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. He goes there to apologize to Kono on behalf of the cult, even though he played no part in spreading the deadly nerve gas.

But the Aum man is at a total loss on how to conduct himself. He simply does not know how to apologize.

Most people who saw this scene interpreted this as proof of what little contrition any cult member was capable of, if any. That, however, was not what I had hoped to convey.

What I wanted to show was not a living example of the evil and violence people associate with Aum. Rather, I tried to bring out the clumsiness and utter lack of social skills in this person who had chosen a life devoted to “faith.”

I also tried to convey what Aum members perceive as reality. Many were incapable of feeling any genuine guilt because they could not explain why their leaders had gone ahead with the sarin attack.

It is easy to denounce them for being unaware of their own guilt. But I believe in allowing some latitude when dealing with people whose faith has made them blind to their own actions.

Society is as puzzled about the cult’s motives for its felonies as are most cultists. As long as this is the case, no progress can be expected.

If we truly want to prevent anything similar from happening again, we must try to discover exactly what former guru Chizuo Matsumoto was thinking and planning to do.

But Matsumoto’s trials have failed to explain anything.

This is not just the fault of the defense attorneys or the prosecutors. Rather, I would point the finger at a society at large that wants Matsumoto to hang as soon as possible.

I am convinced that the great majority of Aum followers are good-hearted, but naive, people. This was certainly my impression of even some of the higher-ranking members whom I interviewed at the Tokyo Detention House.

To truly understand the mechanism by which their naivete turned to violence, we must shun any simplistic explanation premised on fuzzy theories-such as those concerning brainwashing and “mind control.” I cannot stress this enough because the phenomenon we are trying to puzzle out is anything but limited to the Aum issue alone.

The Aum crimes have brought out a spirit of mutual intolerance in our society. A very similar atmosphere of intolerance is also evident in the post-9/11 United States. And following the appearance of another group with its white-clad followers and the media sensationalism over Japanese abducted by the North Korean government, Japan today has become a nation where meanness, hatred and discrimination run rampant.

In a knee-jerk reaction to the Aum scare, the nation has begun to overly value crisis management. This, in turn, is bound to escalate the vicious cycle of creating an imaginary enemy and striking at it before it strikes at us.

When the subject of a discussion changes from the first person singular “I” to the plural “we,” goodwill and desire for justice are readily transformed into hatred and aggression. In this sense, Aum, the United States and al-Qaida are one and the same in structure.

While many Japanese are quick to criticize the United States, however, they have no idea that their society is essentially no different. They will remain unaware so long as they keep avoiding looking squarely at their own Aum problem.

I can boast that I have scrutinized Aum more than anyone else ever has. And I have no intention of defending the present-day Aum members as harmless.

I would say this, however: If society keeps on rejecting and hating Aum, the gentleness that its remaining followers now have toward other people will surely change into vicious aggression some day.

In my two documentary films on this cult, I rolled the camera from the Aum perspective in order to present a self-portrait of Japan. The Japanese people by and large have a strong sense of belonging to their community, and perhaps this is why they are naturally and strongly inclined to mistrust and reject any alien element that is outside that society. I believe this tendency toward suspicion has always been there, and Aum gave people the perfect excuse for acting on it.

A body with an immune system that becomes excessive can turn on itself. Nothing is more dangerous than our habitual failure to think.

After working as a TV director, Tatsuya Mori became a filmmaker. In 1998, he produced “A,” a documentary on Aum followers. The sequel, “A2,” was released in 2002.

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The Asahi Shimbun, Japan
Mar. 11, 2004 Opinion
Tatsuya Mori

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday March 11, 2004.
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