Media Coverage of the Aum Shinrikyo: A Retrospective

Ten years have passed since 20 March 1995, when the Aum Shinrikyo staged a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

After the subway attack every area of the media was for weeks afterwards saturated with coverage of Aum. Indeed, it was several weeks before anything other than an Aum story captured the front page of newspapers, while the main television companies devoted hour upon hour of primetime television to the affair every day for weeks on end. A lot of the coverage was sensationalised and there was profound disquiet in Japan at the lurid ways (which included peddling rumours, harassing members of Aum and their parents, and riding roughshod over the privacy of those associated in the affair) in which the media had behaved….

The sensationalised coverage at first glance appeared to verify the frequent criticisms scholars have made of the media’s treatment of new religious movements. There is an extensive academic literature on this topic, providing detailed analyses of how the mass media treat small religious movements outside the mainstream in unbalanced and inflammatory ways. The consensus has been that the mass media tend to discuss new religions in terms of deviance from mainstream attitudes or in terms of what some scholars have termed ‘atrocity tales’–stories that depict such movements in a bad light, highlighting odd behaviour or alleging breaches of social norms. As some scholars have pointed out, these often turn out to be far less dramatic or ‘atrocious’ than initially portrayed. However, the Aum case offers a cautionary warning that this is not always the case. In Aum, while many of the earlier ‘atrocity tales’ (besides those relating to the subway attack and suspicions about the murder of the Sakamotos) were highly sensational, such as stories of Hayakawa’s fantasies about nuclear weapons, much of the later evidence that came out as result of investigations (such as the internal killings, uses of drugs, extortion and experiments with weapons designed to kill vast numbers of people) showed a far deeper culture of violence and criminality than even the early media stories appeared to suggest.

Naturally, besides reporting the events relating to Aum and speculating about the movement’s intentions, the biggest single question that ran through all the discussions of the affair in Japan was how a society that prided itself on its high levels of public safety and order could have produced such a movement, and what this said about the nature of Japanese society in general. These issues were discussed over and over in the weeks after the attack by social commentators and analysts, and their discussions tended to revolve around two interrelated themes.

One focused on the assumption that Aum was not a real religion, but a ‘cult’ (Japanese: karuto) established by an evil manipulator who was only out for power and money. The term karuto was used much in the ways the word ‘cult’ has been in the media in the West, to suggest a deviant, fanatical group led by a charismatic person who postures as a religious leader but who is in fact a self-serving individual who beguiles people into following him or her, and who manipulates and uses them for his or her own purposes….

The most common theme running through Japanese discussions of the affair focused on its national dimensions. In observing that the perpetrators of the affair were Japanese, it saw the seeds of their violence as being related to their discontent with their society, and their behaviour as reflecting and being produced by the Japanese system and cultural environment….

The Aum affair, in other words, provided every critic of Japanese society with avenues through which to vent their particular grievances. The interpretation which relates the Aum affair primarily to the shortcomings of the Japanese social and cultural environment clearly has some resonance. Aum was, after all, produced in the Japanese environment and, as has been seen in this book, many of the factors leading people to join it were related to general problems within mainstream society, such as the over-rationalised, stratified and pressurised education and work system, excessive materialism, and the familial demands for success coupled with the emotional deprivation that can be engendered by such a system….

However, it would be problematic to limit analyses of the Aum affair to such Japanese cultural-specific interpretations. What Aum, as a world-rejecting religious movement with a focus on internal spiritual development, reacted against and criticised most harshly was not Japanese society per se but contemporary materialism. Aum’s antipathies had universal dimensions and its primary target of hate was materialism in general and the USA in particular. This was underscored by the views of one of my interviewees, who told me that, even if he did decide at some stage to leave Aum he would not want to return to the mainstream of Japanese society because he found it so corrupt and materialistic. He was also certain that he would not have felt better in any other society that was governed by materialism. Hence he felt most comfortable withdrawing from society and entering into a closed, world-rejecting order that focused on internal self-development.

SOURCE: Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo, by Ian Reader (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2000), pp. 225-228

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