A Media Circus Surrounds Japan's Trial of the Century

Accused cult leader is subject of O.J.-like coverage

COLLEGE student Kyoko Kinoshita got up long before dawn yesterday morning to reach the Tokyo District Courthouse in time for the trial of Shoko Asahara. But she did not do it to catch a glimpse of the most notorious man in Japan today. She did it for about $50.

Ms. Kinoshita was hired by a magazine to take part in a lottery for the 48 seats open to the public in Mr. Asahara's courtroom. Had she won one, Kinoshita would have handed her seat over to the magazine's staff.

More than 12,000 people jammed a Tokyo park in hopes of being one of the fortunate few.

But to all appearances, most of them like Kinoshita were in it for 4,000 to 5,000 yen ($37 to $47), the going rate for standing in line. Reporters trying to find a "real person" - someone not hired by a media organization - said 4 out of every 5 people questioned were paid to be there. Most were students, taking part in what seemed like a massive, one-day jobs program.

The media's zeal illustrates the way Asahara's trial has gripped the Japanese national consciousness, or at least the journalistic one. The country remains perplexed by Aum Shinri Kyo or Aum Supreme Truth, as Asahara's religious group is known. Many recent graduates of prestigious universities joined the guru, and they now stand accused or convicted of crimes ranging from trespassing to using nerve gas to commit mass murder in the Tokyo subway system.

"People still don't know why so many people followed Asahara's religion," says Yukio Edano, a member of parliament.

Given the level of media interest in Asahara's day in court, comparisons to the trial of O.J. Simpson are inevitable, but perhaps a bit too convenient. Among the differences:

*There is no camera in the courtroom. Networks have to rely on the accounts of reporters stepping in and out of court, which makes for a very removed form of live television. Many of Japan's networks stayed with the Asahara story for much of the opening day, but they had to work a lot harder to fill the time than Court TV or CNN did during the Simpson trial.

They replayed footage of the nerve-gas attack in March 1995, the main crime that Asahara is accused of masterminding. They aired profiles of some of the 5,000 people injured in the event. They remembered the dozen people who did not survive. And they ran interviews with current and former followers of Asahara, whose group plotted to overthrow the Japanese state through terrorism.

*There is very little uncertainty about the outcome of the trial. Asahara refused to enter a plea in response to charges against him that prosecutors read yesterday, but hardly anyone thinks he has a chance of being acquitted.

Japan has no jury system, and cases brought to trial result in conviction in almost every instance. Prosecutors tend to pursue only those cases where they are certain they have sufficient evidence to convict. Aum members who have appeared in other trials have repeatedly incriminated their former leader.

Among those hoping to sit in the gallery yesterday, Asahara's guilt was a foregone conclusion. "I came because he's such a terrible man," observed Kei Ohara, a retired insurance company worker who said he wasn't being paid to try to get a seat. "I'm shocked there are Japanese who commit such crimes."

Defense lawyer Osamu Watanabe argued yesterday that "society, because of its fears, has already made a judgment on the accused." Asahara himself has denied wrongdoing in past statements.

Although he cannot postpone a conviction in the court of public opinion, Asahara will be able to delay a final verdict. Analysts say appeals may delay the outcome for as many as 10 years, but the religious leader seems a likely candidate for the death penalty once the process is completed.

*There is no "race card." Defense lawyers have not indicated what their strategy will be, but it seems unlikely that they will be able to tap the sort of divisive issues that figured in the Simpson trial.

Although experts remain perturbed by what the appeal of Aum says about Japanese society, most people seem to see the guru and his followers as anomalies in a largely peaceful and well-ordered country.

*The lawyers don't want public attention. Apparently because any connection to Aum and Asahara is seen as a liability, 10 of the 12 defense lawyers appointed by the court have asked the media not to publicize their names. For that matter, so have five of the eight prosecutors, and three of the four judges involved in Asahara's trial.

For all the media's efforts, hardly any members of the Japanese public actually saw or heard Asahara yesterday.

Photographers never had a chance at him, so television viewers and newspaper readers had to content themselves with artists' sketches. Asahara didn't make any admissions of wrongdoing in court, instead asserting his religious beliefs.

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