Japanese suburbanites defy law

Mayors and residents band together to refuse Aum members residency.

Tsunetoshi Suzuki makes no bones about breaking the law. The mayor of Adachi, a Tokyo suburb, has done it before and says he'll do it again - it's what the public wants.

He refuses to allow a religious group to live in his town, violating the constitutional guarantee that Japanese can live where they like. This year, at least 35 other mayors have evicted the group or told them they're not welcome. "People dislike them," says Mr. Suzuki.

It's no mystery why. The group, Aum Supreme Truth, engineered the 1995 gas attack on Tokyo's subways that killed 12. But since then, some Aum leaders have been convicted, others are still on trial. Aum has lost its legal religious status; membership has plummeted. Remaining devotees say they simply want to practice their Hindu- and Buddhist-inspired faith in peace.

The anti-Aum campaign reveals how group consensus can trump the rule of law here, raising questions for some Japanese about the health of their country's democracy and its commitment to civil liberties.

These observers say the campaign bodes ill for the future. Japan is likely to see an increased minority population in the future as it imports labor to make up for a rapidly aging population. An intolerance of diversity will make that transition all the harder.

"The treatment Aum receives will affect all minorities," says Kenichi Asano, a communications professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto. Like many who question the abuse of democratic freedoms in the Aum case, he has come in for vociferous criticism from the media and public.

"On paper we have a democracy, with due process of law, but in practice we don't use it to protect human rights or freedom of thought," he says.

Japanese society has never looked kindly on fringe groups, and Aum has done little to endear itself. Leader Shoko Asahara, still on trial for murder, encouraged members to leave all-important social units like the family, university, and company.

Since the subway attack, Aum has alienated people further by refusing to express regret, a crucial gesture that can atone for the gravest of sins.

Members say they can't apologize for something they know nothing about.

Officials cite their refusal as proof that Aum remains dangerous. "That's why they have to be treated this way, regardless of the legalities involved," says an Adachi city spokesman.

The anti-Aum juggernaut started this February in Kitamimaki village in northern Japan, spurred by rumors that the group was regaining strength.

From a high of about 40,000 before the 1995 attack, membership fell to 1,000 say Aum spokesmen and has now grown to 1,500. Police say it has swelled to 5,000.

The growth is a sign that Aum's appeal to young people hasn't changed. "The social forces that created them in the first place are still there - the straitjacket education system, the suffocation of youth," says Andrew Marshall, co-author of "The Cult at the End of the World," a book about Aum's rise and its crimes.

When Aum members bought the Kitamimaki house, residents vowed not to let them move in. They dug a ditch around the building, ringed it with barbed wire, and set up watch committees armed with alarm bells, wooden shields. and clubs.

Officials sided with the residents. "Local feelings are more important than the constitution," explains Kitamimaki Mayor Osamu Koyama.

Before long other towns across Japan followed suit, ordering the group out or forbidding it from moving in. Without a residency permit, Japanese are unable to vote, get a job, medical care, health insurance, a pension, or driver's license.

In some areas, local stores and restaurants refuse to serve Aum members and schools bar their children from classrooms and parks.

In July, the central government gave the municipalities a tacit nod of approval when Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka said he "understood" the local government reaction to Aum.

"They see our group as outside the Constitution," says Aum spokesman Hiroshi Araki. Even so, Aum expects protection from the courts, though Mr. Araki acknowledges there will be challenges. Aum has been evicted from its Adachi headquarters, but has nowhere to go. Every day members remain in the facility, they are fined around $300. "Some people tell us to go to a deserted island. They say we're not Japanese like they are," he laughs.

The vigilante-like movement may reflect a lack of confidence in the authorities to deal with Aum, says Mr. Marshall. The police ignored warning signs that implicated Aum in suspicious activities before the subway attack.

Later government attempts to revise a law on religious groups and apply an antisubversion law against Aum failed due to resistance from other religious organizations that recalled brutal religious repression in the years before World War II.

But the political tide has shifted to the right here, allowing the passage of bills that might not have succeeded before. This year, the government approved a wiretapping bill that many believe is largely meant to monitor Aum. And officials have suggested trying the antisubversive law once again, which would allow it to disband Aum.

Professor Asano still thinks this is the wrong tack to take. "If you say they're dangerous, that they're not human beings, then you can't communicate with them," he says. "We have to understand why they became this way and we can't until we talk to them."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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