Japan is coming to grips with one of its demons. Police have investigated the March 20 fatal gassing in the Tokyo subway with exhaustive patience. Along the way they left a strong impression that Aum Shinri Kyo, which grew from a harmless herb business into a doomsday survivalist cult, is a formidable enemy of society. The world can join the Japanese in relief that, after rounding up 200 followers capable of taking reprisals, the police allowed themselves to capture the leader while he meditated within a compound they occupied.
Shoko Asahara is 40 and nearly as blind as Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Egyptian Muslim cleric on trial for allegedly leading a terrorist campaign in New York. Mr. Asahara is influenced by Hindu teachings alien to Japanese culture as well as Buddhist teachings that are part of it. He has called himself the Christ and routinely predicts nuclear devastation of Japan. He came to the spiritual life after Tokyo University repeatedly rejected his application for admission.
Aum Shinri Kyo is accused of researching biological weapons, making chemical weapons, investigating nuclear weapons, making guns, administering illegal drugs, committing bombings, kidnapping and assassination. Many of its doings would be illegal for anyone in any society. The claim to be a religion is no exemption from the rule of law, in Japan or the United States.
Shoko Asahara's leadership of Aum Shinri Kyo may be seen as a Hindu-Buddhist aberration in much the way that David Koresh's leadership of the Branch Davidians, with its striking similarities, was a Christian deviation. Both grew out of their national culture and attracted foreign adherents.
As a material success, Japan is the envy of the world. Yet as it moves from traditional culture into the global electronic age, it traverses anxieties and anomalies. For the first time, Japanese workers do not have lifetime jobs. Strange gas attacks and mail bombings go unsolved. Crime flourishes. Government is not respected. Odd cults spring up. Americans can understand a lot of this.
The United States is not the only place where the wheels of justice grind slowly. It will be years before the public can judge how good a case can be made against Shoko Asahara and Aum Shinri Kyo for the March 20 gassing that killed 12 people and injured 5,500, or for other crimes.
As Japan's politically weak Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama said, "The most important thing is to prevent a repetition of the nerve gas attack." Just as the most important thing in the American investigation of the Oklahoma City bombing is to prevent a repetition.
No society is wholly immune to the revenge fantasies of its deviants and discontents. Japan and the United States are both heavily armed to repel foreign dangers, yet constantly insecure about the dangers within.