With the arrest of the last two Aum Shinrikyo fugitives on June 3 and June 15, police are wrapping up their investigations into a series of crimes perpetrated by the doomsday cult. It has now been 17 years since the deadly Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks in March 1995.
The attacks have left many unsolved mysteries, not to mention scars on many people, physical as well as psychological.
Everyone was taken aback by how different the faces of the captured fugitives looked from the police "wanted" posters. But come to think of it, the "face" of society itself has also changed quite a lot over the last 17 years.
This "face" is now deeply lined with anxiety and mistrust, sentiments which have greatly to do with the proliferation of security cameras today that ultimately led to the arrest of Katsuya Takahashi on June 15.
According to an industry association of security camera makers, their market has doubled in size since 1995. An estimated 3 million-plus cameras around the nation are now monitoring citizens 24/7. That's roughly one camera for every 40 people.
The deadly nerve gas that was released in Tokyo subway cars killed 13 people and injured 6,000. We were all shaken by the realization that anyone could be killed or harmed senselessly by hate-filled strangers.
Our fears were further compounded by the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and the 2008 Akihabara massacre right here in Japan. In our fervent desire to protect ourselves from malevolent strangers, our initial sense of unease about being watched eventually dissipated.
In a public survey conducted three years ago in a major city, a National Police Agency panel of experts asked, "Which is more important to you, your privacy, or peace of mind brought by security cameras?" Nine out of 10 said the latter.
Less than 20 percent of the respondents said they "didn't like the sense of being watched," while a majority said they felt protected by the cameras.
We have built a "live and let live" society where everyone can live as they please. But this is also a society where people in big cities often don't even know their next-door neighbors. As evidenced by the high incidences of suicide and so-called lonely deaths, many people feel they simply can't turn to anyone for help.
It was probably this sense of helplessness that transformed the "unease of being monitored" to the "relief of being protected."
Security cameras proved effective in the Aum investigations. But it is also a fact that the last two fugitives were able to successfully dodge police for 17 years.
Naoko Kikuchi, one of the two, was ultimately flushed out of hiding by flesh-and-blood people, not by security cameras. This probably owed to the revival of the public's interest in Aum crimes after Makoto Hirata, a former cult member who was also on the lam, surrendered on New Year's Eve last year. Without watchful human eyes, society cannot be protected by machines alone.
The nation's crime rate has halved in the last 10 years, and the arrest rate has risen from 20 percent to 31 percent. And after Aum, there have been no organized, indiscriminate acts of terrorism since.
Objectively, security has improved in Japan. But people are still fearful because they don't know why they were made targets of malicious attacks in the first place.
Should we keep building our society on the basis of this fear? We don't know the answer. All we can do is to continue to ask ourselves this question while we keep a close eye on our changing society.
--The Asahi Shimbun, June 18
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