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Memory struggles: Narrating and commemorating the Aum Affair in contemporary Japan, 1994-2015



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This dissertation investigates how different stakeholders have competed over the interpretation and commemoration of the Aum Affair. The Aum Affair was a series of crimes committed by new religious movement Aum Shinrikyō between 1988 and 1995, which culminated in the gassing of the Tokyo subway system using sarin in March 1995. The Tokyo attack was the largest act of terrorism in post-war Japan.

I combine qualitative methods of media analysis, interviews, and participant observation to analyse how different stakeholders have narrated and commemorated the Aum Affair. I propose ‘collective trauma’ as a revised theory of ‘cultural trauma’ to describe an event which is represented as harmful and indelible to collective memory and identity. In contrast to ‘cultural trauma’, which stresses the importance of symbolic representations of traumatic events, ‘collective trauma’ considers other ‘material’ processes – such as establishing facts, collective action, state responses, and litigation – which also contribute to trauma construction.

My overarching argument is that various stakeholders – including state authorities, mass media, public intellectuals, victims, and former Aum believers – have constructed the Aum Affair as a collective trauma in multiple and conflicting ways. Many media representations situated Aum as an evil ‘cult’ which ‘brainwashed’ believers and intended to take over Japan through terror. State authorities also responded by treating Aum as a dangerous terrorist group. In some instances, these binary representations of Japan locked in a struggle against an evil force led to municipal governments violating the civil rights of Aum believers.

Some individuals such as public intellectuals and former believers have challenged this divisive view by treating Aum as a ‘religion’, not a ‘cult’, and locating the root causes of Aum’s growth in Japanese society. Additionally, victims and former members have pursued divergent goals such as retributive justice, financial reparations, and social reconciliation through their public actions.

A key conclusion of this dissertation is that whilst confronting horrific acts of violence may require social construction of collective trauma using cultural codes of good and evil, the entrenchment of these symbolic categories can result in lasting social tension and division.




Baert, Patrick


collective memory, aum shinrikyo, contemporary japan, japanese culture, sociology of religion, japanese religion, cultural trauma, cultural sociology, sociology of intellectuals, commemoration, Tokyo Sarin Incident, cultural studies, trauma theory, victimhood, public intellectuals, memorials


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Cambridge Commonwealth, European and International Trust, Cambridge International Scholarship 2013-16. Trinity Hall Graduate Research Fund. Department of Sociology Graduate Research Fund.