Justice Ministry officials pressed their reluctant boss to swiftly order the executions of Aum Shinrikyo cultists to prevent their cases from casting a shadow over the crowning of a new emperor and the Tokyo Olympics, sources said.

The ministry also decided to split the cultists on death row into two groups to gauge international reaction to the first round of executions, the ministry sources said.

Thirteen members of the doomsday cult were sentenced to death for a series of crimes that killed 27 people and sickened thousands, including sarin nerve gas attacks in Nagano Prefecture in 1994 and the Tokyo subway system in 1995.

The conclusion of the final Aum-related trial in January this year opened the way for the executions.

The Justice Ministry hoped to “complete all executions of Aum cultists before the end of the Heisei Era,” the period named after Emperor Akihito, a senior ministry official said.

The era will end when Akihito abdicates the Chrysanthemum Throne at the end of April 2019 and is succeeded by his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, on May 1.

The ministry did not want the timing of the executions of Aum members to mar the joyous celebration of Naruhito’s ascension or the Summer Games that Tokyo will host in 2020.

But during discussions on hanging the cultists, Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa “could not make up her mind so easily,” a ministry source said.

She showed signs of distress and was nearly in tears over the issue, a source said. She told her close acquaintances that she was unwell.

Kamikawa had previously served as justice minister between October 2014 and October 2015. Considered “prudent” on capital punishment, she signed the papers for only one execution during her earlier tenure.

However, she eventually relented and signed the execution papers for the first group of cultists.

Aum Shinrikyo founder Chizuo Matsumoto, also known as Shoko Asahara, and six of his top lieutenants were hanged on July 6.

On July 26, the last six Aum Shinrikyo members on death row were executed.

Kamikawa now has the distinction of authorizing the most executions of any Japanese justice minister. And her decision to sign the execution papers won her high praise within the ministry.

“Ministry officials owe a lot to the justice minister,” a senior ministry official told The Asahi Shimbun on July 26.

Under Japan’s judicial system, death-row inmates who were partners in the same crime are customarily executed on the same day.

The 13 cultists were initially supposed to be put to death in one go. But the ministry decided on two rounds of executions.

Another senior ministry official said the decision took into account possible international outcry over capital punishment as well as the psychological burden on correction officers who would carry out the executions.

Members of the first group were chosen based on the number of their convictions, their degree of involvement in the crimes, and especially their rank within the cult.

Matsumoto, who orchestrated the nerve gas attacks and the other crimes, and the six disciples who held such titles as “minister” and “director general” were chosen to die on July 6.

A senior official said the ministry was bracing for “fierce criticism on the ‘mass execution.’”

The seven executions carried out on July 6 were the most on a single day in the past two decades, nearly doubling the previous record of four.

However, there were hardly any widespread protest movements against the death penalty system among the public.

Kamikawa did come under criticism but mostly for attending a drinking party on the night before the executions.

The ministry then felt there was no reason to postpone the executions of the second group of cultists, sources said.

The ministry evaluated the psychological conditions of the remaining six and checked their reactions to the death of the guru and the others. Supervision was heightened at the detention houses to prevent them from committing suicide.

Kamikawa signed the execution orders for the six on July 24, 18 days after the first seven were hanged.

The executions of the Aum cultists could affect future procedures for capital punishment.

The Justice Ministry has generally not carried out an execution if a request for a retrial has been submitted to a court for the death-row inmate.

About 80 percent of the 110 inmates currently on death row in Japan are seeking retrials.

In fact, 10 of the 13 executed Aum members had filed appeals for retrials. In one case, the convict was executed before a court had a chance to even consider a retrial.

“Now, we don’t have to hesitate to execute inmates because of their retrial appeals,” a senior ministry official said.

(This article was written by Naoki Urano, Ryujiro Komatsu and Takuya Kitazawa.)