Aum Shinrikyo first hit headlines across the world on March 20th 1995, when members released the lethal nerve gas Sarin into Tokyo’s subway network. This devastating attack killed 12 people in the hectic morning rush hour. Reports of injuries and afflictions spread across the world, alongside the arrest of over 150 members of the group, including their leader, Shoko Asahara.
Born as Chizuo Matsumoto on March 2nd 1955 into a large, poor family in southern Japan, Asahara had a distinctive life. At an early age he suffered from infantile glaucoma, which cost him the sight in his left eye and severely damaged his right. His parents sent him away to a school for the blind, where he graduated in 1977. During his time at the school, Asahara realised that he had a distinct advantage over his peers. Whilst he had partial sight in his right eye, the majority of the other students were completely blind, and he used this to bully and manipulate them at any given opportunity. Learning how to manipulate others at such a young age appears to have been crucial in the development of Shoko Asahara, and he embraced the notion of being both feared and followed by his peers.
As Asahara grew into a teenager, he became an avid fan of the science-fiction genre; boasting to his classmates that one day he would eventually rule his own robot kingdom. After graduating in 1977, Shoko Asahara attempted to gain entry into one of Japan’s most prestigious universities, but was refused a place. After this rejection, he turned to the study of acupuncture, Chinese medicine and yoga and sought a life of spiritual clarity and honesty. He learned much of Nostradamus’ teachings, and soon became engrossed in the idea of an Armageddon to the point of obsession. His initial delusions began whilst he was meditating in his one room apartment in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo. In one delusion, Asahara claimed to be called the God of light, and was directed to start an army that would bring about the end of the world. He was destined to survive the apocalypse and emerge as the ultimate ruler of the new world that was to arise.
Asahara started teaching a meditation and yoga class known as ‘Aum club of Gods and Hermits,’ attracting people from across Japan to be apart of this growing group. In 1987 he officially changed his name to Shoko Asahara and formed a religion called Aum Shinrikyo, (translating as Supreme Truth) with him as the registered leader. This group was considerably popular with young graduates from prestigious universities, and soon became known by the Japanese media as the ‘religion for the elite.’ Shoko Asahara targeted those who were extremely intelligent, but were also considered as lost souls and were seeking meaning and spirituality in their lives.
The Aum Shinrikyo doctrine was based around a syncretism belief structure, combining selected aspects from Christianity, Buddhism, yoga and meditation and the teachings of Nostradamus.
Entwined among these beliefs was the ultimate reverence for the group leader, Shoko Asahara. Preaching to be Christ and the only fully enlightened master to exist since Buddha, Asahara convinced followers that he was to bring about the ending of the world. The only way for these people to survive the apocalypse was to follow him to salvation, and to the new world. The end of the world was foretold to be brought about by the US military, who would start World War III with Japan. Borrowing from The Book of Revelations; Asahara prophesied that the US was in fact The Beast, and it would eventually pounce and attack its prey: Japan.
The actual religious practices of Aum Shinrikyo remain extremely secretive, and information regarding this is seldom and sporadic. What is known is that they practised ancient teachings translated directly from Pali Sutras, and involved hallucinogens such as LSD along side extreme ascetic practices. Such an extreme form of abstinence dictated that group members suffer excruciatingly painful sufferings, including being hung upside down for long periods of time and electro shock therapy.
Using the scientists and engineers in his group, Asahara created a wired helmet that was to be placed on to the head of any new recruit as a part of their initiation. According to Aum, this would align the newcomers’ brain waves to Asahara’s, in order for them to gain a better understanding of his teachings and message. This procedure was labelled the Perfect Salvation Initiation (PSI,) and whilst we do not know if the helmet actually did anything to the brainwaves, it demonstrates the adoration and complete trust in their leader. In addition to the PSI, Asahara ordered members of his group to make masks of his face, and to go out in public wearing them to show their belief of his deity attributes.
Controversy Leading up to the Subway Sarin Incident
The late 1980’s brought about a new wave of controversy regarding the Japanese group Aum Shinrikyo. Reports and accusations of deceiving new recruits, extortion, forcing members to donate money and holding members against their will surfaced, and put the new religion under the spot light. Whilst the group members were of the rich and well educated elite, Aum Shinrikyo were a extremely wealthy organisation. They also acquired a great sum of money from forcing members to sign their entire estates over to the group. It must be noted that this vast wealth did not infringe upon their ascetic practices, and the group, including its leader, continued to live humble lifestyles.
New evidence that has come to light shows that a cult member was murdered in 1989 when he tried to leave the group, but at the time, this was a well kept secret among many for Aum Shinrikyo. In then same year, a successful and established anti-cult lawyer named Tsutsumi Sakamoto began legal proceedings against the group that had the potential to bankrupt them. Negotiations took place in October between the opposing sides, and ultimately failed in resolving their dispute.
Sakamoto recorded an interview for a Japanese TV talk show on the station TBS regarding his anti-Aum views. The Tokyo Broadcasting System then sent the recording to Aum Shinrikyo without the knowledge or consent of Tsutsumi Sakamoto. The group immediately demanded that the network cancel the broadcast and pull the show, and the TV network did as requested. A month later, Sakamoto, and all of his immediate family vanished from their home and have never been seen again. The law case was inevitably dropped and the group’s finances remained intact. Whilst police strongly suspected Aum was connected to their disappearance, there was no evidence that proved this to be the case until 1995. They were, in fact, murdered by the cult and their bodies were dumped.
The next year, the group took a step up from extortion, kidnap and murder by experimenting with biological toxins and diseases such as botulin, anthrax, cholera, and Q fever. The original Aum plan was to massacre Japanese citizens by spraying the naturally poisonous gas botulin from moving delivery vans and buildings. After at least nine attempts of a biological attack, Aum gave up and moved on to experimenting and manufacturing chemical weapons such as the lethal nerve gas Sarin, and eventually VX gas. The group were predominantly unsuccessful in causing the level of disarray that they wanted, except for incidents such as in June 1993 when anthrax spores were released from a building in Tokyo. Luckily for the people of Tokyo, all this did was kill a small amount of birds and created a foul smell in the air. It was discovered after the subway arrests that the group were responsible for a mysterious act which happened in 1994. A large amount of Sarin was released on a residential estate that killed 7 and injured over 100 people.
In February 1995, Aum kidnapped a man named Kiyoshi Kariya . He was the 69 year old brother of a former cult member who had managed to escape. Weeks before he vanished the group left messages, demanding to know where his sibling was and making him fear for his life. Aum eventually brought him to one of their compounds at Kamikuishiki and put him in a microwave powered incinerator to destroy his body and to punish their former cult member. His body was finally disposed of in Lake Kawaguchi.
The activities of Aum drew a lot of attention towards them, and the police made plans for raids to take place in all their facilities across Japan in March 1995.
The Subway Sarin Incident
In March 1995, members of Aum released the nerve gas Sarin onto five separate trains in Tokyo’s subway network, killing 12 people and injuring up to six thousand more. Each of these trains met at Kasumigaseki station, and this is where they cult members placed the liquid form of Sarin. Camouflaged to look like casual drinking bottles, the Aum members proceeded to stab and puncture the packages with umbrellas, leaving them in the subway cars and stations.
Surviving witnesses recall the sheer horror and battlefield atmosphere of the attack. Commuters lay sprawled across the floor with blood gushing from their mouths and noses. Harrowing screams of terror filled the station, with people desperately gasping for a way out of the underground passages. Disturbingly, after his arrest, Shoko Asahara declared that he was extremely upset about the ‘low’ death toll and the limited chaos that was caused, frustrated that he did not encourage any form of nuclear Armageddon.
Over the weeks following the attack, over 150 members of Aum were arrested and all of their properties raided. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Aum was capable of producing thousands of kilograms of Sarin a year and had enough stored in their factories to kill over 4 million people. Their head quarters in Kamikuishiki contained everything from biological and chemical weapons to a Russian Mil Mi-17 military helicopter. The cult had several labs which were used to manufacture drugs such as LSD and methamphetamine, and a safe which included millions of dollars in both cash and gold. To the amazement of the authorities, the group also had several cells which they used to imprison people who were deemed dangerous to their cause. Upon the arrival of the Japanese authorities, many people were found still in their cells in terrible conditions.
Whilst the mass arresting of Aum was undergoing, the leader of the group, Shoko Asahara was on the run and evading capture successfully. Despite his need for stealth, Asahara continued issuing statements to his vast amount of followers. (9,000 people in Japan and a further 40,000 worldwide, as reported by Aum Shinrikyo.) Not only did he deny having anything to do with the Sarin attack, but he claimed that it was simply a ploy made by the US government to implicate the group, and to deter people from joining his religion. Asahara also made a huge threat upon the citizens of Japan which the authorities took extremely seriously. They declared a state of emergency, whilst mass producing antidotes to nerve gas and placing chemical warfare specialists on standby. Fortunately, no such incident happened and the Aum claims fell short.
On 16th May 1995 Asahara was finally found hiding in a wall in the Kamikuishiki complex and was arrested. He was charged with 27 counts of murder in 13 separate indictments and was eventually sentenced to death. Shortly after his arrest, Shoko Asahara declared that he had abandoned his role within Aum Shinrikyo and refused to speak to anyone, including lawyers and friends and family. Twelve members of the cult were sentenced to death for the subway attack on the people of Tokyo, and the final person in connection with the attack was arrested on June 15th 2012 after Japan’s longest running manhunt had taken place. Katsuya Takahashi, Asahara’s former bodyguard was located after two other members had been found, closing the case on one of Japan’s worst terrorist attacks and the ‘Trial of the century.’
In October of 1995, Aum Shinrikyo were stripped of their religious status and became bankrupt in early ’96. This did not see the end of the group however, and former senior member, Fumihiro Joyo took over as the group’s replacement leader. He was one of the only senior members of the cult to not receive serious charges in his role in the Sarin attack, and he pushed for the renaming of the group to ‘Aleph’ in 2000.
Despite the authorities attempts to shut the group down, under the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion they are permitted to continue their religious practices under government surveillance. Aleph announced huge changes to their initial doctrine, stating that all controversial Vajrayana texts have been removed and banned. They officially apologised to the surviving victims of the Sarin attack in 1995, and set up a compensation fund for the families and affected citizens.
A report taken in June 2005 by the National Police Agency shows that at the time, Aleph had approximately 1,650 members, with over 650 of them living communally in group compounds. They had opened 26 facilities across the country, and tried desperately to steer their religious message away from violence and towards spiritual harmony. Despite this, the public and authorities felt very uncomfortable with the group, and continued to pressurise them out of local areas by various types of protesting. The state tried to cease all social benefits for the group, including health care and education, but in each case the group members took them to court and won.
During this time, Shoko Asahara had been desperately appealing to have his death sentence removed, but it was 15 September 2006 when he lost his final appeal. His death sentence was confirmed, and on that same day, police raided head quarters of Aleph in order to prevent any possible criminal response, but nothing of the sort happened. Fumihiro Joyo formally announced his departure from the group the following year and went on to form a new religious sect called Hikari no Wa (The Circle of Light.) He claimed that his new doctrine was to combine the benefits of both religion and science, creating a new science for the human mind.
The Public Security Intelligence Agency produced a survey in 2011 which shows that there are approximately 1,030 members in the religious group. Although figures have dropped somewhat throughout the years, their foreign following is still a prominent feature for them. Citizens from both Russia and the US are members of the sect, and they continue to attempt expansion by using social media marketing such as Facebook and Twitter to find new recruits.
The execution of Shoko Asahara has once again been postponed due to the findings of other cult members involved in the Sarin attack in 2012, and no future date has as yet been set.