March 20th, 1995. It was just another busy morning on Tokyo’s busiest subway line before a non-descript man boarded the train. The newspaper parcel he was carrying attracted even less attention, even after he placed it on the ground.
As the train pulled into the next station, he pierced the concealed bag of liquid sarin with his specially-sharpened umbrella, before calmly stepping off the train. In the next few minutes, on other trains, 4 other men would do the same thing.
Sarin is a nerve gas. It acts rapidly on anyone who touches or inhales it, causing rapid exhaustion of muscles and glands. Clear, colourless and tasteless, the victim does not know they are exposed until its effects begin. Starting with flu-like symptoms, exposure can quickly lead to respiratory failure and death.
By 8am, Japan’s image as the world’s safest country was shattered. Sarin had been released on three crowded trains. 12 people were killed and over 5,500 suffered serious medical complications in the country’s worst ever terrorist attack.
On the 27th of February, Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, was sentenced to death for these and 15 other killings. The verdict came 8 years after his trial began, and his appeal could postpone punishment for another 10 years.
Half-blind since his birth in 1955, Chizuo Matsumoto attended specialist schools for children with sight problems. Former classmates claim that he used his partial advantage to bully and humiliate his blind peers.
He left school in 1977, and eventually found work as an acupuncturist. In the early 1980’s, he was arrested for selling spurious “health tonics”. One was found to be orange peel mixed with alcohol.
Adopting the name Asahara, he went to India and Nepal to study Buddhism and Hinduism. When he got back he started claiming he could fly and set up a school for yoga and meditation, which became Aum Shinrikyo (Aum Supreme Truth) in 1986.
Aum's early days
Initially, Aum seemed very similar to Japan’s countless other cults: combining groovy Buddhist and Hindu beliefs with an unhealthy Nostradamus fixation. They believed in an inevitable Armageddon in which only Aum members would escape damnation.
Asahara, a PR genius, took advantage of Japan’s increasing alienation and insecurity, and people signed up fast. At its peak, there were 10,000 members in Japan, 30,000 in Russia, and smaller groups in Europe and the US.
Of the Japanese members, over 1000 renounced the outside world, gave Asahara everything they had, and joined one of his communes. Many of these were Japan’s brightest stars, graduates of the top universities who felt rejected by Japan’s conformist culture.
Living with Aum
We don’t have much reliable information about what happened in Aum. The Japanese tabloids (who have a flirtatious relationship with the truth) claim:
- Members paid to drink Asahara’s bathwater and blood.
- Asahara used his telepathic abilities to brainwash Aum members. This was the defence used (unsuccessfully) by some of those who stood trial.
- Some followers spent several hours a day wearing the “Perfect Salvation Cap”, which is special leather headpiece attached to a 6-volt battery. As well as keeping their heads warm, this helped them stay in telepathic contact with Asahara.
- Aum apartments featured rooms lined with tin foil “to keep out electro- magnetic waves”. That must have been a pain if you wanted to use your Perfect Salvation Cap.
- Female cult members were almost entirely attractive young women. To help them focus on spiritual enlightenment, Asahara coerced some into having sex with him. He was probably helped by the fact they weren’t allowed to have sex with anyone else.
- Aum was manufacturing LSD and using it in cult rituals. Asahara toyed with the idea of flying an LSD-loaded crop-duster over rush-hour Tokyo.
The beginning of the end
In 1988, a lawyer called Tsutsumi Sakamoto established a coalition of people whose relatives were Aum members. This group was planning to sue the cult by proving that members did not stay of their own free will, but were threatened with gruesome punishments if they left.
On November 3rd, 1989, Sakamoto's house was broken into, and he was injected with a deadly drug and beaten to death, along with his wife and infant son.
In 1990, 25 Aum members ran in the Japanese parliamentary elections, including Asahara himself. Despite an imaginative campaign featuring white-robed “cheerleaders” with blue elephant-shaped headgear, none of them were elected.
Evidently pissed off, Asahara threw out the groovy stuff. Deciding that the people of Japan (who had rejected him so resoundingly) were already lost, he preached more and more about killing innocents as a short-cut to salvation.
This scared a lot of his formerly faithful acolytes, and Aum used increasingly heavy-handed methods to control them. Sadistic punishments were introduced for those who questioned a superior or tried to leave, including enforced LSD use, sexual humiliation, imprisonment and torture.
Over 40 former members are unaccounted for, and the police believe they were killed in these rituals. Meanwhile, Aum had been stockpiling liquid sarin.
In 1994, a large amount of the deadly chemical was released in Matsumoto, a small town north of Tokyo. Seven people died and 144 became seriously sick.
Many people became suspicious of Aum, and the authorities made plans to search their top secret headquarters. Sensing that his time was passing, and having tested sarin in Matsumoto, Asahara hit Tokyo at its heart.
Aleph: Aum's reincarnation?
In January 2000, Aum was relaunched under the name Aleph. Although it publicly renounces the violence of it predecessor, Aleph is viewed with extreme suspicion by the press and public, who believe that members still follow Asahara’s teachings.
Aleph owns ten companies in Japan, mainly in the software industry. It claims to be using the profits to help those affected by the Tokyo sarin attack. Even if the police weren’t constantly monitoring them, it seems unlikely they will injure Japan so dramatically again.
"The conditions that created Aum — the straitjacketed education system and the lack of creative outlets in society — are the same as before," says Yoshio Arita, an expert on cults. "There's nothing to prevent other groups like Aum from appearing."
- Aleph’s home
Very creepy. Stare into the mouth of the beast.
- Profile: Shoko Asahara
A massive collection about Aum and the Tokyo Sarin Attack, sorted by subject.
Shinkryo/Aleph in the News
(Cults on Campus)
Another comprehensive collection of articles and links, sorted by date.
- Chronology of Aum Developments
A detailed time-line, spanning from the founding of Aum to Asahara’s death sentence.
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