On the quiet morning of March 25th, 1995, the subway trains were moving along regularly in the complex Tokyo subway system, brimming with office workers, students, housewives, and children heading to school. On five different trains, sarin gas was let loose, killing 12 people and injuring over 1,000 others. The terrorists? Members of an extremist cult; Aum Shinrikyo. What was Aum Shinrikyo? What did they believe? And what drove them to attack thousands of their own innocent countrymen?
Chizuo Matsumoto was born March 2nd 1955 to a poor family of Tatami mat makers in Kumamoto prefecture. From birth he suffered infantile glaucoma which caused him to be nearly blind. As a child he enrolled in a school for the blind and later studied traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture. While in college he became interested in religion. He began to study Buddhism, Esoterica, Yoga, and Christianity.
In the 1980’s he began to teach his own form of yoga out of a room in his home. He began to mix the beliefs of all these different religions into a new religion for a new age. Matsumoto changed his name to Shoko Asahara, and claimed that he was “the Lamb of God”. And thus was born Aum Shinrikyo. In 1989, he filed for recognition as an official religion.
Aum is an eclectic mix of eastern and western traditions. Aum Shinrikyo worships Shiva as deity, and is very difficult to understand. Basically, Asahara taught that he was a “Christ” and could take upon himself the sins of the world. Also by doing the different yoga exercises that he had discovered, one could cure most ailments and even gain special powers. He told his followers that he had attained the power of flight and that he could give that power to them as well.
During this time a lot of the religion’s teachings started coming from science fiction. Most notably Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, in which a small group of academics has to survive in a nuclear apocalypse. Later Asahara would outline a doomsday prophecy. America and Japan would go to war again which would result in full-out nuclear war and destroy most of the world. The mission of Aum Shinrikyo believers was to spread the message, prepare for the day, and then repopulate the world after the aforementioned war destroyed nearly everything.
Asahara became quite popular and was featured in many magazines and television shows. You can find an interesting interview between Asahara and famous Japanese director and actor Takeshi Kitano. Shinrikyo grew quickly and began to recruit heavily from Japan’s best universities, filling its ranks with researchers, doctors, and (most importantly later on) chemists.
An early warning of dire events to come would be the mysterious disappearance of the Sakamoto family. Tsutsumi Sakamoto was an anti-cult lawyer who had been attempting to sue the group because of some claims made by some people who had left Aum Shinrikyo. If his lawsuits were successful he would have single-handedly bankrupted the religion. He also obtained evidence that the special powers that Asahara claimed to have were all a sham. Japanese broadcaster TBS filmed an interview with Sakamoto. For some strange reason, TBS showed the interview to leaders of Aum Shinrikyo, not telling Sakamoto, and breaking rules about privacy. Leaders of Aum pressured TBS to not air the interview.
A few days later on November 3rd, 1989 at 3 am, several members of Aum Shinrikyo broke into Tsutsumi Sakamoto’s house and bludgeoned him to death with a hammer, they then killed his wife and 14-month-old baby. The three bodies were put into metal barrels and hid hundreds of miles apart. The cult members even crushed the teeth of the victims to make identifying them more difficult. Their bodies would not be found for many years. Police with no clues were unable to connect the disappearances to anyone.
By the early 1990’s, members of Aum Shinrikyo were getting antsy. Where was the apocalypse? Relations with America seemed fine. Where was the war? Asahara began a new teaching. It was not enough to just wait for the apocalypse to begin, they had to help get it started. That is when Asahara began planning his infamous and deadly sarin gas attacks.
The original plan was to use botulism, one of the nastiest diseases known, and infect American military stationed in Japan. The hope was that America would freak out that their troops were being attacked by the Japanese and start a war. But early attempts at this were unsuccessful. Asahara decided to change his target from foreigners to his own countrymen, figuring that if he could not incite America to war with Japan, he might be able to incite the Japanese to attack if he could pin a deadly attack on a foreign power.
As the instrument of destruction, he chose sarin, a deadly chemical that many western countries (including America) are known to have ready to use as means of war. Being that many of his recruits were high-level graduates from elite universities, Aum Shinrikyo had the know-how to create the gas on their own.
But before using the sarin in Tokyo, Asahara commissioned many small scale test experiments. Sarin was used to assassinate many members of the cult who had turned away and were a security risk. The police remained generally unsuspecting of Asahara and his members’ role in the murders. The first large-scale attack happened June 27, 1994, in Matsumoto, Japan. Members of the cult released the gas in a neighborhood of a judge who was going to rule in a real estate case that the church was involved in. In this attack, 7 people were killed and nearly 500 were injured. Police were still unable to link Aum Shinrikyo to the attacks.
Finally, in March of 1995, they would carry out the Tokyo subway attack. But much to Asahara’s chagrin, Japan did not immediately declare war. Instead, investigators from all over the world came to help Japan investigate the attack. Finally, Japanese police were able to put enough of the puzzle pieces together and launch raids on the shadowy religious group, where they found a treasure trove of evidence. Asahara and other leaders of the cult were all arrested for their involvement.
What makes Aum Shinrikyo most terrifying to me is that many of the members were the best and brightest Japan had to offer. We often think of cults preying on weak, poor, or dumb people. But Aum Shinrikyo shows us that all people, no matter the station, are equally at risk of the charms of these cults of personality. And that these people can cause massive damage from inside a society. Beware.
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