Aum Shinrokyo Cult is the doomsday cult that carried a poison gas attack in Tokyo in 1995 that killed 12 people and was responsible for the deaths of 27 people total. The cult was is headed by a semi-blind, quasi-mystic named Shoko Asahara. At the time of the attack, the Aum Shinrokyo cult was believed to have had 6,000 to 12,000 members in Japan, many living in communes in different parts of the country. The cult also had an estimated 30,000 followers in Russia.

Aum Shinsen no Kai debuted in 1984 and began full-scale operations in July 1987 after changing its name to Aum Supreme Truth. The assets of the Aum Shinrokyo Cult (also known simply as Aum or the Aum Cult) at that the time of the subway attack was valued at between $300 million and $1 billion. Asahara owned at least three luxury cars. He was driven around in a Rolls Royce and shuttled from place to place in Soviet-made Mi-17 helicopter made in Tatarstan and transported to Japan by Azerbaijani Air. The cult lost $1 million in risky gold investment in Australia but reportedly made a fortune by investing in a chain of discount stores, coffee shops and a personal-computer assembly factory.

A total of 29 people were killed and about 6,500 suffered injuries aum-related crimes that included the 1989 murder of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family, the 1994 sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, and the nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system the following year. In a court ruling against one member the presiding judge called his acts "challenges to a law-abiding nation," and said they were "extremely antisocial and showed outrageous disregard for human life.”

The sarin attack remains the worst terrorist attack on Japanese soil. A total of 189 former senior members of the cult and others were indicted, and all except one were found guilty. A total of 13 cult members were sentenced to death for involvement in either the sarin gas attacks in Matsumoto or on the Tokyo subway system, or the murder of the Sakamoto family. No one has been executed. There is strong opinion within the ministry that the death penalty for cult leader Matsumoto should be carried out first as he is the mastermind behind the cases.

Book “Underground” by Haruki Murakami (Vintage, 1997), a collection of interviews with survivors

Links in this Website: RELIGIOUS CULTS IN JAPAN

Shoko Asahara

Shoko Asahara, the leader of the Aum, admired both Buddha and Hitler, claimed he could levitate, asserted he had traveled to the future and been reborn several times and said he could bestow magical powers on his followers. He often wore pink satin pajamas and like to spend his time meditating. Followers described him as warm, joking and "cuddly." In 1992, he wrote a book called “Declaring Myself Christ”. Most of what is known about Shoko Asahara was reported in “Ambitions of a Messiah”, a 1991 book about Asahara and his cult, written by a respected Japanese journalist Shoko Egawa.

The son of a poor tatami mat-maker from Kyushu, Shoko Asahara was born Chizuo Matsumoto in March 1955 in Yatsishiro, a city in Kyushu, 40 miles south of Kumamoto. He was born sightless in one eye and had glaucoma in the other eye which caused his sight to diminish over time. At the age of six he left home and was raised at special government-run school for the blind even though he could see pretty well at that time. He was never close with his family and saw his parents and six brothers and sisters only on holidays if even then. Some analysts believe his problems can be traced back to feelings of abandonment he felt in regards to his family.

At the school for the blind Asahara was remembered as bully who broke a classmate's eardrum and once threatened to burn the school. He used his eyesight to gain favors and power over those who couldn’t see. A former teacher at the school told Time, "Being able to see even a little is prestigious because blind children want to go out and have coffee in a tea room but can't go by themselves. They would say to [Asahara], 'I will buy you dinner. Why don't you take me out?'"

Shoko Asahara as a Young Man

At the school Asahara was trained to be an acupuncturist. After graduating from high school Asahara moved to Tokyo and spent much his early 20s attending cram schools in an effort to do well enough on the college entrance exams to get into Tokyo University, Japan's most prestigious school. Former cram school classmates described him as a bookworm especially interested in Buddhist doctrines and the works of Mao Tse-tung. After failing on several occasions to get into Tokyo University, Asahara decided he wouldn't go to any university at all. He supported himself by working as an acupuncturist.

At the age of 23, Asahara married a cram school classmate, a 19-year-old girl named Tomoko. The couple opened a oriental medicine and health food store and earned enough money to buy a home in a comfortable Tokyo suburb. In 1982, a year after opening the shop, Asahara was detained by police for 20 days and fined for selling a snake-oil-like potion made of orange peels called "Almighty Medicine." His shop later went bankrupt.

A few years after opening the health food store, Asahara and his wife began offering yoga classes augmented with Buddhist, Hindu and Christian doctrines. The origins of Aum can be traced back to the mid 1980s when Asahara worked as kind of fortuneteller and amateur psychologist and advised people to take his yoga classes, which he advertised by handing out flyers with a picture of himself “levitating” (the picture was taken by a follower while he was bouncing in the lotus mediation position in his apartment). The picture was published in magazines and helped attract future followers to the cult.

A lawyer who worked with Aum later told the Daily Yomiuri, “Masumoto is a very smart person. He knows well how to argue with others. He is good at reading minds and knows how to unsettle others.” In 1986 he began calling himself a guru. He took a small group of yoga enthusiasts to the Himalayas, where he claims he became the first Japanese person to attain nirvana.

Rise of the Aum Shinrokyo Cult

After his visit to the Himalayas, Asahara changed the name of his group of yoga enthusiasts from the Aum Associations of Mountain Wizards to Aum Shinrokyo (Aum Supreme Truth). He also changed his name from Chizuo Matsumoto to Shoko Asahara. The Aum Shinrokyo cult attracted many new members. By the end of 1988 it had 3,000 followers. In 1989, it was registered as a religion.

In the early 1990s Aum continued to grow, attracting followers in Sri Lanka, the United States and particularly Russia. The cult had a weekly television show on Moscow's 2x2 TV channel and paid $800,000 a year for air time on a Russian radio station to broadcast a program called "Soul of Truth." In 1992, cult members in white robes danced in front of the Kremlin and Asahara once preached before a crowd of 15,000 people in a Moscow sports stadium. By 1995, the cult had an estimated 30,000 followers in Russia.

In 1990, Aum fielded 25 political candidates in parliamentary elections in Japan. During the campaign, Aum members donned papier-mâché Asahara masks, chanted Asahara’s name, dressed in white robes and distributed campaign literature and balloons at Tokyo subway stations. The group had no political agenda other than an opposition to a sales tax and was badly defeated.

The election was viewed by some experts as a turning point for the cult, transforming it from a group of harmless religious nuts into a doomsday cult. Some members left the group. To convince the others to stay Asahara began telling his followers that a terrible catastrophe was imminent and took them to a remote island to escape the disaster. Nothing happened and the group returned to Japan but Asahara continued to preach that the end was near.

Aum Shinrokyo Beliefs and Practices

Members of the Aum Shinrokyo cult believed in a mishmash of doctrines from established religions and New Age occults. The cult promises life after death in a reincarnated form. The Kobe earthquake on January 17th 1996 was regarded as sign that the end of the world was near.

Asahara sight deteriorated over the years and by 1993 he told his brother that he had become completely blind. Soon afterwards he began calling himself a "Supreme Saint," "Today's Christ," and "the Savior of the Century." One follower recalled, "When he found that I was carrying a picture of an Indian saint, he went berserk and I said should not respect anyone but him."

In his speeches, Asahara insisted that he would be killed by sarin nerve gas and that government efforts to crackdown on his movement would coincide with the end of the world sometime between 1997 and 2000. "It is now clear that my first death will be by poison gas, such as sarin." Three months after making the remark seven people were killed in a sarin gas attack in Matsumoto, a town in central Japan.

Asahara often lashed out against the United States, Jews and Freemasons and blamed many of the world's problems on sex and junk food. In his book “Disaster Approaches the Land of the Rising Sun” he wrote the end of the world would begin with a cloud of poison gas. The United States was identified as the beast in the New Testament’s Revelations and Asahara insisted it would likely be source of the gas attack.

During religious ceremonies, followers made offerings of bananas on pink altars. They always sat at a level below Asahara, who demanded that members of the cult show their respect by bowing and kissing his toe, and drinking his blood and bathwater. Only the most devoted members got a chance to meet Asahara face to face.

In an effort to achieve enlightenment, Aum Shinrokyo cult members starved themselves, took psychoactive drugs, immersed themselves in freezing cold and scalding hot water. Acolytes wore helmets covered with wires and electrodes that reportedly tuned them into Asahara's alpha brain wave activity.

Spending hours in scalding water was known as “thermal training.” The sect said it ended the practice in 2005 after a member died in a bathtub undergoing the procedure.

Aum Members

Aum Shinrokyo cult members were prohibited from having sex. The only books they were allowed to read were books by Asahara. The cult manufactured its own LSD and frequently used it in meditation sessions along with doing thiopental (the truth drug). New recruits were required to take a vow of chastity, cut of ties with their families and turn over their property, money, credit cards, passports and personal seals to the cult. One member said Aum Shinrokyo members had "no right to speak out" and "could only do as they were told."

Followers gave out invitations at subway stations for free yoga classes. People that showed up were taught how to breath and mediate and shown animated films of Shoko and footage of him levitating in the air, flying from place to place and passing through walls, along with video of followers approaching him in see-through robes and kissing his feet. Asahara once said his followers were idiots. Members donated as much as a half million dollars each and small business such as noodle shops, health clubs, discount computer outlets, and even a babysitting service were started up by the cult.

Katsuya Takahashi is alleged to have conspired with cult founder Shoko Asahara, 57, over the gas attack on the Tokyo subway on March 20, 1995. Katsuya Takahashi belonged to the "intelligence ministry," the Aum Supreme Truth’s innermost circle, is believed to have had a hand in many of the illegal and sometimes deadly activities of the cult, including acting as a driver during the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system under the direct order of cult founder Chizuo Matsumoto. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 16, 2012]

“After a childhood in Kohoku Ward, Yokohama, Takahashi graduated from a technical college in 1979 and worked for a short time at an electronic device company. After quitting his job in 1980, he became an Aum member and in July 1987 left home to live at a cult facility. According to police and other sources, he initially belonged to the "SPS special security unit" that was in charge of guarding Matsumoto, and moved to the intelligence ministry when the cult reorganized in June 1994. Takahashi was a close aide to "intelligence minister" Yoshihiro Inoue, 42 and also on death row, and was in a position to observe Aum's darker side.

Aum Initiations and Torture

Nearly all members went through a tortuous indoctrination except for the best-educated members who were valued for their knowledge and given privileges. Police suspect that several members died during cult rituals. Hidetoshi Takahashi, a former member who said he joined the cult because he was interested in Buddhism and wanted to join a group "that put religion into reality," said he believed that the tortuous rituals were used to sort out the true believers from those who were less committed.

Describing a "Christ initiation," the cult’s highest form of indoctrination, Takahashi said, he and 50 other followers gathered in a room with Asahara, drank a sweet liquid from a wine goblet and were sequestered in individual meditation cells. "Within five minutes," he told Time, "I was tripping on what I think was probably LSD."

"I heard people screaming and kicking the walls and door," Takahashi told Time. "When they let me out 12 hours later, it was like a scene in a mental hospital. I saw several unconscious people who had actually bitten into their wrists and were covered with blood." Afterward Takahashi said he was immersed in water so hot it burned his skin. Takahashi apparently passed the test with high marks, He was given a high position in the cult and put in charge of project to predict earthquakes.

Asahara demanded total obedience from his followers. Members were forced to enure hard labor, hung upside down, forced to drink salt water until they vomited and fed near-starvation diets consisting of bowls of instant noodles, three hard biscuits or a bowl of boiled vegetables. Deserters were drugged, tortured and even killed.

Aum Takes on a Sinister Character and Begins Killing People

Internal troubles are believed to have occurred around 1988 when a male Aum follower was drowned by having his face held underwater in a bathtub at a facility in Shizuoka Prefecture. Aum members are believed to have tried to cover up the case by burning his body. The case is believed to be the start of a series of crimes committed by the cult. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 5, 2012]

“Aum then murdered 21-year-old follower Shuji Taguchi, who tried to leave the cult after he was involved in the abandonment of the body of the drowned man. In November 1989, Aum members killed 33-year-old lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family. Sakamoto was the leader of a group working for the families of people who had joined Aum. The families were seeking the return of their relatives.

One member, Kotari Ochida, was reportedly killed by other members in 1993 while Asahara looked on. The cult member who led the execution said he handcuffed and tied a rope around the victim's neck and carried out the execution on Asahara orders. "I thought if I didn't kill him, I might be killed, so I couldn't help doing it,” he said.

“The cult killed seven people in Matsumoto in June 1994 with sarin gas. In February 1995, Aum kidnapped Kiyoshi Kariya, 68, a chief clerk at the Meguro notary public office in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, and killed him by giving him a massive dose of anesthetics that induced a heart attack. The Tokyo sarin gas attack occurred the following month. Thirteen people died and more than 6,000 people were injured after the gas was released on five subway trains arriving at the Kasumigaseki Station. [Yomiuri Shimbun, Op Cit]

Aum Murders

Members believed that committing crimes to defend the cult was justifiable. It is believed that at least 20 Aum Shinrokyo members who rebelled or tried to leave the cult were killed. Their bodies were burned in a microwave crematorium, the bones were pulverized and the dust thrown away.

The first Aum-related death was an accident that occurred to one of its members at the cult’s compound. The body was secretly incinerated. Members of the cult worried that if news of the death got out it would undermine the reputation of the cult. When one member of the group who knew about the death asked if he could leave the cult he was murdered in February 1989 out of concern he might reveal information about the accidental death.

Aum began targeting people it viewed as threats after some negative articles were printed about the group. In November 1989 six cult members raided the house of Tsutsumi Sakamoto, an attorney who denounced the cult in a television interviews and refused to apologize or retract his statements. The cult members strangled Sakamoto and his wife, smothered their one-year-old baby and rolled up the bodies in futons and buried them in mountain graves. The bodies were never found.

An Aum badge was found at the apartment of Sakamoto and his family and police believed the cult may have been involved in their murder but police did not investigate the cult until after the sarin gas attack, The three Aum members charged with murdering the family were not arrested until September 1995.

A notary, who tried to prevent his wealthy sister from donating large sums of money to the cult, also disappeared. He was grabbed by four young men in a Mitsubishi van, which was later found with traces of the notary’s blood.

Image Sources: YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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