Asahara, Shoko (Chizuo Matsumoto)
Shoko Asahara (Chizuo Matsumoto)
March 2, 1955
Leader of Aum Shinrikyo
"From now  until the year 2000, a series of violent phenomena filled with fears that are too difficult to describe will occur. Japan will turn into waste land as a result of a nuclear weapons attack."
O n the morning of March 20, 1995, thousands of people riding the subway to work in Tokyo, Japan, suddenly felt terribly ill. Some could not stand up and fell down convulsing on the subway platforms. Others could not speak. Some were blinded. Twelve died.
By the end of the morning more than five thousand people had claimed to have been sickened or injured. All were victims of a poison gas attack planned and executed by a religious cult named Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese name that in English means "Supreme Truth." The organization was headed by a man named Shoko Asahara, who had just had his fortieth birthday three weeks earlier.
Making and selling straw mats in southern Japan in the 1950s did not bring in very much money. And the Matsumoto family was large, with five children. When the sixth child was born in 1955, blind in one eye and with limited sight in the other, he was a burden for the struggling family. When he was six years old the boy, named Chizuo, was sent to a boarding school for the blind. He lived there through his teens.
Having some sight was an advantage at the blind school, and it gave Chizuo a certain status. Perhaps his thirst for power dates from these early days. Reportedly, during these school years Chizuo repeatedly said he wanted to become prime minister of Japan.
Chizuo studied acupuncture (an ancient Chinese medical technique that involves inserting small needles into the body at precise points to relieve pain), hoping it might somehow improve his eyesight. At age twenty-one he moved to Tokyo and soon married Tomoko Ishii, with whom he had six children. He applied to study law at Tokyo University but was turned down. Eventually he began selling Chinese herbal cures but got into trouble by illegally marketing them as medicine. In his late twenties, still feeling at loose ends, Chizuo decided that he was experiencing a spiritual pull. It took him to India, where he wandered in a vague quest for spiritual enlightenment. Upon his return to Japan he announced that he had achieved Nirvana, the ultimate state of grace for a Buddhist, and was ready to explain his religion to the world.
Chizuo Matsumoto took on a new name, Shoko Asahara, and started a new cult, which he called Aum Shinrikyo. The cult was founded on a mixture of beliefs taken from the eastern religions Buddhism and Hinduism, with elements of Christianity mixed in. Its chief symbol was Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and reproduction. The cult's beliefs developed gradually between its founding in 1987 and the poison gas attack on Tokyo in 1995.
Words to Know
- a religion of eastern Asia based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha; teaches that suffering, though part of life, can be overcome by mental and spiritual purification.
- a group of people who believe in unorthodox ideas or concepts.
- the dominant religion of India; one of its basic beliefs is the immortality of the soul and its reincarnation after the death of the human body.
At first Aum Shinrikyo was founded on the idea of turning away from worldly materialism (the desire to succeed and acquire things) in favor of a life of meditation using the techniques of yoga (a system of spiritual exercises designed to make the body flexible and teach breath control). In this respect the sect was like many religious groups, and it attracted large numbers of young people who were unhappy with the intense competition that was part of Japanese society. Asahara wore a flowing beard and long Indian robes, and he encouraged his followers to purchase bottles of his bath water (sold under the name "Miracle Pond" for about $300 an ounce) and even his blood to drink as a way to achieve enlightenment. The sect also rented out special headsets, called "Hats of Happiness," at $11,500 per month. These devices promised to reproduce Asahara's brain waves.
In 1989 Asahara published a book, Secrets of Developing Your Supernatural Powers, which promised to let readers in on such secrets as seeing the future, reading other people's minds, making wishes come true, developing X-ray vision, and hearing the voice of God. Asahara also wrote, "I hereby declare myself to be the Christ."
Other sect practices included taking hallucinogenic drugs (drugs that cause the mind to perceive things that do not exist), not having sex, and self-starvation. Followers sometimes spent long periods in closed, airless spaces. One police raid on a cult compound turned up a woman in a box, where she had been for at least two months. Followers were encouraged to leave their families and live in religious communities called Lotus Villages, which were scattered around Japan. The cult sometimes ignored local building rules, setting up buildings wherever they wanted.
In 1990 the man who had once vowed to become Japan's prime minister decided to try politics. With two dozen other cult members, Asahara ran for a seat in the Japanese parliament. Their campaign tactics were extremely unusual. The candidates wore Asahara masks or elephant masks and put on song-and-dance shows on the streets of Tokyo. The songs consisted of endless repetitions of Asahara's name. After all of his candidates lost, Asahara accused the government of rigging the voting.
Asahara was quite successful in attracting followers. By 1994, a year before the subway gas attack, there were about ten thousand members of the cult in thirty-six branches in Japan, plus a number of international offices (including some in the United States). Aum Shinrikyo was once thought to have ten thousand to forty thousand members in Russia.
The cult was also successful at making money. It tended to bring in well-educated, wealthy members and typically required them to hand over all their money to the group. Cult members worked in exchange for simple meals and a place to sleep. In addition to the money they got from new recruits, the cult earned money from running chains of discount stores, restaurants, and a factory that put together personal computers.
A darker vision
But there was a darker side to Asahara's beliefs. He taught that the world would end soon. At first he said the end of the world would take place in 1999; later, he decided the world would end in 1997.
And he said he knew how it would take place. In a book called Disaster Approaches the Land of the Rising Sun (Land of the Rising Sun is a name for Japan), he claimed that the United States was ruled by Freemasons (a secret society founded in the Middle Ages)—or possibly Jews—and planned to attack Japan. Part of the attack would include a cloud of poison gas sent floating over Japan. A worldwide nuclear war would follow, after which only 10 percent of humanity would survive, including the members of Aum Shinrikyo.
Japanese authorities later uncovered evidence that Asahara had begun planning to make his own prophecy come true by getting what he needed to start a war himself.
The cult began recruiting experts in chemical and biological weapons and sent them around the world in search of materials. In 1992, for example, cult members went to Zaire, where there had been an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. (The Ebola virus is the cause of Ebola hemorrhagic fever, an often fatal disease that is highly infectious through blood or other body fluids.) Posing as aid workers, the cult members tried to get a sample of the virus that could be used in biological warfare. Investigators also found evidence that Aum Shinrikyo had bought special gas masks in the United States.
The cult also set up assembly lines inside its main compound to put together automatic rifles. It bought remote-controlled miniature helicopters, at $20,000 each, to distribute poison gas. It tried hard to recruit members from Russia, apparently hoping to get its hands on weapons from the former Soviet Union (today, Russia and its neighboring countries).
A trial run, then the real thing
In June 1994 a panel of three judges was about to rule on a land dispute involving Aum Shinrikyo in the Japanese city of Matsumoto, northwest of Tokyo. About three weeks before the ruling, however, a cloud of sarin gas spread over a neighborhood in the city, killing seven people and injuring two hundred others, including the judges. Although no one was charged in the Matsumoto attack, a few weeks later people living near one of the cult's compounds woke up with sore eyes, feeling ill. There was a bad smell throughout the neighborhood. The cult was given a warning.
Then came March 20, 1995. At about 8 a.m., a man wearing sunglasses, brown pants, and a blue or beige coat got onto an eight-car subway train on the Hibiya line. He was wearing a surgical mask, which was not too unusual during the spring allergy season in Tokyo. He began fiddling with a package wrapped in newspapers.
At the next stop the man set down the package and rushed off the train, which closed its doors and continued toward the center of Tokyo. It was headed for a station that serves government offices.
Soon the package began giving off a bad odor and left a pool of oily water on the floor of the subway car. Eleven minutes after the man with the package first boarded the train, passengers began panicking, realizing that the package was giving off a gas. But by then it was too late for some.
News accounts described a frightening scene of rush-hour commuters being overcome by what later proved to be a poisonous gas called sarin. "I saw several dozen people on the platform who had either collapsed or were on their knees unable to stand up," one witness was reported saying, in Time magazine. "One man was thrashing around on the floor like a fish out of water." Some passengers said they had been blinded.
Others were shaking and crying but making no sound—the gas had made them mute.
In all, five subway stations on three different subway lines were affected by gas attacks that morning. A dozen people died from the gas, and about fifty-five hundred reported they were injured. A Japanese government official described it as "a declaration of war against the Japanese government." It appeared that Asahara intended the gas attack to touch off the world war that he had predicted.
What the police found next
Just two days after the subway gas attack, twenty-five hundred police officers raided twenty-five offices of Aum Shinrikyo located throughout Japan. Police dressed in protective suits held cages out in front of them. The cages held canaries. If the birds died as police entered the buildings, the officers planned to run for their lives.
The birds did not die, but inside one Aum Shinrikyo compound the police found large quantities of chemicals that could be used to make sarin. They found fifty cult members suffering from malnutrition (not eating enough food or enough good food) and a young woman lying inside a small, windowless box, where she had been for more than two months.
Who Joined Aum Shinrikyo?
What sort of person joined the Aum Shinrikyo cult? Although many of the cult leader's claims sound strange—such as the idea that drinking his bathwater would help one reach enlightenment—what shocked many Japanese was the fact that many Aum Shinrikyo members were well-educated and wealthy. Asahara attracted people with Ph.D. degrees who put together a complex system for manufacturing arms, chemical weapons, biological weapons, and drugs. The cult seemed to attract some of Japan's best and brightest. Indeed, it was through recruiting people educated in science and technology that Asahara was able to put into practice many of his programs, such as developing nerve gas and other weapons and setting up a personal computer assembly plant.
In his 1996 book A Poisonous Cocktail? author Ian Reader noted that the sect, in addition to disapproving of materialism, argued that it was important to withdraw from society to achieve spiritual progress. This attracted "young, idealistic people who were dissatisfied [with] the materialism, stifling conformity [the requirement that everyone act according to strict standards], rigid structures and competitiveness of Japanese society."
Under Asahara's leadership, cult members' sense of separation from Japanese society gradually became a sense of being persecuted (unjustly mistreated) and then a desire to take action that would bring about the end of the world.
According to the report in Time magazine, Asahara quickly released recorded messages stating his innocence. In a singsong voice, he repeated over and over again: "I didn't do it, I'm innocent. I didn't do it, I'm innocent." In his other message, Asahara appealed to his followers: "Disciples, the time to awaken and help me is upon you. Let's carry out the salvation plan and face death without regrets."
Asahara's lawyer insisted that Aum Shinrikyo practiced religion according to the doctrines of Buddhism and suggested that the U.S. military was somehow involved. Shortly afterward, Asahara released a videotape for his followers in which he insisted that he, along with other Aum Shinrikyo members, were the targets of a poison gas attack by the United States.
Charged with murder
Two months after the subway attack, Asahara was arrested and charged with ordering the attack. Police found him dressed in silk pajamas inside a secret bunker in his compound, with a cassette player, a few books, and $100,000 in cash.
Asahara was charged with being responsible for the deaths caused by the Tokyo gas attack and with several other murders connected to the cult. Japan's criminal justice system is known for being slow, and Asahara's trial was expected to last more than a decade. The prosecution's case alone took six years.
In the meantime the cult continued to earn significant sums of money years after Asahara was sent to jail. Although the membership quickly dropped from around ten thousand to about two thousand, Aum Shinrikyo continued to operate a computer assembly factory, as well as retail stores, that brought in $53 million in 1998. The sect continued to put on rock concerts and seminars. In an effort to distance itself from the gas attack, the organization changed its name to Aleph (after the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet).
For More Information
Kaplan, David E., and Andrew Marshall. The Cult at the End of the World: The Terrifying Story of the Aum Doomsday Cult, from the Subways of Tokyo to the Nuclear Arsenals of Russia. New York: Crown Publishers, 1996.
Lifton, Robert Jay. Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999.
Murakami, Haruki. Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel. New York: Vintage, 2001.
Reader, Ian. A Poisonous Cocktail? Aum Shinrikyo's Path to Violence. Copenhagen, Denmark: Nordic Institute for Asian Stidies, 1996.
"The Doom Machine: Inspired by Nostradamus, Aum Shinrikyo's Jailed Leader Guides His Still-thriving Flock toward the End." Time International, July 5, 1999, p. 22.
Jerome, Richard. "Japan's Mad Messiah: Jailed in Tokyo's Subway Gassing, a Guru Is Alone with His Grand Delusions." People Weekly, June 12, 1995, p. 48.
Walsh, James. "Shoko Asahara: The Making of a Messiah." Time, April 3, 1995, p. 30.