Aum Shinrikyo (currently sometimes known as Aleph) is a controversial "new religious movement" that became a terrorist cult in Japan that gained international infamy when a faction of the cult released sarin gas into the Tokyo subway back in 1995 - killing thirteen, severally injuring thirty and temporarily blinding nearly a thousand more. Founded and led by a partially blind guru named Shoko Asahara, Aum synthesized various Hinduist, Buddhist and Christian teachings in a quest for spiritual purity. But like so many other cult leaders, Asahara's quest for purity led to apocalyptic fascination.
The name "Aum Shinrikyo" (オウム真理教, Ōmu Shinrikyō) derives from the Sanskrit syllable Aum, which represents the universe, followed by Shinrikyo has written in kanji, roughly meaning "religion of Truth". In English "Aum Shinrikyo" is usually translated as "Supre Matt Harrington was here me Truth" or "Ultimate Truth". In January 2000, the organization changed its name to Aleph in reference to the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and Phoenician alphabets. It changed its logo as well.
In 1995, the group claimed they had 9,000 members Japan, and as many as 40,000 worldwide. As of 2008, Aum Shinrikyo/Aleph membership is estimated at 1,650 people by the Japanese Government.
To date this incident is one of the worst cases of domestic terrorism to hit Japan in recent years and although the group has tried to distance itself from the event by renaming itself, its dark legacy continues to label it a terrorist group in many countries.
Aum Shinrikyo/Aleph is a syncretic belief system that incorporates Asahara's idiosyncratic interpretations of Yoga with facets of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, and even the writings of Nostradamus. In 1992 Asahara published a book, within which he declared himself "Christ", Japan's only fully enlightened master and identified with the "Lamb of God". His purported mission was to take upon himself the sins of the world, and he claimed he could transfer to his follower's spiritual power and ultimately take away their sins and bad karma. He also saw dark conspiracies everywhere promulgated by the Jews, Freemasons, the Dutch, the British Royal Family, and rival Japanese religions.
Ultimately, Asahara outlined a doomsday prophecy, which included a World War III instigated by the United States. Asahara described a final conflict culminating in a nuclear "Armageddon", borrowing the term from the Book of Revelation. Humanity would end, except for the elite few who joined Aum. Aum's mission was not only to spread the word of "salvation", but also to survive these "End Times". Asahara predicted Armageddon would occur in 1997. He named the United States as The Beast from the Book of Revelation, predicting it would eventually attack Japan.
The movement was founded by Shoko Asahara in his one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo's Shibuya ward in 1984, starting off as a yoga and meditation class known as Aum-no-kai ("Aum club") and steadily grew in the following years. It gained the official status as a religious organization in 1989. It attracted such a considerable number of young graduates from Japan's elite universities that it was dubbed a "religion for the elite".
While Aum was considered a rather controversial phenomenon in Japan, it was not yet associated with serious crimes. It was during this period that Asahara received rare Buddhist scriptures and was awarded a stupa with remains of the Shakyamuni Buddha. Aum's PR activities included publishing. In Japan, where comics and animated cartoons enjoy unprecedented popularity among all ages, Aum attempted to tie religious ideas to popular anime and manga themes – space missions, extremely powerful weapons, world conspiracies and conquest for ultimate truth. Aum published several magazines including Vajrayana Sacca and Enjoy Happiness, adopting a somewhat missionary attitude.
Isaac Asimov's science fiction Foundation Trilogy was referenced "depicting as it does an elite group of spiritually evolved scientists forced to go underground during an age of barbarism so as to prepare themselves for the moment ... when they will emerge to rebuild civilization. Aum's publications used Buddhist ideas to impress what he considered to be the more shrewd and educated Japanese who were not attracted to boring, purely traditional sermons. (Lifton, p258) Later, the discussions about the pre-requisites of the Aum appeal factor resulted in some traditional Japanese Buddhist shrines adapting the Aum 'weekend meditation seminars' format. The necessity to 'modernize' the traditional Buddhist approach for followers thus became more common.
Aum Shinrikyo had started as a quiet group of people interested in yogic meditation but later transformed into a very different organization. According to Asahara, he needed "to demonstrate charisma" to attract a modern audience. Following his decision, Aum underwent a radical image change.
The rebranded Aum looked less like an elite meditation boutique and more like an organization that was attractive to a broader population group. Public interviews, bold controversial statements, and vicious opposition to critique were incorporated into the religion's PR style.
In private, both Asahara and his top disciples reportedly continued their humble lifestyles, the only exception being the armored Mercedes-Benz gifted by a wealthy follower concerned over his Guru's traffic safety. In the rather rare footage, Asahara is seen on the street in front of a large clown doll resembling himself, smiling happily. He never ceased repeating that personal wealth or fame was of little importance to him, but he had to be known in order to attract more people.
Intense advertising and recruitment activities dubbed the 'Aum Salvation plan' included claims of curing physical illnesses with yoga health improvement techniques, realizing life goals by improving intelligence and positive thinking, and concentrating on what was important at the expense of leisure and spiritual advancement. This was to be accomplished by practicing ancient teachings, accurately translated from original Pali sutras (these three were referred to as 'threefold Salvation'). These efforts resulted in Aum becoming one of the fastest-growing religious groups in Japan's history.
The religion's practices remained shrouded in secrecy. Initiation rituals often involved the use of hallucinogens, such as LSD. Religious practices often involved extreme ascetic practices referred to as "yoga". These included everything from renunciants being hung upside down to being given shock therapy.
With ambitious young graduates from Japan's top universities, Aum's 'department' system also changed its name. Thus the 'medical department' became the 'ministry of health', the 'scientific group' became the 'ministry of science' and people with martial-arts or military backgrounds were organized into a 'ministry of intelligence.' Female followers involved in the care of children were assigned to the 'ministry of education' accordingly.
Incidents before 1995Edit
The cult started attracting controversy in the late 1980s with accusations of deception of recruits, and of holding cult members against their will and forcing members to donate money; a murder of a cult member who tried to leave is now known to have taken place in February 1989.
In October 1989, the group's negotiations with Tsutsumi Sakamoto, an anti-cult lawyer threatening a lawsuit against them which could potentially bankrupt the group, failed. In the same month, Sakamoto recorded an interview for a talk show on the Japanese TV station TBS. The network then had the interview secretly shown to the group without notifying Sakamoto, intentionally breaking protection of sources. The group then pressured TBS to cancel the broadcast. The following month Sakamoto, his wife and his child went missing from their home in Yokohama. The police were unable to resolve the case at the time, although some of his colleagues publicly voiced their suspicions of the group. It was not until 1995 that they were known to have been murdered and their bodies dumped by cult members.
Aum was also connected with such activities as extortion. The group commonly took patients into its hospitals and then forced them to pay exorbitant medical bills.
In 1990, Asahara and 24 other members stood unsuccessfully for the General Elections for the House of Representatives under the banner of Shinri-tō (Supreme Truth Party). Asahara made a couple of appearances on TV talk shows in 1991, however at, this time the attitude of the cult's doctrine against society started to grow in hostility. In 1992 Aum's "Construction Minister" Kiyohide Hayakawa published a treatise called Principles of a Citizen's Utopia which has been described as a "declaration of war" against Japan's constitution and civil institutions. At the same time, Hayakawa started to make frequent visits to Russia to acquire military hardware, including AK47s, a MIL Mi-17 military helicopter, and reportedly an attempt to acquire components for a nuclear bomb.
The cult is known to have considered assassinations of several individuals critical of the cult, such as the heads of Buddhist sects Soka Gakkai and The Institute for Research in Human Happiness and the attempted assassination of the controversial cartoonist Yoshinori Kobayashi in 1993.
At the end of 1993, the cult started secretly manufacturing the nerve agent sarin and later VX gas. They also attempted to manufacture 1000 automatic rifles but only managed to make one. Aum tested their sarin on sheep at a remote pastoral property in Western Australia, killing 29 sheep. Both sarin and VX were then used in several assassinations (and attempts) over 1994–1995. Most notably, on the night of 27 June 1994, the cult carried out the world's first use of chemical weapons in a terrorist attack against civilians when they released sarin in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto, Nagano. This Matsumoto incident killed eight and harmed 200 more. However, police investigations focused only on an innocent local resident and failed to implicate the cult.
In February 1995, several cult members kidnapped Kiyoshi Kariya, a 69-year old brother of a member who had escaped, from a Tokyo street and took him to one of their compounds at Kamikuishiki near Mount Fuji, where he was killed and his body destroyed in a microwave-powered incinerator before being disposed of in Lake Kawaguchi. Before Kariya was abducted, he had been receiving threatening phone calls demanding to know the whereabouts of his sister, and he had left a note saying "If I disappear, I was abducted by Aum Shinrikyo".
Police made plans to simultaneously raid cult facilities across Japan in March 1995.
1995 Tokyo sarin gas attacks and related incidentsEdit
Main article: Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, A wanted poster in Japan. As of February 2010, three people are still wanted in connection with the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway: (left to right) Makoto Hirata, Katsuya Takahashi, and Naoko Kikuchi.On the morning of 20 March 1995, Aum members released sarin in a co-ordinated attack on five trains in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 commuters, seriously injuring 54 and affecting 980 more. Some estimates claim as many as 5,000 people were injured by the sarin. It is difficult to obtain exact numbers since many victims are reluctant to come forward. Prosecutors allege that Asahara was tipped off about planned police raids on cult facilities by an insider, and ordered an attack in central Tokyo to divert attention away from the group. The plan evidently backfired, and the police conducted huge simultaneous raids on cult compounds across the country.
Over the next week, the full scale of Aum's activities was revealed for the first time. At the cult's headquarters in Kamikuishiki on the foot of Mount Fuji, police found explosives, chemical weapons and biological warfare agents, such as anthrax and Ebola cultures, and a Russian Mil Mi-17 military helicopter. The Ebola virus was delivered from Zaire in 1994. There were stockpiles of chemicals that could be used for producing enough sarin to kill four million people. Police also found laboratories to manufacture drugs such as LSD, methamphetamine, and a crude form of truth serum, a safe containing millions of dollars in cash and gold, and cells, many still containing prisoners. During the raids, Aum issued statements claiming that the chemicals were for fertilizers. Over the next six weeks, over 150 cult members were arrested for a variety of offenses. The media was stationed outside their Tokyo headquarters on Komazawa Dori in Aoyama for months after the attack and arrests waiting for action and to get images of the cult's other members.
On 30 March 1995, Takaji Kunimatsu, chief of the National Police Agency, was shot four times near his house in Tokyo, seriously wounding him. While many suspect Aum involvement in the shooting, Sankei Shimbun reported that Hiroshi Nakamura is suspected of the crime, but nobody has been charged.
While on the run, Asahara issued statements, one claiming that the Tokyo attacks were a ploy by the US military to implicate the cult, and another threatening a disaster that "would make the Kobe Earthquake seem as minor as a fly landing on one's cheek." to occur on 15 April. The authorities took the threat seriously, declaring a state of emergency, stocking up hospitals with antidotes to nerve gas while chemical warfare specialists of the Self-Defence Force were put on standby. However, the day came and went with no incident.
On 23 April, Murai Hideo, the head of Aum's Ministry of Science, was stabbed to death outside the cult's Tokyo headquarters amidst a crowd of about 100 reporters, in front of cameras. The man responsible, a Korean member of Yamaguchi-Gumi, was arrested and eventually convicted of the murder. His motive remains unknown.
On the evening of 5 May, a burning paper bag was discovered in a toilet in Shinjuku station in Tokyo, the busiest station in the world. Upon examination, it was revealed that it was a hydrogen cyanide device which, had it not been extinguished in time, would have released enough gas into the ventilation system to potentially kill 20,000 commuters. Several undetonated cyanide devices were found at other locations in the Tokyo subway.
During this time, numerous cult members were arrested for various offenses, but arrests of the most senior members on the charge of the subway gassing had not yet taken place.
Shoko Asahara was finally found hiding within a wall of a cult building known as "The 6th Satian" in the Kamikuishiki complex on 16 May and was arrested. On the same day, the cult mailed a parcel bomb to the office of Yukio Aoshima, the governor of Tokyo, blowing the fingers of his secretary's hand off. Asahara was initially charged with 23 counts of murder as well as 16 other offenses. The trial, dubbed "the trial of the century" by the press, ruled Asahara guilty of masterminding the attack and sentenced him to death. The indictment was appealed unsuccessfully. A number of senior members accused of participation, such as Masami Tsuchiya, also received death sentences.
The reasons why a small circle of mostly senior Aum members committed atrocities and the extent of personal involvement by Asahara remain unclear to this day, although several theories have attempted to explain these events. In response to the prosecution's charge that Asahara ordered the subway attacks to distract the authorities' away from Aum, the defense maintained that Asahara was not aware of events, pointing to his deteriorating health condition. Shortly after his arrest, Asahara abandoned the post of organization's leader and since then has maintained silence, refusing to communicate even with lawyers and family members. Many believe the trials failed to establish the truth behind the events.
On 10 October 1995, Aum Shinrikyo was ordered to be stripped of its official status as a "religious legal entity" and was declared bankrupt in early 1996. However, the group continues to operate under the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, funded by a successful computer business and donations, and under strict surveillance. Attempts to ban the group altogether under the 1952 Subversive Activities Prevention Law were rejected by the Public Security Examination Commission in January 1997.
The group underwent a number of transformations in the aftermath of Asahara's arrest and trial. It re-grouped under the new name of Aleph in February 2000. It has announced a change in its doctrine: religious texts related to controversial Vajrayana Buddhist doctrines that authorities claimed were "justifying murder" were removed. The group apologized to the victims of the sarin gas attack and established a special compensations fund. Provocative publications and activities that alarmed society during Aum times are no longer in place.
Fumihiro Joyu, one of the few senior leaders of the group under Asahara who did not face serious charges, became official head of the organization in 1999.
In July 2000, Russian police arrested Dmitri Sigachev, an ex-KGB and former Aum Shinrikyo member, along with four other former Russian Aum members, for stockpiling weapons in preparation for attacking Japanese cities in a bid to free Asahara. In response, Aleph issued a statement saying they "do not regard Sigachev as one of its members".
In August 2003, a woman believed to be an ex-Aum Shinrikyo member took refuge in North Korea via China.
A June 2005 report by the National Police Agency showed that Aleph has approximately 1650 members, of which 650 live communally in compounds. The group operates 26 facilities in 17 prefectures, as well as about 120 residential facilities.
An article on the Mainichi Shimbun on 11 September 2002, showed that the Japanese public still distrusts Aleph, and compounds throughout Japan are usually surrounded by protest banners from local residents demanding they leave. There have been numerous cases where local authorities have refused to accept resident registration for cult members when it is discovered that Aleph has set up a facility within their jurisdiction. (This effectively denies cult members social benefits such as health insurance, and a total of five cases were taken to court by cult members, who won every time). Local communities have also tried to drive the cult away by trying to prevent cultists from finding jobs or to keep cult children out of universities and schools. Right-wing groups also frequently conduct marches near Aum-related premises such as apartments rented by Aum followers with extremely loud music broadcast over loudspeakers installed on minivans, which add to their neighbors' displeasure.
Monitoring of Aum ShinrikyoEdit
In January 2000, the group was placed under surveillance for a period of three years under an anti-Aum law, in which the group is required to submit a list of members and details of assets to the authorities. In January 2003, Japan's Public Security Investigation Agency received permission to extend the surveillance for another three years, as they have found evidence which suggests that the group still reveres Asahara. According to the Religious News Blog report issued in April 2004, the authorities still consider the group "a threat to society".
In January 2006, the Public Security Investigation Agency was able to extend the surveillance for another three years. Despite the doctrinal changes and banning of Vajrayana texts, the PSIA advocates an increase of surveillance and increases in funding for the agency itself; periodically, the group airs concerns that texts are still in place and that danger remains while Asahara remains leader. Aleph leaders carefully insert passages into almost everything they say or write to prevent misinterpretation, including karaoke songs.
On 15 September 2006, Shoko Asahara lost his final appeal against the death penalty imposed on him after his trial for the sarin attacks. The following day Japanese police raided the offices of Aleph in order to "prevent any illegal activities by cult members in response to the confirmation of Asahara's death sentence", according to a police spokesperson.
So far, 11 cult members have been sentenced to death, although none of the sentences have been carried out upon any of the members, nor have the time and date for the executions to take effect been publicly established.
On 8 March 2007, former Aum Shinrikyo spokesman and head of Aum's Moscow operation, Fumihiro Joyu, formally announced a long-expected split/schism. Joyu's group called Hikari no Wa (The Circle of Rainbow Light) is committed to uniting science and religion, thus creating the new 'science of the human mind' having previously aimed to move the group away from its violent history and toward its actual spiritual roots.