In March of 1995 a Japanese cult called “Aum Supreme Truth” released deadly sarin gas within the subways of Tokyo. Four people died immediately and thousands were rushed to hospitals. This unprovoked attack profoundly changed the Japanese perception of cults and shocked the world.[i] It was later learned that this was not the first violent act of the cult. In 1989 Aum's leader Shoko Asahara ordered the abduction and murder of an anti-Aum lawyer, his wife and infant son.[ii] In June of 1994, less than a year before the Tokyo gas attack, Aum members released deadly sarin gas in Matsumoto killing seven residents.[iii]
Chizuo Matsumoto, who assumed the name Shoko Asahara, was born into a poor family living in the Kumamoto Prefecture of Japan. Visually impaired, he went to a special school for the blind. Not unlike other cult leaders Asahara saw himself from childhood as a great leader and later fostered political ambitions. Tokyo University rejected Asahara. In his late twenties Asahara made a spiritual trek through India supposedly seeking and then receiving enlightenment while in the Himalayas. At 35 he returned to Japan and in 1984 founded his religious society.[iv]
Aum, like many cults, is a composite that reflects the idiosyncratic beliefs of its leader. Asahara combined his interpretations of Yoga, Buddhism, and Christianity along with the writings of Nostradamus. In 1992 he published a book declaring himself “Christ,” Japan's only fully enlightened master and also took the title “Lamb of God.” His purported mission was to take upon himself the sins of the world. Asahara claimed that he could transfer spiritual power to his followers; take away their sins and bad Karma.[v]
Like Jim Jones and the infamous cult leader Charles Manson Asahara saw dark conspiracies everywhere. He spoke of evil plots concerning Jews, Freemasons and rival Japanese religions. He also named the United States as the “Beast” from the “Book of Revelation” in the bible and claimed America would eventually attack Japan.[vi]
Asahara like many cult leaders predicted a doomsday scenario. His prediction specifically included a Third World War. In an effort to bring on that event Asahara ordered his followers to kill. This is why they planned and executed the poison gas attack in Tokyo, believing that it would somehow initiate a chain of events, which would culminate in a nuclear Armageddon. Asahara's last taped broadcast to his followers called upon them to rise up and carry out his plan for salvation and to “meet death without regrets”.[vii] Humanity would end, except for an elite few.[viii]
Aum's recruitment efforts included proselytizing aimed at professionals within the Japanese scientific community. These highly educated recruits became the basis for the development of the cult's chemical and biological weapons. Aum's search for weapons of mass destruction included a “medical mission” in 1992 to Zaire, supposedly to help fight an outbreak of the Ebola virus, but actually devised to obtain a strain of that virus for use in biological warfare.
Two days after the Tokyo gas attack 2,500 police and military personnel raided Aum's Kamukuishiki complex and two dozen more of the cult's properties simultaneously across Japan. Large stockpiles of gas-making chemicals and related equipment were found. Aum members and the cult's leader were arrested.[ix] At court proceedings in January 2000 Aum members finally admitted that Shoko Asahara planned and ordered a series of crimes, which ended in the 1995 sarin Tokyo subway gas attack.[x] As the Japanese judicial system slowly proceeded against Aum 13 members were sentenced to death by hanging.[xi]
Nevertheless, some within the academic community have defended destructive cults like Aum. Academics J. Gordon Melton and James Lewis flew to Japan shortly after the gas attack to investigate charges of “religious persecution”. In subsequent press conferences while they were in Japan the pair suggested that the cult was innocent of criminal charges and instead a victim. American attorney Barry Fisher accompanied Melton and Lewis and reportedly claimed that Aum could not have produced the poison gas sarin, based upon photos provided to him by the cult. Aum paid all expenses for the trio to visit Japan.[xii]
Asahara was also lent credibility by Nobel Peace Prize winner the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet. The guru donated 45 million rupees, about $1.2 million dollars to the Dalai Lama.[xiii] Seemingly in exchange for the cult leader’s generosity the Dalai Lama consented to several high level meetings, which included photo opportunities. Even after the gas attack in Tokyo the Dalai Lama insisted that Asahara was his “friend, although not necessarily a perfect one”.[xiv]
Shoko Asahara was sentenced to death in February of 2004.[xv] He remains in prison and his lawyers claim that he is “mentally incompetent”. Asahara is reportedly confined to a wheelchair, incontinent and unable to respond to anyone in an intelligible manner. Despite this the guru continues to garner the devotion of many remaining followers that still insist he is a “spiritual being”.[xvi]
Aum was stripped of much of its assets through claims filed by victims of its gas attack. In January of 2000 the cult claimed to have changed and now has the new name “Aleph”. "Aleph" reportedly has about 1,100 members[xvii] and is led by Fumihiro Joyu, a former subordinate of Asahara.[xviii] Aleph continues to perpetuate many of the conspiracy theories promoted by Asahara and still considers him a “master”.[xix] It has been recently reported that Aleph is recruiting under the guise of a “yoga school”.[xx]
Former BATF director Steven Higgins explained in 1995 why law enforcement must respond to criminal behavior and the potential danger posed by destructive cults. Higgins said, “I can only say: Remember Jonestown or remember the members of the sect in Canada and Switzerland who committed mass suicide. Or look at what happened in the subways in Japan, where a group whose presence was known and considered potentially dangerous by government officials allegedly uncorked a deadly nerve gas [later conclusively proven]. The day has long passed when we can afford to ignore the threat posed by individuals who believe they are subject only to the laws of their god and not those of our government”.[xxi]
[i] Sayle, Murray, “Nerve gas and the four noble truths,” The New Yorker, April 1, 1996.
[x] “Aum blames Asahara,” Mainichi Shimbun, January 19, 2000.
[xi] Koh, Yoree, “Death penalty confirmed for sarin gas attack chemist,” The Wall Street Journal, February 15, 2011.
[xii] Reid, T.R., “Tokyo cult finds unlikely supporter,” The Washington Post, May 5, 1995.
[xiii] Hitchens, Christopher, “His Material Highness,” Salon Table Talk, July 13, 1998.
[xiv] Stern Magazine, No. 30, p. 126.
[xv] “Tokyo high court rejects plea for Asahara retrial,” The Japan Times, April 5, 2012.
[xvii] “Aum followers number 1,151 up 11 from August,” Kyodo News Service, November 15, 2000.
[xviii] “Faith in Aum guru resurges as Joyu moves to form his own group,” Asahi Shimbun, February 3, 2007.
[xix] “Young people easily get sucked into Aum Shinrikyo spin-off Aleph,” Japan Today, August 28, 2012.
[xxi] Higgins, Steven, “The Waco Dispute: Why the ATF had to act” The Washington Post, July 2, 1995.
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