It was finally over. The police in June 2012 had captured Takahashi Katsuya, the last suspect sought in connection with Aum Shinrikyō’s 1990s crime spree. And on April 30, 2015, the Tokyo District Court returned a guilty verdict, sentencing him to life in prison. Takahashi is, to be sure, appealing that verdict. And his case could well spend years winding through Japan’s court system all the way up to the Supreme Court. But Japan’s appellate courts rarely devote as much time as the lower courts do to examining the evidence presented. So the April verdict was a watershed in regard to reevaluating what happened in the Aum Shinrikyō cult (“Aum,” since renamed “Aleph”).
Aum members burst bags filled with liquid sarin, a deadly poison, on five Tokyo subway trains on March 20, 1995. The attack killed 13 passengers and subway station employees and injured thousands. It prompted the Japanese police to finally storm the Aum compound in Yamanashi Prefecture, which they had long been monitoring, and the subsequent investigation led to indictments of 192 Aum members.
Among those indicted were the cult leader, Asahara Shōkō (a.k.a. Matsumoto Chizuo), and his second in command, Murai Hideo. An assassin murdered Murai, however, while the criminal investigation was under way. Asahara had occassionally issued orders through Murai, so the latter’s death robbed the authorities of a valuable source of information for linking Asahara to the cult’s crimes. The depositions and testimony by other Aum members proved ample, though, to illuminate Asahara’s role as the mastermind behind the criminal activity.
My coverage of Aum relied heavily on what I heard and saw at public hearings. Journalists in Japan have extremely limited access to individuals held in detention centers or prisons. In the rare instances where interviews are allowed, the time allotted is extremely brief. And the authorities do not allow visitors to take photographs or use audio recorders. The limitations on access are especially onerous in the case of death-row inmates. Even exchanging letters can be impossible.
The police, meanwhile, do not release the details of their investigation findings. Nor do the courts release transcripts of their proceedings. So attending the court hearings in person is the best way to get a feel for the character of the accused and to gain insight into the events in question. Thus did I find myself in attendance at numerous hearings during my years of following the Aum story.
Obedience to Murderous Instructions
Aum committed numerous crimes, including 10 incidents that entailed one or more murders. The instances of multiple killings were the March 1995 sarin attack on Tokyo subways; a June 1994 sarin attack in the Nagano Prefecture city of Matsumoto; and the November 1989 murders of the lawyer Sakamoto Tsutsumi, who had mobilized opposition to Aum, and his wife and infant son. Aum’s expansive crime portfolio also included incidents of attempted murder; the illegal manufacture of guns, explosives, and drugs; the construction of a plant for producing sarin in large quantities; fraud; and theft.
Most of the serious crimes committed by Aum members took place under orders issued directly by Asahara to the perpetrators. Aum’s formal precepts prohibited the taking of life, and no one in the cult, even senior leaders, could violate those precepts at their own discretion. Aum countenanced killing only as authorized by its guru, Asahara, and we know from the court testimony of Aum members that the cult characterized Asahara-authorized murder as “salvation.”
People outside the cult were hungry for answers about how and why the cult’s crimes had unfolded. Two questions were especially perplexing. One, how did Aum attract so many believers, including intelligent and highly educated individuals? And two, why did Aum members comply submissively with instructions to commit murder? Some defense lawyers believed it necessary to probe into these questions in order to shed light on what propelled members to perpetrate the crimes.
A Magnet for the Spiritually Adrift
Asahara launched Aum in 1984 as a yoga studio but repositioned it as a religious organization in 1987, when he renamed it Aum Shinrikyō. The cult secured formal certification from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government as a religious corporation in 1989.
Japan in the 1980s was a throbbing economic bubble. Stock and real estate prices surged inexorably, get-rich-quick schemes abounded, and the nation was awash in mounds of cash. The materialistic zeitgeist also spawned countercurrents, and significant numbers of Japanese looked beyond the moneymaking maelstrom in search of true happiness and fulfillment. Some turned to occult spiritualism unfettered by conventional notions of reality or concern with scientific verification.
Exaggerating the atmosphere was an enduringly popular 1973 Japanese book that accompanied a translation of The Prophecies of Nostradamus with commentary. That book adhered to a fin de siècle interpretation of the original that predicted the annihilation of humankind in 1999.
Aum appealed masterfully to the concerns of the spiritually adrift. Young people eager for nonmaterialistic insight responded positively to Asahara’s claims of supernatural powers. The cult propagated an Armageddon scenario and positioned its activities as salvation for the souls of the soon-to-be victims of the impending cataclysm. Aum pitched its nostrums as means of personal deliverance and of social salvation.
Note that enlisting in Aum’s legion was more than just a route to personal deliverance. As part of the organization, the recruit would have the opportunity to save others. That was an intoxicating message for young people who were uncomfortable with their existence and were seeking greater meaning in life. It proved a fatal attraction for a young man who later received a death sentence for his role in the murder of the Sakamoto family and in the Matsumoto sarin attack.
“I didn’t want to just become a typical company employee [like my father],” the young man recalled later. “I hated the idea of leading an ordinary life. I was looking for a line of work that would be really worth getting into [but wasn’t finding anything that felt right].”
A friend of the young man had joined Aum and invited him to join, too. The young man was mistrustful of religion and entered an Aum facility initially with the intent of persuading his friend to leave. But once inside, he found the talk of Armageddon convincing and the notion of saving humankind appealing. He ended up joining the cult despite his parents’ best efforts at dissuasion.
“I’ve got to prevent Armageddon,” retorted the young man. “And I’ve got to repay the happiness that I’ve enjoyed [by saving humankind].”
A male on death row for his role in the subway sarin attacks recounts a similar tale. He had excelled at physics at university, where he earned a postgraduate degree in the subject. Even after joining Aum, he initially had no intent of giving himself over to the cult entirely; that is, handing over all his assets, cutting ties with family and friends, and devoting himself full time to Aum activities.
This young man had received an offer to work in the R&D operations of a blue-chip company. He changed his mind, however, at the persuasion of Asahara. “Who will save the world,” asked the cult leader rhetorically, “if young people like you don’t take up the challenge?” That sparked a sense of purpose in the young man that he had formerly lacked. He became a full-fledged Aum member, turning down the employment offer and turning away, too, from his family. Six years later, he was murdering Tokyo subway riders with sarin.
The second individual described above was from a tight-knit family, but Aum also became a refuge for numerous young people who didn’t get along with their parents or who had difficulty relating to people in general. Aum’s live-in facilities were comfortable and reassuring environments for young men and women who didn’t feel comfortable anywhere else.
Freed from the social complexities of human relationships, Aum’s recruits needed simply to absorb the absolute supremacy of Asahara Shōkō. The leader’s every instruction was absolutely correct. The inability to grasp that simple truth was a sign of insufficient spiritual attainment. Aum’s members needed to overcome reservations based on lingering fixations with social mores conventional morality, scientific knowledge, and laws and regulations.
Members learned to conceal any doubts that they were unable to erase completely. They learned to accept Asahara’s instructions unquestioningly and to carry them out proactively. They ceased to think on their own and instead became veritable extensions of their supreme leader. That was the ideal pattern of development for Aum members.
Four of the five members who carried out the sarin attacks on subway trains were engaging in murder for the first time. One of the five was a physician, and the others were trained scientists. They fully understood the poisonous properties of the sarin that they released on the trains. None of them exhibited any reticence whatsoever about carrying out their murderous instructions.
Yoga, LSD, and Sleep Deprivation
Aum’s leaders employed yoga extensively as a tool for instilling cult discipline in the members. Some of the initiates reported experiencing paranormal phenomena while engaged in the yoga regimen: the perception of being irradiated with a brilliant light, for example, or of energy surging through their body.
Practitioners of “conventional” yoga have reported similar experiences, as have meditative Buddhist monks. And scientists have accounted for those experiences in reference to objectively verifiable psychological phenomena. But Aum’s cultists associated their yoga-born experiences with otherworldly phenomena channeled through the cult leader, Asahara. They welcomed the experiences as evidence of progress along a spiritual path administered by their leader.
The spiritual conditioning undergone by the Aum members inculcated a sense of dependence on Asahara. And that dependence begot a readiness to participate even in heinous crimes. Success in conditioning initiates with yoga whetted the Aum leadership’s appetite for ways of indoctrinating more initiates more swiftly. The cult thereupon turned to methamphetamine and LSD, producing stocks of the illegal drugs in house, and administering them to members in ceremonies.
Aum’s curriculum implanted in the members a horror of eternal damnation as the price of disregarding cult doctrine. Several former members revealed that they were unable to dismiss that horror. Even after trying to sever ties, it drove them to rejoin the cult. Yet another tool used by the cult to mold the psyches of the members was sleep deprivation. Aum members who lived in cult facilities performed all manner of tasks and chores while getting a bare minimum of sleep. They received no news, meanwhile, from the outside world, their only information input being what was imparted by the cult.
Youthful Idealism on Death Row
Aum recruited young people by appealing to their idealistic interest in discovering themselves, in helping others, in improving the world. Those duped into joining were initially victims of the insidious cult, but they ultimately became proactive accomplices, inflicting harm on others. That process of malevolent assimilation is common to cults everywhere. Witness, for example, the Islamic State.
A lot of former Aum members experienced a reawakening in the course of undergoing interrogation and hearing in court from the family members of their victims. The defendants shook loose bonds of mind control, reconnected with their former selves, and embraced a sense of genuine regret for their actions. They received no leniency, however, in their sentencing, as the courts declined to accept mind control as an extenuating circumstance.
Japan’s legal system will render a final decision sooner or later in Takahashi’s case, and that will open the way for the executions of Aum’s condemned to get under way. However, the thought of the impending deaths only deepens the gloom I feel for the past loss of life.
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