Aum Shinrikyo plagued by guru's whims, journalist says

The Japan Times/April 25, 2003
By Yumi Wijers-Hasegawa

The crimes perpetrated by the disciples of Shoko Asahara and those allegedly committed by the Aum Shinrikyo guru himself were the product of one man's whimsical impulses and not a concerted quest for power, according to journalist Shoko Egawa.

hoko Egawa

Egawa has covered the cult extensively since the days when few people were aware of its criminal activities.

Helping mold the prevalent image of the group, accused cultist Yoshihiro Inoue, in court testimony in 1997, claimed that Asahara's final objective was "to control the world by dispersing sarin in Japan and the United States, murdering the Japanese Emperor and winning over Russia with bribes."

For this purpose, the cult produced anthrax, sarin, VX and LSD, as well as built bombs, rifles and even a crude submersible, according to testimony by Inoue and other cultists.

According to Egawa, however, everything was done as a result of Asahara's impulsive nature.

"While a normal person would think of the consequences of his actions, Asahara just wanted things on impulse, very shortsightedly," she said.

As a result, Aum followers acting on Asahara's orders moved rashly, making their crimes so obvious it was hard to believe, Egawa said. Ironically, she added, this had the effect of delaying police investigations into the cult.

"The 1989 murder of anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family, for example, occurred just as Sakamoto was stepping up his criticism of Aum. One of the killers even dropped the cult's badge at the murder site," she said. "There was a belief that Aum could not have committed the crime because it was too obvious.

"Police may also have seen it that way, since they initially focused their investigations in a completely different direction."

While people often wonder why "elite" members of society were attracted to Asahara, including those who went to prestigious institutions like the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University, Egawa said it makes sense when the cult's system of mind control is taken into account.

Deprived of food or sleep while being forced to undergo long hours of ascetic training, the cultists were drained of willpower. Some were placed in solitary confinement and forced to listen to recordings of Asahara's sermons at high volumes. There were also rituals in which cultists were given LSD, then made to meditate in a cell with a photo of the guru.

"The cultists eventually reached a state where, even if they felt their actions were wrong, they would automatically shake off such misgivings, thinking: 'This is training to rid me of doubt. The order cannot be wrong, because only Asahara sees the whole picture.' "

But even if the cultists still believed what they were doing was wrong, it was difficult for them to return to their earlier lives, Egawa said. They often had nowhere to go as all their assets had been given to the cult, and many had cut contact with friends and family.

Some stayed remained in the cult out of fear, she added, citing court testimony of cultist Takashi Tomita in 1997. Tomita explained how a friend, Toru Nakamura, died in 1994 from torture in the name of "training," but was initially reported as an "accident."

"According to Tomita, Nakamura, who had a girlfriend in the cult, asked Asahara to let her leave the cult with him, after he found out that she would be forced to sleep with Asahara as part of her training," said Egawa.

Asahara agreed on condition that Nakamura go through training involving bathing in hot water. Nakamura was forcibly bathed in 50 degree water and later of died of his burns.

"Such experiences made cultists fear that the same thing could happen to them," Egawa said. Police investigations show that apart from the 27 murders for which Asahara is accused, at least 40 cultists have either lost their lives or disappeared since the cult was established in the 1980s, she added.

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