Currently appealing a death sentence, Kazuaki Okamoto, 43, who was a leading member of the Aum Supreme Truth cult, sent a letter on Feb. 9 from the Tokyo Detention House to a Yomiuri Shimbun reporter to put his view on Chizuo Matsumoto, also known as Shoko Asahara, on record.
"I'd like to describe to you what I thought of Asahara's traits and temperament when I was one of his closest aides, and how such a monster came to exist and form a cult that renounced the world," he wrote.
Okamoto, who formerly held the cult's second-highest position, was sentenced to death for his involvement in the murder of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family among other offenses. Okamoto has appealed.
"Matsumoto had a lonely childhood after he was separated from his family at the age of 6," Okamoto wrote in the letter. "As a result, he nurtured hate toward his parents, siblings and grownups in general as well as schools and societies. Having failed a university entrance exam, he turned his back on the world and became the guru of the Aum kingdom, which he founded.
"He learned how to control people through manipulating his classmates at the school for the blind he attended as a child. To him, young people during the heyday of the bubble economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s must have appeared blind, wandering around searching for their souls.
"The concept that saving people's souls is possible drove the cult to commit criminal acts. Asahara isn't Buddha, nor is he a person who reached nirvana. He's just a paranoid control freak."
In the letter, he also mentioned Buddhist priest Shinzan Miyamae, 68, who understands the core reasons of why the cult committed crimes, according to Okamoto.
Miyamae is the head priest of a Zen Buddhist Rinzai sect temple, situated on the side of a mountain beside the Nagaragawa river in Seki, Gifu Prefecture, an area renowned for cormorant fishing.
"In one of his books, Asahara wrote about his experience of disembodiment. Actually, I had a similar experience myself," the priest said.
About 35 years ago, Miyamae meditated every day, only sleeping for a minimal amount of time. At one point during a meditation session, he could not feel his own body. After awhile, the feeling left him, but the experience was so intense that he believed he had finally become emancipated so that he could give up worldly desires.
"I came to think I was a worthy person," he said. "I wasn't afraid of death because I thought I had freed myself of worry. I felt as if I could do anything," he said.
But he was admonished by his master.
"You may get all sorts of experiences while training, but you must not linger on them," his master told him. It took Miyamae about 10 years before he understood that lesson.
Many Aum followers were said to have used Matsumoto's "mystic experience" as one of the main motivations for joining the cult.
According to Miyamae, however, such an experience is only the beginning of a person's spiritual training.
"Asahara mistook the experience for a sign of emancipation. His mistake was that he didn't have a master," Miyamae said.
After the police began investigating the cult, more than 50 Aum followers visited Miyamae and nearly half of those quit.
At the end of January, a former Aum follower who had been involved in the production of sarin agreed to be interviewed by The Yomiuri Shimbun.
She said she had been aware of what she was making in the laboratory and became suspicious when Matsumoto told his followers that the cult was under the threat of a poison gas attack. Her faith in Matsumoto gradually waned, but she was unable to leave the cult.
"Even if you ran away, they'd bring you back," she said. "Then they'd lock you in a room and put you through harsh training sessions, which made me feel scared."
Cult members believed that a person could achieve salvation by bringing back a runaway follower. Soon her fear turned into resignation.
Another follower, Osamu Hashimoto, 36, who also was involved in the murder of the Sakamoto family, nearly drowned during the testing of an Aum experimental submarine that was made of steel drums.
"There are so many ridiculous stories that came out of the cult," he said.
Whenever one of these ridiculous incidents happened, he began to doubt Matsumoto, but then he would tell himself to think that the guru was aware of everything, including the ridiculous nature of the incidents, and had been testing him.
Hashimoto's defense lawyers held that it was as if Hashimoto could "autonomously" stop thinking while he was a member of the cult because "doubting Aum indicated a lack of devotion."
Matsumoto used techniques such as violence disguised as salvation and justifying unreasonable actions as tests of loyalty to secure his support base.