On March 20, 1995, during the morning rush hour, five men dropped 11 bags of sarin on five subway trains in Tokyo. They punctured the plastic bags with the sharpened ends of umbrellas and exited the cars as the deadly liquid leaked onto the floor and evaporated into the air of the crowded trains. In the end, 13 people were killed and 6,300 more were injured, many of them left blind or paralyzed. Japan was flung into crisis mode.
The men who caused the havoc were members of Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese quasi-Buddhist cult led by a former acupuncturist called Shoko Asahara. They hoped to bring about the apocalypse. At its height, the cult claimed more than 50,000 members (tens of thousands of them in Russia) and presided over a vast pool of funds, at one point claiming to control more than a billion dollars.
It's been 20 years since the Tokyo subway attacks. Asahara and the other major planners of the attack sit on death row. Its chemical weapons laboratories have been shuttered. But where Aum failed in its mission to bring about a global apocalypse, it succeeded in leaving a dark bruise on Japanese society, one that still aches two decades later.
Aum Shinrikyo, or "Aum Supreme Truth," was founded in 1987 by Asahara, who was born Chizuo Matsumoto, a bearded, chubby half-blind son of a poor tatami-mat maker. What began as a new age-y group would grow into a powerful, insular, and hyper-paranoid religious movement bent on bringing about the apocalypse. Asahara dressed like an Indian guru and claimed supernatural powers, such as the ability to levitate and read minds. He even sold his own piss as a magical elixir.
Surprisingly, Aum's massive membership included some of Japan's sharpest minds. It had more than 300 scientists in its ranks. Many more were accomplished businessmen. Three of the Tokyo subway attackers held degrees in physics. One was a medical doctor.
All this expertise came in handy when Asahara wanted to build an arsenal fit for a supervillain. In a gated community on Mount Fuji, Aum's biochemists engineered boatloads of chemical and biological weapons, from anthrax to weaponized Ebola. A weapons factory nearby produced AK-47 parts. In 1994 the group purchased a twin-turbine Mi-17 helicopter from Azerbaijan for $700,000, according to reporting done by Andrew Marshall and David Kaplan for their bookThe Cult at the End of the World: The Terrifying Story of the Aum Doomsday Cult, from the Subways of Tokyo to the Nuclear Arsenals of Russia. Before Aum dug its own grave with the Tokyo gas attacks, the cultists were getting terrifyingly close to obtaining a nuclear bomb. It is no wonder that Japan has been so deeply scarred by the group—they were petrifying.
The Aum Affair, as it is commonly referred to in Japan, seeded a culture of fear in one of the world's safest societies. It shattered Japan's image of itself as an orderly, well-maintained place. The scariest part was that the group was homegrown. Japan was utterly bewildered that young, educated people would give up everything and devote themselves to such a deranged organization.
Aum dominated headlines and talk shows for several weeks following the attacks. An entire industry of Aum-related literature soon arose and perpetuated the sensationalism. The ongoing manhunt for the Aum leadership and their subsequent trials ensured that the group would periodically return to the spotlight. Today, politicians and security officials often allude to Aum to appeal for public funds or score political points. In Japan, Aum is the eternal boogeyman that might return at any moment if society lets its guard down.
Propping up Aum as an ongoing threat is made infinitely easier to do when the cult still exists. Aleph and Hikari no Wa are both religious groups formed by former Aum cultists. (They are allowed to operate, albeit under close government surveillance.) Hikari no Wa, which means "Circle of Light," was started by a former higher-up of Aum as a splinter group. Aleph is the original cult, just with a different name.
But what makes a person stay with an organization associated with one of the most heinous terrorist attacks in recent history? And how does such a group survive in a place where nearly everyone fears or hates them? These are the questions that fascinate Erica Baffelli, an associate professor at the University of Manchester and one of the world's foremost experts on Hikari no Wa. She is in regular contact with the group and says that they are in the process of distancing themselves from Aum, mostly through social media campaigns. They have cut out some of the strict ascetic practices of Aum and most of the crazy dogma, such as the part about egging on the apocalypse. They have also publicly denounced Shoko Asahara and the very idea of an all-powerful guru.
"But they are still trying to find their way," says Baffelli. "You take away all the dangerous things— prophesy, a leader—and there is not much left. So they need to create a new teaching."
Aleph is the bigger of the two offshoots, with an estimated several hundred members, and it has not done as much to distance itself from the former leader. A couple of Asahara's daughters and his wife are heavily involved in the group, which has been reluctant to speak with the media or curious academics. Aleph's close ties to Asahara and its secrecy has people worried. Protests often erupt outside its facilities and many refuse to buy products made by businesses with ties to the group.
"The image of religion as something potentially dangerous became very, very major in post-Aum Japan. I think that still has an impact." —Ian Reader
But Ian Reader, a professor at Lancaster University and a leading expert on Aum, thinks the threat posed by Aleph and Hikari no Wa are overblown. "They are actually a small inefficient group who are not going to do anything but they are still seen in the public eye as highly dangerous," says Reader. He thinks that some government agencies use Aum's legacy of fear to further their own agendas. "The security forces have used this image of Aum as dangerous to constantly push for more state control over religious groups and for increased surveillance budgets, much as we are seeing in the West with the idea of radical Islam," he says.
Prior to the Aum Affair, police stayed away from religious groups. During the prewar period, the state used security forces to target groups that were seen as subversive—basically anyone who didn't blindly follow the emperor and his militarism. Religious groups were often victims of the emperor's witch hunt.
In the postwar, pre-Aum period, the police tried to distance themselves from that legacy and were reluctant to investigate religious groups for fear of being accused of interfering in religious freedom. That all changed after the subway attacks. There is a much greater readiness today by security agencies to intervene in religious affairs and they regularly do.
There is also a readiness in the general public to discount religion as a practice. One of the most lasting marks of the Aum Affair was that it created a suspicion toward religion that hadn't existed before in Japan. "The image of religion as something potentially dangerous became very, very major in post-Aum Japan," says Reader. "I think that still has an impact."
Shortly after the subway attacks, a Japanese scholar of religion remarked that Japan was witnessing " the death of religion." While religious groups still exist and a minority of Japanese still consider themselves religious, the general sentiment that religion is something that can cause harm to society has lingered. Three years after the attacks an academic survey conducted by Nanzan University gauging public trust in societal institutions found that religion ranked the lowest, behind both the media and politicians. In 2008, when several Japanese telecom firms installed filters on their smartphones meant to keep children safe from harmful influences, websites associated with religion counted as blocked material, along with pornography and gambling sites.
The Tokyo subway gassing remains the most serious terrorist attack in modern Japanese history. The attack and the subsequent revelations regarding Aum and the utter derangement of many of its members shocked Japan in profound ways. Not all of its repercussions were negative: It sparked a nationwide debate about the highly ordered nature of Japanese society and its rigid educational system, which many had blamed for pushing some of the cultists towards Aum in the first place. It also forced Japan to strengthen its security infrastructure, which the Aum Affair had shown to be frighteningly inadequate to cope with modern threats. Aum had committed several crimes leading up to the Tokyo attacks, including the nighttime murder of a lawyer and his family and a sarin attack in 1994 on a rural town that killed eight people. The police absentmindedly arrested an innocent resident of the town for the gassing, whose own wife had been killed in the attack.
But in many ways the Aum Affair is an open wound in Japan. The terror and images of violence from the events remain a factor of life. "Even if the affair is shifting from being a contemporary to a recent historical event, the shadow the movement has cast remains extensive," wrote Baffelli and Reader in a joint 2011 paper. The Aum Affair regularly returns to the national spotlight. Just last week, a daughter of Shoko Asahara published a memoir of her experience growing up in the shadow of the cult.
Kids attending college now in Japan would have only been two or three during the Aum Affair. It will eventually fade into history and new series of crises will take its place. But for now, 20 years on, the macabre mania of the cult still resonates, buzzing in the background like the lingering hum of a singing bowl.
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