Aum Shinrikyo

Aum Shinrikyo

Aum Shinrikyo

There are few cults that strike fear into people’s hearts more than Aum Shinrikyo. The Japanese cult preached doomsday and destruction, but the only force inflicting that was themselves. Their decade of murder and extortion only ended with one of the most horrifying terror attacks in Japanese history. And the worst part is that this cult still exists today.

“Aum Shinrikyo” is usually translated into English as “Aum Supreme Truth”. “Aum” refers to the Sanskrit syllable that is used to represent the universe. “Shinrikyo” is Japanese, which means roughly “Teaching of Truth”. 

The flag used by the cult.

Aum Shinrikyo was founded in 1985 by a man named Chizuo Matsumoto – he later changed his name to Shoko Asahara. He was born into a poor family in Japan’s Kumamoto Prefecture. He was legally blind, despite having some vision in one eye. At school, he was a bully who beat other students and extorted money from them. These behaviours would foreshadow who he would become later. 

TOKYO, JAPAN: File photograph dated October 1990 shows the leader of the Aum Supreme Truth, Shoko Asahara.

The group that would become Aum Shinrikyo started in the most innocuous of places; Asahara’s one-bedroom apartment in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo. It was originally a class focusing on yoga and meditation called Oumu Shinsen no Kai, or “Aum Immortal Mountain Wizard Association.” In 1989, the transformation into Aum Shinrikyo was complete; the group had gained official status as a religion. Asahara’s ideas and style of teaching were attracting wealthy, educated followers. While it remained controversial, it catered to Japan’s elite.

Asahara’s teachings slowly became more and more twisted. He was obsessed with Biblical prophecy, and stated that he himself was Christ, calling himself a “Lamb of God.” He said that he could relieve his followers of their sins and that he could protect them from a coming doomsday caused by a third world war that the USA would start. 

Stranger still, he began trying to relate his messages to popular themes of fiction, manga, and animation. A particular favourite was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which he said depicted a group of “spiritually evolved scientists” that would eventually “emerge to rebuild civilization.” Most of the group’s practices focused on sermons given by Asahara and “healing” of physical wounds and ailments.

Under the surface though, all was not well within the group. Information began to come out that some group members were held against their will and forced to fund the group’s activities. There are also accusations that they’ve murdered several members or members’ loved ones for various offences against the cult. 

In 1989, a lawyer named Tsutsumi Sakamoto, along with his wife and child, disappeared. He had been representing the families of various Aum Shinrikyo members in an anti-cult lawsuit, and it appears that the cult kidnapped and murdered them. Police at the time could not resolve the case due to lack of evidence; their bodies weren’t discovered until 6 years later.

The cult’s main weapon of choice was various biohazards. They originally attempted to work with anthrax, spraying large amounts of the bacterium from the roof of their Tokyo headquarters in 1993. However, they were unsuccessful; the only results of this experiment were complaints about the terrible smell. 

After the failed anthrax attempt, Aum Shinrikyo members began manufacturing sarin and VX gas in a lab; both of these gases are powerful nerve agents. They began using the gases in multiple assassination attempts against various officials, including judges that were going to rule on a real estate lawsuit against the cult. The first attack was on a neighbourhood in the city of Matsumoto on June 27, 1994; the attack killed eight people and injured a further 500 victims. At the time, police had no idea that the cult was involved in this attack and instead focused their investigative efforts on an unrelated man named Yoshiyuki Kouno. 

Between this attack and the later sarin attack, the cult experimented with their other favourite nerve agent, VX. They attacked three people in the streets, injuring two and killing the third, who is believed to be the first victim of VX whose death was fully documented. Asahara believed that the last victim, a 28-year-old man, was a spy, and Aum members sprinkled the VX agent on the back of his neck in broad daylight.

The second attack was on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995. According to investigators, Asahara was worried that police were closing in on them for murdering the brother of an escaped cult member, Kiyoshi Kariya. To distract authorities, cult members released sarin gas on five separate subway trains during rush hour. The Aum members carried the agent in its liquid form in bags wrapped in newspaper. They placed the bags on the train and pierced them with the sharp tips of umbrellas before getting off the trains to avoid being caught in the destruction.

First responders helping victims of the Tokyo Subway attack.

Thirteen people died of their injuries, and it’s estimated that up to six thousand more were injured. Many survivors still suffer from vision problems as a result, almost 20 years later.

Shortly after the subway attack, police raided several Aum Shinrikyo compounds. The authorities found enough chemicals in the labs that they could have made enough sarin gas to kill four million people. They also found LSD, meth, a crude form of sodium pentothal (truth serum) and millions of dollars in cash and assets. Aum Shinrikyo claimed that all of these chemicals were for making fertilizer. 

Almost 200 group members were arrested, including Asahara himself on May 16, 1995. He was originally charged with 23 counts of murder and 16 other various charges. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. He, and six other Aum Shinrikyo members, were executed on July 6, 2018. 6 others were executed on July 26, 2018. 

The group still exists, but it now runs under the name Aleph (a reference to the first letter of the Phoenician, Hebrew, and Arabic alphabets). The group was stripped of its official status as a religious group in 1995, but it still operates despite being regularly surveilled by authorities.  According to a report compiled by Japan’s National Police Agency in 2005, Aleph had around 1650 members, 650 of whom lived in compounds. Aleph has been subject to close monitoring by authorities since 2000 to ensure that what happened in 1995 never happens again. 

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