Written by: Naomi
Chizuo Matsumoto had been born into a poor family of mat makers in 1955 with infantile glaucoma that caused him to lose all vision in his left eye and most in his right eye. He was enrolled at a school for the blind and was known to be a bully, beating up other children and extorting their money. After graduating in 1977 he learned acupuncture and traditional Japanese medicines which is a common career path for the blind in Japan. He married the following year and had 12 children over time.
In 1981 he was fined for running an unlicensed pharmacy and selling unregulated drugs but it is at this time where he supposedly became very interested in religion. In 1984, in his one bedroom apartment, Matsumoto started a meditation and yoga class known as Oumu Shinsen no Kai (オウム神仙の会 "Aum club of gods and hermits"). It kept growing and growing over the years, being renamed Aum Shinrikyo (Translates roughly to Aum Supreme Truth, Aum meaning universe) in 1987 when he also changed his name to Shoko Asahara, and was able to reach an official religion status in 1989.
It was called the religion of the elite since it attracted graduates of prominent universities in Japan. Aum Shinrikyo is a mix of multiple religions of beliefs including Asahara’s interpretations on early Indian and Tibetan Buddhism as well as Hinduism. The religion also brought in the society shifting beliefs from the book of revelations in Christianity, yoga, and the writings of Nostradamus, Asahara wanted to restore Buddhism to its, "original form". Some scholars feel that he used Christian and Buddhist ideas to appeal to the elite and educated because they were different than the long sermons of other religions.
The groups popularity grew quickly since Asahara was featured on TV, on magazine covers and was asked to speak in university lectures. At this time Asahara wrote the founding book for this group, where he declares himself Christ, the “Lamb of god”, and Japan's only enlightened master. He claims that his mission was to take the sins of the world upon himself and transfer his spiritual power to his followers while clearing them of their sins and bad deeds. Many now don't like that Asahara refers to Buddhism since it conflicts but some find his teachings to be closer related to Japanese Buddhist beliefs.
Asahara created a doomsday prophecy where there would be a third world war instigated by the United States, and that Armageddon would begin in 1997. The doomsday prophecies were ways for the group to justify their actions and that they could bring back a holy age, that killing people prevented bad karma from building thus protecting themselves.
At this time there had been no crimes linked to the Aum and it was just considered a controversial group in Japan. Asahara leaned more into biblical verses and his PR department began to put out comics about Aum so the religion would be connected to animated cartoons, anime, and manga themes like space exploration, seeking the truth, and great adventures to uncover conspiracies and having powerful weapons. The several magazines put out made the cult more into a missionary format. The recruitment plan for the cult was called the, “Aum Salvation Plan” which claimed that with their, “Ancient teachings” they could, “cure physical illnesses with health improvement techniques, ( assist in ) realizing life goals by improving intelligence and positive thinking, and concentrating on what was important at the expense of leisure” to bring in followers. These efforts made the Aum one of the fastest growing religions in Japan ever. An author of a book on the Aum cult, David E. Kaplan, claimed the the initiation into the cult involved hallucinogens and their practices in the cult that they claimed to be “yoga “ involved things like hanging people upside down and shock therapy.
These treatments caused controversy when some people claimed that recruits were being deceived and more accounts of cult members being forced to donate money, being held against their will, and not being able to leave the group to such extremes that one was killed in 1989 for trying to do so. The group was also known for extortion of not only its member but would also bring patients into the group’s hospital and force them to pay inflated unreasonable medical bills. The higher ups in the cult, including Asahara, reportedly lived humble lives excluding an armored Mercedes- Benz that was gifted to him by a wealthy cult member. In 1989 the cult was in a battle against an anti-cult lawyer who did an interview for a TV channel on the Aum and his case, the channel showed the interview to the group breaking privacy laws in Japan. The lawyer, his wife, and daughter all went missing from their house the next month and would not be the first nor last victims.
The cult had planned multiple assassinations on certain notable people that opposed the cult such as the head of certain Buddhist sects, people in the Institute for Research in Human Happiness (Who are another Japanese cult ) and a manga artist who makes controversial political stances in his manga, Yoshinori Kobayashi, and there was also an assassination attempt on him in 1993.
Their first attempt at a mass attack was also in 1993 when they tried to cause an anthrax epidemic by spraying a liquid that carried anthrax spores from the roof of the Aum headquarters but they failed miserably and people only complained of a bad smell. Angered by this failure they tried to manufacture 1000 automatic rifles, but fate would see that they were only capable of manufacturing one.
Unfortunately the Aum also started to secretly produce Sarin which is colorless and odorless but lethal in low concentrations. They also produces VX gas which is even deadlier but stays within a more concentrated area. With Sarin death can occur within one to ten minutes after inhaling a lethal dose which causes lung muscle paralysis leading to suffocation. There are antidotes but if one does not get medical treatment immediately they could suffer permanent neurological damage.
The night of June 27th, 1994 there was a gas attack in the residential Nagano prefecture in the city of Matsumoto that was carried out by the cult against citizens with their Sarin gas weapon they carried by converting a refrigerated truck. A cloud of the gas was released near the homes of judges that were over seeing a court case over property that would be working against the Aum group. This attack killed 8 and hurt 500 others. Police did not connect this attack to the cult.
In late 1994 to 1995 there were attacks on 3 people using VX gas, injuring two of the targets and killing the third who was believed to be a spy by Asahara. He was attacked on the street where the VX agent was put on his neck since it is concentrated and does not disperse like Sarin it only would harm him as he chased his attackers for 100 yards before collapsing. He died 10 days later after not coming out a deep coma. Doctors at the hospital thought this has been a pesticide poisoning but was still not tied back to the cult until later. VX was never used in the mass attacks only small hits like this.
In February of the same year cult members kidnapped the brother of another member who had escaped and took him to one of the cult's compounds where he was killed. His body was incinerated in a microwave powered incinerator and his remains were dumped in a nearby lake. When investigating his disappearance there was a note found in his home that said, “If I disappear, I was abducted by the Aum Shinrikyo”, he had also been receiving threatening phone calls about his sister, the member that had gotten out of the cult.
The police were planning to do a raid of all the Aum facilities across Japan but Asahara had been tipped off about this by an inside contact in the police. He planned another attack to divert the Police’s attention and was the cult’s largest attack. On March 20th, 1995 in Tokyo, Japan there were five coordinated domestic terrorism attacks on the subway system. During rush hour there were packages of Sarin gas that were released onto 3 subway lines and partially into a station. They targeted these three lines since they passed through two major districts where the Japanese parliament is stationed in Tokyo.
This attack caused vision problems for 1000 people, killed 12 people immediately and injured 50 others, some of which died later adding to the death toll. Some accounts claim up to 6000 people were injured in this incident.
Asahara’s plan backfired and this triggered huge simultaneous raids on all Aum compounds across the country. At the compound where the member’s brother had been killed they found explosives, more chemical weapons, biological weapons like anthrax and Ebola cultures, and a Russian military helicopter. The amount of chemical stocks found in the compounds could create enough Sarin to kill 4 million people. The cult was also making LSD, Meth, and a truth serum in their labs. There were cells with prisoners still in them as well as a safe containing millions of U.S. dollars in cash and gold.
The Aum claimed that the chemicals were for making fertilizer and, in fact, never confessed to any of the attacks, claiming that the individuals that carried out these attacks did so in secret without telling other believers or executives in the cult. In the coming weeks over 150 members of the cult were arrested under various charges but Asahara still could not be located. The Aum were finally found to have murdered the anti-cult lawyer from years before along with his wife and daughter, since the bodies had been destroyed in a similar fashion to the cult members brother.
In May of that year there was a burning paper bag in the bathroom of another busy subway station that was found to have hydrogen cyanide, had it not been found and extinguished when it was, would of released enough gas into the ventilation system to kill over 10,000 commuters. In July several other similar packages were found in bathrooms in other Tokyo stations that had not been detonated.
In May Asahara was found hiding in the walls of a complex in a tiny room and was arrested. The same day there was an explosive put into a package for the governor of Tokyo that unfortunately blew off the fingers of his secretary's hand. Asahara was charged with 23 counts of murder and 16 other offenses. The trial, after 7 years, ruled Asahara guilty of masterminding the attacks and sentenced him to death. A number of senior members of the group that were on trial for participation and having high or personal involvement with the attacks also received death sentences. When sentenced Asahara stepped down as leader of the cult so the state could not forcibly dissolve the Aum and did not speak to lawyers or family members. Asahara has made appeals to avoid the death penalty but all have failed.
In June there was a copycat of the Aum’s attacks, one being the hijacking of an All Nippon Airways flight 857 in June which was the first instance where force was used to respond to an aircraft hijacking in Japan. The hijacker claimed to be an Aum member that had a Sarin package and plastic bomb. After an overnight standoff with police where he took all 365 passengers hostage and demanded that Asahara be released his claims were found to be false, the man was a bank teller that was on leave for a mental disorder, the bomb was made of clay, and the bag of Sarin was plain water.
Asahara’s pre-teen sons took over the cult for a period of time, but one of the senior leaders under Asahara who had not faced serious charges took over officially in 1999, changing the groups title to “Aleph” in 2000 as well as changed its doctrines no longer pulling from Christian or Buddhist beliefs. The group then apologized the victims of the Sarin attacks and started a compensation fund. All of the questionable publications and activities had stopped.
This doesn't mean everything ended though because an Anti-Aum legislator was killed in 2002 and some Aum escapees have been known to flee the country. There was a split in the Aum since they also had operations in Moscow but in 2016 there was a crack down on removing all Aum related memorabilia with raids and announcing the group as a terrorist group in Russia.
On July 8th, 2018, Asahara and six other Aum members were executed by hanging. Executions are rare in japan but when they do happen they usually have the public's support.
When Asahara’s youngest daughter collected his ashes she asked that the Aum’s actions stopped and they stopped hating society. His ashes are kept at the detention center to keep them away from the cult.
A report in 2005 showed that the Aleph has about 1650 members, 650 of them living communally in Aleph compounds. They still run 26 compounds in 17 prefectures as well as 120 residential facilities. All compounds are usually surrounded by protesters of the Aleph, they are under surveillance by the Japanese government and raids are done on the compounds often. On January 1st, 2019, an Aum sympathizer rammed into a group of pedestrians in retaliation of Asahara's execution. He originally planned an arson attack by spreading kerosene with the high-pressure washer at the crowd at the nearby Meiji Shrine but found that vehicles were not permitted there.