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How a yoga school became a doomsday cult

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

Aum Shinrikyo’s criminal activities began in the late 1980s and culminated in the 1995 nerve-gas attacks on Tokyo’s subway system. The group was founded in 1984 by Shoko Asahara, the babbling, half-blind guru whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto.

Initially starting life as a yoga training school, Aum Shinrikyo was certified as a religious organization in 1989 but eventually began manufacturing weapons and illegal narcotics under the order of Asahara, who touted himself as the “ultimate savior.”

Aum was known to attract graduates from elite institutions; some of them were certified doctors, chemists and scientists. While the guru’s apocalyptic prophecies included predictions of a nuclear war, his disciples say the teachings were also charismatic.

“I was captivated by the group’s belief that spiritualism should overtake materialism. Aum also taught that true religion is extremely scientific, which struck a chord in me,” a former follower has been quoted as saying in a book titled “Aum wo Yameta Watashitachi” (“Those of Us Who Quit Aum”), which was published in 2000.

However, testimonies by former cult members have also confirmed that the group adopted a zero-tolerance policy with regards to disobedience.

Anyone who tried to leave the cult was abducted, tortured, killed and secretly disposed of at one of the cult’s rural properties.

One of the more violent crimes committed by Aum was the slaying of Yokohama lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family in November 1989. Sakamoto had accused the cult of kidnapping one of his client’s relatives.

On June 27, 1995, members of the doomsday cult released lethal sarin gas at an apartment complex in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, where a judge handling a case related to Aum lived. Eight people died in the attack.

Then on March 20, 1995, just before 8 a.m., five members of the cult separately boarded Chiyoda, Marunouchi and Hibiya line trains in Tokyo with two to three plastic bags of sarin each that they would puncture with sharpened umbrella tips. The attack ultimately claimed 13 lives and left more than 6,300 people wounded.

Following his arrest in May 1995, Asahara was charged with murder, attempted murder, abduction and confinement resulting in death, destruction of a corpse, conspiracy and violations of the Arms Manufacturing Law.

In court, Asahara blamed his disciples for the crimes, then claimed he had psychological problems and couldn’t be held criminally liable.

His marathon trial began in April 1996 and lasted nearly eight years. In February 2004, the Tokyo District Court sentenced Asahara to hang. He has been waiting on death row since September 2006, when the Supreme Court finalized the ruling.

The courts have also ordered Aum to break up as a religious group, with its former followers forming two separate organizations. One group is called Hikari no Wa (Circle of Rainbow Light) and is led by former Aum spokesman Fumihiro Joyu.

The other group, Aleph, is thought to more closely follow Aum and Asahara’s doomsday philosophy.

During an on-site inspection of its facilities by the Public Security Intelligence Agency last summer, photographs of the agency’s chief and other high-ranking officials were found pierced with a 10-cm knife and positioned in front of an altar.