On the morning of March 20, 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) doomsday cult carried out the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in the postwar era, releasing a toxic nerve gas that killed 13 and injured thousands during the rush-hour in Tokyo.
Twenty years later, a number of victims continue to suffer physical or mental after-effects of the sarin attack, experiencing complications such as impaired speech, blurred vision and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of the more unlucky ones are still confined to their beds.
To date, investigators have charged 192 Aum members over their alleged role in the attack, with 13 members, including leader Shoko Asahara, receiving the death sentence.
Katsuya Takahashi, who was arrested in June 2012 after being on the run for 17 years, is the last cultist still on trial. Takahashi is thought to have been the driver for one of the senior cultists who sprayed the gas, and faces charges that include murder, kidnapping and solitary confinement resulting in death, and violation of the Explosives Control Law. He pleaded not guilty to almost all charges against him at the beginning of his trial at the Tokyo District Court in January. A verdict is expected at the end of April.
Following Aum’s dismantlement, former members quickly reorganized into a group called Aleph in 2000. Others joined a splinter group headed by former Aum spokesman Fumihiro Joyu called Hikari no Wa (Circle of Rainbow Light). The spin-off groups will remain under the Public Security Intelligence Agency’s surveillance until the end of January 2018.
Marking the 20th anniversary of the sarin gas attack, The Japan Times talks to three people who have dedicated their lives to helping former cult members break free from Asahara’s influence: Hiroyuki Nagaoka, Nagaoka’s son and Taro Takimoto. The three of them offer their insights into the cult and reveal how difficult it is for members to distance themselves from the group once they decide to leave.
The cult member
Nagaoka’s son, who has asked for his name to be withheld to protect the privacy of his family, first joined Aum Shinrikyo in the fall of 1987 when he was still a college student studying Indian philosophy. He had always been fascinated with religion and had, by this time, read more than 2,000 books on the subject. Picking up a couple of books published by Aum, he was surprised by the cult’s progressive ideas.
It didn’t take the son long to fall under the spell of visually impaired Aum guru Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto. He started to study the teachings of the cult, and take part in yoga classes. He went on to take part in a 10-day “madness” camp, during which participants were forced to undergo severe training that tested their physical strength to the limit. Desperate to become a fully fledged member, the son devoted himself completely to the cult.
Even though he was a college student, he made donations to Aum as often as he could, even skipping meals on occasion to save whatever money he could. “Mind control is sort of like magic — anyone is in danger of falling into that trap,” the son says. “Aum made it seem like you were free to make choices but, in reality, you were being guided toward those choices.”
He quickly took on a prominent role inside the cult, representing Aum in the media and opposing the actions of his father, who had founded a support group for parents whose children were being brainwashed by Asahara.
Like other cult members, the son was taught to believe that relationships with parents were unnecessary because they only represented his present life.
“The bond between Aum members was very strong because we thought we were connecting on a spiritual level,” he says. “We believed we are connected in our past lives as well as the future through reincarnation. I didn’t have a good relationship with my father at the time. I was taught that anything he said was evil nonsense.”
The son dedicated himself to Aum activities and worked tirelessly in the cult’s 1990 bid to get Asahara and 24 other members elected into the Diet. Eating one meal a day and sleeping a couple of hours each night, he spent his days distributing fliers and putting up campaign posters of Asahara.
One morning, he woke up suffering from amnesia — he had no idea who he was or what Aum Shinrikyo did. After a few days, he recovered most of his memory prior to his association with the cult, including his father’s phone number. His days with the cult were numbered.
After conducting his own research into Asahara and Aum Shinrikyo, he realized he had been lied to and was finally able to escape. “I was the son of the chairman of an Aum victims’ support group,” the son says. “If I had stayed, I would have either been killed or been forced to become involved in the sarin attacks.”
He went on a trip to India with his parents to meet with a close aide to the Dalai Lama, who denied that the Nobel peace laureate had instructed Asahara to propagate “real Buddhism” in Japan.
The son says he was able to escape the cult because of his parents, especially his father, Nagaoka, who refused to give up on him. Nagaoka publicly stood up to the cult, not only to help his son but also other parents whose children had been brainwashed.
By doing so, however, Nagaoka made himself a target and was attacked with VX nerve gas shortly before the sarin subway attack. He was almost killed in the attack.
“I feel terribly guilty for what I put my father through and always will,” the son says. “If I hadn’t joined Aum, he wouldn’t have been targeted in the VX attack. It was because of my father and mother that I was able to leave Aum. Not everyone is as lucky as I am because some people don’t have a family to go back to.”
The son has succeeded in helping more than 30 people leave Aum Shinrikyo. To this day, however, he regrets failing to convince convicted Aum member Masami Tsuchiya to quit. A few years before the sarin attack, the son spent weeks visiting a facility in Ibaraki Prefecture where Tsuchiya was being detained by his family members. He spent up to 10 hours a day talking to Tsuchiya, who remained impassive and eventually returned to the cult. Tsuchiya is now on death row after being found guilty of making the toxic gas that was used in the subway attacks.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t convince Tsuchiya to quit. If I had been successful, there probably wouldn’t have been sarin attacks in Matsumoto or Tokyo,” the son says. “Tsuchiya was older and smarter than me, and looked down on me as a failure. Nothing I said reached him.”
The son was in his mid-20s when the sarin attack happened. Now 46, he works as a contract employee and is also a certified Tibetan Buddhist monk.
He still tries to help some of the existing 1,650 members of Aleph and Hikari no Wa groups leave if approached by their families, but says it’s not easy to juggle a family and a full-time job.
“There are now people in my life that I need to protect and I can’t fully commit (to helping members quit),” the son says, noting that it takes countless hours to convince a member to leave.
Meanwhile, the people he once considered to be closer than his family are now on death row.
“If you kill someone, you have to atone for your sins in this life in accordance to Japanese law,” he says. “It’s true (the 12 men on death row) might have been under Asahara’s influence, but the reality is that they killed people. I don’t think our tax money should be used to keep them alive.”
The family member
Hiroyuki Nagaoka knew something was amiss when his son started asking him about receiving his inheritance before Nagaoka died. A short time later, he found a signed piece of paper in his son’s room pledging to give all assets he inherited from his father to “Holy Master Asahara.”
From that day forth, he was locked in a constant battle to free his son from the cult’s influence. “Aum turned our children into mindless people without a sense of their own free will,” Nagaoka says. “They became unable to determine good from bad and that is why Aum members didn’t think twice about murder. They became Asahara’s puppets.”
Nagaoka suspected the cult was after his land — more than 500 sq. meters in Tokyo’s expensive Aoyama shopping district. He did everything he could to break the cult’s hold on his son, and even went as far as to read Aum books and attend seminars delivered by Asahara.
Journalist Shoko Egawa introduced Nagaoka to lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, who helped him launch a group in October 1989 to help support families of cult members.
Sakamoto, a young lawyer who was interested in human rights issues, was vocal about the cult’s suspicious activities. He had been preparing to file a civil lawsuit against Aum Shinrikyo when he, his wife and 1-year-old son mysteriously disappeared in November 1989. They remained “missing” for years and it was only after the 1995 sarin attack that Aum members admitted to killing them in the early hours of Nov. 4, 1989, and burying their bodies in separate locations in Nagano, Niigata and Toyama prefectures. To prevent them from being identified, the killers even went so far as to smash the victims’ teeth.
The slaying of Sakamoto and his family affects Nagaoka to this day. “For the first nine years (after Sakamoto was found and buried in a cemetery), my wife and I visited his grave every month to apologize,” he says, choking up on his words. “He was the one that told me that there are times when you need to take a stand. And that is why I have been continuing my activities now for more than 20 years.”
Nagaoka devoted himself to getting his only son back. He hired a private detective to look into Asahara’s background. He walked all around Kanda, visiting Chinese medicine stores to collect evidence that the “special” medicine Asahara was selling for outrageous prices was actually very cheap. He sold off his land and was pressured into quitting his job because Aum members began harassing him at his office and he knew his continued presence would only hurt his company.
However, Nagaoka refused to give in, repeatedly confronting Asahara and other senior cult members. “I called him out on his lies and told him to his face that a liar had no right to preach,” Nagaoka says.
It wasn’t long before Nagaoka became a Aum target. In January 1995, Aum cult members — including Takahashi — attempted to kill Nagaoka by spraying him with VX nerve gas. Nagaoka suffered a cardiorespiratory arrest and was in critical condition for 10 days. He recovered, but the nerve gas paralyzed the right side of his body, forcing him to visit a hospital every month for treatment.
Nagaoka has attended Takahashi’s trial almost every day since it began, noting that the suspect has yet to show any sign of remorse for his actions. Nagaoka also wrote to the former cult member immediately after his arrest almost three years ago, but hasn’t heard anything from him. “It is obvious he is still under Asahara’s influence. He doesn’t seem to be human any more,” he says. “I understand he’s a puppet of Asahara and, therefore, harbor absolutely no personal hatred against him.”
His compassion extends to other senior cultists on death row, and his Aum Shinrikyo Kazoku no Kai (Aum Shinrikyo Family Group) has launched a petition that seeks to pardon 12 of them, excluding Asahara. For more than 25 years, Nagaoka has led the support group. At 76, he cannot travel far from his home because he needs to carry an oxygen tank wherever he goes. Nagaoka, however, says he has no intention of stopping his activities “as long as the Aum cult still exists,” regardless of its name.
Over the years, Nagaoka has apologized to each victim he encounters. “Nothing I say will ever make up for the serious crimes our children committed, but the first thing I do is apologize,” he says. “It is our duty as parents to ensure that our children become people who can once again think for themselves.”
When Sakamoto first asked Taro Takimoto to help him on a case related to the Aum cult, the lawyer curtly turned his friend down. Cults were notoriously difficult to deal with and he was reluctant to get involved. However, Takimoto was quick to offer his services to parents seeking to get their children back from Aum Shinrikyo when Sakamoto went missing — at times, even directly negotiating with senior cult members.
“People are vulnerable and everyone is in danger of falling under their influence,” Takimoto says. “Most of these Aum children were honest, hard-working people who grew up not knowing that this kind of evil exists in the world.”
Takimoto and Nagaoka’s son began offering counseling services in July 1993, helping members to extract themselves from the clutches of the cult. They typically spend a great deal of time with each individual, building trust and discussing a wide range of issues such as religion, mathematics and even aliens. It was a long and arduous process, he recalls.
“Cult members no longer know the difference between right or wrong,” Takimoto says. “It is the same with Islamic State militants — they think they’re doing the right thing by beheading people. Aum members could equally commit murder because of their strong religious beliefs. This is what makes them extremely dangerous.”
Takimoto would first make Aum members question the small actions they carried out for the group, including such things as buying Asahara’s books with money provided by the cult.
He would slowly work his way up to showing the Aum members the now famous photograph of him “levitating” in the air. Asahara told his followers that he could levitate like this, and showed pictures of him with his legs crossed floating above the ground.
Takimoto proved that it’s possible for anyone to fake this by taking a remarkably similar photo himself. “Asahara used the photos of him ‘levitating’ to convince his followers he had achieved the ultimate state of mind,” Takimoto says. “He found my photo disrespectful.”
Indeed, it didn’t take long for Takimoto to wind up on Asahara’s hit list. Although investigators ultimately indicted just one case, the cult tried to kill the lawyer with sarin, VX nerve gas and botulinum toxin on four separate occasions.
Takimoto, however, refused to back down. He instructed his family to live apart temporarily and took out a life insurance policy that would pay more than ¥280 million in the event of a death.
When former Aum members told him about criminal activities that had taken place inside the cult, including the use of illegal drugs and the death of at least one member on their grounds, he passed on these facts to the police.
Both Takimoto and Nagaoka agree that the sarin subway attack could have been prevented had the police paid closer attention to their warnings.
Takimoto goes so far as to claim that Nagaoka’s case was grossly mishandled.
The only reason police officers investigated the site where Nagaoka was attacked with VX nerve gas was because the lawyer got in their faces. Even then, the police brushed it off as an attempted suicide using a type of organophosphate pesticide.
“Both the sarin subway attack and the attempt on Mr. Nagaoka’s life could have been prevented if the police had taken proper action,” Takimoto says. “I told the police that Mr. Nagaoka was in serious danger but they didn’t listen. … The police clearly made a mistake in dealing with this case, determining that Mr. Nagaoka attempted suicide without any grounds to back up their theory.”
About 20 years have passed since Takimoto established Kanariya no Kai (Canary Group) that consists of more than 100 former cult members. Some have gone back to night school because they were young when they were in the cult and didn’t complete a proper education; others have found jobs in the welfare industry. For many, life back in the real world hasn’t been easy and a third of the people Takimoto has assisted have sought help for depression. Some have since committed suicide.
Like Nagaoka, Takimoto also believes that the only person who should be executed for his crimes is Asahara. “Asahara is a man who is 100 percent full of worldly desires,” Takimoto says. “He has a strong urge for power and his hatred toward society for not being able to achieve it is deep. Executing him is the only way to bring some sort of closure.”
This is the first installment of a two-part series to mark the 20th anniversary of the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo. The second installment will appear on March 22.