Friday is verdict day in the eight-year trial of Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara, who if the state has its way will hang for masterminding or ordering 13 heinous crimes that resulted in 27 slayings at the hands of his disciples.
The Tokyo District Court has sentenced 11 cultists to death for the killings, ruling they were all masterminded by the guru, including two sarin attacks that together claimed 19 lives and injured thousands.
The judges all concluded the cultists acted on orders from Asahara, 48, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto. But his lawyers portrayed the nearly blind, babbling guru as not being a party to crimes they claim were carried out by those of his flock who misunderstood his teachings, which were based on a medley of Eastern religions.
The conspiracy theory
Prosecutors portrayed Asahara as the mastermind, using testimony from cultists already convicted to argue that he conspired with those disciples who physically carried out the crimes.
Asahara’s lawyers have meanwhile claimed otherwise, saying his criminally bent disciples misunderstood him and ran amok. They have also claimed such damning testimony was an attempt by the actual perpetrators to mitigate their guilt, and they have even split hairs over semantics, claiming, for example, that his use of the term “poa” was not an order to kill but merely to bring the target to a higher consciousness.
Asahara’s defense has also tried to blame the cult’s gruesome crimes on key disciple Hideo Murai, who was stabbed to death in front of reporters by a mobster in April 1995 as the police crackdown intensified against the cult in the wake of the Tokyo subway sarin attack the previous month. The counsel said Murai’s death made it hard to get at the truth.
Asahara never entered a plea and, except for occasional incoherent outbursts in court, has kept silent.
Whereas prosecutors have relied on testimony from accused senior cultists that the guru was in charge, Asahara’s lawyers have underscored that those accounts have been conflicting.
To back up charges that Asahara ordered the Tokyo subway gas attack, which claimed 12 lives, the prosecution trotted out testimony by key disciple Yoshihiro Inoue, quoting him as saying that two days before the gassing, Asahara told Murai in a limousine to “take full command” of the attack.
They also quoted hearsay testimony provided by Aum’s doctor, Ikuo Hayashi, that the late Murai told four cultists involved in the attack that “the order had come from . . . there,” pointing up with his head and eyes, indicating the guru.
Asahara’s lawyers have argued that the four cultists present did not witness this gesture by Murai, that the attack was actually orchestrated by Inoue and Murai, and that Inoue falsely testified that Asahara was the mastermind to lessen his own guilt.
In accusing Asahara of masterminding the June 1994 sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, which killed seven people, prosecutors used a statement given to investigators by key cultist Tomomitsu Niimi that a week before the attack, the guru had ordered him, Murai and two others to “disperse the gas around the Matsumoto court” handling a real estate dispute involving Aum “to assess the effects” of the gas.
Asahara’s defense has rebutted this by noting that Niimi later retracted that statement, that Murai proposed the gassing, and that it would have been illogical for the cult to gas the court over a trivial legal dispute Aum probably would have won.
On the Nov. 4, 1989, slaying of Yokohama lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife and baby son, prosecutors claimed Asahara summoned Murai and four other disciples and quoted him as saying, “The biggest problem for the cult is lawyer Sakamoto. . . . He will be a big obstacle for the cult in the future.”
Prosecutors said the guru used the term poa with regard to Sakamoto, who had been trying to help people get their offspring out of Aum. Prosecutors claimed the word in the cult’s doctrine meant to kill someone for the sake of the victim’s spiritual salvation.
Asahara’s counsel countered by claiming he would never use poa if he had meant to kill, saying he only used the word to mean “put someone’s consciousness on a higher level.”
The counsel said his disciples instead “went out of control” in the face of increasing media scrutiny of the cult that they believed Sakamoto had triggered.
Asahara, in brief moments of courtroom coherence, claimed the crimes for which he stands accused were the arbitrary work of his disciples, and that he had “already been found innocent.”
Writer Ryuzo Saki, who has viewed several Aum trials, said the convictions already handed down assuming Asahara was the mastermind were just verdicts.
“The argument by Asahara’s defense that Inoue’s testimony cannot be trusted . . . is an excuse made in desperation. They have nothing left to argue with,” he said. “Looking at the trials of the other senior cultists, we can only conclude that Asahara gave the orders.”
On the other hand, Hiromi Shimada, a religious scholar knowledgeable about cults and new religions, said Aum never had a clear chain of command.
“Asahara being blind and all, I’m not sure things really went the way he had intended,” Shimada said. “Looking at the haphazard way the cult carried out things, there was probably no concrete plan or clear objective. I would have to say that not just the disciples, but also Asahara had lost control.”
Motives and objectives
Another theory prosecutors have touted is that Asahara had wanted to seize control of the government by winning Diet seats in the 1990 House of Representatives poll, making Aum the ruling party.
When no cultist was elected, he developed a strong hatred toward society and started to militarize the cult — with a view to causing Armageddon and creating an Aum empire, the theory goes. The 1995 subway gas attack was an attempt to disrupt anticipated police raids on the cult, prosecutors said.
Asahara’s counsel on the other hand said that he had calmly accepted the election loss, and that it was his disciples’ paranoia, including Murai and Inoue, who came to believe they had to arm against their enemies, the United States and Freemasons, and against the arrival of Armageddon.
Lawyer Taro Takimoto, who has supported survivors of Aum’s crimes and himself was a sarin target in 1994, believes Asahara was bent on destroying mankind due to a grudge stemming from his unfulfilled lust for power.
But journalist Yoshifu Arita, who has covered issues pertaining to religion and brainwashing, believes Asahara did not have such grandiose objectives and that Aum, while attempting to confound the police probe into the cult, escalated its crimes beyond the point of return.
“It probably went like this: first a cultist died in an accident in 1988. Because Aum was applying for status as a publicly authorized religious corporation and didn’t want complications, its leaders decided to dispose of the body,” Arita said.
“Then in 1989, cultist Shuji Taguchi attempted to defect. Because he knew about the 1988 accidental death, he had to be killed, becoming Aum’s first real murder. Then lawyer Sakamoto started to make waves. He also needed to be gotten rid of. I think these haphazard actions, coupled with the cult’s growing paranoia, brought on the disaster,” he said.
Semantics of religion
Asahara’s trial has witnessed arguments about how to interpret his orders. Even when he apparently was giving direct orders for the crimes, he never used terms like “kill” or “murder,” and instead used poa.
Prosecutors said he used the word to order murders in at least six of the counts he is facing. They said he felt justified to poa people under the dangerous Tibetan Buddhist “Vajrayana” doctrine he had distorted, and his interpretation compelled his minions to obey him 100 percent.
Because a Vajrayana guru can look through all consequences and individual fate, an order to poa someone would not be considered an act of evil and would thus be a blessing for the victim, prosecutors said in quoting a 1987 Asahara sermon.
But Asahara’s counsel dismissed this and claimed his disciples misinterpreted poa as meaning to kill.
Asahara preached about “perfect saints” who killed to bring the victim to a higher level, but it was just to explain the religious meaning of the killers’ behavior, his lawyers argued.
Scholar Shimada believes Asahara used both meanings, depending on convenience. “But I think some of the disciples really believed they were doing a good deed when they killed someone, being so brainwashed,” he said.