Over the course of Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara’s eight-year criminal trial, Tokyo prosecutors have portrayed him as a religious charlatan who used his teachings only to feed his lust for power and fame.
In their May 1996 statement at the start of his trial, prosecutors claimed Asahara ordered the heinous crimes of terror for which he is accused based on a twisted doctrine that, in his reckoning, justified murder.
When they demanded the death penalty last April, they likened him to the “ugliest” face of greed who made his followers commit crimes in the name of religion to satisfy his aims.
Testimony by some of his key disciples would appear to back this up, but then they were on trial for their lives, accused of committing the crimes he allegedly masterminded.
During their trials, Aum’s doctor, Ikuo Hayashi, and Yoshihiro Inoue, another of the guru’s top aides, condemned Asahara for blatantly using cult members to achieve his secular aims. Hayashi, who was deemed repentant, was spared the gallows, as was Inoue.
But Asahara’s character appears less sinister, or at least more enigmatic, if not pragmatic, to other cultists and outsiders. In fact, he has been likened to a man with many faces.
While a number of scholars and journalists share the view of prosecutors, some of the people who knew Asahara in the past or still worship him beg to differ.
Prosecutors have branded Asahara a false prophet who, for inexplicable reasons, managed not only to attract thousands of followers in a short period in the early days of his cult in the 1980s but also impressed academics with his apparent persuasive powers.
Hayashi’s lawyers painted Asahara as an egomaniac who committed his heinous crimes because of an inferiority complex and antagonism toward society.
Hayashi’s counsel, in a later addition to their opening statement at his trial, which started in December 1995, traced Asahara’s resentment to society to the poverty and other hardships of his youth, his near-blindness and a series of social failures, including his 1982 arrest for selling bogus Chinese medicine.
Claiming the guru suffered a narcissistic personality disorder, the lawyers alleged that to offset his inferiority, he developed a self-image boasting special abilities and a destiny to conquer the world.
Journalist Yoshifu Arita, who studied Asahara’s history up to his 1975 graduation from a high school for the blind in Kumamoto Prefecture, said the guru may have been traumatized by the hardships and setbacks that haunted him, including coming from a large, and poor, family.
Although his vision impairment was not bad enough to keep him out of a regular elementary school, he was placed in a boarding school for the blind at age 6.
He was liked by his teachers and became a classroom leader, often voicing his desire to become a doctor or a politician — apparent ambitions to overcome his hardships, according to Arita.
“There is evidence to suggest these circumstances fostered in Asahara a materialistic desire, but such ambitions were not unnatural for someone in his situation,” he said.
When Asahara came to Tokyo, he dreamed in vain of enrolling in the prestigious University of Tokyo. After various ups and downs, he founded a rising new cult in the mid-1980s.
People who met Asahara during Aum’s so-called heyday in the early half of the 1990s, when the cult had already ventured down its murderous path, said they sensed little antagonism by him toward society.
Hiromi Shimada, a former professor of religious studies at Japan Women’s University in Tokyo who interviewed Asahara four times on television, said he saw no social resentment or grief in the guru, only a religious sincerity.
Shimada said Asahara appeared to have positive thoughts and was full of energy to overcome his physical and other hardships.
“He was the most successful leader of a new religion at the time, and seemed comfortable with his situation and confident in Aum,” he said.
Asahara apparently impressed other intellectuals as well. He was frequently featured on TV talk shows, including a program hosted by Takeshi Kitano in 1991.
Hiroshi Aramata, a well-known writer and expert in occultism, said after interviewing Asahara in 1991 for a magazine that the guru seemed to be a “talented, objective man able to analyze his surroundings.”
Aramata said in his article that Asahara was a legitimate guru of a new religion that has inherited its essence from traditional esoteric Buddhism.
Even after his May 1995 arrest, Asahara did not fit his widespread image as a terrorist, said Yoshihiro Yasuda, his chief attorney.
Yasuda said Asahara appeared honest, sincere and selfless — more concerned about the future of his flock than for himself.
“He should not have been allowed to be a leader (of an organization), but I believe he was a truly religious man — one who seemed to have transcended thoughts even over his own death,” Yasuda said.
Even people who were more closely associated with Asahara have a hard time getting a fix on his character.
Impressions of Asahara carried by many current and former cultists seem to conflict, as if they really knew nothing about him.
A 37-year-old senior member of Aum, which now calls itself Aleph, said Asahara’s attitude toward her changed greatly after she joined the cult in the early 1990s.
She said the guru was initially cold but then warmed up and was nice to her sometime around 1992, only to turn extremely harsh toward her in early 1994 as if he were a totally different person.
She said her 36-year-old brother, who was convicted for his role in Aum’s production of firearms and quit the cult after his prison stint, also witnessed a transition in Asahara’s personality. She said he now calls the guru “the best actor and trickster ever,” capable of assuming any character before his followers.
Other cultists also seem to view Asahara as having a chameleon character. A 34-year-old member said he once told her he could transform himself to become “the most desirable guru for anyone.”
“If there are 500 people, I can become 500 different gurus, and if there are 1,000, I can become 1,000 different gurus,” she quoted him as saying.
Shimada said the key to Asahara’s success owes much to his ability to adopt multiple personalities, which made him a lasting enigma and thus inflated his image in the minds of his followers.
Such inconsistency on Asahara’s part made the cult seem extremely inconsistent and haphazard, which is perhaps one reason why the motives of the cult’s crimes remain a mystery, he said.
“Not only did Aum’s crimes seem to lack a concrete vision or logic, but the entire operation of the cult was likewise from the beginning. Nothing was consistent. This was why the cult became dangerous when it grew so large,” Shimada said.
While Asahara’s disciples justify his multiple personality approach as an effectively way to enlighten his followers, outsiders suspect he was merely an opportunist.
A neighbor of Aum’s former headquarters in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, where Asahara and his family lived in the mid-1980s, recalls how the guru’s attitude toward her suddenly changed after her husband died in 1986. He started making frequent minor complaints and became more arrogant.
“He first sizes you up and then talks to you,” she said.
Former cultists have branded Asahara a please-all opportunist who was kind to his flock, heaping them with praise whenever they completed the cult’s various “work” projects, which were considered to have religious meaning.
When cultists made mattresses to be used by followers at a cult complex in 1994 that turned out to be extremely uncomfortable, Asahara thanked them for their trouble anyway, a 38-year-old former follower said.
“I now think he had a (personal) weakness toward his followers (that made him accept anything they did out of hand), but it is scary to think that he perhaps acted the same way when they managed to produce sarin,” he said.
A 35-year-old former cultist who claims to have briefly worked on Asahara’s security detail said there was a dual power structure in Aum.
Asahara wielded absolute power over all followers in appearance but at the same time his senior disciples could control or at least influence him, taking advantage of his weaknesses, the ex-cultist said.
“While Asahara liked to cast the image of an absolute ruler, he was unable to even make minor decisions all by himself,” he said. “While playing the role of a guru who knows and controls everything, Asahara may have effectively lost control over his rapidly expanding cult.”
This assessment echoes the final argument Asahara’s defense team gave in court in November, when they claimed their client did not in fact have control over senior cultists, because of his frail physical condition.
But the counsel acknowledged that Asahara, as the guru, bears a grave responsibility for failing to guide his followers on the right path.