First in a series
The Supreme Court may have finalized the death sentence for Shoko Asahara, but the truth behind Aum Shinrikyo’s unprecedented string of heinous crimes and what its founder actually sought to achieve remain a mystery.
One thing, however, that is clear to Hiroyuki Nagaoka — who succeeded in getting his son out of the cult — and to the son himself, is why so many people were attracted to Aum in the late 1980s through the early 1990s.
Nagaoka and his son say Aum served as a shelter for young people who became emotionally unstable after having trouble adapting to society.
“When I nearly got neurotic, I went to Aum Shinrikyo to seek help and they said everything would be resolved if I followed its doctrine,” recalled the 37-year-old son, who asked that his name not be used.
He joined Aum in October 1987 and left in February 1990 thanks to his father’s persistent persuasion.
His first encounter with the cult was at a bookstore where he picked up a volume authored by Asahara. At the time he was in university, studying Indian philosophy and struggling with the gap between what he wanted to study and what reality required of him.
He was attracted to the cult’s doctrines as they were full of progressive ideas that he had never before encountered, and decided he wanted to meet the guru, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto. He soon knocked on the door of an Aum branch in his neighborhood.
Aum members told him he would soon recover from his neurosis if he followed the cult’s doctrines.
“Within weeks after joining Aum, my suffering ended and I thought the cult really helped me,” he said, adding that other Aum members had gone through a similar experience. “In retrospect, I can now say that I only wanted something in which I could immerse myself to get away from my worries, and it didn’t have to be Aum.”
He also pointed out that many followers felt drawn to Asahara not only because of the cult’s systematic mind control but also because of the clever way the guru treated his disciples.
Like many other followers, Nagaoka’s son said, he underwent the cult’s “training,” including being forced to meditate in solitary confinement where videos of Asahara’s sermons were aired round the clock.
When he first met Asahara, the guru was humble and always expressed his gratitude and willingness to respect his followers.
“(Asahara) knew how to use both the carrot and the stick to make members” bend to his orders, he said. He was so devoted to the guru that at one point he pitied his father, now 67, for not being able to comprehend Aum’s value. Even after leaving the cult, it took three years to get Asahara completely out of his mind, he said.
The nation was shocked by the revelation that a series of crimes — including the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 people and injured some 5,500 — were perpetrated by corps of Asahara’s “elite disciples.”
The public wondered why such highly educated people, including experts in science who went to prestigious institutions like the graduate school of the University of Tokyo, would turn to Aum.
Nagaoka’s son believes it had something to do with the rote-memory education system that Japan has promoted in the postwar period, in which students are encouraged to memorize what is written in textbooks to pass entrance exams for prestigious universities.
“At that time, people (who attended prestigious schools) were those who could memorize whatever was written in the textbooks,” but they lacked the skill to analyze the information and think for themselves, he said.
“When such people go out into the real world and run into obstacles, they become susceptible to new, extreme ideologies” which they tend to believe provides them with an easy solution, he said.
Nagaoka did everything he could to save his son — from investigating Asahara’s past using a private detective agency to setting up a group of families and relatives of cult members in 1989 together with anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto. The attorney, along with his wife and infant son, were later murdered by Asahara’s close aides.
Using the information Nagaoka obtained from the detective agency, he tried to convince his son that Asahara was an impostor.
Nagaoka’s anti-Aum activities prompted cultists to attempt to kill him by pouring VX gas on his neck on Jan. 4, 1995. Nagaoka recovered but still suffers from the aftereffects, including numbness in his right hand.
“I first came to be suspicious about the cult when I found a piece of writing in my son’s room in 1988,” Nagaoka said. The statement, signed with Nagaoka’s name, claimed to transfer all the rights and assets of Nagaoka’s son, which he would inherit from his father, to Asahara. “They were trying to obtain everything from us, even a single phone card,” Nagaoka said.
He first thought the cult was trying to rip off members but later realized that what Asahara was trying to achieve went beyond merely making money by exploiting the cult’s members.
“I caught a glimpse of his intention to destroy the world while I was investigating him,” Nagaoka said. “Asahara was filled with a feeling of hatred toward other people.”
Asahara, who has largely remained silent, has not said anything worthwhile in court to give a hint of his ultimate aims, leaving critics and commentators to guess what he was really trying to achieve.
Critics say that Aum’s decision to target the Kasumigaseki district — Japan’s administrative hub — in the sarin gas attack and Asahara running for the Diet in 1990 indicate he was trying to topple the government and eventually rule the country.
Nagaoka’s persistent efforts gradually moved his son to leave Aum, but he said he could not immediately trust him. He thought his son might be pretending so he could spy on him and the group of relatives.
Nagaoka and his son are now working together to get current members of Aum, which has renamed itself Aleph, to leave the cult. Aleph is believed to have 1,650 members.
“I told my son it is his duty to help members leave because he took part in recruiting new members,” Nagaoka said.
His son, who is married to a former Aum member and has two children, now looks at Asahara with distrust.
“I think (Asahara) is selfish. It seems like he only wants to protect himself.”
See related links:
Timeline of Asahara’s court saga
Asahara’s execution finalized
Sarin gas victims greet execution news with relief, sadness
Daughters also unable to reach Asahara
For more Aum trial-related links >>
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