The Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal by condemned killer Seiichi Endo, lowering the curtain on the trials over the cult’s heinous crimes, which began in the 1980s and culminated in the 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.
All but one of the 189 Aum members brought to trial were convicted and 13 were sentenced to hang, including the babbling, half-blind founder and guru Shoko Asahara, 56, deemed the mastermind behind the mayhem. The rulings against Asahara were based on the testimony of the disciples tried before him, including doctors, chemists and other scientists and graduates of elite institutions who shed their pursuit of material gain for the spiritual.
Following are questions and answers regarding the doomsday cult and its terror campaign that shook the world:
Who is Shoko Asahara and how did Aum start?
Shoko Asahara’s real name is Chizuo Matsumoto. He was the sixth of seven children born to parents who ran a tatami shop in Kumamoto Prefecture. Born with impaired vision, he was enrolled in a school for the blind and later moved to Tokyo, where he began working as an acupuncturist.
Criminal records show he was breaking laws early on and was charged with selling bogus drugs.
In 1984, during the heyday of the bubble economy, Asahara launched a yoga training school in Tokyo called Aum no Kai (Aum’s Group). It was certified as a religious organization in 1989, assuming the name Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) along the way. In short order he started touting himself as the “ultimate savior” and claimed he had supernatural powers.
Aum quickly grew to more than 10,000 members by 1990, including people overseas, particularly in Russia.
What activities did Aum engage in?
Besides heavy recruiting efforts, the cult tried its hand at various business pursuits as well as shady endeavors that laid the foundation for its horrendous crimes.
One of the most successful, apparently legitimate, ventures was a computer business that generated billions of yen each year. But at the same time, the cult was manufacturing illegal narcotics and weapons, importing military helicopters from Russia and engaging in chemical and biological experiments.
As it continued to expand, Aum restructured into 22 “ministries” and “agencies” from justice and defense to foreign affairs and commerce, with Asahara reigning as the “holy guru” and “sole savior.”
When did things turn truly sinister?
Asahara was by the late 1980s preaching to his flock about the inevitability of a nuclear war that would obliterate many parts of the world. He added to his apocalyptic prophecies the call to expand Aum’s ranks to 30,000 “monks” as the only way to save the world.
Around this time, he began calling himself Shiva, god of destruction, and became more vocal in his justifications of violence.
Asahara’s powers of persuasion and his teachings, which included a blend of Indian mysticism, quickly turned his more devout minions into disciples who clung to his every word — and followed his every command.
Some of them, too, had persuasive traits that helped them recruit even more followers.
New recruits variously felt a sense of belonging, peer pressure to stay on, and in some cases a fear of the consequences if they tried to leave. Later testimony would confirm that some errant members who tried to bolt were abducted back, tortured and disposed of, including via cremation at the cult’s rural complexes where many resided and sinister activities took place.
There were cases in which next of kin, often by way of lawyers, tried to get their loved ones out of Aum, which was becoming more assertive and regarded by many as malevolent.
In November 1989 cultists murdered Yokohama lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife and 1-year-old son in their apartment. Sakamoto had claimed the cult kidnapped a relative of his client. Although the lawyer and his family disappeared in the night, along with some bedding but no clothing, and an Aum badge was found in their home, police treated their disappearance as a missing persons case despite pleas from relatives, and only realized the family had been slain when they retaliated against the cult in 1995 and its deeds came out in testimony.
The cult felt brash enough in 1990 that 25 of its members, including Asahara, ran for public office. But they were soundly defeated in a Lower House election and afterward the guru reportedly told his followers that the “only measure to save the world now is violence.”
Why did elite university graduates and professionals turn to Aum?
In the book “Aum Wo Yameta Watashitachi” (“Those of Us Who Quit Aum”), published in 2000, one man who managed to leave the cult wrote that its teachings “were very attractive.” Indeed, Aum drew in heart surgeons, physicists and other professionals.
The man was introduced to Aum through a yoga club at his college and joined in 1994, the year it carried out its first sarin attack using a modified van to spray the nerve agent at an apartment complex in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, immediately killing seven people and leaving another comatose until she died in 2008. The attack netted no arrests.
“I was captivated by their belief that spiritualism should overtake materialism. Aum also taught that true religion is extremely scientific, which struck a chord in me,” he wrote.
Members would later testify that Aum resorted to various tactics to instill its religious philosophy in its ranks, even resorting to LSD and other hallucinogens, and sleep and food deprivation.
In June 1995, University of Tokyo professor Takeshi Yoro wrote that one reason highly educated people joined Aum was to fill a spiritual void stemming from the lack of such studies in schools.
“The educated members suddenly embraced religion at a certain age because elementary and junior high schools did not offer studies in religion or philosophy. I think that was an issue,” the renowned philosopher and brain expert said.
Asahara also had a charisma about him, according to people who met him personally.
He was even at one time a popular guest on TV variety shows, while off camera his cult was engaging in sinister activities, including testing biological and chemical agents and other ways to kill.
In one televised question-and-answer session, the affable guru fielded queries from teens, including about how he washed his long hair in the shower. “I use shampoo products made for babies,” he said to the audience’s delight.
How were the gas attacks carried out?
The cult drove a modified van from its secretive compound near Mount Fuji to an apartment complex in Matsumoto where a judge hearing property litigation against the cult lived, unleashing sarin on June 27, 1994. These details all came out in the cultists’ trials.
The attack killed seven and left comatose the wife of one of the residents who first alerted police to the incident, and who was at the time falsely considered a person of interest. The woman died in 2008 without ever regaining consciousness.
Police were believed to be connecting the dots over Sakamoto and other cult-related disappearances by March 1995 when Aum gassed the subway system in an attempt to cause rush-hour chaos and ostensibly divert police attention away from it.
On March 20, 1995, just before 8 a.m., five members of the cult separately boarded Chiyoda, Marunouchi and Hibiya line trains with two to three plastic bags of sarin they would puncture with sharpened umbrella tips as the trains stopped, giving them an avenue of escape. The attack ultimately claimed 13 lives and left more than 6,300 people wounded.
What happened after the subway attacks?
On March 22, 1995, police, claiming to be looking for a missing Tokyo notary public but wearing hazmat suits, raided Aum’s compound in Yamanashi Prefecture near Mount Fuji, turning up equipment used to make sarin and other biological weapons, helicopters for use in gas attacks, weapons and illegal drugs.
Initial arrests targeted low-level cultists as police squeezed them for information, leading to later collars of key players in the cult’s crimes. Meanwhile, Aum mouthpiece Fumihiro Joyu was busy on TV issuing denials of criminal activity attributed to the cult.
In the immediate weeks after the attack, an Aum cyanide attack targeting a major concourse in Shinjuku Station was foiled, and the head of the National Police Agency, Takaji Kunimatsu, was gunned down in front of his home. A cultist on the police force would own up to the shooting, but because the gun wasn’t found he was never indicted.
Asahara was captured around two months after the attack, hiding in a wall recess along with a pile of cash and a sleeping bag.
Overall, 484 Aum members were arrested and 188 were indicted. Of the five cultists who actually boarded the subway trains and released the gas, four have had their death sentences finalized.
But Ikuo Hayashi, who was responsible for discharging sarin on the Chiyoda Line train, was sentenced to life in exchange for his cooperation with the police investigation after his arrest.
Ranking cultists Katsuya Takahashi, who would be 53 if still alive, Makoto Hirata, 46, and Naoko Kikuchi, 39, remain at large, each with a ¥5 million reward for their capture.
Could the subway attack have been prevented?
Despite the sarin mass-murder the previous year, disappearances stretching back years and fiendish tests being reported, police didn’t act against the cult.
During a March 2010 ceremony to mark 15 years since the attack, then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said in a speech that “no one imagined such a terrorist attack could take place.”
Many don’t share his view and say that the police should have realized the cult was carrying out heinous crimes and that there were plenty of tips and compelling evidence if they had only bothered to look.
Lawyer Taro Takimoto, himself a target of assassination for fighting Aum in court, sent a letter approximately a week before the subway attack to NPA chief Kunimatsu and the chief prosecutor, warning that the cult might use sarin to commit mass murder in Tokyo.
Kunimatsu, who survived the assassination attempt, said in an interview last year that the police had in fact received information that Aum “might possibly take some kind of action because they expected that their headquarters compound in Yamanashi Prefecture would be raided.” But the police did not act, citing a lack of solid information.
How did Asahara fight his case?
When Asahara’s trial opened, more than 12,000 people were waiting to be among the chosen few to get a gallery seat in his Tokyo District Court trial. The guru was charged with murder, attempted murder, abduction and confinement resulting in death, destruction of a corpse, plotting murder and violating the Arms Manufacturing Law.
In court, Asahara and his lawyers blamed the crimes on his disciples and pleaded not guilty. His lawyers also requested that each charge be handled separately, boycotted some sessions, asked the court to delay the trial and rejected much of the evidence submitted by prosecutors.
After attempts to delay the proceedings, Asahara’s counsel ultimately claimed their client had a psychological problem and could not 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, saying he “committed the crimes in the process of realizing his fantasy of expanding the cult through militarization and to reign as its king in the name of salvation.”
On March 27, 2006, the Tokyo High Court rejected his appeal after his counsel missed the deadline for filing the proper documents.
What happened to Aum after Asahara was arrested?
By 1996 the Supreme Court had finalized court orders to break up Aum as a religious body. But followers have continued to stay on under two groups.
Hikari no Wa (Circle of Rainbow Light), which is led by Joyu, has said the group has scorned Asahara’s influence. But raids by the Public Security Investigation Agency in the past have found the guru’s portraits.
The official website of Hikari no Wa posts a section titled “Lessons and reflections from Aum Shinrikyo,” which includes apologies for the sarin attacks.
The other group, Aleph, does not mention Aum or Asahara on its website. Recently, it posted a claim that followers can avoid harm from the radioactive fallout emitted by the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant by participating in yoga training with the group.
After the dismantling of Aum, the Diet in 1999 enacted a law that enabled the Public Security Investigation Agency to carry out on-the-spot inspections of Aum-related facilities nationwide.
Fearing the two groups are now trying to attract young followers, the agency has kept them under close watch.
Has the cult paid redress?
Bankruptcy proceedings for Aum concluded in March 2008, even though the cult had paid only 40 percent of the ¥3.8 billion owed to its victims. The payments are now being made by Aum’s splinter groups, but in extremely small portions.
Hikari no Wa’s website says the group only paid around ¥2.5 million to the victims in 2010.
The government enacted a law in June 2008 to help the victims by paying benefits to survivors of the sarin attacks and other crimes in the cult’s stead. That law covers approximately 6,000 people and pays a maximum of ¥30 million to anyone requiring medical care.
What happens now that the trials are over?
The Justice Ministry has made it a custom to postpone the execution of death-row inmates if proceedings against their accomplices are ongoing, but since Monday’s ruling was the final one, that could soon change.
Asahara has been on death row since September 2006, when the Supreme Court finalized his sentence. According to his lawyers, his behavior has grown more erratic during his years of incarceration.
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Timeline of important events related to Aum Shinrikyo
- February 1984 — Shoko Asahara forms Aum no Kai, which would be renamed Aum Shinrikyo in July 1987.
- Nov. 4, 1989 — Lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, 33, his 29-year-old wife, Satoko, and 1-year-old son, Tatsuhiko, are killed at their home in Yokohama.
- June 27, 1994 — Aum members release sarin nerve gas in the city of Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, killing seven people and seriously injuring four others.
- March 20, 1995 — Aum members attack the Tokyo subway system with sarin gas. A total of 13 people eventually die and around 6,300 are injured.
- March 22, 1995 — Police launch massive raids on Aum headquarters in Yamanashi Prefecture and other Aum facilities.
- May 16, 1995 — Cult leader Asahara is arrested.
- June 6, 1995 — Asahara is indicted.
- April 24, 1996 — Asahara’s trial begins.
- May 26, 1998 — The Tokyo District Court sentences former Aum member Ikuo Hayashi to life in prison for his involvement in the Tokyo subway attacks. The ruling marks the first of the Aum-related crimes to be finalized because Hayashi, who turned himself in, did not appeal.
- Feb. 27, 2004 — The Tokyo District Court sentences Asahara to death. His lawyers file an appeal.
- March 27, 2006 — The Tokyo High Court rejects the appeal.
- Sept. 15, 2006 — Asahara’s death sentence is finalized.
- June 11, 2008 — A law on benefits for victims of Aum’s crimes and their families is enacted. It takes effect in December 2008.
- March 17, 2009 — The Tokyo District Court rejects a plea for a retrial of Asahara filed by his second daughter. The Tokyo High Court and Supreme Court subsequently reject the plea.
- May 9, 2011 — The Tokyo District Court rejects a second plea for a retrial of Asahara.
- Nov. 18 — The Supreme Court rejects an appeal by senior Aum member Tomomasa Nakagawa, who was sentenced to death.
- Nov. 21 — The Supreme Court rejects an appeal by condemned senior Aum member Seiichi Endo, effectively putting an end to the series of trials of Asahara and 188 cultists.