Hitoshi Jin describes his younger brother spending the booming 1980s “cult surfing,” exploring what new religions had to offer to fill the gaping spiritual void left by a childhood scarred by an abusive father.
Like others seeking refuge from the rampant materialism of the era, he appeared to find a form of salvation in the Buddhist-Hindu influenced teachings espoused in what was then a yoga-training circle run by a long-haired, bearded former acupuncturist called Shoko Asahara.
Jin, a Buddhist priest, recalls his brother showing him a periodical published by the group claiming its guru could levitate. He brushed it aside as nonsense.
“I should have listened to him more carefully,” he said.
Jin’s brother was found dead at the age of 27 in an apparent suicide from inert gas asphyxiation. Among the pile of occult books and magazines found in his room were those written by Asahara, who the following year orchestrated the worst terrorist attack in modern Japanese history.
It’s unclear to what extent Jin’s brother was involved in Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult responsible for staging the March 20, 1995, sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that left 13 dead and injured around 6,300 people.
During the final years of his troubled life, Jin’s brother had experimented with various prescription drugs and other substances to induce an altered state of consciousness — to “see Buddha.” Members of the cult would later testify that Aum resorted to numerous tactics to instill its doctrine in its ranks, including the use of LSD and other hallucinogens.
But for Jin, 57, one thing is certain.
“Despite being a man of religion, I couldn’t save my brother,” he said.
Jin is among those whose lives have been confounded by the cult that burst onto the national stage 23 years ago, with an act of terror that crippled postwar Japan’s long-held sense of security and left policymakers, media, academics and counterterrorism agencies scrambling to make sense of the new dangers posed by religious extremism.
The series of crimes committed by the group, which culminated in the toxic nerve gas attack during the morning rush hour, also launched an unprecedentedly long and complicated judicial process that finally wrapped up this January, paving the way for the execution of Asahara — whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto — and 12 other disciples on death row. Speculation is rife that they could be hanged before the Heisei Era draws to an end with the abdication of Emperor Akihito in April 2019.
For those who were involved with the cult, however, an enigma remains.
Asahara visits Orie Miyama in her dreams. Not often, only occasionally, and usually during stretches when she hasn’t been thinking about the cult she joined in 1986.
Miyama, a pseudonym she uses to protect her privacy when speaking to the media, was a graphic designer when she discovered the cult through one of Asahara’s books. She was among the droves of young Japanese — many from wealthy, well-educated backgrounds — sickened and alienated by the consumerist ethos of the time that was fueled by the bubble economy. She found peace in the teachings and a sense of spiritual connection with Aum followers, and especially, toward its charismatic guru.
Miyama became a “shukke,” a full-time devotee living in the cult’s compounds. She was among the 25 Aum members — including Asahara — who ran in a failed 1990 Diet election bid considered one of the turning points for the sect, when paranoia and rhetoric of Armageddon intensified within its top circle.
Miyama claims she was unaware of the criminal activities in which Aum was engaged, including the 1989 murders of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family and the 1994 sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, that left eight dead and around 600 injured. “I thought I would be with the group until I die,” she said.
That changed in 1995, when the subway gassing triggered massive police raids and arrests of Aum members — who by then had grown to over 11,000 with branches in Russia and other countries — igniting a media firestorm and nationwide condemnation.
Miyama felt compelled to step away from the confusion engulfing the organization, and in June that year left with fellow member and soon-to-be husband Tekenori Hayasaka. The two would spend the next year traveling in Thailand, India and Nepal, listening to radio broadcasts from time to time to stay tuned with the ongoing police investigation that was unraveling the extent of Aum’s heinous deeds.” We were unsure whether Aum was really responsible for all this, but were convinced when members began testifying,” Miyama, 57, said.
After returning to Japan in 1996, they settled in Kanagawa Prefecture — where they still live — hiding their involvement in the cult and working part-time jobs. They monitored Aum-related news and on several occasions observed the trials of Asahara, who would be found guilty for his roles in 13 crimes that took a total of 27 lives. As many as 191 other Aum members were also charged with multiple criminal counts including murders, attempted murders, abductions, and production of nerve gas and automatic rifles.
Court proceedings unveiled how the cult’s inner circle engaged in escalating levels of violence and illegal activity — beginning with the disposal of the body of a member alleged to have been killed accidentally, then progressing to attacks against individuals perceived as antagonistic toward the cult, and finally, mass murder as a means to bring about the apocalypse.
“But we can’t help feeling that the image of Aum painted in court was different from what we had experienced,” said Hayasaka, who joined Aum in 1989.
The self-employed 54-year-old, who also goes by an alias, said the widely held notion of the cult being a dangerous army of mind-controlled zealots assembling around a half-blind, babbling madman seem far removed from the mostly calm, stoic lifestyle rank-and-file members like himself experienced during much of the cult’s existence.
Hayasaka said he wouldn’t have taken part in the cult’s murderous campaigns if he had been asked to. Miyama agrees, and wishes the deadly mess never happened. Both have distanced themselves from the splinter groups that emerged after Aum broke apart.
The middle-aged couple, however, don’t regret the years spent in Aum despite the inconveniences their past affiliation has created, and they value the guidance imparted by Asahara.
“It was a step in our lives,” Miyama said.
Tatsuya Mori felt a similar sense of incongruity between the hatred Aum inspired in the public and what he actually saw inside the remnants of the cult while shooting his internationally acclaimed 1998 film, “A.”
Granted rare access to Aum-related facilities following the subway sarin attack, he looked at society from the sect’s vantage point, documenting the media frenzy and fiery public backlash against the cult and its remaining members from a perspective that had mostly been unseen until then.
By doing so, he captured how fear of the unknown led to collective anger and insecurity with real consequences. Following the attack the nation turned to Big Brother-like measures, such as security cameras introduced in stations by railway systems.
“Why the fear? It’s because there are so many questions that haven’t been answered,” said Mori, a filmmaker and writer.
During trial, Asahara never explained his motives behind the crimes and baffled the court with confusing comments and mutterings. Reports say he has turned down all meeting requests over the past 10 years.
Many, including Mori, doubt his sanity. During his appeal trial, after the Tokyo District Court sentenced him to death in 2004, defense lawyers claimed Asahara was incapable of standing trial and should be given medical treatment. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal and finalized his death penalty in 2006.
For Mori, 61, Asahara’s execution will seal any possibility of uncovering the truth behind the atrocities committed by the cult, a subject that has come to occupy a significant portion of his work over the years.
“I was a mere television director before I began filming Aum, with no real political leanings or interests in sociopolitical matters,” he said. But the experience taught him how the dominant narrative easily distorts individual perspective; a common theme that has since been explored in his subsequent films and books. “Looking back, I think the 1995 sarin gas attack was a catalyst that changed me,” he said.
Last week, seven of the 13 former Aum members on death row were transferred from the Tokyo detention center to other facilities, likely moving them a step closer to their execution dates. Asahara continues to be held in the capital.
Kimiaki Nishida, a Rissho University professor and chairman of Japan Society for Cult Prevention and Recovery, has interviewed Aum members behind bars including those awaiting capital punishment, and has given expert testimony during the trials of several senior members. He said some, like applied physicist Masato Yokoyama who is facing the gallows for his involvement in the 1995 gas attack, remain influenced by Asahara and the cult’s doctrine. Others appeared to have abandoned its teachings.
In line with the murkiness that has come to characterize Aum, he can’t pinpoint what exactly triggered some to give up their beliefs, but hypothesizes that it’s connected with an acute realization of the horrors suffered by victims and their families, or disillusionment with their guru.
“There are many things we still don’t know about and need to study,” Nishida said. And only Asahara will be able to shed light on them. “What I’d like to hear is Asahara speak, even just a word, before he dies.”
Japan hasn’t seen the last of Aum, nor the existential insecurity that gnawed at some of the best minds of the generation that flocked to the cult back in the 1980s and early 1990s, said Jin, the Buddhist priest.
Jin blames traditional religious communities, including his own, for not doing enough to answer the spiritual needs of young Japanese. “That’s why they turn to cults. It happened before, and it’s happening now.”
Aleph, the main successor group to Aum, has been actively recruiting on university campuses through dummy yoga circles, he said. Concerned parents of members consult Jin, who is an executive director at the Buddhist based Zenseikyo Foundation for Youth and Child Welfare, as well as the head of Childline Support Center Japan.
Jin has yet to reconcile with the death of his brother 24 years ago. He still can’t get himself to properly read through the two diaries he left.
“I don’t want his death to be in vane. For the sake of his short life, I need to do what I can for those who are suffering from spiritual pain,” he said.
Key events related to Aum Shinrikyo
The following is a chronology of events related to the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult and its founder, Shoko Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto:
- March 2, 1955 — Chizuo Matsumoto is born in Kumamoto Prefecture.
- February 1984 — Asahara forms group Aum Shinsen no Kai.
- July 1987 — Aum Shinsen no Kai is renamed Aum Shinrikyo.
- November 4, 1989 — Tsutsumi Sakamoto, a lawyer helping people with complaints against Aum, is slain along with his wife and 1-year-old son at their Yokohama home.
- February 1990 — Asahara and 24 other Aum members run in a House of Representatives election. All of them lose.
- June 27, 1994 — Aum members release sarin in a residential district of Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, killing eight people and injuring around 600.
- March 20, 1995 — Aum members release sarin on Tokyo subway trains, killing 13 people and injuring more than 6,000.
- May 16, 1995 — Asahara is arrested.
- April 24, 1996 — Asahara’s trial begins.
- February 2000 — Aum renames itself Aleph.
- March 13, 2003 — Asahara refuses to speak during his first questioning in court.
- April 24, 2003 — Prosecutors demand the death sentence for Asahara.
- February 27, 2004 — Tokyo District Court sentences Asahara to death.
- September 15, 2006 — Supreme Court finalizes Asahara’s death sentence.
- May 2007 — Former Aum spokesman Fumihiro Joyu launches splinter group Hikari no Wa.
- June 2008 — Law enacted to provide Aum victims and relatives with government benefits.
- December 31, 2011 — Aum fugitive Makoto Hirata surrenders to police.
- June 2012 — Aum fugitives Katsuya Takahashi and Naoko Kikuchi arrested.
- January 18, 2018 — Supreme Court rejects Takahashi’s appeal, settling his life sentence and ending all trials related to the cult.
- March 14-15, 2018 — Seven of 13 former Aum members on death row are transferred from Tokyo detention center to other facilities.
Every month Deep Dive takes an in-depth look at a topical issue in Japan. The second part of this Deep Dive, focusing on Asahara’s children, will be published tomorrow.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.