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On the morning of March 20, 1995, members of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas on Tokyo subway trains, killing 13 people and injuring over 5,800. The attack came as the nation was still reeling from the Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe just over two months earlier. It deeply shocked Japan and the world and raised concerns over nonstate organizations obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

What was Aum Shinrikyo and who led it?

Shoko Asahara, then head of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, in 1990. | KYODO
Shoko Asahara, then head of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, in 1990. | KYODO

Aum Shinrikyo was a doomsday cult that fused elements of different religions, including Buddhism, along with the works of Nostradamus into its own belief system. The cult began in 1984 and included a yoga training center run by Chizuo Matsumoto, who was blind in his left eye and had limited sight in his right eye. Matsumoto was born in Kumamoto Prefecture, traveled to India (where he met, briefly, the Dalai Lama) and, in the mid-1980s, reinvented himself in Tokyo as Shoko Asahara, an aspiring holy man. But he also had an interest in UFOs and telepathy. At various times, Asahara claimed he could levitate, meditate underwater, walk through walls and even — after a trip to Cairo — took credit for helping design the ancient pyramids in a past life.

In 1989, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government granted Aum status as a religious corporation. This meant tax breaks and less accountability to authorities. From there, Aum’s internal structure would grow and mimic that of the central government, with Asahara creating different “ministries and agencies” within the cult, including a “Health and Welfare Ministry,” a “Home Affairs Ministry,” and an “Intelligence Agency,” among others. Further, Asahara and his family were taken care of by an “Imperial Household Agency.”

How many members did Aum have and what was its financial situation?

The cult says it grew from only a few members at the time it was incorporated to around 10,000 by 1992, and then to 50,000 worldwide, including 11,400 in Japan, by the time of the 1995 attack. Japanese police said the cult was worth around ¥430 million when it received religious corporation status in 1989, and that grew to an estimated ¥100 billion in 1995, by which time Aum had more than 30 branches in six countries.

The money came from Aum members themselves, who were asked to donate all of their worldly possessions upon entering the cult. Funds were also generated by Aum-related businesses, including yoga lessons, book sales and computer service centers. In addition, Japanese media reports quoted in Aum-related testimony presented to the U.S. Senate on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, 1995, listed classes that claimed to teach supernatural powers and described blood initiation rites where devotees paid ¥1 million to drink blood supposedly from Asahara. Headgear that Aum said would synchronize a follower’s brain waves with those Asahara could be rented for ¥1 million per month.

What kind of people joined Aum, and what were their motivations?

Aum members came from all walks of life, but the senior leadership surrounding Asahara, the various “ministers” and those below them included scientific researchers and technical experts from Japan’s most respected public and private universities. Some joined because Aum offered them funding for their various research interests and what seemed to be the freedom to pursue them more easily than would have been the case if they’d joined the government, large corporations or academic research institutes. Others were brilliant intellectually but felt spiritually empty and saw something they liked in Asahara and Aum’s philosophy. Some were drawn to the cult’s quest for spiritual salvation and beliefs.

Above: Patients receive treatment in front of Tsukiji Station in Tokyo on March 20, 1995, after a sarin gas attack by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Right: A squad from the Tokyo Fire Department works near Kasumigaseki Station in Tokyo after the attack. Far right: Shoko Asahara was the founder of the cult. KYODO
Above: Patients receive treatment in front of Tsukiji Station in Tokyo on March 20, 1995, after a sarin gas attack by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Right: A squad from the Tokyo Fire Department works near Kasumigaseki Station in Tokyo after the attack.
Far right: Shoko Asahara was the founder of the cult. KYODO

What happened in the months and years prior to the 1995 attack?

In February 1990, Asahara and 24 other members of Aum campaigned for seats in the Lower House election. All were soundly defeated, and from then on Aum became more paranoid, emphasizing the rhetoric of Armageddon. The cult was already controversial. It would later be confirmed that in November 1989, Aum members kidnapped and murdered Yokohama lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife and their 1-year old son. Sakamoto had represented a number of anti-Aum groups.

Over the next few years, Aum, whose main compound was in Kamikuishiki, Yamanashi Prefecture, produced chemical weapons and agents, including sarin, VX, phosgene and sodium cyanide. It was working on developing biological weapons and diseases including anthrax, botulism, and Q-fever.

Aum set up in Russia not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, attracting somewhere between 30,000 to 50,000 Russian members, the majority of the cult’s membership. It acquired Russian military technology, including a helicopter.

In June 1994, in a test run for the March 1995 attack in Tokyo, Aum members conducted a sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in which eight people died and hundreds more were injured.

Did Aum really try to buy a nuclear weapon?

Aum’s 'Satyan 7' facility, near Mount Fuji in the village of Kamikuishiki, Yamanashi Prefecture, in 1995. | KYODO
Aum’s ‘Satyan 7’ facility, near Mount Fuji in the village of Kamikuishiki, Yamanashi Prefecture, in 1995. | KYODO

Kiyohide Hayakawa, Aum’s “construction minister,” visited Russia over 20 times between 1992 and 1995 and was involved in many negotiations with Russian officials to buy various weapons. In documents seized after the March 1995 sarin attack, it was revealed that he had written “how much is a nuclear warhead?” It was unclear whether this referred to actual discussions or negotiations. In addition, Aum purchased, in 1993, a sheep farm 375 miles from Perth in Western Australia’s Banjawarn, which also had some uranium deposits. Ultimately, however, investigations in Japan and the U.S. concluded the cult never came particularly close to actually developing or buying nuclear weapons.

What legal changes were made following the attack?

Aum had been able to operate for years due to a legal system that made it tough for police and prosecutors to take action against religious groups. A 1951 law enacted to ensure strong religious freedoms meant that government oversight was, in practice, quite difficult.

Following the attack, Aum was forced by the Tokyo District Court to break up, and it did so in December 1995. However, Aum members were not forbidden from practicing their faith or running affiliated businesses. The Diet passed a law forbidding the manufacture, possession or use of sarin and similar substances, and the law was revised to allow more monitoring of organizations deemed suspicious and potentially dangerous. Another law gave more autonomy to local police when dealing with cross-prefectural crimes.

Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara is transferred to the Metropolitan Police Department for questioning. Asahara, whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto, was hanged on July 6, 2018. KYODO
Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara is transferred to the Metropolitan Police Department for questioning. Asahara, whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto, was hanged on July 6, 2018. KYODO

What is the status of Aum today?

Asahara and 12 senior Aum leaders were executed in July 2018. Since 2000, Aum has been the subject of government surveillance. Aum is now split into a mainstream group called Aleph (with a further faction called “group led by Yamada”) and Hikari no Wa (The Circle of Rainbow Light), led by former Aum spokesman Fumihiro Joyu.

As of last year, all groups were under surveillance. A 2019 report by the Public Security Intelligence Agency estimated that there were 1,650 members of all three groups within Japan, and still some in Russia. At the end of October 2019, they had ¥1.3 billion in assets. The agency warns that Aleph and the group led by Yamada remain devoted to Asahara, while Hikari no Wa displays Buddhist paintings apparently connected to Asahara and conducts visits to places deemed holy by Joyu and to shrines deemed related to Asahara.

After Asahara’s execution, Joyu offered an apology to the sarin victims and said he had no special feelings for Asahara. In April 2019, Aleph was ordered by a Tokyo court to pay out more than ¥1 billion to victims of the attack.

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