On the morning of March 20, 1995, bags of sarin gas were released on subway trains packed with commuters in downtown Tokyo, leaving 13 people dead and more than 6,000 others injured. Twenty years on, the nation is still trying to come to grips with a series of heinous crimes, including the unprecedented deadly nerve gas attack in the heart of a metropolis, that were perpetrated by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult.
People are still trying to fathom why so many people — including youths from elite backgrounds — were drawn to the doomsday cult and carried out deadly crimes under the orders of Aum founder Shoko Asahara.
Nearly 200 Aum members were charged and convicted of crimes — including Asahara and 12 others on whom death sentences have been finalized. Three fugitive members who had long escaped the police’s manhunt were finally arrested one after another in 2012. Meanwhile, Aum’s successor groups continue to attract new followers, including young people who have no firsthand memory of the incidents involving the cult. Police believe that at least one of the groups maintain allegiance to Asahara and his teachings.
For many of the surviving victims, the incident is not a distant memory. A survey carried out in October showed that nearly 30 percent of those hit by sarin gas complained of post-traumatic stress disorders such as sustained dizziness and sleeplessness, and the stress also affected family members.
The widow of a subway station official killed by the sarin gas told a recent gathering that similar crimes could be repeated if the nation forgets what happened 20 years ago. We need to keep trying to understand why the Aum crimes took place and learn what we can to stop such crimes from recurring.
Aum Shinrikyo traces its origin to a yoga circle launched by Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, in 1984. Its membership quickly expanded to top 10,000 by the end of the 1980s and it acquired an official status as a religious corporation in 1989. But shortly after that, its members killed a lawyer — along with his wife and infant son — who was helping families get their relatives back from the cult.
In June 1994, the cultists sprayed sarin gas in a residential area in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, killing seven people and sickening hundreds of others.
The March 1995 sarin attack in Tokyo was a ploy apparently intended to avert what Aum leaders thought would be an imminent police raid on the cult by causing mass confusion in central Tokyo. The cultists who sprayed the sarin gas were taught by Asahara that they were redeeming the souls of the victims by killing them. During recent testimony in court at the trial of a former fugitive Aum member, one cultist said he still believes victims’ souls were being redeemed.
In addition to the cult’s vicious crimes, what shocked the nation was the mind control that Asahara exerted on members of the cult, which experts say still grip some convicted Aum followers. The cult likened itself to a state. It created a government-like organization, appointed senior members to “ministerial” positions, and acquired or developed automatic rifles and chemical weapons.
While Aum members convicted for the cult’s crimes said they were acting on Asahara’s orders, it has not been fully explored in court as to why they blindly followed the guru. Asahara remained mostly silent throughout his own trial, which lasted until his death sentence was finalized in 2006.
His No. 2 man, Hideo Murai, who is believed to have commanded the subway attack, was killed by an underworld member a month later, leaving some aspects of the Aum crimes a mystery even today.
Questions also remain as to why the authorities could not have taken more effective actions to prevent Aum from carrying out the subway attack, given that the cult was on the police radar over its past crimes. Just two days after the subway attack, the police raided the Aum compound in a village at the foot of Mount Fuji in Yamanashi Prefecture; they arrested Asahara there two months later. Efforts should be made to find the answers to these questions with the aim of preventing similar crimes in the future.