The execution this week of the six remaining Aum Shinrikyo members on death row — along with the hanging of seven cultists including Aum founder and guru Shoko Asahara earlier this month — marks one ending to criminal justice proceedings over the series of deadly crimes committed by the cult’s members. However, that should not prompt us to let the memory of Aum and its horrific crimes, including the 1995 sarin gassing on Tokyo’s subways that killed 13 people and left thousands more injured, fade away.
Twenty-three years after the police crackdown on the cult and the arrest of its members, many of the surviving victims still suffer from the aftershock of its crimes. Financial compensation to thousands of the victims by the cult’s successor group remains stalled. The wife of one of the victims of the subway attack said that despite the execution of the Aum members on death row, the damage from their crimes lingers on.
While many facts about Aum’s criminal acts came to light in the marathon trials that finally concluded this year, mysteries remain as to why so many young people — particularly those with highly educated backgrounds, like some of the former cultists sent to the gallows Thursday — were drawn to the teachings of Asahara, who launched Aum’s predecessor in 1984 as a small yoga circle, and eventually came to commit the deadly crimes in the name of religion. Today, Aum’s successor groups, including ones that are said to retain their allegiance to the executed guru, reportedly draw about 100 new members a year, apparently including those with little knowledge about Aum’s crimes. There are questions that still need to be addressed to prevent similar crimes in the future.
It was in the late 1980s — when Japan was heading into the asset-inflated bubble boom — that Aum Shinrikyo rapidly attracted large numbers of followers, who numbered more than 10,000 at their peak, by preaching salvation of their souls. Many of the youths were reportedly drawn to Asahara’s claim that they could obtain supernatural powers through rigorous training under his teachings. The cult, which in 1989 was recognized as a religious corporation by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, also cultivated a sizable base in Russia in the years of social upheaval following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
That a religious cult armed itself with lethal nerve gas and automatic rifles and committed a host of heinous crimes, including the 1994 sarin gassing in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, that killed eight residents and the 1989 murders of a lawyer who was aiding parents who sought to bring their children back from the cult along with his wife and baby son, sent shock waves across society. What further alarmed and mystified the nation was that many of the senior cultists who planned and performed the deadly crimes under Asahara’s orders had been educated at Japan’s most prestigious universities and apparently had no previous connections with criminal activities.
Within the cult, Asahara’s orders were said to carry absolute weight. Killing the victims was justified as providing the salvation of their souls. It was theorized that the cultists, including the senior members, had been brainwashed by Asahara, though that was not recognized as a factor that mitigated their criminal responsibility for the crimes. Yasuo Hayashi, one of the Aum members executed Thursday after being convicted of releasing sarin gas in the subway, reportedly said he thought he would be lynched if he refused the order to commit the act.
More than two decades after Aum’s crimes, police and public safety authorities keep close watch over Aum’s successor groups, who together are said to have more than 1,600 members, although the possibility of their members resorting to extreme action in response to the execution of Asahara and the other cultists is deemed low.
The Aum Shinrikyo members who were attracted to Asahara apparently felt aliened from society and sought salvation in the guru’s teachings. How their ways of thinking became distorted until they came to follow his deadly orders has not been entirely clarified. And today, youths who don’t fit in society and pursue some form of salvation of their souls appear to exist just they did in the 1980s — although their ways of pursuing that may not be the same. In that sense, the same ground that bred Aum Shinrikyo — and its crimes — back then may still be with us today. Given that we live in such a society, we must not forget the cult’s crimes and continue trying to learn from them.