Aum Shinrikyo

This month, 18 years ago. Aum Shinrikyo, released sarin gas into the Tokyo subway during the morning rush  hour. They killed 12 people and injured thousands.

Before he was infamous as Shoko Asahara, an almost blind fellow by the name of Chizuo Maumoto operated a dubious ‘medicine’ and health food store in Tokyo. Later he opened a yoga studio with his wife. Then, he went to the Himalayas. When he returned he decided to change the name of his yoga group and what was once the rather cute ‘Aum Association of Mountain Wizards’ became the slightly more sinister ‘Aum Shinrikyo’, meaning Aum Supreme Truth. It began in Tokyo in 1984. Three years later it had established headquarters at the foot of Mount Fuji. By 1988 its membership was around 3,000. In 1989 it was officially registered as a religion and by the time of the Tokyo subway sarin attacks in 1995 it had somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 members in Japan and, after concerted efforts to build connections  in Russia, up to 30,000 there.

Like some other religious or quasi-religious movements, it had a headquarters at the foot of Mount Fuji. Unlike them it also had a factory producing sarin gas in the village of Kamikuishiki in Yamanashi. While Buddhist pilgrims sought enlightenment in climbing to the summit of Fuji, far scarier things were happening down below in Aum’s buildings. There, enlightenment was being sought through more bizarre methods. Cult members starved themselves, took mind-altering drugs including LSD, and immersed themselves in water at both extremes of the temperature scale. When the police raided the premises following the Tokyo subway sarin attack they found considerable amounts of disturbing evidence, much of which was in a chemical lab hidden behind an enormous styrofoam figure of the Hindu god Shiva.

At the Mount Fuji compound they found gold, cash, chemicals and materials for use in making explosives, and they found large quantities of mind-altering drugs. They found a device for analyzing DNA, 160 metal drums of peptone – a solution which is used to cultivate bacteria -and materials that could be used to produce deadly toxins. And that was in addition to tens of litres of sarin gas and a large Russian-made helicopter. Yes, a helicopter. Had Aum been allowed to continue undisturbed for a little longer, that combination of helicopter and chemicals could have had even more horrific consequences than the subway attack. In an article in the Yomiuri Shimbun, Tatsuo Kainaka, a former investigator at the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office, said that Aum planned to commit mass murder by aerially spraying sarin gas around the Kasumigaseki area of Tokyo – an area which is home to many government ministry offices – and the Imperial Palace, before using automatic rifles to take control of the capital. They had the helicopter, they had sarin and they apparently had a prototype of the automatic rifle, too.

Even before the subway attacks and the subsequent raid on Aum’s premises, there had been evidence that weird stuff was happening. People living close to the commune had reported strange smells and noticed that leaves on the trees were turning brown. In November 1994, four months before the subway attack, a by-product of sarin was found in the soil near the Mount Fuji compound, and just five days before the attack an attaché case emitting a strange vapor was found at Kasumigaseki subway station. And let’s not forget that the attack on 20th March, 1995 was not even the first time Aum had used sarin gas against the general public. Almost a year earlier, in June 1994, they had released sarin gas in the town of Matsumoto in Nagano prefecture. Seven people died, more than two hundred were injured and a further death occurred in 2008 when a woman who had spent fourteen years in a coma also lost her life.

That woman’s name was Sumiko Kono. Following the attack the police focused their investigation not on Aum, but on her husband, Yoshiyuki Kono. His crime, it would seem, was to have had large amounts of pesticide at his home. This could not be used to manufacture sarin, but that didn’t stop some parts of the media labelling him ‘The Poison Gas Man’. Kono received hate mail and death threats. It wasn’t until the subway attacks that Kono’s name was cleared and the police began to hone in on Aum. The media publicly apologised to Kono, who later, rather admirably used his experience to draw attention to the suffering that can be caused when innocent people are wrongfully accused, shunned and humiliated. What must it be like to lose a loved one in the most terrible of circumstances, and be falsely labelled by a nation as the perpetrator?

Kainaka told the Yomiuri Shimbun that he thought the investigative authorities had been too slow in collecting information about Aum and said that there had been a chance to find out more some five years before the subway attacks. At that time, a man by the name of Kazuaki Okazaki was facing a possible death penalty for his role in the murder of an anti-Aum lawyer, Tsutsumi Sakamoto. He had already sent anonymous letters to the police telling them where they could find the body of the murdered lawyer’s baby son and reportedly offered to confess to everything he knew about the case in return for having his sentence commuted. Japan, however, has no system for plea bargaining and hence the information was not forthcoming. In October 1998, Okazaki was sentenced to death by hanging. Whether the information he had would have led to the arrest of Asahara and prevented the sarin attacks in Matsumoto and Tokyo, we can only speculate, but the chance didn’t materialize and the world saw what happened.

When the Aum premises were raided, it wasn’t just chemicals, arms and money that were found. There were people, too, and we began to learn a bit more about just what sorts of things were going on in that compound while the residents around Mount Fuji went about their daily business. The police found cult members lying on blankets in small cubicles. The members were malnourished and said they were fasting voluntarily. Seven cult members were hospitalized and one showed signs of sarin poisoning while another told police that he was forced to drink water with white powder and get injections. He exhibited signs of memory loss, severe stiffness of muscles and  could only close his hand with great difficulty.

Over time, more details of life, and indeed death, in the compound began to surface. In a religious ritual in 1988 one cult member drowned at the Mount Fuji headquarters. His body was burned and abandoned at nearby Lake Shoji. Later a twenty-one-year-old member, Shuji Taguchi, made it clear that he wanted to leave the cult. Asahara ordered his killing in early February, 1989. Police also suspect that many other members died at the compound, including up to ten people who died during initiation rituals involving LSD and other drugs. Others are thought to have died during the alarming practice of ‘thermotherapy’ in which followers were ‘purified’ in baths of scalding water.

One former member, Hidetoshi Takahashi, told Time magazine that he and 50 other followers had gathered in a room with Asahara and, after drinking something sweet from a wine goblet, were divided into separate meditation cells. He said that within five minutes he was tripping, probably on LSD. ‘That’s not too bad,’ you might think if you are a bit of an old hippy type, but his description gets worse. ‘I heard people screaming and kicking the walls and door,’ he said, before adding that when he was let out some 12 hours later, it was like a scene in a mental hospital. ‘I saw several unconscious people who had actually bitten into their wrists and were covered with blood,’ he said. Takahashi also claimed to have been given a dose of thermotherapy.

Scary stuff, then, and although it took police until 16th May, 1995 to raid the Aum premises and get the main man, they did at least get him and he is currently on death row. When they found him, he was hiding in a box concealed behind a wall in a warehouse building. Apparently, he had a cassette player, some medicine and a large amount of cash. He was also reportedly dressed on pink pyjamas, so it certainly didn’t look like he was about to try to take that cash and go on the run incognito. A big, fat, beardy fellow in pink pyjamas would stand out somewhat in the land of the salaryman. He seemed to confirm that he had no such plans, for when the police asked him what he was doing, he said, ‘I’ve been here for two days, meditating and recuperating.’ I wonder if he knew he was wearing pink pyjamas. He was blind, and I rather hope it was a little joke played by some of his more mischievous followers. ‘Oh, yes, master,’ I picture them saying as they dress him and share childish smirks, ‘you look absolutely splendid in these pure white robes you requested. Very white and godly indeed!’

Asahara may not have been planning on running off, but other senior members of the cult proved to be more elusive. Three managed to stay on the run for seventeen years, evading capture until 2012. And even then, the first to be caught had simply got fed up and turned himself in. That was on New Year’s Eve, 2011. The fugitive was Makoto Hirata, wanted in connection with kidnapping the brother of a follower who wanted to quit the cult and holding him at the Mount Fuji compound. They anaesthetized the victim and he subsequently died of a drug overdose. They burned his body in an incinerator on the compound.

Hirata had been on the run since the summer of 1995, but on 31st December, 2011 he strolled into a police station and attempted to give himself up. It wasn’t as simple as it should have been. Despite the fact that his face had been on wanted posters at almost every police box in the country for the last sixteen and a half years, the police officer on duty failed to believe that it was really Hirata. Either that or he just thought, ‘I really can’t be doing with the hassle of this on New Year’s Eve!’ Anyway, he sent him away. Yes, one of the most wanted men in the land walked in and said, ‘Here I am. Arrest me,’ and the policeman basically told him to leave. Well, the officer did actually suggest he go to a smaller police station a few hundred metres away, but he didn’t accompany Hirata or make sure that he did in fact go. Hirata could easily have just thought, ‘Well, I’ve done my bit, I’ve given them their chance, but now I’m off on the run again.’ Thankfully he didn’t, but what makes the original police officer’s reaction all the more remarkable is the fact that apart from having grown his hair a bit Hirata didn’t look too dissimilar from his wanted picture.

The last two remaining fugitives, Naoko Kikuchi and Katsuya Takahashi, both of whom were wanted in relation to the sarin subway attacks, were apprehended on different occasions in June 2012. Both, it would seem, had been living relatively normal lives in the Tokyo area. The arrest of Kikuchi following a tip-off from a local resident put police on the trail of Takahashi who was arrested in a manga café two weeks later. But again, the police were reportedly quite slack. They had been informed of a sighting of a man who looked like Takahashi at a manga café two days earlier. There, a staff member said that, yes, a man who looked like that was indeed here. In fact, he was here right now. According to news reports, that staff member had to urge the officers to go and have a close look at the customer and only after a bit of insistence did they do so. Why this should have been so, I have no idea, but it was a good job they did. They spoke to the man as he was leaving and he confessed that he was indeed Takahashi.

Now, you would think that with all we now know about Aum – the murders, the terrorism, the mind control, the pink pyjamas – and with the fact that the supreme master is on death row, and with the fact that their premises at Mount Fuji were bulldozed to the ground, and with the fact that on 30th January, 1996 a Tokyo District Court winding-up order of Aum as religious incorporation was confirmed as definitive, that Aum would have been dead and buried. But it isn’t. In fact, although Aum is deemed a terrorist organization in the U.S. it isn’t even outlawed in Japan. In January 1997, the government’s Public Security Commission decided not to outlaw the sect, saying there wasn’t enough reason to believe it was still a threat, what with its membership by then only at around 1,000 or so. In an article in The Guardian in July 1999, Andrew Marshall the co-author of The Cult at the End of the World: The Incredible Story of Aum wrote about how Aum was operating in Sanwa, a town in the north-east of Tokyo. The premises were a white warehouse with blacked-out windows. Neighbours worried about the building which had pipes coming out of the side. Aum said it was a printing plant, but local residents remembered that they had lied about the premises with lots of pipes by Mount Fuji. One local man noticed that the members had deathly-white faces and lobster-red feet leading him to believe that Aum had revived thermotherapy.

So Aum continued to exist even after the 1995 sarin attacks, but in January 2000 it changed its name to Aleph. Years later, some cultists split and formed a separate group called Hikari No Wa. Both continue to exist and as recently as 25th June, 2012, the Mainichi Shimbun ran a report about how Aleph was recruiting new members on university campuses. The article stated that students who joined the club were at first invited to barbecues and other ordinary and pleasant events. Later they would be invited to take part in meditation and yoga lessons and be introduced to someone outside their school, someone who was called ‘Master’.

That all sounds a bit iffy, especially if the Master was clad in pink pyjamas, but Taro Takimoto, a lawyer, suggested in a report in 2008 that Hikari No Wa was, in fact, the scarier of the two main Aum offshoots. He reported that the leader of Hikari No Wa, Fumihiro Joyu, had been announcing the group’s intention to pay $100,000 to $200,000 per year in compensation to victims of Aum and that he had denounced Asahara, and would not use any of his past preachings, but then Takimito added that he believed that these activities were mere camouflage to hide the group’s true nature. ‘While Aleph is “a childish extremist,”’ he wrote, ‘Hikari No Wa is “a sophisticated extremist.” The exact religious hierarchy of Aum Shinrikyo is reflected on the organization of Hikari No Wa.’ We can only hope he is mistaken.

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