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True crime. Casually done.

Aum Shinrikyo: Japan’s Strange Terrorist Cult

Written by Chris Lake

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-43395483

INTRO

There was once a man called Harry Mason, a geologist from Western Australia. Mason was an interesting man, whose main claim to fame was that he believed a Japanese cult called Aum Shinrikyo [om shin-ri-kyo] had been conducting nuclear tests at Banjawarn [BAN-ja-warn] Station, a massive property about 1,000km northeast of Perth. His theory was that Aum was working in collusion with the US, Australian, and/or Japanese governments, for reasons never made fully clear. He suggested this cult had also been developing seismic weapons – that evergreen trope of the conspiracy nut universe – and even travelled to the Tesla Archive to find evidence of this. For anyone who knows anything about nuclear weapons testing and development, these claims are ludicrous. For a lot of other people, though, it’s eminently plausible, and there are a great many of these folks who will painstakingly explain why, before moving on to deliver highly detailed explanations of just exactly how a seven-foot reptilian can look like Pope Francis, as I found out to my cost.

The thing is, as whacky as Mason’s theories are, there’s something about Aum which stops you from immediately dismissing them. Mason’s claims made it all the way to the US Senate’s Permanent Standing Committee for Investigations, and the BBC were so convinced they created a documentary feature on them. Anyone who likes lazy journalism and terrible special effects will very much enjoy it. But thanks to Harry Mason, as well as the high profile of the case, there’s quite a lot of garbage in the ether, which is a shame, as the true story is incredible. To get at the truth, I’ve relied heavily on the transcripts of the US Senate Committee hearings, the NHK news archive, and the sterling research of RAND, CFR, and CNAS, as well as double checking the chemical warfare information with an old colleague of mine who’s a chemical engineer for Australian Special Forces. This is in addition to eyewitness testimony and primary accounts from interviews with the jailed Aum senior leadership group. But even though there’s going to be a shortage of insane conspiracy theories, the actual criminal conspiracy was literally insane, so we can confidently promise a wild ride, nevertheless.

ARMAGEDDON WILL BE INDEFINITELY POSTPONED

The 20th of March 1995 is a picture-perfect Tokyo Spring day. Sakahara Atsushi[1], a bright young advertising executive, is heading to the subway to catch his train to work. He gets into the lead carriage and sees an old man sitting next to an empty seat, and the old man looks a bit peaky. He also sees a clear liquid leaking out onto the floor of the train from a newspaper wrapped plastic bag, which seems to have been ruptured. Sakahara San moves to take the seat next to the old man, but as he steps toward the fluid, he notices the other passengers glaring at him disapprovingly. The train gets underway, and he decides to move to the next carriage instead. He isn’t feeling very good – for some reason his eyes are sore and irritated and there’s a strange smell in the air. When he gets to the next carriage, he looks back and sees the old man’s having a seizure. When the train stops at the next station, kind people take the old man out onto the platform and Sakahara San, disturbed by what he’s seen, decides to get off and catch a cab. He’s still not feeling great and tries to perk himself up by heading to the gym. It doesn’t work. As he hits the showers, there seems to be some sort of power outage as the room keeps getting darker. Once he’s outside, though, it becomes clear that unless the sun’s also suffering a power outage, the problem’s with his eyes. This is confirmed when his work colleagues react in shock to the livid redness of those very same eyes and urge him to go to hospital.

The nearest hospital is St Luke’s, and Sakahara San is stunned by what he sees there. “It was like a war hospital,” he told BBC Witness History. Violently ill people sprawl everywhere, some bleeding from the eyes and nose, some having seizures, and many unconscious. He’s admitted, but it’s some time before the hospital knows what to treat him for. It’s not until their colleagues in Matsumoto, a few hours away, tell them about a mysterious attack which killed seven people in June the previous year, that they realise that all these people are victims of a Sarin attack and needed to be decontaminated and injected with Atropine [AT-tro-peen]. The total death toll was thirteen, including the old man Sakahara San had seen on the train that morning. More than five thousand people were injured, with many suffering lingering or permanent after effects. Before long, Japanese police began connecting these dots as well, and began belatedly rounding up members of a religious organisation turned cult known as Aum Shinrikyo, who’d been building chemical plants and publishing hymns about Sarin gas as a vehicle for Armageddon. As for Sakahara San, he was unfit to return to work for many months afterwards, and was wracked with survivor’s guilt, rage, and PTSD. But he was one of the lucky ones. Eventually, his survivor’s guilt prompted him to quit his advertising job in pursuit of something more meaningful – as he said himself, the fact of his survival made him feel pressured to do something more worthwhile with his life. He spent five years studying filmmaking in the US before returning to Japan to watch the sentencing of Asahara Shoko, the leader of the cult which had changed his life forever in pursuit of some crazy misinterpretation of the Book of Revelation. As we said, though, Sakahara Atsushi was one of the lucky ones – he’s a successful filmmaker and has even made a documentary about the current leader of the remnants of Aum Shinrikyo, now called Aleph. But there are dozens of others who didn’t survive their brush with the cult and its pursuit of Armageddon.

https://flic.kr/p/4CF7uK

Aum’s theology was a weird grab bag of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and even WWII era Nazism. As one cult member put it, they believed in whatever their leader, Asahara Shoko, happened to be thinking at the time. He would pick up bits of science fiction, ancient theology, and New Age ‘woo woo’ pretty much at random, and then synthesise it into an overarching belief system which was part apocalyptic Gnosticism[2] [NOS-ti-sism], part Alexandrian self-deification, and all confused and paranoid lunacy. What he most consistently believed, however, was that Armageddon would take the form of an apocalyptic war between Japan and the USA, and that Aum’s people would oversee the reconstruction. And like many prophets of the apocalypse, the world’s irritating failure to end meant that they’d have to help Armageddon along a bit, which was one of the motives for the subway attack. But who, I hear you asking, are these people, and how on earth did they become not only able, but willing to launch a WMD attack on one of the world’s most densely populated cities? Well, that’s not a simple answer, and it’s a question which isn’t typically dealt with very well in other reporting on Aum. Many people just seem satisfied with an explanation along the lines of ‘crazy cult gonna do crazy’, but cults are made of people who were once reasonable, and actions don’t exist in isolation, but are the culmination of history. As Law Professor Masaaki Fukuda says, the tendency has been to render Aum in two dimensions, as a uniformly scary and murderous death cult, but this picture isn’t entirely accurate.

IN THE BEGINNING

Not much is definitively known about Asahara Shoko’s early life, but information we do have speaks to grinding poverty and spiritual crisis. Born In 1955 as Matsumoto Chizuo, he was the fourth of seven children of an impoverished family in rural Japan. Afflicted with congenital glaucoma, Chizuo was blind in one eye and severely impaired in the other. His eldest brother had been born sightless and had been sent to a boarding school for the blind. In 1961, Chizuo went there as well. His father was a tatami[3] maker, whose other children joined him in the trade. They lived at subsistence level, grinding out a precarious existence and understandably not that able to care for a couple of disabled children. There’s also the fact that for many Japanese, especially at the time, physical disability in a child was seen as a karmic punishment, and it’s possible that Chizuo’s parents weren’t particularly attached to him or his older brother. After leaving for boarding school, Chizuo never lived with his family again. There are conflicting reports about Chizuo’s conduct in school. Some accounts describe him as popular and charismatic, and others as a bully, prone to violence and extortion. It’s likely that both accounts are true. It seems Chizuo used his magnetic personality, as well as the advantages which came with being partially sighted, to build a following for himself among his fellow students, and that he also turned to abusing this influence quite early on. He graduated around 1975 and became an acupuncturist and masseuse, both traditional occupations for the blind in Japan. The next year he was fined 150 USD for the offence of causing bodily injury or harm, which is presumably an occupational hazard when you’re manipulating joints and sticking pins in people. In 1977, he moved to Tokyo to attend a preparatory school for the Tokyo University entrance exam, which he failed. During this time, he met Ishii [ish-ee-ee] Tomiko, a girl four years his junior, whom he married against her parents’ wishes. Now that his dreams of attending university were over, he opened the Matsumoto Acupuncture Clinic, which was by all accounts a successful business.

While he was peddling Chinese remedies to the good people of Chiba prefecture, Chizuo developed an interest in spiritualism and the paranormal. The religious landscape in Japan is quite different to that of the west. Firstly, there’s only a limited Christian influence. Portuguese missionaries in the sixteenth century were wildly successful, and for a brief period Christianity looked like becoming one of Japan’s major religions. Some accidents of history, however, led to the violent suppression of Christians by both Toyotomi [toy-yo-tom-ee] Hideyoshi [hid-ay-yosh-ee] and the Tokugawa [tok-oo-nga-wa] Shogunate, leaving only a few small, scattered groups who, being Catholic, languished without the presence of priests. In a tragic irony, probably the largest community of Christians remaining in the 20th Century was based around Nagasaki, and these poor unfortunates were decimated by some American Christians in 1945. Apart from the Christian subtext of the post war reconstruction, Japan is similar to places like India where there is an unbroken continuity of ancient pagan religion. This leads to a religious landscape which is simultaneously more heavily populated, but generally less fervent or fanatic. This is because the old pagan religions tend to be more focused on ritual practice than on the minutiae of what people should or shouldn’t believe, and they also tend to be more pluralistic, meaning that being part of a religious community in the pagan world doesn’t usually come with a condition of exclusivity. This tends to lower the barriers for entry, and unlike Christians who will rarely even mix across sectarian lines, a fully practising Shintoist can happily attend Buddhist and Hindu rites without any real sense of contradiction. This is borne out by the statistic that in 1995, the number of people registered to religious organisations in Japan exceeded the whole Japanese population by seventy million – a result of many individuals holding multiple memberships. The other side of this coin – where the elder religions don’t tend to be too fussed about what their congregations actually believe – is shown through the highly secular nature of Japanese society. For the most part, Japanese religion is cheerfully worldly and compartmentalised away from daily life. This is a twin impact of the nature of non-Abrahamic religions in general, and the deliberate shift away from the fascist warrior cult which had developed in Japan just before WWII. The point of all this is that Chizuo’s interest in hardcore religion was unusual, but it existed in an environment where religious devotion was not only permitted but encouraged, even though the vast majority of the population would never really consider taking the plunge themselves.

The particular branch of religion Chizuo chose was a relatively new cult called Agonshu [ah-gon-shu]. These folks were hardcore Buddhist fundamentalists who advertised in glossies and on television and encouraged their members to commit to a monastic lifestyle and cut off ties with their friends and families. Additionally, they stressed repeated cash donations as a means of spiritual cleansing and progressing towards enlightenment. For anyone who knows how Aum Shinrikyo worked, this is going to sound very familiar, and it’s probably this model which inspired Aum’s peculiar fee and membership structures. As well as progressing through the Agonshu levels, Chizuo was reading an eclectic mix of Vedic, Buddhist, and New Age texts with a focus on ways to use yoga and meditation to cure illness and acquire powers like levitation and telepathy. It might sound silly or crazy to us, but in the hinterland of many Eastern and Asian cultures there exists a sort of willingness to believe these things might actually be possible. I guess in a similar way to our willingness to think that some of the stuff we see in action movies could be feasible. In any case, Chizuo was chugging along happily, seeking Nirvana by throwing cash at a cult, and having multiple children, when he was prosecuted in 1982 for violating the Drug, Cosmetics, and Medical Instruments Act. He was fined 2,000 USD and briefly imprisoned. Various reporters give a variety of wild reasons for this, but it seems that he was basically not properly licensed to sell pharmaceuticals, and some of the Chinese herbal remedies he was selling weren’t permitted in Japan either. In any event, Chizuo was devastated by the incident – falling foul of the law is a huge stigma in Japan, a country with a 99% conviction rate that’s acknowledged the world over as one of the most law-abiding places on the planet. He ceased operating his business and retreated into intensive yoga practice, as well as pursuing interests in mystical divination, the human potential movement, and the writings of Nostradamus. Basically, he was pursuing seriously as a fully grown man the kind of reading list you’d find in the journal of a fifteen-year-old goth.

In 1984 he decided he wanted a piece of that cult money for himself – some unverified reports say he’d fantasised about running a cult since his days at boarding school. He left Agonshu and started his own yoga school called Aum No Kai, or Aum Incorporated, depending on how you translate the Japanese for ‘club’. The demographics of his early adherents were youth and women who worked in white collar jobs. These latter were attracted because in 1980s Japan, women were largely confined to clerical roles regardless of qualifications or abilities, and this population group was fertile ground for anyone claiming to sell a sense of meaning and significance. By 1985, he was claiming to be a warrior of destiny and making pilgrimages to spiritual sites in India, and Japan. He claimed an old mystic had told him an apocalypse was coming, and that benevolent mountain hermits – shinsen, in Japanese – would safeguard the legacy of humanity. He also claimed to have met the Dalai Lama and been given a special mission, and to have been lauded by traditional Buddhists in Tibet and Nepal. It seems that Aum was presented with a special stupa at some point, purportedly containing the remains of a reincarnation of the Shakyamuni [shuck-yah-moon-ee] Buddha, as a reward for promoting Buddhism, but if this did occur it was well after 1985. There’s also an apocryphal report that the Dalai Lama, questioned by reporters after the 1995 sarin attack, dimly recalled meeting a “strange Japanese man”, but as Buddhism is one of Japan’s major religions, one assumes that he would have met any number of strange Japanese men over the course of his career.

Who he met and where he went isn’t as important as what he was claiming, though, as the evolution of Aum has more to do with Chizuo’s image making than anything else. One of the big problems with mystical stuff is that it’s highly vulnerable to people just making shit up, and it seems there’s an inverse proportion between how ludicrous a claim is, and how likely the claimant’s followers are to believe it. In this early iteration of Aum, for instance, Chizuo was basically setting himself up as Christ the Redeemer mixed with the Essene Jews, Shiva the creator and destroyer, and the Emperor of Japan. And his core of about 35 followers just went with it, partially because they were constantly being told they were a kind of gnostic elite who would inherit the earth after Armageddon, partly because of Chizuo’s charismatic leadership, and probably also because of the sheer amount of time they’d already invested into learning highly advanced yoga techniques and listening to woo woo nonsense. When I was working with a psychological warfare unit, we learned that one of the most powerful types of narrative is the kind that explains the world. The fancy term for this is etiological [EE-tee-oh-logical] mythopoeism [myth-oh-PAY-ism]. One thing I noticed when going through Aum’s tracts and sermons is that almost all of them had this quality and would therefore have been powerfully persuasive to seekers and acolytes alike. And then there’s sunk cost. When I was 17, my family moved to a different suburb, and I had to find a new gungfu school. I initially thought I’d found a very good one. There were about a dozen students, all highly dedicated, and the Sifu [SHEE-foo] was able to teach the secret forms – which was rare in Australia at the time. Before long I was the Si-Heng [see-ONG] or senior student, and happily training away five to seven days a week. Shortly after this, however, Sifu completely and utterly lost his mind. He started to believe he could use qi [chee] energy to revive dead animals or win fights without touching the opponent. He insisted everyone read and follow the teachings of Carlos Castaneda – a notorious New Age fraudster – and the lessons went from practical martial arts instruction to that qigong [chee-GOONG] magical gungfu arse-nonsense which isn’t good for anything other than memes. But so powerful was the sunk cost fallacy that it was six months before I cut ties with the school, and I imagine that most people who encounter cults have a similar experience.

Anyway, by 1987, Chizuo’s message of restoring “original Buddhism”, or making Buddhism great again, as a way to survive Armageddon had grown his little cult from 35 to about 1,300. Like his first teachers at Agonshu, he used modern marketing methods, establishing a publishing house and renaming it Aum Shinrikyo, which means something like “new teachers of the ultimate truth”. He also rebranded himself by changing his name. Matsumoto Chizuo was a very common sounding name, so he legally changed it to the more aristocratic and mystical sounding Asahara Shoko. Asahara had been featured in Japan’s version of The Twilight Zone as well, as he claimed to be able to levitate, and there was a photo of him floating above a mattress in the Lotus position, which for most people was about as convincing as those Halloween photos where someone dressed as a witch jumps in the air holding a broomstick. This b-list fame and Aum’s marketing efforts saw the cult grow its numbers astronomically over the next few years. This was partly because of Aum and Asahara’s tireless efforts, but a few factors in Japanese society and culture at the time were also major contributors. For many Japanese, life is an unremitting succession of commercial, filial, and social duties, with very little time left out of any given day for private leisure. The pressure to succeed is also very real, and minor setbacks and reversals which we in the West would shrug off, can be devastating for Japanese folks who are at all aspirational. Given this, there’s quite a strong market for alternative lifestyles in Japan, from fashion subcultures like Kawai, to religious cults like Aum. And Aum had become quite an impressive operation by 1987. It had a number of communes, called Lotus Villages, where people could renounce materialism, usually represented as US influence, and live as a monk or nun, sheltered from a world which was high pressure, cruel, and demanding. There were structured courses where, just like in Scientology, you could pay your way into enlightenment. And there was a wealth of strangely feelgood apocalyptic writings and preachings, all assuring each practitioner they were specially chosen to fulfil the highest purpose – that of saving and restoring humanity after the collapse of the world. By 1988, Aum had a large commune at Fujinomiya, at the foot of Mount Fuji, and was selling vials of Asahara’s blood and bathwater like some apocalyptic Belle Delphine. Over the next few years, Aum would accumulate up to 40,000 followers in six countries, preaching non-violence and gnostic monasticism, and everything looked like it was coming up roses for our rags to riches cult leader.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PSIA_Aum_Shinrikyo_facility_inspection_01.jpg

FEAR AND LOATHING IN TOKYO

While Aum had been growing in size and profile, many of those first thirty-five members had been promoted to senior leadership positions and were themselves seen by newer members as higher elemental beings sitting under Asahara himself. They were, in fact all at least two levels of enlightenment below him, according to the pay as you go Nirvana system Aum had in place. Asahara’s wife, Ishii Tomiko, initially showed no interest in the cult, refusing when ordered to join and become a faithful adherent. In response, Asahara had her whipped fifty times with a cane and locked in isolation to ‘meditate’ for seven weeks. When she re-emerged, she was unsurprisingly a willing convert, later saying that Asahara had set her on a path of self-improvement she hadn’t been willing to initiate herself. Ishii Tomiko went on to achieve the second highest level of enlightenment in Aum and, along with Asahara’s mistress Ishii Hisako (apparently no relation), formed part of a group of females who were senior leaders in the cult. In some interpretations of Japanese Zen Buddhism, it’s permissible to ‘remove bad karma’ via the use of force. This usually includes things like confinement, deprivation of food or water, or in extreme cases, flogging. So as crazy as Asahara’s actions sound, the torture and false imprisonment of his wife wasn’t really that far beyond the pale in terms of running a religious cult. Where Aum made its first serious venture into criminality was when cult member Majima Terayuki accidentally drowned while performing ritual exercises. Aum at the time was applying for official recognition as a religious organisation. They’d been rejected on their first application and were supporting their second by what was basically a campaign of harassment, with members picketing government officials’ offices and homes and conducting a sort of pre-internet DDOS campaign by spamming the authorities with phone calls. Asahara told his inner circle that disclosure might sink their bid for recognition, then bravely left the decision to them. It was Ishii Tomiko, his wife, who suggested they cover up the death, so they burnt the body at their sacrificial altar, before Ishii Hisako led a small group who ground up the remaining bones and scattered the ashes over a lake. In Japan, interfering with a body is an extremely serious offence, and many researchers pinpoint this moment as the beginning of their slide into violent crime.

Majima San, the man who drowned, had a best friend named Taguchi Shuji who’d not only witnessed the fatal accident, but was aware of the coverup. Understandably, he’d become disillusioned with Aum and signalled his intention to leave. Anxious he might report the incident to police, Asahara tied Taguchi San to a chair and summoned his male senior leaders to consult. He asked them to establish whether Taguchi San really meant to leave and, incredibly, when they went to ask him, he didn’t lie. As a result, Asahara ordered them to kill him. They strangled Taguchi San with a rope and burned the body in much the same way as his friend’s. This division of labour, with the women mostly segregated from more violent actions, would persist throughout the history of Aum. In fact, various security and counter terrorism experts see a strong correlation between the gradual freezing out of the female senior leaders and the increasingly erratic and violent behaviour of Aum’s key members. Some experts say Asahara’s wife and mistress led what might be called a moderate faction, acting as a sort of brake on the self-proclaimed guru’s more extreme flights of fancy, whereas the men in the senior leadership group tended to enable and amplify them. I stress that this is informed speculation at best, but several independent experts have come to the same conclusion, so for what it’s worth, I’ve included it here.

A key moment for Aum was when they were given official status as a religion. Unbelievably, investigators found that Tokyo authorities, despite having serious misgivings about the nature and activities of the cult, simply got tired of being harassed and granted official status to get rid of them. Once recognised, they were practically untouchable. Religions were highly protected at the time, mostly because of American post-war influence, when the Japanese absorbed an exaggerated version of First Amendment protections into their own constitution. As a result, government powers to investigate religions were seriously curtailed, and there was a deep reluctance among Japanese authorities to interfere with religious organisations. Shortly after gaining official status, Asahara decided to run a series of candidates for the Diet [dee-et], Japan’s parliament. He believed Japan’s problems all boiled down to materialism and consumer culture, for which he blamed America, and that only through a restoration of traditional Buddhism could the country be saved. He also believed America would launch a nuclear attack against Japan, kicking off WWIII and Armageddon, and only the spiritually strong and pure Aum practitioners would be saved to rebuild the world. It’s worth noting here that the end of the world isn’t a feature of most eastern religions, so Asahara’s ideas are pretty unusual. The election was a whitewash for Aum – they only got 1,783 votes out of 500,000 cast. This was a doubly humiliating number, as there were significantly more than 1,783 Aum members, and it seems even they didn’t vote for Aum candidates. It seems the monastic focus of Aum worked against them, with many followers highly unwilling to re-engage with society after joining expressly in order to retreat from it.

Another reason for their poor performance was the impact of increased scrutiny. Aum’s party Shinrito (Supreme Truth) fielded 25 candidates including Asahara, and they went on a marketing blitz, holding events and giving performances and interviews. This led to many families coming forward to complain of the cult’s bizarre practices, extortionate behaviour, and breaking up of families. These families organised themselves into the “Aum Shinrikyo Victims’ Society” and hired Sakamoto Tsutsumi [tsoot-soo-mi] as their lawyer. Sakamoto San launched an investigation, and the findings were damning. He aired these on a popular radio show, and the negative publicity proved fatal for Aum’s election hopes. Sakamoto’s goals were quite moderate – he wasn’t the implacable enemy Aum thought him to be. In public, he stated that he simply wanted Aum to be a bit less bizarre and stop some of its more harmful practises. Thinking he might be able to persuade them to do this, he agreed to meet with senior Aum leaders, but the meeting was a complete trainwreck. After this, Asahara marked Sakamoto San down as a key threat, and a handful of Aum members held a meeting to plan his assassination. They toyed with the idea of using botulinum toxin – more on which later – but settled instead on a syringe of potassium chloride – a drug which causes cardiac arrest – and formulated a plan to ambush him on his way home from work. With typical Aum efficiency, the chosen day turned out to be a public holiday, and Sakamoto San stayed home with his wife and one-year-old son. The Aum members decided to ninja their way into the house but botched it so badly they had to beat the whole family to death. They buried the bodies in different prefectures and reported back to Asahara, who congratulated them and assured them the family’s souls would transmigrate to a better world. When police investigated the disappearance of the Sakamoto family, they discovered they hadn’t been robbed, and an Aum Shinrikyo badge was found left at the crime scene. On hearing this, Asahara went to a recently established Aum office in Bonn, Germany, so he wasn’t available to be interviewed by police. The follow-up investigations were frankly pathetic, and the inquiry simply languished. The public, however, had no doubts about who was guilty, and public attacks on Aum sealed their fate in the elections.

This pasting at the ballot box was the turning point for Asahara. He immediately abandoned all attempts to integrate with conventional Japanese society and his sermons turned sharply from preaching Japan’s salvation to being exclusively concerned with the salvation of Aum’s members. In multiple writings, Asahara claimed the US was targeting Japan with a malign influence campaign, drowning Japanese culture in shallow consumerism. Aum was being targeted too, by means of airborne chemical attacks designed to render them compliant – a version of the con-trail conspiracy theory. There was also a weird strain of virulent antisemitism in Asahara’s teachings. He claimed the world was run by a Zionist shadow government, holding them responsible for such events as the Khmer Rouge massacres and the Serbo-Croat war. In a special edition of Aum’s monthly circular, the Vajrayana Sacca [vahj-ree-ahn-ah Sar-ka], Asahara declared war on Jewish people: “On behalf of the earth’s 5.5 billion people, Vajrayana Sacca hereby formally declares war on the ‘world shadow government’ that murders untold numbers of people.” For obvious reasons, Aum couldn’t find any Jewish people to persecute in Japan, but Asahara and his senior leaders created long lists of people he called “Japanese Jews” – the pro-western, wealthy, and cosmopolitan Japanese. The upshot of all this was that Asahara was able to convince his followers it was necessary to take defensive measures. If the US was subjecting Aum to chemical attack, then Aum needed to develop their own CBRN[4] weapons. And if Japan’s government had been captured by the world shadow government, Aum would have to restructure itself in readiness to take over the country for its own good.

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THE SHADOW SHOGUNATE

By 1990, Aum had attracted a core group of young males, many of whom had advanced technical qualifications. One was a virologist, another had been part of the Japanese Space Program, and there were chemists and other scientific specialists among them. Aum began remodelling itself into ‘ministries’. There was an intelligence ministry, mostly made up of members with law enforcement or military backgrounds, a construction ministry headed by an engineer, the health ministry was fronted by the virologist, and they even had a household affairs ministry. This last one was based on an identical department which had functioned under the Meiji emperors and dealt with counterintelligence and security. The cult had a string of computer shops, restaurants, and other businesses all generating tax free revenue, and even owned and ran a hospital. By 1995, Aum was running about two dozen companies, and it’s estimated they had between 40-60,000 members and assets totalling one billion USD. Their antisemitic, anti-American, and anti-government rhetoric wasn’t exactly being broadcast, but it wasn’t exactly secret either. There were plenty of disaffected ex-members and concerned citizens repeatedly flagging Aum’s ideas and activities to Japanese authorities, but their status as an officially recognised religion made them hesitant to act.

During this period, Aum conducted quite a few activities which would grab headlines in the wake of the Tokyo attack. In the end, these weren’t the main game and were farcically inept, but it’s worth listing them to get a sense of just how nuts their ultimate goals were. Their intelligence ministry perpetrated multiple break-ins at the offices of Mitsubishi and other defence contractors to steal documents relating to tanks and laser weapons. There’s no indication these efforts were successful. Senior Aum members began but quickly abandoned projects such as an astral teleporter, a headset designed to broadcast Asahara’s brainwaves, gigantic mirrors solar mirrors, and plasma cannons. These ideas were inspired by Mobile Suit Gundam and other anime, and it’s clear that senior Aum members thought the US had already developed devices of this kind. Aum also tried to raise its own elite army. Their recruiting program in Russia was immensely successful, and the bulk of international members of Aum resided there. This was probably owing to the chaotic nature of post-Soviet Russia, enabling the purchase of millions of dollars’ worth of airtime as well as their own radio station. Aum also made donations to key Russian ministers and were able to buy a Mi-17 [Mig 17] attack helicopter and smuggle it back to Japan, as well as parts and equipment required to manufacture AK-74 assault rifles – the modern version of the AK-47. Large cadres of Aum members were given firearms training, as well as specialist training by ex-SPETZNAZ troops, but it seems that a bunch of mystics who joined a monastic order to retreat from the world aren’t the best material for moulding a crack special forces unit. Aum also set up branch offices in the US and Europe, but these only attracted a handful of members. Possibly most bizarrely, they bought a massive cattle station in Western Australia intending to mine uranium[5] either to make a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb. They had $30,000 in excess baggage when they arrived at Perth airport, including lab equipment and glass carboys of hydrochloric acid labelled ‘hand soap’. Confused authorities fined them 2,400AUD for carrying dangerous goods and confiscated the acid. Aum members stayed at the station for about nine weeks before leaving and were denied a visa when they tried to return. Eventually, the state government forced them to sell the land. Australian security agencies did flag this incident up to US and Japanese counterparts, but with no discernible effect. It was this little excursion that fuelled Harry Mason’s conspiracy theories, many of which still make it into otherwise factual accounts of Aum Shinrikyo.

Really the main event with Aum was its chemical weapons program, but it’s also worth looking briefly at their attempts to make bioweapons. The two key members here are Endo Seiichi [say-ee-chee] and Murai Hideo [moo-rye hid-ay-oh], in charge of the biological and chemical weapons programs respectively. During the meeting to plan Sakamoto San’s murder, Asahara had asked what the most potent toxin was. Murai said it was botulinum – the same pathogen used in Botox and which, in slightly larger doses, shuts down the nervous system. Since they didn’t have any, Sakamoto San was killed by other means, but this sparked the notion of making some themselves. In the spring of 1990, Endo went to a place in Hokkaido Prefecture to harvest C. Botulinum from the soil. Aum ran a hospital, and could have easily bought some cultures openly, but paranoia prevented them from doing this. Endo then began a long and fruitless project to manufacture first botulinum, and then anthrax. They made huge amounts of what’s called ‘medium’, the fermented substance which carries the bacteria. Starting with square fermenters, they made batches which weren’t potent, probably because square objects are harder to decontaminate. They then moved on to barrel-shaped designs – a logical innovation – but this also failed. These efforts were significantly hampered by the constant lawsuits Aum’s sizeable landholdings and extortionate practices were exposing them to – only key members could be trusted with anything sensitive, and there simply weren’t enough of them to deal with lawsuits and engineer bioweapons at the same time. There was also the fact that they were strict Buddhists, and therefore prohibited themselves from testing their weapons on animals. Killing people was fine, but animal testing was apparently a bridge too far. This meant they never knew, until an actual attack was conducted, whether their bioweapons were potent. Despite buying multiple complex facilities and producing thousands of litres of medium, no single viable bioweapon was ever produced. Between March and July of 1990, Aum conducted around 30 separate botulinum attacks, including on two USN bases, the Japanese Diet, the crown prince’s wedding, and a major airport, none of which were even noticed as they failed utterly.

In October, three Aum members were arrested on unrelated charges and the whole program was shut down and disassembled in a fit of paranoia. It was started again a couple of years later, this time to produce anthrax. It seems that the strain of anthrax they used for seed was stolen from a university lab. There are two types of anthrax culture used for the making of anthrax vaccines – each of these contains one of the two plasmids needed for weaponizable product. Only the first kind of culture was obtained, with Endo assuring everyone he could somehow replicate the second – this attempt failed as well, possibly because Endo was a virologist not a bacteriologist. Once again, they only discovered their anthrax didn’t work when they used it in a series of attacks, one random spraying of about twenty tonnes in the immediate vicinity of one of their factories, one targeted attack on a rival cult, and twenty separate attempts to disperse it from modified trucks in and around Tokyo. The factory release resulted in residents reporting foul smells – a sign that the medium had been contaminated – and in another fit of paranoia, they shut it all down again. The fact that Endo was quite senior in the hierarchy meant that even with his unbroken record of failure, the bioweapons program was consistently prioritised. If this hadn’t been the case, it’s possible the far more successful chemical weapons project, run by Murai, might have got further than it did.

Murai’s chemical program was initially focused on drugs. One of Murai’s chief assistants was a skilled chemist named Tsuchiya [tsoo-chee-ya] Masami, who worked for Endo and Murai alternately. Tsuchiya began initially produced drugs in a small lab at Aum HQ. Some of these were sold through Yakuza contacts, who were also helping Aum manage its property portfolio, but the quality doesn’t seem to have been very good, with one police informant describing Aum’s drugs as ‘garbage’. Aum was mostly producing LSD and methamphetamine, the amphetamines for sale and the LSD for brainwashing recalcitrant members as well as for recreational and ritual use. After returning from a trip to Russia, Murai told Tsuchiya that Aum was under threat of chemical attack – it’s unclear why. He told Tsuchiya to research chemical weapons and find the best ones, so he dutifully went off to the university library and came back with the answer that Sarin was probably the most cost-effective. Murai then told him to make some for analysis – so that the cult could defend itself against an attack – and Tsuchiya made about 15 grams, sourcing the precursors and equipment on the open market, as he didn’t think he was doing anything illegal. Once Murai found that sarin could be made, he ordered him to make 70 tonnes.

Tsuchiya balked at this – he was a research scientist, not a manufacturer, and didn’t know how to scale for mass production. Murai assured him of a blank cheque and told him to get cracking. Aum promptly built a facility called Satyan 7 – they called all their facilities Satyans, the term deriving from a Sanskrit word for ‘truth’. Satyan 7 was a large, sophisticated chemical manufactory, fully decked out and suspiciously similar in layout to Russian-built chemical weapons facilities. The estimated cost of Satyan 7 was about thirty million USD. While it was being built, Murai ordered Tsuchiya to make 1kg of Sarin. He was able to create a total of 3kg with a purity of 90%. Tsuchiya claims he doesn’t know what it was used for, but it’s clear it was used in two failed attacks on the leader of a rival religious organisation. The first was hand delivered and ineffectual. On the second try, they decided to use a truck to disperse the chemical. Sarin is not a gas, regardless of how many times the media calls it that. It’s a clear liquid, colourless and odourless when properly made, which has a boiling point of about 140C and very low evaporation point. Converting it into a gas can be done, but it’s much more effective as a vapour, so atomisers tend to be used. In their first truck-borne attack, Murai devised a sort of butane-fired brazier sitting in the trailer. His subordinates warned him the truck would catch fire, but he ignored them. On the day of the attack, the truck caught fire, and the driver had to be injected with atropine to save his life. This incident finally persuaded Aum to focus on chemical weapons, and large-scale production of Sarin and other nerve agents became their top priority.

CHEMICAL HEART

With Satyan 7 in full swing, Aum began producing VX and Sarin in large quantities, as well as small amounts of tabun. Without going into too much chemistry detail, these three nerve agents are in the same ‘family’, produced with similar organophosphate chemistry first developed by the Nazis in WWII. VX was the agent used to assassinate Kim Jong Un’s brother, Kim Jong Nam, and has similar effects. Between 1992 and 1995, multiple attacks were conducted by Aum. Some of these were individualised, being phosgene gas, sarin, and VX attacks on defecting members, anti-Aum activists and journalists, and religious rivals. As far as anyone can make out, there were about seven of these chemical attacks, four of which were either wholly or partially successful. What’s incredible about all this is that they kept getting away with it. Their target profile, the fact they’d openly purchased precursors, the fact they had several large, sophisticated chemical manufactories, Asahara’s near constant preaching about chemical warfare and actual hymns about sarin – all of this should have made it abundantly clear to police that Aum was behind these crimes. Police were hampered, though, by the law, and by an institutional unwillingness to interfere with religions. I suspect another factor was the generally compliant nature of Japanese society – Japan has some of the lowest crime rates in the world, and it seems the police just weren’t equipped to deal with criminality on this scale. In any event, Aum went on merrily settling scores and fulfilling boyish supervillain fantasies until June 27, 1994. Around this time, Aum had been involved in commercial litigation and Asahara, assessing the judges in the case would find against them, ordered their killings. These judges all happened to live in a swanky neighbourhood in Matsumoto, near Nagano, so the core Aum members got to work.

Having learnt their lesson from setting their truck on fire in the first attack, engineers got to work designing a sophisticated fan driven vaporiser to be installed in the back of a new modified truck. In the early evening they parked 37 metres west of the judge’s residences and fired her up. Initially, the vapour was released into the truck itself. After some frantic adjustments, they were able to get it to disperse outside, but a slight breeze pushed the vapor cloud off target and into neighbouring apartment complexes. Eight innocent people were killed, and 200 injured. After about ten minutes, the Aum squad aborted and went home. Police swarmed the neighbourhood and began an intensive investigation, directed in exactly the wrong direction. They found traces of herbicides in the home of one of the victims – who happened to be a chemical salesman – and concluded he’d conducted the attack either as revenge for a neighbourhood dispute, or some obscure insurance scam. Despite all the multiple indications over several years that Aum might be conducting chemical attacks, police completely ignored the cult, as well as eyewitness reports of a random truck spewing out particulate nearby. The very next month – while the police investigation was ongoing and the chemical salesman’s life was being ruined – Aum had an accidental release of impure sarin from its Mt Fuji compound, causing neighbours to complain of a foul odour. This was the same impurity – a coppery brown by-product of manufacture – which caused the odours at the Tokyo subway attack. Later that year, a more serious accidental release occurred at Satyan 7, and Asahara ordered all weapons programs shut down. Satyan 7 itself was covered in plastic sheeting and decorated like a temple in a pathetic attempt to disguise its function. Despite the clean-up taking three months, and police investigating the spills finding MPA, a chemical associated with sarin breakdown, and IMPA, associated with sarin production, in the soil around Satyan 7, no action was taken. On the one hand, they somehow couldn’t connect this evidence of sarin production with the multiple chemical attacks and strong indications of Aum involvement. And given they couldn’t link the production to a specific assault or murder, they couldn’t prosecute as there was no law in Japan against producing poisonous chemicals – they’d simply never needed one in the past.

The police weren’t completely idle, however. One of Aum’s more routine activities was the kidnapping and intimidation of critics – it’s a good indication of how nuts their activities were that multiple abductions fall into a side category. Anyway, they’d finally managed to get some fingerprint evidence linking an Aum member to one of these kidnappings and were planning to raid Aum’s facilities on 22 March 1995. Aum sympathisers in the police force warned them of the raid, so Asahara and his brains trust started planning a sarin attack on the Tokyo subway, focusing on trains converging at Kasumigaseki station, right near the metropolitan police headquarters. The twin goals of this attack were to distract the police from the raid and to trigger Armageddon and facilitate Aum’s seizure of state control. Since the two accidental spills, all Aum members had been banned from chemical and biological weapons production, so Tsuchiya was busy producing mescaline at the time. He received orders to quickly make more sarin and was given some precursor that’d been hidden for a rainy day. Tsuchiya got to work, but found he lacked the appropriate organic precursor and substituted a brown liquid known as DEA, which caused the ordinarily colourless sarin to have a distinctive brown colour, as well as an odour. Some reports state that Tsuchiya had invented a new, supercharged sarin production method, but this simply isn’t true – it was a substitution method which produced a product of lower purity and efficacy (about 35% pure). Five Aum members with 11 polythene bags of sarin wrapped in newspaper boarded trains, hid the packages somewhere in the carriages and pierced them with umbrella tips. Eight of these bags were successfully punctured – another three were found intact. Overall, the Tokyo subway incident killed 13 people and injured 6,252, many of these permanently.

WRAP-UP

The Tokyo subway attack left a scar on the Japanese psyche which persists to this day – it was a hugely traumatic event which brought about multiple changes in the law and also in Japanese attitudes to religion. Aum was used as one of reasons for re-militarising Japan, and authorities to this day will refuse basic state services to Aum members, most of whom had no idea of what was going on. Just before the subway attack, Asahara had organised a firebombing of an Aum facility – a sort of Reichstag fire to garner public sympathy – but this didn’t work. If anything, it hastened his demise, as it was one of the key incidents which led the police to their door. About a month after the subway attack, Aum tried again, this time with Zyklon B – cyanide gas – but the attempt was abandoned before the dispersers were properly set up. The police finally sprang into action, and by September of 95 had conducted 500 raids on 300 locations, logging 66,000 items of evidence and arresting 398 Aum members. Ten days after the attack, an Aum assassin shot the police commissioner multiple times, seriously wounding him, before escaping on a bicycle. With typical Aum incompetence, he used a colt .38 revolver at 60 yards – outside the maximum effective range. But with equally typical Aum luck, the attack was still partially successful. One month after the attack, Murai Hideo was stabbed to death by Jo [yo] Hirayuki, a yakuza member who later committed suicide in prison. On May 5th, Aum tried Zyklon B again, this time in Shinjuku station, with a simple binary dispersal method which was thankfully interrupted by a member of the public. On the day Asahara was arrested, May 16, Aum mailed a letter bomb to the governor of Tokyo which blew the fingers off his secretary’s left hand. Another Zyklon B attempt on the fourth of July also failed, this time because the devices were shoddily made and didn’t work. When Asahara was finally brought to trial, he used every trick in the book. He pled incompetence, mobilised his publicists and the media, sacked his lawyer the day before the trial – all to no avail, however. He was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging, as were several his key associates. Asahara Shoko was hanged on July 6, 2018. Seven other members, including Endo the bioweapons guy, and Tsuchiya the chemist, were also executed that week.

DISMEMBERED APPENDICES

  1. There are quite a few key players in this drama – Niimi the strangler, Nakagawa, Hayakawa the bodyguard, and many others. I haven’t named them throughout for a few reasons – firstly because Asahara was the prime mover, secondly because they’re not as important as the victims, and thirdly to avoid confusion and the need for human network charts and diagrams.
  2. Aum Shinrikyo broke into several different groups after the subway attack. The biggest is called Aleph, which seems to spend most of its time distancing itself from Asahara Shoko’s ideas and actions. When I reached out to them, I got a form letter saying they had nothing to do with any sarin, and asking if I wanted some meditation videos.
  3. Ishii Hisako – Asahara’s mistress – was released from prison in 2000 and renounced all connection with Aum. She had been jailed for ‘damaging a corpse’, as well as providing cash and a vehicle to Aum members the day after the attack.
  4. In the immediate wake of the attacks, Fumihiro Joyu [jaw-you], Aum’s PR head, became the de facto leader. He argued strenuously for Aum’s innocence, and weirdly became something of a teen heart throb for a while. He was jailed for three years for inciting perjury, before breaking away to form his own Aum splinter group, Hikari No Wa (Ring Of Light).
  5. Just after the 1995 Subway attack, Japan’s domestic intelligence agency turned a lady called Kitagawa, who had joined Aum after the attack. She apparently sold information to the Agency for some years before defecting to North Korea. She claimed that the intelligence agent who was her handler had forced her to have sex with him on more than 20 occasions, which was a big part of her reason for defecting. As for choosing North Korea, friends said she’d always been fascinated with the regime and had a lifelong dream of living there.
  6. In the early 2000s, leaders of Aum finally acknowledged Asahara and the cult’s guilt. They issued formal apologies and set up compensation and counselling funds for victims and their families. Because of the use of sarin, the attack attracted intense scrutiny from a whole range of security, intelligence, and law enforcement investigators all over the world. It’s their unanimous opinion that the vast bulk of Aum Shinrikyo members had no idea what their chiefs were up to.

[1] All Japanese names have been written with the surname first, according to the Japanese convention.

[2] Gnosticism is a term covering a group of early Christian sects who believed that the material world is evil and made by the devil or a lesser god, and that a select few humans have an innate divine spark which will allow them to transcend the material plane. This divine potential is activated by sharing ‘secret knowledge’, usually knowledge of God. Many cults nowadays have a gnostic bent, possibly because it’s such a useful idea for separating people from their families, funds, and objective reality.

[3] Woven floor mat made of soft rushes and either hemp or cotton.

[4] Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear

[5] Mining uranium is a highly technical process, and it’s abundantly clear they had absolutely no idea how to do it. The best they could have done was a dirty bomb, and looking over their plans and preparations, and taking into consideration the worldwide panic about stray nuclear material at the time, it’s pretty unlikely they could have managed even that.

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