by Willy Wegner, translated by Claus Larsen
The leading scientists in the inner circle of the Aum movement were Hideo Murai and Seiichi Endo. They were the ones who built the chemical laboratory of Aum, and later produced the sarin used in the attacks.
Murai was an astrophysicist and is described as a quiet man with a friendly look – apparently incapable of killing a fly. His intelligence is highly praised. His way to Aum had been by way of a pamphlet he read at a public library. Endo had studied at the prestigious University of Kyoto, and had a Ph.D. in molecular biology.
Other highly educated were also attracted to Aum, one of them Masami Tsuchiya, who had studied organic chemistry, and Fumihiro Joyo, who had a degree from the University of Waseda in telecommunications. Aum’s top leadership consisted primarily of academics.
One of the first inventions by the Aum movement was a special headgear. What looked like a bandage with electrodes which reportedly sent energy impulses synchronized with Asahara’s own brain waves. This way, the disciples could always be in “contact” with their guru. This headgear was produced in great numbers, and were given free to the inner circle of Aum. The contraption, invented by Hideo Murai, also became an important source of income: Ordinary members could rent one for a couple of thousand dollars a month, but could also buy it for about 10 times the monthly rent.
Later, an astral teleporter followed. This device was connected to Asahara’s prayer mat, and was naturally only for those who could get close to Asahara. The device could pick up the vibrations from Asahara’s mantra when he was meditating, and send them to the disciples. That way, they could cleanse their astral dimensions through the Master’s mantric vibrations.
Both the headgear and the teleporter can be described as a kind of electronic voodoo.
The scientific elite of Aum also came up with other peculiar things. It was claimed that Asahara’s blood contained a special kind of energy or force. By extracting DNA from Asahara’s blood and inject it into the disciples who were willing to buy it, this special energy could be transferred. This was merely a variant of the earlier, more primitive blood initiation, where a disciple drank water mixed with a bit of blood from the Master. The recipient would achieve an even higher level of illumination and possess fantastic supernatural powers – and ease his bank account of a couple of thousand dollars.
Earlier in the cult’s history, the cash cows had been somewhat more primitive, but no less bizarre. E.g., a disciple could buy a pint of Asahara’s used bathwater for a couple of hundred dollars, or a few snips of the Master’s hair or beard, which was boiled in water and drunk as tea, at a price of yet another couple of hundred dollars. Finally, ordinary tap water would be blessed by Asahara, and served in water tanks for his disciples to imbibe.
All these inventions were intended for the cult’s own disciples, and was a kind of high tech addition to the yoga and meditation exercises intended to develop the supernatural powers and the final illumination and insight the great Master Asahara had achieved himself. Of course, these also constituted one of Aum’s many sources of income.
Other sources were fees for joining the movement, and classes. If a disciple hoped to be initiated as a nun or a monk, it was obvious that it should be done to perfection. That meant giving up all contact to friends and family, handed over all earthly possessions to Aum and taking an oath that Aum would control all aspects of the disciple’s life.
Later, when the inner circle and Asahara in particular began seeing the surrounding world as a threat, the ingenuity began to drift toward more destructive things.
Hideo Murai and Seiichi Endo became pivotal forces during this time. No more would small inventions be made, now the focus was on weapons of destruction. Different options were investigated, and they finally decided to use chemical weapons. It was believed that the necessary knowledge was already available within the cult itself to produce these types of weapons at Aum’s own laboratories.
The first attempt was clostridium botulinum, which produces the neurotoxin botulin, responsible for botulism. The neurotoxin results in muscular paralysis and possible death.
Despite the frequency of the bacteria, botulism itself is very rare. This is due to the special growth conditions needed for the bacteria to produce toxins. It can only grow anaerobic (without air), when the temperature is above freezing point and away from very salty or sour food. The toxin is odorless and tasteless, but is destroyed if heated to boiling point.
In the “right” form, it is a highly dangerous toxin, where one part per million is lethal. First, the cult tried the toxin on rats, but nothing happened. Then, they tried by injection, but again, nothing happened. Murai, Endo and Asahara in particular were disappointed.
Usually, it takes 18-36 hours or longer before the first symptoms of botulism appear. Botulism usually starts with queasiness, vomiting and diarrhea. Later, eyesight will be impaired, muscles will be weak, after which a gradual paralysis of the body start, unless medical assistance is given. If the correct diagnosis is made, botulism can be given an antidote. In some cases, it takes the patient up to 6 months to recover.
Endo was told to continue the experiments, and when it finally looked as if it was working, Asahara was eager to try out the new weapon. A plan was concocted to drive a specially equipped van would drive in the neighborhood of the Japanese parliament, spreading the toxin. Asahara and about a thousand of his followers would stay in Okinawa, far from the Japanese mainland. The plan was, very simply, to return as the country’s new leader. That way, Asahara would fulfill his political ambitions and provide the revenge over the political power elite Asahara needed.
The poison was spread, but had the same effect as on the first test animals. The cult had also lost millions in relocating most of the members in temporary exile on Okinawa.
Aum also tried to spread the toxin before the empirial prince wedding, again by means of cars driving around central Tokyo. Again, nothing happened, and the prince got his princess without the expected epidemic. Logically, the solution was not botulism, as it is too difficult to cultivate that type of bacteria, and to spread it through the air.
The inner circle was disappointed, but nobody gave up. The goal was still clear, and Aum’s science group had to start again, finding the perfect chemical weapon. Other models were discussed in the inner circle. E.g., Hideo Murai was given the task of investigating the possibilities of high tech weapons, such as microwaves, laser and nuclear weapons.
Earlier, Masami Tsuchiya had proposed to Asahara to use an old nazi nerve agent, sarin. It was decided to establish a complex for weapons developent, in Kamikuishiki. The new factor was named The Highest Science Institute, and was ready in 1993.
At the same time, Aum expanded the legitimate part of the business. Through a company named Mahaposya, many types of businesses were opened, e.g., retail, babysitting, and stock trading, which brought in 20-30 million dollars each year. Additionally, more than 300 discount stores were opened, selling computer hardware in larger Japanese cities. Money was no problem: Aum’s treasure box was estimated to about $200 million at the start of the 1990s. A financial empire which had started in a yoga center.
Asahara did not live the ascetic life he demanded from his disciples. He owned several cars in the Mercedes and Rolls Royce range, and a couple of yachts. His choice of food was also very far from his ordinary disciples must eat. On top of this, he was getting impatient. He wished to eradicate everyone in the empirial palace and the parliament, preferably with an effective laser weapon, in one strike. But his chief scientist Endo had to disappoint his Master: Aum was not yet in possession of such an ultimative weapon.
But Seiichi Endo had other things in store, which were also tested: Anthrax. Spores of this highly deadly bacteria were also used in the 2001 bioterrorist attacks on the United States.
The anthrax spores were spread over Tokyo from a building, a process that took four days. It was not a successful result to Aum. People living in the area did complain about a vicious stink, and some reported mysterious stomach pains, but only a few domestic animals died. The incident was reported to the police, and some people pointed toward the building, owned by Aum. But the police was satisfied with Asahara’s explanation: The stink came from a mix of perfume and soy oil, which was being burnt to spiritually cleanse the building.
It was a time when Aum flexed its muscles. One group was dispatched to Africa, investigating the possibility of cultivating the feared and deadly Ebola virus. Another group was sent to the US, to dig up information about chemical weapons at science libraries. Endo himself went to Russia to learn more about biological warfare, and tried to access the world’s biggest collection of chemical and biological weapons.
One member, Hayakawa, went to Russia with a prioritized shopping list. A used helicopter from the Russian army, a MiG-29 jet fighter aircraft, and an SL-13 Proton rocket. All he got hold of, was an MI-17 helicopter. Much later, when the investigation of the sarin attack in the Tokyo subway was underway, the police discovered just how far Aum was willing to go. In Hayakawa’s diary, he had written: Nuclear warhead – how much?
What turned out to be the solution on a weapons of mass destruction was hiding in a building in the headquarters of Aum, near Fuijiyama. In the building, named Satian 7, Masami Tsuchiya succeeded in October 1993 in producing sarin.
Sarin, in pure form, can be deadly within a few minutes, if it hits skin or is inhaled. One hundred percent pure sarin is difficult to produce, and it later turned out that Aum’s sarin had a purity of 30%. If it had been higher, the consequences of the attack would have been much worse.
Production of sarin
While the other scientists in Aum had been unsuccessful with their biological experiments, Masami Tsuchiya worked on producing sarin chemically. Like his colleagues, he had been working under pressure from Asahara for months – the money was pouring out, but nothing happened.
It had cost over $10 million to build and equip the building Satyan 7. Workplace safety was not a priority at Aum, either. Several of those working in the building had had lasting injuries. Like his colleagues, Tsuchiya also had a string of failures behind him, but the formula Endo had brought back from his trip to Russia proved efficient. When Asahara was informed, he was beside himself with joy. Finally, he had his weapon of mass destruction. All that was needed was to test it somewhere.
Asahara’s worst rival was Daisaku Ikeda, the leader of the most popular religious movement in Japan, Soka Gakkai. The movement, which possessed considerable political influence, something Asahara was jealous of, was chosen as the target of the first test. So far, Asahara had to resort to incessant criticisms of Ikeda during public meetings. Now, he could shut him up for good, and strike a devastating blow against the rivals.
A car was equipped with a vaporizer, and the Aum team chose an evening, where Ikeda was to speak at a public meeting. It was not a problem for Asahara that many attendees would also be poisoned – they were presumably followers of Soka Gakkai. The car was parked close to the meeting, and the equipment was activated. It didn’t work.
The Aum team decided to hit again at Ikeda’s next meeting. The equipment worked, but suddenly there was a leak, and liquid sarin sprayed onto Asahara’s head of security, Tomomitsu Niimi. Fortunately for Niimi, the doctor Hayakawa quickly injected an antidote, before Niimi’s nervous system was damaged. The attack on Ikeda may have failed, but the sarin worked – although it was ironic that it only hit Aum’s own head of security.
A similar attack was also tried on a lawyer by the name of Taro Takimoto, in 1994. Takimoto was helping Aum members to leave the cult, and another was tried on a journalist, Shoko Egawa, who had written critical articles about the Aum cult.
But a new target for testing the sarin was found. Aum had, through a front man, wished to buy a factory near the city of Matsumoto (incidentally the same name as Asahara’s birthname). When the owner realized that the real buyer was Aum, he tried to get a court order to reject the sale. This resulted in the traditional smear campaign from Aum against the owner and the city as such. Three judges would decide the outcome, and Aum’s own lawyers believed that Aum would probably lose the case.
Gas attack on Matsumoto
An attack should therefore target the judges, and would also serve as a trial run, to show what the cult could achieve with their sarin gas.
The attack was well prepared, with six people participating. They rented a small van and a truck. To avoid the main roads, they drove on small roads, mainly to avoid photo registration. As a safety precaution, they stopped before arriving at Matsumoto, to chance clothes and the license plates. Due to the long detour, they were too late: The judges had already left the court house. It was now around 10pm, and the judges had gone home. The plan was originally to release gas around the court building, where the judges worked. Now, the attackers unscrupulously decided to move to operation to where the judges lived.
The last preparations took place at a parking lot. A doctor on the team gave those driving the truck from which the gas would be spread an antidote. They also used homemade gas masks. After 45 minutes, they were ready, and parked the truck outside the building, where the judges lived.
For about 20 minutes, they blew 20 kilo poisonous sarin vapors out of a window in the truck, and let the wind do the rest. The gas spread out over an area of almost half a square kilometer, but was most effective within an area of 400 by 300 meters from the truck. The target for this operation – the three judges – survived, but seven other people did not. About 250 people in all had to receive medical treatment due to the gas attack, with 60 needing hospitalization. The first subjected to the gas called the police and fire department, around 11pm. It took an hour before the police could determine that it was an unknown poisonous gas, and it took two weeks before it was discovered that it was sarin.
A local citizen, Yoshiyuki Kouno, told of the attack. It started with his wife feeling uncomfortable, and had to go to bed. Kouno went outside, to see why his dogs had barked. When he came out, one dog was dead, and the other in spasms.
When he went back inside, his wife was also in spasms, while he began to feel ill, too. He barely had time to call an ambulance.
Not only was Kouno poisoned and had to be hospitalized for more than a month, his wife was still, a year after, in a coma, with fatal brain damage due to lack of oxygen. Kouno also suffered permanent damages. But to add insult to injury, he was also the seen as the culprit.
When the police visited Kouno at the hospital the day after the gas attack, his condition was still too poor to be questioned. The day after, Kouno talked to his son, and discovered that the press, due to police leaks, considered him the main suspect of the crime, even though he had not been formally charged. According to the police, some cans had been found and removed from his house. He was interrogated as a suspect, also because he had once worked for a chemical company. The content of the cans turned out to be photographic developer, for use in a darkroom.
Kenichi Asano, professor of journalism and mass communication at the Doshisha university, Kyoto, wrote in an article about press ethics, using the Kouno family as an example, that the weekly paper Shukan Shincho had behaved very poorly. Kouno’s family had been smeared. Statements from worried neighbors called for Kouno’s arrest. The article was published on July 14, 1996, and the headline said “The bizarre family where the poison gas incident originated”. At that time, the press had been informed that Kouno could not have produced sarin. After the attack in the Tokyo subway and the revelations that followed, it was clear that Kouno was innocent, and only “sentenced” by the press. The weekly paper Shukan Shincho published a brief apology on the last page, while several of the other media outlets which also had smeared him did nothing. But the citizens of Matsumoto apologized for their mistake.
A week after the Matsumoto attack, the citizens in the village of Kamikuishiki told a similar story: They had also felt the same symptoms people in Matsumoto had felt. But none were dead, and nobody seriously injured, although many suffered runny noses, coughing, respiratory problems and problems with vision. The villagers had a theory, though: It was due to the neighbor, Aum Shinrikyo.
Murder most holy
Naturally, it wasn’t everyone who enrolled in Aum who thought they had found happiness. Life within Aum could, especially in the later years, be hard, with a strict disciplin. It was not popular, if someone wished to leave the cult. At one point, a young man, Naoki Ochi, wished to leave. Such wishes were seen by the inner circle as a mental flaw in an overheated brain, for which there was a cure, or, as it was called, ritual training. He was repeatedly dumped in almost freezing water, and died of the shock.
His good friend in the movement, Shuji Taguchi, was also shocked – but his shock was due to the fact that his spiritual master Asahara was capable of ordering such a treatment, which was anathema to buddhism. He made the mistake of talking to others in the movement about this. Quickly, the rumor had spread, and Taguchi was in february 1989 called before Asahara and asked to explain what he was dissatisfied with. Taguchi would receive treatment, to clear his thoughts. He refused, afraid to meet the same end as his friend. He was tied and placed in a small cell. Here, he was questioned for hours on end, until he screamed out his anger against Aum and Asahara.
Asahara called his staff. Among them was Hideo Murai. Asahara said that they could not let Taguchi go or let him stay in the cult. The concept of poa was brought up: The transferral of a soul to a higher level. It is achieved by killing the person, thereby actually doing him a favor! This was, of course, quite in line with Aum’s concepts of personal development. After having given Taguchi yet another chance, which he turned down, the only thing left to do was to carry out Asahara’s order of poa.
Some staff members entered the cell. They held him fast, and blindfolded him. They put a piece of rope around his neck. Taguchi fought for his life, but one of the staff members held his head tight, and twisted it hard, breaking his neck.
The body was wrapped in plastic, dumped in a barrel, doused with petroleum and set on fire. The burning of the body took several hours and had to be repeated, because of Asahara’s orders that only ashes must remain. The ashes were later spread in some bushes.
The parents of Taguchi later tried to contact their son, but they were told he was always too busy to talk to them. The family also contacted the police, but their inquiries didn’t achieve anything either.
To be continued.