by Willy Wegner, translated by Claus Larsen
I can’t recall how old I was, but I still have a picture in my head from a subway – which could very well be in Tokyo. It is a picture of a crowd of people being pushed into the already overcrowded cars by employees. It seemed scary to me.
I also remember the news stories of a fire in the London subway, where the escalators mercilessly transported people to their deaths. It seemed even more frightening. Not so long ago, I revisited the scenario, when I in August 2005, shortly after the suicide bombs had killed 52 people, rode the escalators down the tube.
It were imagery like that that returned, when I on March 20, 1995 heard a news story on the radio about a gas attack in the Tokyo metro, during rush hour. I couldn’t help thinking about this claustrophobic feeling of not being able to escape this threat.
The following days, more information emerged. “Poison gas in Tokyo, the smell was the only warning”, wrote a Danish newspaper. Another wrote: “Nazi gas in Tokyo”, while a third ran this headline: “Random terror in Tokyo’s underground”. It soon turned out that it wasn’t a case of a terrorist group’s random use of the nerve gas sarin, but a carefully crafted attempt of mass murder.
The numbers vary, depending on the sources, but according to the Southern Medical Journal, June 1997, about 5500 people were hurt by the gas, 700 of these to a degree where they had to be admitted to hospital. Twelve people died, many were in a coma, and about 50 were listed in critical condition the day after. Most victims were able to get out of the subway on their own, bleeding from mouth and nose, gasping for air, some with cramps. The street above was filled with people, while rescue workers and police did what they could to save people and find out what had happened.
The confusion was immense, primarily because there wasn’t any emergency plans to handle such situations. Thus, there was no coordination between the fire fighters, the police, city council and hospitals. At the international S. Luke Hospital, the staff was also completely unprepared: More than 20% of the staff exhibited secundary symptoms of poisoning, merely by treating the victims from the subway. Valuable lessons were learned that day.
Very quickly, suspicion fell on a religious movement by the name of Aum Shinrikyo.
Aum ShinrikyoShoko Asahara
The leader of Aum Shinrikyo – The Highest Truth – was Shoko Asahara. He was born in 1955, in a small village on the island of Kyushu. He changed his birth name, Chizuo Matsumoto, and began in the late 1980’s to use the name Shoko Asahara. As the son of a poor tatami maker (tatami are Japanese straw mats), the young Chizuo did not have a bright future. Additionally, he was born partially blind. At the age of six, he was enrolled in a boarding school for blind children. He quickly took advantage of his partial blindness, by taking on the role of leader. Chizuo’s career began by being paid by the blind children for leading them to a candy store.
After about 10 years of school, Chizuo wanted to get ahead in the world. He wanted to be rich, and was dreaming of a career in politics. After finishing school, he studied acupuncture. Reportedly, he dreamt of finding a cure for his poor eyesight. When he was 21, he moved to Tokyo, and was married to Tomoko Ishii in 1978. With financial help from her family, he began his practice as an acupuncturist.
It was around that time that he applied for the University of Tokyo. He wanted to study law, but his application was turned down. In the beginning of the 1980’s, he opened a health food shop with traditional Chinese medicine, but was convicted of quackery.
Asahara soon claimed supernatural powers. E.g., he claimed to be able to levitate. A photo of him levitating looks very much like those photos of followers of Transcendental Meditation, also believers in the art of levitation. In reality, they merely jump a little bit in the lotus position. All that is needed is to take the photo the moment they leave the ground: You have evidence of levitation!
After being a member of a Japanese New Age movement, Agonshu, Asahara founded his own religious group in 1984, and named it Aum Shinsen–no kai (The Aum Union of Mountain Wizards). Additionally, he founded a publishing company and a yoga school.
During the summer of 1986, he travelled to the Northern part of India and Tibet, to study buddhism and hinduism. He returned the following year to Dharmsala in India, where he met the Dalai Lama and claimed that he had reached the highest in Buddhism: Nirvana – unity with the divine.
Inspired by his spiritual journeys, Asahara founded the religious community Aum Shinrikyo in 1989, and applied for status as an official religion. This would mean tax breaks and extended immunity. Asahara also began writing a book about the secrets of how to develop supernatural powers. It was not enough to merely be able to levitate, now people could be able to see into the future, read other people’s minds, travel in the fourth dimension and achieve enough will-power to make personal wishes come true.
Aum soon bought a parcel of land on the slopes of Fujiyama, near Kamikuishiki. Here, Asahara established his headquarters, a complex of buildings, prefabricated huts, trailers, warehouses, factories etc.
Kamikuishiki is on the low slopes of the holy mountain Fijuyama, about 100 kilometers south-west of Tokyo, on the side of the mountain that faced away from the metropolis, far away from the busy traffic. On that side of Fujiyama is a large area where the Japanese home guard and American forces train. The area had all the qualities that Aum was looking for: Reasonably priced land, isolation, unsuspicious neighbors and the sacred mountain as a picturesque background.
The buildings of Aum looked like factories, which is basically what they were. Many of them were closed by the police, after the gas attack, so curious tourists couldn’t see what had happened there. Even years after Aum moving out and the police moving in, the buildings and their contents still contain evidence used in the almost innumerable lawsuits against the leaders of Aum.
During the end of the 1980s, after the movement achieved official status as a religion, Aum was split in two. One part consisted of the majority of members, that merely followed the movement’s religious program and the teachings of Asahara. These members had no idea what the other, much smaller part, did. This group, many with academic degrees and scientific background, were given quite another task.
Asahara had not forgotten the political ambitions of his youth. In 1990, he and a small select group of people ran for the upcoming election for parliament. Some observers noted, that the turning point may have happened, when Aum’s Truth Party was ditched by the voters, to much scorn and ridicule. The press described Aum’s campaign as ridiculous and nutty. The number of votes was so low, that Asahara had to acknowledge that not even all of Aum’s members had voted for Aum’s candidates – Asahara among them. He even had to suffer the indignity of seeing one of the candidates get more votes than Asahara himself. He accused the government of tampering with the votes, and he began to develop paranoia and megalomania. When you can’t enter parliament, with the dream of becoming Prime Minister of Japan, what do you do? Reportedly, he possessed the ability to make his own wishes come true. Asahara appointed himself Christ or Buddha, depending on where he was, and which was more beneficial.
At about the same time, Asahara realized that his goal of 30,000 spiritual soliders saving the world was not about to be fulfilled any time soon. The number of initiated devotees were at that time around 1,000 – a very far cry from the ultimate goal.
In Aum’s inner circle, it was realized that it wasn’t possible to save the entire world. They had to save themselves, by killing the evil – the surrounding world. Aum’s idea was to play the superpowers, the United States and Japan in particular, against each other, so they would do the actual destruction. Thanks to Aum’s spiritual training, the disciples could survive such a war – even a nuclear one. After that, a new society could be built, using the elite from Aum, as the new lords of the world.
Even before this ground-breaking decision, Aum had already begun not-so-spiritually enlightened activities. Burglaries, kidnapping, even murdering its critics and even its own members. There were elements of paranoia in Aum’s leadership. Asahara claimed that the CIA and other intelligence were spying on him, and that Aum communes were bombed by both American and Japanese planes with sarin. Inspired by the seer Nostradamus, Asahara also prophecized about coming disasters, wars and the end of the world.
The political ambitions were still intact. Withing the framework of Aum, Asahara created his own hierarchy of “ministries” and “ministers” – a shadow government. Aum was preparing for a world after this.
Life in Aum
It was primarily young people – often very young – who let themselves be recruited by Aum. They attended meetings, that promised them meditation and free yoga classes. Many of the young were only too happy to get away from home, away from the often old-fashioned family life and the very restrictive educational system and the stringent work-life that followed. In Aum’s communes, they could be among their contemporaries, with the prospect of gaining supernatural powers, just like their guru, Asahara. Many told of a carnival mood in the cult, with singing and music. Aum even had a pop band, singing lyrics by Asahara.
In his newest book, Ian Reader writes about a survey done by the Japanese newspaper, Mainichi Shimbun. It showed that among the initiated in Aum in 1995, the far biggest group of people were under 40 years, and the half of the more than one thousand initiated were in the 20-29 year age group.
To become a good Aum disciple and speed up one’s personal development, one had to go through a spiritual training, as well as some initiation rituals. It was also beneficial if one would donate a substantial sum of money, and contribute with a considerable amount of practical work. The work could be anything, from building construction, to production of chemicals. A lot of sales people were needed in the movement’s computer stores, and software developers and computer animators were also in great demand. Some were even used as guinea pigs in Aum’s experiments with various drugs.
Just like in the outside world, Aum was designed as a hierarchical society, with ranks and status. It was possible to work oneself up in the hierarchy, for a spiritual career. The system had 10 ranks and served several purposes. First and foremost, Asahara was at the top, untouchable. But also because the members would have something to strive for. For the novice, however, the road was long and cumbersome. Even getting a holy name and a symbolic “uniform” was something not all could achieve. Ironically, it resembled very much the Japanese system the movement claimed to have abandoned: Education and loyalty were more important traits than spiritual abilities.
Regardless of the myth of Asahara’s own unlimited spiritual abilities, nobody had ever seen him defy gravity and hover in the air over Kamikuishiki. He preferred to be driven in his Rolls Royce, and his claimed ability to look into the future had proven itself non-existent. The discipled had to be content with viewing their great master floating in the air in Aum’s home made production of imaginative animated videos. In those, there were no limits to what their guru could do.
On the other hand, many, also in the inner circle of Aum, also experienced Asahara’s often violent temper first hand.
One of the first things that new members experienced was a profound indoctrination. One former member recalled that he first had to watch 97 Aum videos and read 77 Aum books. After that, he had to repeat a mantra – a holy word – exactly 7,000 times. He was given a counter so he knew how far he had gotten.
Another member, Hajime Masutani, recalled that the studying and meditation training took place with a straight back, day after day, only interrupted by eating breaks and toilet visits. They even had to sit up while they were sleeping. Masutani also recalled how he lost all sense of time. He said that Aum’s leaders feared that spies had infiltrated the organization. Everyone had to undertake a lie detector test, a process also known as “initiation”. Matsutani couldn’t help noticing the irony in that, given Asahara’s claimed supernatural abilities and omniscience: Asahara should be able to tell who was a spy and who wasn’t.
When Aum’s leaders began to get more violent and criminal, around 1993-94, the life within Aum’s walls changed. The training and the punishments became more and more like torture. If a disciple had violated some rules, or was suspected of being a spy, he would be hanged upside down by his legs. A sinner could also be submerged in almost scalding hot water. In Aum, it wasn’t called torture or punishement, of course: It was called either training or a ritualistic cleansing process, as a step in the right spiritual development.
Several disciples, disappointed that they didn’t achieve a status-giving spiritual development, or scared of the hard punishments they were recieving, only waited for their chance to escape Aum. But they soon found out that it was unwise to talk to others about their doubts. Others who had protested or wished to leave Aum did not get away with it alive.