Ten years after Japan’s worst terrorist atrocity, the apocalyptic group responsible has rebranded itself but has failed to allay popular doubts
At around 8am on March 20 1995 commuters on packed subway trains in central Tokyo sensed something was wrong. They started to cough and struggle for breath. Some of those who made it on to platforms and upstairs to street level collapsed, foaming at the mouth and coughing up blood.
Minutes earlier, using the sharpened tips of their umbrellas, five of their fellow passengers – members of what was then a little-known apocalyptic cult called Aum Supreme Truth – had punctured plastic bags containing the deadly nerve gas sarin before fleeing.
The 12 people who died that day, and the 5,500 others who were injured, had just become the victims of the worst terrorist atrocity on Japanese soil; an act of violence that shattered Japan’s image as the safest country on earth.
This Sunday 10 years will have passed since that sunny morning, yet the occasion will be less one of closure and healing than of nagging fear and resentment.
Shoko Asahara, the cult’s bearded, nearly-blind former guru, who masterminded the attacks on Tokyo and, in 1994, on the city of Matsumoto, killing seven people, sits in a cell awaiting the start of his appeal against the death sentence, a process that could last another 10 years. The cult Asahara left behind has tried to rebrand itself as harmless, but continues to provoke widespread anger and suspicion.
At its height it boasted more than 10,000 followers in Japan and an estimated 30,000 in Russia. Among its senior members were graduates of Japan’s best universities, drawn to the cult’s bizarre mix of Buddhism and Christianity, yoga and the occult, and by promises that they would survive the coming Armageddon – a nuclear attack by the US – by developing sarin and other deadly gases at the cult’s compound in the foothills of Mount Fuji.
In 2000 it renamed itself Aleph, admitted its role in the gas attacks, and agreed to pay compensation to the victims. So far it has paid out 540m yen (?2.7m), but attempts under its new leader, Fumihiro Joyu, to convince the public that it has renounced Asahara’s violent extremism have failed.
Now membership stands at about 1,600, according to the national police agency. Groups of followers are routinely refused permission to rent properties, and those they do occupy are the targets of eviction campaigns by other residents and attacks by right-wing extremists.
The 120 or so members who live at Aleph’s headquarters, spread between three ageing apartment blocks in suburban Tokyo, are under 24-hour surveillance by armed police and worried neighbours.
“People are still anxious that something bad might happen involving the cult,” said Shoko Egawa, an award-winning journalist who was almost killed by cultists angered by her criticisms of Aum.
Although deprived of their chemical weapons, Aleph’s followers, she said, “are not safe in the psychological sense. Even if they’d had tonnes of sarin gas, people who have a sense of right and wrong, who could think for themselves, would not have released it.
“They have not changed at all. They still believe the doctrine Asahara taught them, a doctrine that justified even murder.”
Aleph’s members disagree. One follower, who asked not to be identified, told the Guardian that society has nothing to fear from the group. “We believe it is wrong to take life,” he said. “Our living quarters are crawling with cockroaches because we don’t even kill them.”
But doubt has been cast on the sincerity of those claims by allegations that its members fatally beat a female member to death with bamboo sticks last autumn. Earlier this year a man died while undergoing “thermal therapy,” which involved sitting in scalding hot water of up to 50C for long periods, although the group says it has since banned the practice.
– Violations and Violence
– Life Inside The Cult
Aleph’s devotees say they would refuse orders to carry out violent acts, even if they came from Asahara. But they are not prepared to abandon him altogether.
“It depends on the definition of guru,” the follower said. “We consider a guru to be the interpreter of the sutras, and now, yes, we practice religious teachings based on the interpretations of Shoko Asahara.”
He said that Asahara was in “no practical or mental position to issue orders. He can’t even speak, or so I’ve heard. People think Shoko Asahara is a terrorist and they can’t understand why some members still have his photograph. We think the (gassing) incidents and his religious teachings are completely different. That is why we can still admire Shoko Asahara.”
For Egawa, the author of several books on Aum, that admission alone is proof that the cult is a threat, and that the authorities must remain wary of another murderous act led by people who, she said, prey on the insecurities of young people.
“The problem is that Japanese society has not learned any lessons,” she said. “I have repeatedly urged the Japanese government to teach high school students about cults, about how dangerous they are and how they can protect themselves from them. But the government has totally ignored me.”
Meanwhile the survivors and the relatives of those who died say they have been abandoned by their government, whose machinery was the cult’s prime target, but which has refused to pay a single yen in compensation.
Every Sunday Shizue Takahashi visits the grave of her husband, Kazumasa, an assistant stationmaster at Kasumigaseki station who died after removing sarin-filled bags from a train carriage.
She says the government has “barely lifted a finger” to help the relatives of the dead and those who survived.
“Anyone could have been a victim,” she said in an interview with Kyodo News. “Is it right for the government just to pity us, to think that we were just unlucky at that moment and then do nothing?”
Hundreds of people who were caught up in the attack still suffer from visual disorders, headaches, extreme fatigue and psychological complaints, but most depend on free medical check-ups offered by volunteers in Tokyo.
Egawa says the families have a strong case for compensation.
“Aum was targeting government people and policemen when they released the sarin, so the families and survivors’ request for compensation is not unreasonable.”