TOKYO (AP) — As guru of a doomsday cult, Shoko Asahara looked and sounded the part. Almost blind, his black beard flowing onto his chest, he claimed he could levitate, see into people’s past lives and foretell the apocalypse.
On Feb. 27, a Japanese court will decide whether he also commanded his disciples to murder, most terrifyingly in the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 12 people, sickened thousands and alerted the world to the threat of terrorism by mass slaughter.
Asahara faces the gallows if convicted of masterminding the subway deaths and 15 others, though he has the right to appeal. He also faces charges of attempted murder, kidnapping and illegal weapons production.
The closing of his trial is forcing Japan to revisit a horrifying moment in its modern history.
The shock of the attack and the Aum Shinrikyo cult behind it has been profound and long-lasting. A nation proud of its affluence and stability was confronted with the grisly spectacle of its brightest young minds bewitched into committing crimes of stunning savagery.
“The sarin attack shattered the image of Japan as a peaceful utopia,” said Masaki Kito, a lawyer who has battled several cults in Japan. “This crime greatly increased the sense of crisis among the people.”
It also had global ramifications: The cult’s explosive alchemy of money, technical know-how and religious zeal flashed an early warning of the spread of weapons of mass destruction and the murderous potential of fanaticism.
Defense lawyers say Asahara — whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto — had lost control over his violent flock by the time of the attack, but many of his top lieutenants have testified to his puppet-master role.
In a country with a 99 percent conviction rate, his guilty verdict and death sentence are widely expected. Eleven of his disciples are already on death row, though none has been hanged yet.
“He’s the most responsible for what happened,” said Hiroyuki Nagaoka, the father of a former cult member. “Without Asahara’s orders, cult members would not have become capable of killing.”
Nagaoka, the head of an anti-Aum support group, was also a victim of the cult. An Asahara disciple sprayed him with VX nerve gas outside his home in January 1995, just two months before the subway attack.
Topping the list of Aum’s chillingly calculated killings was the subway attack. On March 20, 1995, five cultists boarded morning rush-hour trains headed toward the government ministry district in central Tokyo.
At the appointed time, they pierced bags of sarin — a nerve gas developed by the Nazis — and let the deadly fumes spread in an assault meant as a pre-emptive strike against Japanese police planning raids on the cult.
Pandemonium struck. Panicked, sickened passengers stumbled from the cars, blood streaming from their noses, their vision darkened, their heads throbbing in excruciating pain.
For some, the convulsions were followed by death. Many survivors still suffer from headaches, breathing troubles and dizziness. The cult was ordered in separate court proceedings to pay 3.8 billion yen, or US$36 million, in damages to the victims.
The guru is also accused of plotting a sarin gas attack the previous year in Matsumoto, central Japan, that killed seven people; ordering the murder of an anti-Aum lawyer and his family; and exterminating errant cult members.
The crackdown on the group opened a window to its bizarre rituals. Initiates paid hefty sums to drink Asahara’s dirty bathwater, sip his blood and wear electric caps to keep their brain waves in sync with their master’s.
He used a long list of drugs to sedate his abused acolytes into submission or dazzle them with hallucinatory visions. A huge microwave oven at the cult’s Mount Fuji headquarters was used to incinerate the bodies of victims.
Flush with millions of dollars from members’ savings, fees and businesses, the cult shopped around the world for technology, components and machinery to amass an arsenal of chemical, biological and conventional weapons. Some cultists dreamed of a nuclear bomb.
David E. Kaplan, co-author of “The Cult and the End of the World: The Incredible Story of Aum,” considers the cult to be “the blueprint” for subsequent terrorist groups like Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.
“If you look at the firsts that they did, the first mass attack with a chemical weapon on a civilian population, the ability for a group — not a nation — to operate viable programs for weapons of mass destruction, it really is extraordinary,” Kaplan said. “They were multinational, they were high-tech and they were incredibly destructive.”
Aum counted on a core of driven, highly educated scientists from the country’s finest universities for brains. Asahara provided the inspiration, concocting a mix of Hinduism, Buddhism and yoga and promising his cowed flock Armageddon followed by paradise on Earth.
The trial has taken nearly eight years, lengthened by Japan’s chronic shortage of lawyers and judges, the complexity of the case and a six-month delay caused by Asahara’s firing of his first attorney.
The verdict also comes amid fears that although Aum has renounced its violent past and renamed itself Aleph, its remnants show signs of greater allegiance to Asahara. Agents this month raided the offices of the group, which still claims 1,650 members in Japan and 300 in Russia — a shadow of the 10,000 members in Japan and 30,000 in Russia the group claimed at its height, but still a concern.
The sarin attack has had a long-lasting effect on Japan. Coming two months after a killer earthquake in the port city of Kobe and in the midst of an economic slump, it vanquished Japan’s self-confidence of the 1980s and ushered in a lengthy bout of soul-searching over the country’s troubled youth and moral decay.
The failure of law enforcement to stop the cult before the subway gassing triggered a push for greater police powers such as wiretapping. Some say the shock over the crimes has also encouraged Japan’s drift toward conservatism over the past decade.
Despite the horrors of Aum, Japan remains a ripe breeding ground for eccentric religious groups. Police last year raided the headquarters of the Pana Wave Laboratory group, for example, on suspicion that members beat a fellow cultist to death. Five cultists were arrested in December.
Experts attribute the prevalence of cults in Japan to many causes: the country’s strictly conformist culture, a pressure-cooker education system, the lack of spiritual awareness in a materialistic society.
For the victims of the subway attack and their families, however, the myriad causes are embodied in Asahara.
Their anger has only been inflamed by the guru’s failure to do what’s often expected of criminals in Japan: confess and apologize. Asahara has stayed mostly silent in court, save for occasional, incoherent rants in broken English.
“He hasn’t given up his beliefs. He didn’t say anything in the trial. He didn’t apologize to the victims,” said Shizue Takahashi, whose husband, a subway worker, died trying to help passengers reach safety above ground.
“So there’s only the death penalty,” she said. “I can’t even think of any other sentence.”