Prophet of Poison

After Tokyo suffers a nerve-gas attack, suspicion focuses on the leader of an apocalyptic cult

The canaries went first. Policemen in protective suits, ridiculous-looking things with gas detectors hanging out in front, bore the cages before them as they made their way grimly through the country road in the Mount Fuji foothills toward what looked to be a factory compound. It was 7 a.m. There were more than a thousand police; those who didn’t wear protective suits watched the canaries closely. If the compound doors opened and the birds died, they would flee for their lives.

The birds lived. And day after day investigators raided the headquarters and hideaways of the suspect religious cult. Day after day they emerged with ton after ton of chemicals – sodium cyanide, sodium fluoride, phosphorus trichloride, isopropyl alcohol, acetonitrile – some benign, but others deadly, and still others that if mixed together might create something deadlier still. Enough to kill 4.2 million people, guessed one newspaper; another topped it with an estimate of 10 million. Japanese television viewers watched, mesmerized, as the police stormed the redoubts of the sect, looking for evidence that might link the hoard to 10 horrible deaths that had already occurred.

Last monday a country that had been convulsed just two months earlier by a natural disaster, the devastating Kobe earthquake, was assailed by the most synthetic of catastrophes: a poison created by man, and a madness that was strictly human. In what could only have been a carefully coordinated, painstakingly planned atrocity, an apparently diluted form of a nerve gas called sarin, a weapon of mass killing originally concocted by the Nazis, was placed simultaneously in five subway cars at morning rush hour, killing 10 victims and sickening thousands more.

The Japanese government did not immediately name a perpetrator. But within days, under another pretext, it responded with its morning raid on 25 branches of a heretofore obscure sect called Aum Shinrikyo, which translates as Aum Supreme Truth. The sect, which started as a yoga school, focuses on the apocalypse to come – perhaps as soon as 1997. Its members insist it merely practices a form of Buddhism; but in reality it is a cult revolving around a long-haired, charismatic mystic, Shoko Asahara, a magnetic misfit who preaches that government efforts to obliterate his movement will coincide with the beginning of the end of the world. Throughout the week, the hidden guru pleaded his innocence via radio broadcast and videotape, then vanished, leaving behind three luxury cars in a Tokyo hotel parking lot and a $300,000 lawsuit seeking compensation for the police raids.

If the suspicions of most Japanese are true, and the cult is responsible for the subway atrocity, it would embody something much more sinister than even the Branch Davidian group led by David Koresh, who ultimately posed his most deadly danger to his own followers. The subway poisoning seems to represent an aggressive, outward-reaching insanity, as if Koresh had somehow become melded with the Tylenol killer. It suggests a new type of evil, a terrorism whose demands are so personal and obscure that no one can understand them, let alone satisfy them. Or put another way, garden-variety madness had got access to weapons of terror.

The man in the subway wore big sunglasses, brown trousers and a blue – or maybe it was beige – coat. He had on a surgical mask; but then, a lot of people in Tokyo wear masks during hay-fever season. The witnesses agree he boarded the eight-car B711T train on Tokyo’s Hibiya line when it originated at 8 a.m. at the Nakameguro station. Since the sunny Monday fell before a Tuesday holiday celebrating the first day of spring, the Hibiya train was less crowded than usual; the masked man easily found a seat and, according to a witness quoted anonymously in the Tokyo papers, almost immediately began fiddling with a foot-long rectangular object wrapped in newspapers. At the next stop he set the package on the floor and strode briskly from the train. By then, says a witness, a moist spot had appeared on the wrapping.

Michael Kennedy, an Irishman in Tokyo to train Japanese jockeys, boarded the B711T at Roppongi station and saw that the spot had turned into “a pool of oily water on the floor. I noticed this quite offensive smell that I can’t really describe.” Others smelled it too and edged away. By Kamiyacho station, 11 minutes after the strange man had boarded, commuters panicked. Says Matthias Vukovich, an Austrian student who was in the car: “Everyone just ran off, and I didn’t know what was going on. Someone yelled, ‘It’s gas!”‘ Looking back, Vukovich, whose eyes and head were beginning to hurt, glimpsed the puddle. Next to it sat an immobile old man. His name, it turned out, was Shunkichi Watanabe; he was a retired cobbler. He was already dying.

“I saw several dozen people on the platform who had either collapsed or were on their knees unable to stand up,” recalls Nobuo Serizawa, a photographer. “One man was thrashing around on the floor like a fish out of water.” Those who could walk staggered up three flights of stairs to the clean, fresh air. Some vomited; others lay rigid. Kennedy emerged, but he couldn’t see; the gas had temporarily blinded him. Three young women clung together like small birds in a nest, trembling and crying. Yet they made no sound; the gas had silenced their voices.

Within half an hour, similar scenes had unfolded at five other subway stops on three lines. Police arrived within minutes, administered some first aid and spirited thousands to hospitals, where doctors who suspected what had happened administered atropine, a sarin antidote. But for some it was too late. Kazumasa Takahashi, an assistant station manager at the Kasumigaseki stop, overstayed his shift to mop up the mystery liquid and dispose of the package that leaked it. He died a few hours later, and a colleague who helped him perished the next day.

The thousands of surviving victims of the gas attack were understandably bewildered. Said Kiyo Arai, a 22-year-old government employee who was stricken at the Kodenmacho station: “We’re just innocent, ordinary people. It frightens me to think how vulnerable we are.” It was not lost on authorities that the three poisoned train lines converge at Kasumigaseki, the hub for top government offices, including the national police. If the trains had continued on schedule, all three would have arrived at that station between 8:09 and 8:14, the apex of rush hour. Said Atsuyuki Sassa, former director general of the Cabinet Security Affairs Office: “This is a declaration of war against the Japanese government.”

The government took two days to plan its counterattack. Early Wednesday morning, observed on television by a transfixed public, Japan’s national police deployed 2,500 troops to the doors of 25 Aum Shinrikyo offices around the country. Officially they were investigating the February kidnapping of the 68-year-old manager of a notary public office suspected of having been spirited away by the cult. But the gas masks and the birds betrayed their real concerns.

As it turned out, those precautions were not necessary. Cult members appeared to know the police were coming. Before the troops approached the main compound at Kamikuishiki, 110 miles west of Tokyo, the faithful swept searchlights over the grounds. When the siege force reached a makeshift barricade at the entrance, a young man shouted, “The Aum Supreme Truth has nothing to hide! It is an unjust search, but we will cooperate!”

What the investigators found first was bizarre. Inside the compound were 50 small cubicles, each containing a cult member lying on a blanket. All were suffering from malnutrition, but most claimed they were fasting voluntarily, and only six of the most seriously wasted were hospitalized. Another young woman was reportedly lifted from inside a small windowless container in which she had been confined since mid-January. The only arrests the police made were of three doctors on the premises and a cult official, on suspicion of unlawful confinement.

Then the police made a yet more dramatic discovery. In a warehouse down a hill from the group’s living quarters, they uncovered vast quantities of toxic chemicals, among them many of the constituent ingredients of sarin. Cult members insisted the chemicals were for such legitimate purposes as making pottery and processing semiconductors for a cult-owned business. Says Kenji Mori, a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Tokyo who has visited the compound: “Logically that may be so, but the volume of ingredients makes the place look more like a chemical factory than a religious compound.” The police apparently suspected it looked like something more sinister still; on Thursday they announced for the first time that they wanted to question the guru about the subway attack.

By now Aum Shinrikyo’s lawyers were in full cry. On Tuesday Asahara had released two radio messages through intermediaries. In one he repeated, “I didn’t do it. I’m innocent” over and over again in a singsong voice. In the other he exhorted, “Disciples, the time to awaken and help me is upon you. Let’s carry out the salvation plan and face death without regrets.” His attorney was less cosmic in his approach. Maintained Yoshinobu Aoyama: “We practice our religion on the basis of Buddhist doctrines such as no killing, so it is impossible that we are responsible. In my personal view, sarin could not be made by those other than special persons like those in the U.S. military. I speculate that someone in the military and state authorities may have been involved.” He called the raids “unprecedented religious persecution.”

The huge burst of “new religions” in Japan’s postwar years may have had its primary impulse in the end of the God-Emperor. But it also owed quite a bit to the fact that the new legal system made it very simple to receive official recognition as a religious movement, and the tax-free status accompanying recognition was attractive to many whose motives were as much financial as holy. As of this year, 183,581 groups are registered. According to Robert Marra, executive director of the National Association of Japan-America Societies, most of the groups are made up of “very gentle, harmless people.” But as in the U.S., which saw a similar flowering in the 1960s, gentle did not always stay that way.

When Shoko Asahara founded Aum Shinrikyo in 1987, he synthesized an amalgam of Buddhist and Hindu theology around the practice of yoga. Devotion to his teachings, he claimed in his writings, could lead adherents not only to a state of enlightenment but also to superhuman feats like levitation.

With the passage of time his vision grew darker. He spoke ever more frequently about an imminent apocalypse. In his book Disaster Approaches the Land of the Rising Sun, published this year, Armageddon arrives in a gas cloud from the U.S., which is said to be ruled by Freemasons (elsewhere he has added those other stock villains, the Jews). The world’s end, placed variously in the years 1997, 1999 and 2000, would leave behind enlightened followers of Aum and 10% of everyone else.

The increasing grandiosity of Asahara’s doctrine, as well as its increasing paranoia, may have been prompted by the changing fortunes of his temporal empire. Recruiting heavily at universities and attracting a wealthy and educated membership, the cult had a meteoric rise. It became rich, bankrolling chains of discount stores, coffee shops and a personal-computer assembly factory. Aum was wealthy enough to survive an estimated $1 million loss on a foolhardy hunt for Australian gold in 1993.

By 1994 Aum boasted 36 Japanese branches with 10,000 members and a raft of international offices. Some, like the one in midtown Manhattan, offer little more than cheap videotapes of the master’s lectures to fewer than 100 members. But in Russia, another country experiencing a spiritual land rush, the cult has been successful: it has six offices and somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 adherents. It broadcast (until this week) an hourlong program on a popular Russian radio station.

But all the time, there were intimations of trouble. The downside of recruiting the best and the brightest was that their relatives were articulate about losing them to the cult. Almost from the beginning, there were complaints that Asahara engaged in psychological manipulation, brainwashing and even coercion. Former group members describe fairly standard indoctrination practices like banning sex and limiting reading matter to Asahara’s books, as well as real rigors: self-starvation, immersion in hot or cold water and drug ingestion, some of it involuntary. Acolytes wearing helmets equipped with electrodes, supposedly to increase their alpha waves, were sighted during the Kamikuishiki raid.

Aum also appears to engage in the classic – and lucrative – cult practice of taking over its members’ financial assets. One 35-year-old who has since left the group says that when he became a devout follower, he was required to surrender his passport to the group and donate all his cash and belongings. He also recounts working under near slave-labor conditions at a sect project on the southern island of Kyushu. “Their strategy is to wear you down and take control of your mind,” he says. “They promise you heaven, but they make you live in hell.”

That speaker, who will not give his name, has worked with the Lawyers’ Group on Behalf of the Victims of Aum Shinrikyo, one of the organizations founded to oppose the cult. It was formed in memory of the first people Aum may have kidnapped. In June 1989, an attorney named Tsutsumi Sakamoto took on the case of a family trying to locate their child, who had joined Aum. Five months later Sakamoto, his wife and infant son disappeared.

The case was never solved, but it cast a shadow over the organization. Last February 68-year-old Kiyoshi Kariya tried to prevent his cult-member sister, a wealthy widow, from giving Aum the building in which his office was located. The sister disappeared, and shortly afterward an Aum member questioned Kariya on her whereabouts. On Feb. 28, four young men jumped out of a Mitsubishi van and grabbed him. He has not been seen since. When police found a similar van with traces of Kariya’s blood in it and the fingerprints of sect members, they issued a warrant for the arrest of a high-ranking cultist.

By then the cult had conceived a disquieting fascination with sarin. In 1991 Aum was involved in a land dispute in the city of Matsumoto. Last June the hearings had been completed, and a three-judge panel was about to rule; but three weeks before their decision was due, someone released a cloud of sarin, a substance more usually associated with national arsenals and weapons treaties, into the Matsumoto night. Seven people were killed and 200 injured; of the three judges, all of whom were sleeping in the affected area, all required treatment, and one was hospitalized. There has been no decision to date.

Police named a suspect in the Matsumoto sarin case, but dismissed him; no one was ever charged. That did not comfort Aum’s nervous neighbors in Kamikuishiki. A month later they noticed that the leaves on the trees near the cult’s compound had suddenly turned brown. Shortly afterward the family living nearest the compound woke up with nausea and sore eyes. There was “a horrible smell, like burning plastic,” said retired farmer Norie Okamoto, who informed the police. The cultists got off with a warning, and the villagers were furious, especially when the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper disclosed that police samples of the soil around the compound contained organic phosphorus compounds that are potential residues of sarin, matching residues in Matsumoto – and now those found in the Tokyo subway.

Even before the Matsumoto poisonings, sarin had become a staple of Asahara’s rhetoric. A cult publication quotes a March 1994 sermon to his chapter in Kochi: “The law in an emergency is to kill one’s opponent in a single blow, for instance the way research was conducted on soman ((another Nazi gas)) and sarin during World War II.” He regularly charged that the U.S. was using the toxic chemical against him and his followers.

That was the poisoned state of affairs on March 19, when the Osaka police broke into one of the cult’s offices and freed a student they claimed was being held there against his will. The raid had been a long time in the planning, both in order to assemble evidence and because the Japanese authorities are particularly sensitive to charges that they are persecuting religious groups. Nonetheless, concerns about Aum’s possible connection with sarin and other sect-related tensions prompted them to act. In response, the cult’s leaders had its lawyers file suit. And the next day, Japan is whispering, it did more.

Once the police uncovered Aum’s huge stockpiles of lethal chemicals, several things changed. In addition to announcing publicly that Asahara is wanted for questioning about the subway poisoning, the traditionally reticent Japanese police revealed that they were entertaining 110 complaints against the cult for offenses including unlawful confinement, assault and theft. The charges seemed to embolden local authorities, who were reported in the press to be investigating a cult hospital in Tokyo’s Nakano neighborhood and allegations of electronic bugging in Yamanashi. The Nagano prefectural police, acting on the soil samples that so perturbed the cult’s neighbors, have begun investigating Aum’s link to the deaths in Matsumoto.

The guru himself laid low. He released a videotape answering questions posed by the nhk television network in which he echoed his lawyers’ earlier line, denying involvement in Kiyoshi Kariya’s kidnapping and providing innocent household explanations for the seized chemicals. “I don’t understand,” he concluded, “why it’s said that these can be used to make sarin.” A second video was recorded for cult followers and played at 36 local chapters. In it Asahara claimed that Aum members, including himself, had been the object of a poison-gas attack. The origin was “unmistakably” the U.S.

By Saturday most of the patients who survived the subway gassing had left St. Luke’s Hospital in central Tokyo and were improving steadily. But new cases keep streaming in. These patients’ ailments are not physical but psychosomatic. Yet they come by the hundreds, and they truly believe they have been poisoned.

In a way, they have. They represent the damage done not to an individual nervous system, but to a city’s – perhaps a nation’s – sense of security and self. As the Asahi Shimbun editorialized, “While it is hard to build a safe society, it is very easy to destroy it.” One senior security official looked a reporter in the eye on Thursday and said, “Yes, I am very worried about another attack, a revenge attack.”

For some, the sense of dread extends beyond the fear of more sarin, reaching deep into the nature of Aum and the sort of person Aum attracts, whether the cult was behind the killings or not. There is a word for a certain kind of young person in Japan: otaku, which translates as obsessed to the point of being asocial, almost communally autistic. The word describes a whole generation of children for whom family life barely exists: father is always at work, and child is at cram school, preparing for the next exam. The father often does it because he remembers Japan just after the war – the desolation and the deprivation – and believes only money and success can assuage that pain. The child does it because society says he must.

Sometimes the system works and turns out efficient next-generation salarymen. But as some of these children reach adulthood, they begin to ask questions for which this narrowest of training provides no answers. The word for them then is majime, whose direct translation is earnest. They are in search of meaning but unequipped with the tools normally used to discern it. They grasp at any world vision they are offered. ufos perhaps; perhaps fortune telling, channeling, yoga or mind control. Once lured, they pursue their new faith with the stupendous energy of the lost.

Reported by Edward W. Desmond and Irene M. Kunii/Tokyo, with other bureaus

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
TIME Magazine
Apr. 3, 1995
David van Biema

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday April 3, 1995.
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