TOKYO � Through the eight long years of his trial, former guru of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult Shoko Asahara said barely a word. As the court handed him the death sentence on Feb 27, 2004, he grinned and pulled faces. No apology, no admission of guilt, no explanation for what many considered Japan’s crime of the century: the sarin nerve-gas attack on subway commuters nine years earlier.
At about 8 a.m. on March 20, 1995, a group of five teams of the Supreme Truth sect, which included graduates of Japan’s top universities, punctured packages of liquid sarin in subway cars on multiple lines. As the colorless, odorless agent developed by Nazis spread, confused commuters began coughing and gasping for breath, their eyes and noses running, before fleeing panic-stricken through station exits. It was an invisible terror few Tokyoites can forget.
Twelve people died and more than 5,500 were injured in what was the worst peacetime attack in Japanese history. It shattered the country’s image as a place free of violent crime.
Newspapers carried headlines on the cult and its investigation by police every day for months.
Asahara’s punishment for the subway attack and other criminal cases involving the deaths of 27 people was a forgone conclusion: the hangman’s noose. Prosecutors called him the most heinous criminal in Japanese history.
But even today, Aum and other fringe religious groups continue to make headlines while interest in Japan’s traditional Shinto and Buddhist faiths continues to decline.
Founded in 1984 in Shibuya, Aum was a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist mysticism topped with millenarian teachings about the creation and destruction of the universe. For Asahara, born into a poor family in Kumamoto Prefecture and visually impaired, it was a means of controlling others and gaining wealth.
Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, had a miserable childhood and was shipped off to a school for the blind when he was 6, where he allegedly used his limited vision to bully sightless pupils. He dreamed of being a politician, but failed in his bid to enter Tokyo University and pursued massage and acupuncture instead.
At 27, he was arrested for running an illegal pharmacy and selling quack medicine. He opened his own yoga studio, where he focused on developing extrasensory abilities through ascetic training. He claimed a 1986 trip to the Himalayas awakened special powers within him such as levitation and the capability to pass through walls.
Despite stories about demands of absolute loyalty to Asahara and harsh initiation rites at Aum compounds, his sect became one of the fastest-growing new religions in the country. Asahara’s ability to lure young people who were rejected by or disillusioned with modern Japanese society was extraordinary.
Aum claimed 10,000 believers in Japan at its peak and tens of thousands more in the United States, Russia and elsewhere. But after the pajama-clad guru’s attempt to enter national politics through elections in 1990 failed, Aum turned inward and focused on the coming Armageddon: Japan would suffer a devastating nuclear attack in 1997 and become a wasteland.
“Aum’s history coincided with Japan’s bubble economy and could be considered a by-product of that bubble,” says nonfiction writer Mark Schreiber, adding that one senior Aum member estimated the cult’s assets reached $1.5 billion. “Having the funds to buy property and operate ashrams gave Aum respectability, and made its pitch more convincing to potential converts. So its remarkable ability to shake the money tree gave it a spectacular growth trajectory. It seemed to materialize out of nowhere, and the public security agencies whose job is to watch extremist groups were probably caught off guard for this reason. They didn’t have time to get information from former cultists or infiltrate the group until it was too late.”
By the time Asahara was arrested in May 1995 at the sect’s compound in sleepy Kamikuishiki, Yamanashi Prefecture, in the foothills of Mt Fuji, his cult reportedly had a sarin production capacity to kill millions and, according to testimony by former members, could also make anthrax and VX nerve agent.
Japan’s horrified public demonstrated against Aum and pushed for controls on religious groups; the government enacted laws to place the group under strict surveillance. But Japan’s flirtation with so-called “new religions,” both homegrown and foreign, has continued. Regarded as a phenomenon dating to the Meiji Restoration period, Japan’s new religions are contrasted with traditional Buddhist sects and shrine Shinto. The largest are Soka Gakkai, Rissho Koseikai and Tenrikyo.
Pseudo-religions grabbing headlines
The arrests of charismatic gurus in recent years for swindling followers or other crimes have underlined the appeal such figures have for some Japanese and fueled public distrust in new pseudo-religions. Ho-no-hana Sampogyo sect leader Hogen Fukunaga was indicted in 2000 on charges of milking 150 million yen out of people through bogus seminars and predictions based on reading the soles of their feet. Prosecutors demanded a 13-year prison sentence in February this year.
In the spring of 2003, a mysterious apocalyptic cult called Pana Wave Laboratory drew headlines and a standoff with police when members camped out on a mountain road in a huge caravan of white vehicles. Claiming to be fleeing electromagnetic waves harming their leader Yuko Chino, the white-clad devotees and the intense media attention they generated were a reminder that eight years after the Aum sarin attack, such sects remain a grave public concern.
Some groups inspire more curiosity than fear. Japan is home to the largest chapter among 60,000 followers around the world claimed by the Raelian group. The Quebec-based Raelians are a media-savvy, publicity-hungry organization based on the beliefs of Frenchman Claude Vorilhon, a former motor racing writer who calls himself Rael. He says aliens created all life on Earth and told him this in a visit during the 1970s. The group has courted international controversy following claims that Clonaid, a firm run by Raelian biologist Brigitte Boisellier, produced the first cloned human baby.
The movement’s appeal here is not limited to the fringes of Japanese society. “Buddhism and Shinto have no meaning for me,” Tetsuya Ohshima, a web designer in his 30s, said in an interview in 2001. “Japanese don’t actively take part in religion. It’s just a custom now. Most families have Buddhist and Shinto altars, and on Dec 25 they celebrate Christmas.”
Ohshima, who studied biotechnology in college, became a Raelian when he was thinking about how to solve problems like war, famine and poverty. “The Japanese education system doesn’t teach about spirituality,” he added. “I’m sure that many young people are searching for how to live their lives better. I’m lucky to be able to have found that answer.”
Young Japanese apathetic toward religion
Most young Japanese feel apathetic toward religion, with little knowledge of the mainstream Buddhist and Shinto faiths and no interaction with monks and priests. Shinto shrines are visited en masse at New Year’s and on other established occasions, but generally as a social custom and not for genuine religious purposes. The enshrining of secular government and religious freedom in the 1947 constitution prompted a decline in organized religion, and the role of the temple is now mainly relegated to providing funeral services.
To fill the void, groups such as Shinrankai, Kenshokai and Worldmate have attracted young Japanese in the competitive belief market, according to Tokyo University religion professor Susumu Shimazono. Loosely organized spirituality and New Age movements, have gained many adherents through distribution channels such as books and seminars.
Nobutaka Inoue, a professor of religious studies at Kokugakuin University, described part of this effect in a 2003 summary of surveys on attitudes toward religion held by young Japanese as the “scenerization of traditional religion” � shrines and temples are still familiar religious establishments but are no longer visited for religious purposes.
“In Japan, there is no dominant religion now,” says Inoue, “so young people tend to establish relatively freer religious ideas. Certainly the teachings of the Raelians are quite strange for most Japanese. However, younger generations have less ability to judge whether a religious group is strange or not.”
Many of the new followings are closely affiliated with established orders. Shinnyoen is a new Buddhist movement founded by a priest from the traditional Shingon sect in 1936 that now claims some 800,000 followers across Japan. Believers venerate the historical Buddha as well as the Nirvana, and emphasize compassion while practicing sesshin meditation.
Joined while going through depression
Noriko, a Shinnyoen adherent in her 30s, says she joined the movement while going through severe depression, from which she was saved by a visit to group’s temple in Tachikawa. She describes the movement as “true blue Buddhism,” and distinguishes it from Soka Gakkai, the giant lay Buddhist group founded in 1930 that is behind the ruling bloc’s New Komeito party.
“I cannot even remember my mental pain in those times,” Noriko says. “I would have committed suicide if I hadn’t found this teaching. The deep loneliness I had from childhood completely disappeared.”
Noriko says she respects Shinto because it is the “heart of the Japanese people,” but is focused on practicing Shinnyoen meditation twice a month to remove bad karma in her life. “Now, every morning I wake up with a peaceful heart like a silent lake without ripples,” she says. “I never thought I’d live to see the day.”
Meanwhile, Aum returns as Aleph
In 2000, Aum renamed itself Aleph to try and shed its blood-soaked image. Aleph admitted Aum’s responsibility in the subway attack, apologized and promised compensation. But its efforts to distance itself from Asahara brought only limited success.
That same year, Aleph leader Fumihiro Joyu, a Waseda University graduate once considered a heartthrob by Japanese women, wrote: “We could say that former Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara was a kind of genius in meditation, but at the same time we cannot approve of the incidents his organization caused. While inheriting the superior practices of yoga and Buddhism, and the meditation method his yoga talent has left, we’d like to clearly disapprove of the incidents.”
Aleph’s membership was recently estimated at as high as 2,000 and monitoring of the group by the Public Security Intelligence Agency continues � as does the controversy surrounding the group. In January, a senior Aum member who had been imprisoned for participating in a deadly 1994 Aum sarin attack on Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, was found dead after undergoing “thermal training,” which involved bathing in 50ºC water for long periods of time.
Ten years after the subway attack, Asahara is appealing his death sentence, and silence continues to be his strategy. In January, the Tokyo High Court allowed Asahara’s lawyers to delay their submission of appeal documents until August because the 49-year-old has kept his mouth shut since 1996. He would not communicate with them and refused to answer questions at the Tokyo Detention House during more than 30 interviews since July. The case is expected to drag on for another 10 years, and some doubt whether he will ever go to the gallows.
For the victims of the gas attacks � many of whom still suffer after-effects including headaches, breathing difficulties and dizziness � some of the pain stems from not understanding why it happened. One senior Aum official testified that it was an attempt to distract police and avoid a raid on the group’s headquarters, something that is surely of little comfort.
In researching his book Underground: “The Tokyo Gas Attacks and the Japanese Psyche,” Haruki Murakami interviewed Aum followers and asked them whether, given the events of March 20, 1995, they regretted joining the cult. Almost all of them said they had no regrets.
In considering why this is so, Murakami’s conclusion also could also be read as a warning: “In Aum they found a purity of purpose they could not find in ordinary society. Even if in the end it became something monstrous, the radiant, warm memory of the peace they originally found remains inside them, and nothing else can easily replace it.”
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