Ten years after the gas attack on the Tokyo subway, the cult responsible still attracts members
Every year without fail, in the weeks leading up to March 20, Mitsuru Kono, a retired printer from northern Tokyo, finds himself struck with agonising and unpredictable pains.
It might be a sudden twinge in the shoulder in the middle of the night, accompanied by feverish sweating, or a moment of dizziness so intense that he has to lean against a wall to remain upright. “Once I was walking towards the station when I began to feel as if the air had been sucked out of me like a vacuum,” he says. “Other victims I know get splitting headaches and insomnia, so bad that they can’t survive without pills.”
All over Tokyo are thousands of people suffering similar painful attacks, and with the same feelings of dread about March 20. “I have to be careful when I’m waiting for the train, because if it happened on the platform I could easily fall over the edge,” says Kono. “A doctor told me: ‘It’s anniversary day syndrome — it’s your brain’s way of telling you that that time is coming round again’.”
Ten years ago this Sunday, sarin nerve gas was released on the Tokyo subway. The perpetrators were members of a group called Aum Shinri Kyo, led by a blind and bearded guru named Shoko Asahara. Thirteen people died; more than 5,000 others were treated in hospital, including Kono.
It came nine weeks after the Kobe earthquake, in which 6,000 people died. The two events, according to the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, were like “the front and back of one massive explosion . . . these twin catastrophes will remain embedded in our psyche as two milestones in our life as a people,” he wrote. “They ushered in a period of critical inquiry into the very roots of the Japanese state.”
And yet, in the space of ten years, that inquiry has yielded precious little. Numerous books, television reports and newspaper articles, and the ongoing trials of Aum Shinri Kyo members, have established what happened and how — but the question “why?” remains unanswered. Why did so many of Japan’s best educated people join an organisation which resembles a lunatic religious cult? How, despite ample evidence that they were up to no good, were they able to acquire the means to manufacture nerve gas? Above all, why are they still attracting new members?
The search for an answer leads to the suburb of Chitose Karasuyama, an unremarkable commuter community half an hour from central Tokyo. Here there is a large apartment block draped with 20ft banners put up by a group of local residents — “End your parents’ tears! Please leave the Cult and go home”. To the consternation of the people of Chitose Karasuyama, this has become Home Sweet Aum.
More than 100 people live here; nationwide the cult claims 480 full-time “monks” and “nuns”, and 700 “lay members”. This is drastically fewer than the 11,000 members in 1995 — but still astonishing given that their founder, Shoko Asahara, was sentenced to death last year for multiple murders.
Among them is Hiroshi Suzuki, a handsome 36-year-old with one of the world’s most challenging jobs — public relations officer to “Aleph“, as Aum Shinri Kyo now calls itself. With his high cheekbones and expensive-looking leather jacket, Suzuki (not his real name) seems nothing like the popular image of the pyjama-wearing Aum misfit. But in plenty of ways he is a typical member — an intelligent, highly educated member of the elite.
He spent his early teens with his expat parents in California, and returned home to study at a famous private university. After graduation, he joined a government trade promotion organisation, but quit after six months to become a full-time Aum Shinri Kyo “monk”. He joined as a lay member, attracted by Asahara’s teaching and its emphasis on the Buddhist quest to eliminate desire and its debt to mystical Tibetan Buddhism.
But there was another reason why life as an elite civil servant was no longer tolerable. “I had psychic powers,” Suzuki says. “I could read people’s minds, see the future, see foreign places. And I see ghosts.”
This is what set Aum apart from other Buddhist meditation groups — the promise not only of enlightenment but of supernatural powers.
At 23 he was sent to Russia to set up the cult’s Moscow branch. “I experience ten times as much as I could have done if I’d stayed in my job,” he says. “I’d never have experienced a raid, being knocked down by policemen. Or giving a press conference in front of so many TV cameras. Or leading hundreds of Russians in Buddhist practice.”
As early as 1989, according to confessions by former members, they murdered a lawyer who had been acting against the cult, along with his wife and baby. A string of other killings followed, of young members who were trying to leave the cult and relatives who were helping them. In 1994, seven people were killed by mysterious fumes in a mountain town called Matsumoto. The climax came on March 20, 1995, when, in an apparent attempt to hurry along the Armageddon predicted by their guru, ten Aum followers released sarin in five trains on the Tokyo subway.
It took Aum more than four years to face up to what its leaders had done. In 1999 came an apology to its victims; the following year came the name change from Aum to Aleph. Suzuki sets out the official line: “It seems that Shoko Asahara has two sides — the religious side, good and moral, opposed to any taking of life, and then the criminal aspect, the so-called terrorist.” The teachings of the master, in other words, can be separated from his actions. Understandably, this position fails to satisfy the likes of Kono.
Tomorrow he will join a commemorative walk of sarin survivors between the stations where the most casualties occurred. The Aleph members will pay the anniversary little heed. “Some strange malaise, some bitter aftertaste lingers on,” Murakami has written. “We crane our necks and look around, as if to ask: where did all that come from? . . . We will get nowhere as long as (we) continue to disown the Aum phenomenon as something completely other, an alien presence viewed through binoculars on the far shore.”