Shoko Asahara, with his flowing beard and long hair, is the somewhat unlikely messianic figure at the core of Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese group which released deadly sarin gas onto the Tokyo underground in 1995.
Asahara claimed to be a reincarnation of the Hindu god Shiva, and promised to lead his followers to salvation when impending Armageddon arrived.
He was born Chizuo Matsumoto, one of seven children, in the city of Yatsushiro in March 1955.
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Almost blind, he attended a special school from which he graduated in 1977. Having failed to win a place at university, Matsumoto began a career in Chinese medicine before turning to new age philosophy and an eclectic mix of spiritual ideas.
After a pilgrimage to the Himalayas in 1987 he changed his own name to Shoko Asahara and the name of a group he had founded to Aum Shinrikyo. Aum is a sacred Hindu symbol and Shinrikyo means “supreme truth”.
The cult blended Hindu and Buddhist spirituality with the biblical book of Revelations and the ‘prophetic’ writings of the 16th century Christian monk Nostradamus.
At its peak, in the mid-90s, it is thought that Aum had up to 10,000 members, with thousands more in other countries, particularly Russia.
Asahara claimed the world would soon be enveloped by wars and evil, but by following him people could be saved.
He said he could teach levitation and telepathy, and – for a price – his followers could drink his bath water, and even his blood.
Attempts to establish a political offshoot of the group were frustrated in 1990, when it failed miserably in the Japanese elections.
Aum Shinrikyo drew members from a well-educated and wealthy section of society, providing its leader with the lethal ability to pursue his aims.
Information that has come to light since the subway attack has revealed numerous attempts in the early 1990s to buy and manufacture chemical weapons.
It also emerged that the CIA had investigated the group for trying to acquire a nuclear capability.
Investigations carried out after the subway attack implicated Aum Shinrikyo in a number of other deaths including a previous sarin attack in 1994 which killed seven people in central Japan.
Asahara was charged with those killings, as well as with ordering the murder of an anti-Aum lawyer and his family, and cult members who went against the grain.
But it was the chilling attack on the Tokyo underground which brought Shoko Asahara international attention.
Asahara’s followers casually boarded morning rush hour trains and then pierced bags of sarin with umbrella tips.
Asahara was eventually arrested in May 1995, after police found him hiding in the cult’s headquarters near Mount Fuji.
His trial began the following year, but made slow progress partly because of Asahara’s lack of co-operation – for a long time he refused to enter a plea, and would not speak except for occasional incomprehensible mutterings.
In the meantime 11 members of the cult have been sentenced to death.
But it is the verdict on Asahara, the movement’s spiritual guru, that has been so keenly awaited by Tokyo underground attack survivors for so long.
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