Aum Shinrikyo was the Japanese Doomsday Cult responsible for the 1995 Tokyo subway attacks. Cult members used sarin gas to kill thirteen people and injure a further 5,000 in Japan’s most deadly act of terrorism. Cult leader Shoko Asahara and six other members were hanged on the 6th July 2018.
On the 20th March 1995 during the morning rush hour five members of Aum Shinrikyo boarded Tokyo’s busiest commuter lines. Each carried a spiked umbrella and two plastic bags full of 0.9 litres of liquid sarin. At coordinated stations, the cultists pierced the bags and got off the train to meet their getaway drivers.
Victims of the 1995 Tokyo subway attacks
Sarin is the most deadly nerve agent. Created by the Nazis, it causes a victim’s nervous system to destroy itself. Sarin is absorbed through the skin: effects include convulsions, paralysis, permanent brain damage and/or death. A pinhead is enough to kill an adult.
Shoko Asahara, a visually impaired acupuncturist, started meditation classes from his Tokyo apartment in 1984. He claimed to be able to levitate, and could help others achieve salvation by withdrawing from society and following his teachings. Like Charles Manson, Asahara was a New Age guru who manipulated others to evil. He would later declare himself the incarnation of Lord Shiva, the Buddha and Jesus Christ.
Aum Shinrikyo was officially founded in 1987, a year after Asahara found ‘enlightenment’ in the Himalayas. The cult’s name derives from the Hindu symbol of creation, Aum, and the Japanese word for ‘supreme truth’. Aum Shinrikyo combined Mahayana Buddhist teachings with Hinduism, Taoism, Christian eschatology and, to a lesser extent, the writings of Nostradamus and Isaac Asimov.
Asahara and his followers believed the Apocalypse would occur in 2000, after which the Third Buddhist Age of ‘Shoho’, when nirvana is attainable by all, would commence. Secretly, they believed it was their job to induce it.
In 1989 Aum Shinrikyo gained official recognition as a religious organisation. From their commune at the base of Mount Fuji, Aum exploited the spiritual void left by Japan’s obsession with work and materialism to proselytise disillusioned students and intellectuals. Asahara published several books and spoke at universities. At its peak, Aum had over 10,000 followers in Japan, and an estimated 30,000 in Russia. Many were graduates of Japan’s top universities, some of whom developed the chemical weapons used in 1995.
Few souls would survive the Apocalypse – only the members of Aum, and those they killed. Asahara’s disciples believed that by killing outsiders they would prevent them from attaining further bad karma, and therefore save their immortal souls. Everyone outside the cult was an enemy.
In 1989 Aum claimed its first victims; Tsutsumi Sakamoto, a lawyer investigating the cult, his wife and baby son. Over the following years, they secretly amassed an arsenal of weapons, attempted to obtain anthrax and ebola samples and even a nuclear warhead. Chemical nerve agents proved more practical. In 1994, cultists used sarin gas to murder seven in the village of Matsumoto.
After the 1995 Tokyo Subway incident, Japanese police raided the Aum Shinrikyo commune. Inside they discovered stockpiles of LSD and other drugs, a Russian military helicopter and enough sarin to kill 4 million people.
Aum Shinrikyo members executed last Friday. Clockwise from top left:
- Shoko Asahara
- Tomomasa Nakagawa – murdered Mr Sakamoto and his family
- Seiichi Endo – head scientist
- Masami Tsuchiya – chief chemist, developed Aum’s sarin supply
- Kiyohide Hayakawa – ‘construction minister’, strangled a dissident cult member in 1989
- Tomomitsu Niimi – ‘minister of internal affairs’, getaway driver
- Yoshihiro Inoue – ‘head of intelligence’ and mastermind of the 1995 subway attack
Nine others await execution.
In 2004 Asahara and his inner circle were convicted of a total of 27 counts of murder and placed on death row. The last culprit, a getaway driver, was arrested in 2012.
Aum Shinrikyo survived and renamed itself ‘Aleph’ in 2000. The group has ostensibly rejected violence, but remains under tight police supervision. It currently has 1650 members.
Sources: Apologetics Index, Associated Press, BBC, Council on Foreign Relations, Japan Times, Rationalwiki