July 22, 2015
Takahasi Katsuya was the lastmember of the murderous Aum Shinrikyo cult to face justice. The guilty verdictreturned against him in April is a watershed in the legal proceedings thatfollowed the cult’s sarin gas attack on Tokyo subways in 1995. This is thus anapt time to think anew about how Aum transformed formerly upright young peopleinto criminals.
The Last of 192 Indictmentsin the Aum Saga
It was finally over. Thepolice in June 2012 had captured Takahashi Katsuya, the last suspect sought inconnection with Aum Shinrikyō’s 1990s crime spree. And on April 30, 2015, theTokyo District Court returned a guilty verdict, sentencing him to life inprison. Takahashi is, to be sure, appealing that verdict. And his case couldwell spend years winding through Japan’s court system all the way up to theSupreme Court. But Japan’s appellate courts rarely devote as much time as thelower courts do to examining the evidence presented. So the April verdict was awatershed in regard to reevaluating what happened in the Aum Shinrikyō cult(“Aum,” since renamed “Aleph”).
Aum members burst bags filledwith liquid sarin, a deadly poison, on five Tokyo subway trains on March 20,1995. The attack killed 13 passengers and subway station employees and injuredthousands. It prompted the Japanese police to finally storm the Aum compound inYamanashi Prefecture, which they had long been monitoring, and the subsequentinvestigation led to indictments of 192 Aum members.
Among those indicted were thecult leader, Asahara Shōkō (a.k.a. Matsumoto Chizuo), and his second incommand, Murai Hideo. An assassin murdered Murai, however, while the criminalinvestigation was under way. Asahara had occassionally issued orders throughMurai, so the latter’s death robbed the authorities of a valuable source ofinformation for linking Asahara to the cult’s crimes. The depositions andtestimony by other Aum members proved ample, though, to illuminate Asahara’srole as the mastermind behind the criminal activity.
My coverage of Aum reliedheavily on what I heard and saw at public hearings. Journalists in Japan haveextremely limited access to individuals held in detention centers or prisons.In the rare instances where interviews are allowed, the time allotted isextremely brief. And the authorities do not allow visitors to take photographsor use audio recorders. The limitations on access are especially onerous in thecase of death-row inmates. Even exchanging letters can be impossible.
The police, meanwhile, do notrelease the details of their investigation findings. Nor do the courts releasetranscripts of their proceedings. So attending the court hearings in person isthe best way to get a feel for the character of the accused and to gain insightinto the events in question. Thus did I find myself in attendance at numeroushearings during my years of following the Aum story.
Obedience to MurderousInstructions
Aum committed numerouscrimes, including 10 incidents that entailed one or more murders. The instancesof multiple killings were the March 1995 sarin attack on Tokyo subways; a June1994 sarin attack in the Nagano Prefecture city of Matsumoto; and the November1989 murders of the lawyer Sakamoto Tsutsumi, who had mobilized opposition toAum, and his wife and infant son. Aum’s expansive crime portfolio also includedincidents of attempted murder; the illegal manufacture of guns, explosives, anddrugs; the construction of a plant for producing sarin in large quantities;fraud; and theft.
Most of the serious crimescommitted by Aum members took place under orders issued directly by Asahara tothe perpetrators. Aum’s formal precepts prohibited the taking of life, and noone in the cult, even senior leaders, could violate those precepts at their owndiscretion. Aum countenanced killing only as authorized by its guru, Asahara,and we know from the court testimony of Aum members that the cult characterizedAsahara-authorized murder as “salvation.”
People outside the cult werehungry for answers about how and why the cult’s crimes had unfolded. Twoquestions were especially perplexing. One, how did Aum attract so manybelievers, including intelligent and highly educated individuals? And two, whydid Aum members comply submissively with instructions to commit murder? Somedefense lawyers believed it necessary to probe into these questions in order toshed light on what propelled members to perpetrate the crimes.
A Magnet for the SpirituallyAdrift
Asahara launched Aum in 1984as a yoga studio but repositioned it as a religious organization in 1987, whenhe renamed it Aum Shinrikyō. The cult secured formal certification from theTokyo Metropolitan Government as a religious corporation in 1989.
Japan in the 1980s was athrobbing economic bubble. Stock and real estate prices surged inexorably,get-rich-quick schemes abounded, and the nation was awash in mounds of cash.The materialistic zeitgeist also spawned countercurrents, and significantnumbers of Japanese looked beyond the moneymaking maelstrom in search of truehappiness and fulfillment. Some turned to occult spiritualism unfettered byconventional notions of reality or concern with scientific verification.
Exaggerating the atmospherewas an enduringly popular 1973 Japanese book that accompanied a translation ofThe Prophecies of Nostradamus with commentary. That book adhered to a fin desiècle interpretation of the original that predicted the annihilation ofhumankind in 1999.
Aum appealed masterfully tothe concerns of the spiritually adrift. Young people eager for nonmaterialisticinsight responded positively to Asahara’s claims of supernatural powers. Thecult propagated an Armageddon scenario and positioned its activities assalvation for the souls of the soon-to-be victims of the impending cataclysm.Aum pitched its nostrums as means of personal deliverance and of socialsalvation.
Note that enlisting in Aum’slegion was more than just a route to personal deliverance. As part of theorganization, the recruit would have the opportunity to save others. That wasan intoxicating message for young people who were uncomfortable with theirexistence and were seeking greater meaning in life. It proved a fatalattraction for a young man who later received a death sentence for his role inthe murder of the Sakamoto family and in the Matsumoto sarin attack.
“I didn’t want to just becomea typical company employee [like my father],” the young man recalled later. “Ihated the idea of leading an ordinary life. I was looking for a line of workthat would be really worth getting into [but wasn’t finding anything that feltright].”
A friend of the young man hadjoined Aum and invited him to join, too. The young man was mistrustful ofreligion and entered an Aum facility initially with the intent of persuadinghis friend to leave. But once inside, he found the talk of Armageddonconvincing and the notion of saving humankind appealing. He ended up joiningthe cult despite his parents’ best efforts at dissuasion.
“I’ve got to preventArmageddon,” retorted the young man. “And I’ve got to repay the happiness thatI’ve enjoyed [by saving humankind].”
A male on death row for hisrole in the subway sarin attacks recounts a similar tale. He had excelled atphysics at university, where he earned a postgraduate degree in the subject.Even after joining Aum, he initially had no intent of giving himself over tothe cult entirely; that is, handing over all his assets, cutting ties withfamily and friends, and devoting himself full time to Aum activities.
This young man had receivedan offer to work in the R&D operations of a blue-chip company. He changedhis mind, however, at the persuasion of Asahara. “Who will save the world,”asked the cult leader rhetorically, “if young people like you don’t take up thechallenge?” That sparked a sense of purpose in the young man that he hadformerly lacked. He became a full-fledged Aum member, turning down the employmentoffer and turning away, too, from his family. Six years later, he was murderingTokyo subway riders with sarin.
The second individualdescribed above was from a tight-knit family, but Aum also became a refuge fornumerous young people who didn’t get along with their parents or who haddifficulty relating to people in general. Aum’s live-in facilities werecomfortable and reassuring environments for young men and women who didn’t feelcomfortable anywhere else.
Freed from the socialcomplexities of human relationships, Aum’s recruits needed simply to absorb theabsolute supremacy of Asahara Shōkō. The leader’s every instruction wasabsolutely correct. The inability to grasp that simple truth was a sign ofinsufficient spiritual attainment. Aum’s members needed to overcomereservations based on lingering fixations with social mores conventionalmorality, scientific knowledge, and laws and regulations.
Members learned to concealany doubts that they were unable to erase completely. They learned to acceptAsahara’s instructions unquestioningly and to carry them out proactively. Theyceased to think on their own and instead became veritable extensions of theirsupreme leader. That was the ideal pattern of development for Aum members.
Four of the five members whocarried out the sarin attacks on subway trains were engaging in murder for thefirst time. One of the five was a physician, and the others were trainedscientists. They fully understood the poisonous properties of the sarin thatthey released on the trains. None of them exhibited any reticence whatsoeverabout carrying out their murderous instructions.
Yoga, LSD, and SleepDeprivation
Aum’s leaders employed yogaextensively as a tool for instilling cult discipline in the members. Some ofthe initiates reported experiencing paranormal phenomena while engaged in theyoga regimen: the perception of being irradiated with a brilliant light, forexample, or of energy surging through their body.
Practitioners of“conventional” yoga have reported similar experiences, as have meditativeBuddhist monks. And scientists have accounted for those experiences inreference to objectively verifiable psychological phenomena. But Aum’s cultistsassociated their yoga-born experiences with otherworldly phenomena channeledthrough the cult leader, Asahara. They welcomed the experiences as evidence ofprogress along a spiritual path administered by their leader.
The spiritual conditioningundergone by the Aum members inculcated a sense of dependence on Asahara. Andthat dependence begot a readiness to participate even in heinous crimes.Success in conditioning initiates with yoga whetted the Aum leadership’sappetite for ways of indoctrinating more initiates more swiftly. The cultthereupon turned to methamphetamine and LSD, producing stocks of the illegaldrugs in house, and administering them to members in ceremonies.
Aum’s curriculum implanted inthe members a horror of eternal damnation as the price of disregarding cultdoctrine. Several former members revealed that they were unable to dismiss thathorror. Even after trying to sever ties, it drove them to rejoin the cult. Yetanother tool used by the cult to mold the psyches of the members was sleepdeprivation. Aum members who lived in cult facilities performed all manner oftasks and chores while getting a bare minimum of sleep. They received no news,meanwhile, from the outside world, their only information input being what wasimparted by the cult
Youthful Idealism on DeathRow
Aum recruited young people byappealing to their idealistic interest in discovering themselves, in helpingothers, in improving the world. Those duped into joining were initially victimsof the insidious cult, but they ultimately became proactive accomplices,inflicting harm on others. That process of malevolent assimilation is common tocults everywhere. Witness, for example, the Islamic State.
A lot of former Aum membersexperienced a reawakening in the course of undergoing interrogation and hearingin court from the family members of their victims. The defendants shook loosebonds of mind control, reconnected with their former selves, and embraced asense of genuine regret for their actions. They received no leniency, however,in their sentencing, as the courts declined to accept mind control as anextenuating circumstance.
Japan’s legal system willrender a final decision sooner or later in Takahashi’s case, and that will openthe way for the executions of Aum’s condemned to get under way. However, thethought of the impending deaths only deepens the gloom I feel for the past lossof life.
(Originally written inJapanese and published on July 1, 2015. Banner photo: Asahara Shoko returns toTokyo’s Metropolitan Police Department headquarters after questioning byprosecutors on June 6, 1995. © Jiji.)