by Jackie Fowler
For Soc 497: Independent
University of Virginia
Last modified: 07/16/01
I. Group Profile
The history of Aum Shinrikyo begins with
Asahara Shoko. He attended a school for the blind from
the age of five (Mullins: 315), and after graduating in 1977 he
moved to Tokyo (Shimazono: 385). Despite earnest efforts, he failed
the entrance exam at Tokyo University and turned to studying
acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine. He married in 1978; he
and his wife sold herbal medicine and natural foods, and he
continued his study of acupuncture (Mullins: 315). Shimazono states
Asaharaís move to Tokyo marked the beginning of his intense interest
in religion (385). Through his "search for faith," he joined Agonshu,
a "New New Religion" that stressed liberation from bad karma via
meditation (Shimazono: 385). This belief emerges slightly altered in
Aum Shinrikyo belief system. In Aum, a believer can "remove bad
karma" by enduring various sufferings. Members use this idea to
justify the abuse of other members (Shimazono: 386).
In 1984, Asahara and his wife began holding regular yoga classes,
and here gained some following (Mullins: 315). While in India in
1986, Asahara claims to have recieved enlightenment while alone in
the Himalayan Mountains, and upon his return in 1987 he changed his
name from Chizuo Matsumoto to the "holy" Asahara Shoko (Mullins:
315). He continued his religious activities and named his group Aum
Shinrikyo. Aum is Sanskrit for the "powers of destruction and
creation in the universe," and Shinrikyo is the "teaching of the
supreme truth" (Reader: 15). As the groupís name suggests, the goal
is to teach the truth about the creation and destruction of the
universe (Mullins: 315).
In 1989, the group attempted to register with the government under
the Religious Corporations Law (shukyo hojin ho). Such registration
includes benefits like tax privileges, the right to own property as
an organization, and protection from any state or other external
interference (Reader: 35). At first, registration was not permitted
due to a series of complaints from families of the shukkesha, a
practice that demands that individuals sever all ties with family
and cease communication (Reader: 36). Aum publicly responded to the
rejection with demonstrations, law suits, and a legal appeal against
the decision. In August 1989 Aum was granted the legal status
(Reader: 37). This began a trend, as Aum came to greet every
difficulty with vigorous denials and law suits.
"It thus used
apparent adversities to gain further attention and publicize itself,
whilst also, perhaps gaining the impression that it could overcome
any external problem through agressive responses" (Reader: 37).
In May 1989 several parents hired the Yokohama lawyer
Tsutsumi, as he had had previous experience with child/parent
estrangement in connection with New Religious Movements (Reader:
37). In August 1989, the Sunday Mainichi (a prominent Japanese
newspaper) began a seven-part series on the group. The series
included accusations that members were separated from their
families, complaints that children received no formal schooling, and
speculation about "blood initiations" and large, involuntary
donations from members (Reader: 38). In response, the newspaper
received 200 letters and postcards from former members and families
expressing their grievances (Reader: 380). Also in response to the
series, the Aum Shinrikyo higaisha no kai (Aum Shinrikyo Victimís
Society) was established (Reader: 38). Aum responds with threatening
plans to sue the editors and senior executives of the Sunday
Around this time, Sakamoto uncovered a faulty claim. Asahara claimed
that tests conducted at Kyoto University revealed his blood
contained unique DNA. This "finding" constituted the blood
initiation that was believed to enhance "spiritual power
enhancement." No such tests were run (Reader: 38). In November 1989,
Sakamoto disappeared along with his wife and infant son. The blood
and Aum badge found on the scene pointed to the group, but Aum
denied involvement. Investigations yielded no direct evidence
against Aum in connection with the disappearances, and the group
embraced the chance for publicity (Reader: 39). In actuality, the
three bodies were uncovered in three separate mountain locations in
September 1995, nearly six full years after the disappearances
In July 1989, Asahara professed political action was necessary to
save the world (see Beliefs) and hence the Shinrito ("Supreme Truth
party") political party emerged (Reader: 44). Their purpose was to
publicize Aumís teachings, offer salvation to a wider audience, and
provide Aum with access to publicity (means to aforementioned ends).
All twenty five candidates from the party lost, and because they had
truly expected to win, this served a great blow (Reader: 44). The
election led to more legal problems as accusations arose that
several hundred followers falsified their legal residence so they
could vote within Asaharaís constituency (Reader: 44). The Supreme
Truthís overwhelming defeat led to what Richard Young called "Aum-Bashing."
"í[This practice] became almost a national pastimeí" (Reader: 44).
This nation wide response led to further estrangement of the group
This period marked a major shift in Aum ideology. A group that
initially sought to prevent an apocalypse now realized a new goal;
they had to limit the number of deaths through religious activities
and preparations (Mullins: 316). They could no longer save the world
but needed to protect themselves (Reader: 46). Asahara announced the
need for followers to prepare for the inevitable Armageddon, and
they began construction on nuclear shelters and communes where they
could escape worldly distractions (Reader: 46). This isolation
strengthened the influential power of Aumís leadership and the
hierarchic structure that was based on ascetic attainment (Reader:
49). Many failed attempts to improve the groupís public image led to
a stronger feeling of persecution among the Aum members and inner
dependence (Reader: 54).
Takahashi Masayo was one of four members accused in the 1995 Tokyo sarin gas attack, and he outlined a sequence of events in court. In
this sequence, Takahashi indicated that in March 1993, Asahara gave
orders to manufacture sarin gas, however it has not been ruled
impossible that such plans were made as early as 1990 (Reader: 72).
An Aum official named Murai Hideo (who was murdered in April 1995)
is believed to have received Asaharaís orders to develop chemical
weapons (Reader: 73). Murai then placed Tsuchiya Masami, who has a
Masterís degree in organic chemistry, in charge of chemical weapons
research (Reader: 73). Tsuchiyaís team successfully made sarin in
late 1993 (Reader: 77), and he now faces various charges in
connection with the "Aum Affair."
On June 27, 1994, clouds of sarin engulfed the Kita-Fukashidistrict
of Matsumoto (central Japan) (Reader: 78). Seven people died and
hundreds were injured. Initially, a local gardener was falsely
accused and was cleared only after many months of investigation
(Reader: 70). Testimony revealed Asahara ordered the attack in the
vicinity of three judges set to hear a case against the group
(Reader: 79). The refrigerated trucks were equipped with spraying
mechanisms and driven from Aumís main facility to Matsumoto. This
gassing successfully injured the judges (Reader: 80).
In the summer of 1994, Aum established its own "government" in
opposition to the Japanese government (Reader: 81). Similar in
organization to that of the Japanese nation, Aumís governmental
structure promoted Asaharaís personal "imperial aspirations"
(Reader: 82). On July 9, 1994, a serious gas leak lead to reports of
Aum members running in gas masks from a facility building. Trees and
grass in the area suffered evident, unnatural damage (Reader 78).
Finally, in January 1995, the link between the Matsumoto incident
and the gas leak was made public (Reader: 83).On March 19, 1995,
police entered Aum headquarters in Osaka and arrested three members
for an alleged abduction of a disruptive, disobedient member
On March 20, 1995, in the midst of morning rush hour, ten highly
placed members boarded five trains at different stations. At a
predetermined point in time, the ten members punctured bags of sarin
wrapped in newspaper with umbrellas as they left their trains
(Reader: 86). The Kasumigaseki Station suffered the worst of the
attack. The time and place appear to have been deliberately
selected, as Kasumigaseki Station is located under many government
offices and the National Police Agencyís headquarters (Reader: 87).
Twelve people died and thousands were incapacitated in this March
gassing (Reader: 87).
Various violent incidents followed. On March 30, 1995, there was an
attempted assassination of police Chief Kunimatsu, the head of the
National Police Agency, and subsequent gas attacks occurred on trains
in the Tokyo-Yokohama area. In these cases there were deaths or
serious injuries (Reader: 87). Many printed publishings available as
of December 1998 support the notion that the government ordered the
disbandment of Aum Shinriyko in December 1995 (Reader: 85). However,
a web site maintained by the Foreign Press Center of Japan discloses
information to the contrary. According to this site, on January 31,
1997 the Public Security Examination Commission rejected a request
submitted by the Public Security Investigation Agency to disband the
cult under the Antisubversive Activities Law.
The Public Security
Examination Commission states conditions have changed much since the
arrests of all high ranking Aum officials, but stressed the need for
close monitoring by the police and the Public Security Investigation
Agency. The group did not fall under two stipulations in the
Antisubversion Activities Law; they failed to have a political
objective and they did not organize a series of related incidents.
The site includes several supportive editorials from Japanís leading
newspapers. Though not as active, Aum Shinrikyo remains intact at
Sacred or Revered Texts: Aum Shinrikyo has no specific sacred text.
Asahara has published a number of works, and most are drawn from his
sermons. His works contain a mixture of Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist
ideas, and as 1995 approached, his sermons and publications had a
stronger Apocalyptic focus drawn from Christian thought,
Cult or Sect: Negative sentiments are typically implied when the
concepts "cult" and "sect" are employed in popular discourse. Since
the Religious Movements Homepage seeks to promote religious
tolerance and appreciation of the positive benefits of pluralism and
religious diversity in human cultures, we encourage the use of
alternative concepts that do not carry implicit negative
stereotypes. For a more detailed discussion of both scholarly and
popular usage of the concepts "cult" and "sect," please visit our
Conceptualizing "Cult" and "Sect" page, where you will find
additional links to related issues.
Size of Group: There is presently much speculation about the group
rebuilding but current figures include 500 fulltime devotees as
opposed to the 1,100 members during the time of the gassings. As of
May 1998, when the new Tokyo Center was completed, there are now
twenty-six centers nationwide.
Remarks: A series of legal reactions followed the gassings in 1995,
and cases are far from over as of December 1998. The following are
only some of the legal events. Between March 22 and May 16, 1995,
200 Aum members were arrested. After weeks of searching, Asahara was
found hiding in a secret room in Kamikuishiki, the village where the
groupís main facility was located (Mullins: 319). He had in his
possession a "considerable" amount of cash and gold bars (Mullins:
319). Also recovered were several comatose followers, found to be
under the influence of such drugs as pentobarital (anesthetic which
can cause convulsions, mental instability, and even death) (Mullins:
Asahara and 104 followers have been
indicted on various charges. Asahara himself has been indicted for:
murder in relation to the Tokyo sarin gas attack on March 20, 1995
(twelve dead and 5,500 injured)
murder in relation to Matsumoto Nagano Prefecture sarin gas attack
in June 1994 (seven killed and 600 injured)
kidnapping and murder of Tsutsumi Sakamoto (Lawyer representing Aum
member parents) and his wife and infant son
kidnapping and death of Kiyoshi Kariya (Tokyo notary public) in
lynching of Kotata Ochida ("íuncooperativeí" Aum member) in February
illegal production of various drugs (Mullins: 319)
Though Asahara maintains his innocence, many followers have
confessed their involvement in these crimes and have claimed they
acted under Asaharaís direct orders (Mullins: 320).
The first attacks targeted wavering members, or those about to leave
the group. Police reported thirty-three Aum followers are believed
to have been killed between October 1988 and March 1995. Further
police speculation includes several lynching, eight deaths from
intense ascetic training, two suicides, and twenty-one missing
people who are presumed dead (Mullins: 320). Russiaís involvement
with Aum Shinrikyo has not yet been fully researched (Reader: 75).
Under the leadership of
Fumihiro Joyu, Aum Shinrikyo is now seeking
to regroup and rebuild. In an effort to change its image, Aum, has
changed its name to Aleph, which means to
start anew (Sims: 2000).
It is not clear just how much distance the renewed Aleph has placed
between itself and Shoko Asahara. They have not renounced the
founding leader Asahara. In an interview with the New York Times
Still, Joyu says that
profits from their business activities will be used to compensate
victims for prior wrongdoings of the sect.
Joyu also claims the reorganization will lead to a more democratic
group and that the Japanese no longer have reason to fear the group.
In the meantime, according to Sims,
For the lastest news on Aum Shinrikyo/Aleph, see the web site of the
Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR).
II. Beliefs of the Group
Aum Shinrikyo offers liberation from suffering and illness, and
"Aum can best be viewed as an eclectic Buddhist
movement that draws on various Asian traditions, such as yoga and
Tibetan Buddhism" (Mullins: 315).
Full of Hindu motifs and
practices, the primary deity in Aum is Shiva, the god of
destruction. This deity embodies Aumís main focus, the creation and
destruction of the universe. The Buddhist ideas incorporated include
transmigration and rebirth, the world of suffering, and the goal of
better rebirths and enlightenment through meditation (Reader: 16).
Asahara borrows the idea of
the bardo, a Tibetan concept that
defines a 49-day transmigration period after death (Reader: 17).
Asaharaís interest in the Book of Revelation and
Prophecy of Nostradamus is reflected in his predictions for 1999. He
taught that members must work to transfer evil energy into positive
energy and avoid mass destruction via nuclear war. To be specific,
30,000 had to achieve liberation through Asaharaís teachings to save
the world from such a fate. His theory of prevention shifted
dramatically, and by 1990 he focused on mere survival (Mullins:
This is where he proclaims this importance of
and other such preparations. His goal, through what he called the
"Lotus Village Plan," was for small communes to be self-sufficient
and able to rebuild civilization (Mullins: 317).
Richard Young, through his connections with a young member, was able
to attend a sermon in the early 1990ís. During these years Aum
Shinrikyo was already under great scrutiny within Japanese society.
He breaks the sermon down into three main parts: "the problem," "the
ideal," and "the way." The problem, he says, was that "[Asahara]
became so obsessed with what was wrong with Japan that he lost
confidence even in the power of Buddhism" (Young: 235).
focus on the decay of spirituality and denounced materialism faded
into the background and Aumís leader failed to grasp the ethical
fundamentals of Buddhism. Next, the "ideal" world for which members
strived was vaguely explained and "disconcertingly mundane.
following his prophecies, Japan would become a national community
and the world would be in a state of global peace (Young: 236).
reality [however] it was a caricature of the authoritarian society
he chaffed against" (Young: 236).
Finally, Asahara outlined "the
way" to the ideal state. The ultimate goal for each individual
member was to attain buddhahood through initiation by the master
himself. Asahara had already "explored the inner world of self" and
promised levitation, clairvoyance, and a breaking of the life cycle
He failed to emphasize the importance of ethical
training and a life of virtue. Young says Aum was not a
"user-friendly religion" (Young: 237).
Asahara focused on ascetic practice
(discipline) and yogic technique (mind over body empowerment)
Asahara stressed isolation as crucial in serious training as the
impure outside world only contaminated members -- tight bonds kept
all those involved pure (Young: 241).
Young states this isolationism
and apocalyptism is nothing more than a "symbolic projection" of
Asaharaís anxiety and vulnerability of his achievements in a hostile
world (Young: 241).
The leader himself was "a guru with a very nasty
persecution complex and delusory notions of grandeur (Young: 244).
He convinced his followers that such solitude was for their own
welfare, and used drugs to keep them docile (Young: 242).
was more of a controller than a guide, as he used his influential
powers to dominate Aum members. The traditional Indian guru would
place the needs of his followers before his own (Young: 243).
constant creation of more complicated levels of ranking and
definitions of enlightenment suggests that Asahara created such
obstacles out of fear his followers would surpass him in their
dedication and practice (Young: 243).
Aum Shinrikyoís belief system
began as a mixture of traditional religious thought but continuously
shifted towards a more apocalyptic movement.
Brackett, D. W. 1996.
Armageddon in Tokyo. New
York, NY: Weatherhill, Inc.
Clarke, Peter B., ed., 2000.
Japanese New Religions: In Global
Perspective. Cruzon Press. 321pp.
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The Cult and the End of the World.
New York, NY: Crown Publishers, Inc.
For reviews and commentary on this book go to Amazon. com
and enter the title in the search engine at the top of the
Kisala, Robert. J. and Mark R.
Religion and Social Crisis in Japan:
Understanding Japanese Society through the Aum Affair.
New York: Palgrave. 240pp. See review and contents on
publishers web page.
Kisala, Robert. J. 1998.
"The AUM Spiritual Truth Church in Japan" in
Wolves Within the Fold: Religious
Leadership and Abuses of Power. Anson Shupe, Ed.
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 33-48.
Lifton, Robert J. 1999.
Destroying the World to Save It: Aum
Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence and the New Global Terrorism.
New York: Metropolitan Books - Henry Holt and Company.
Click here to read an
article length review of this book by Massimo Introvigne
entitled "Killing Fields: Lifton, Brainwashing, and Aum
Shinri-kyo." Richard Bernstein reviewed this volume for
the New York Times on November 1, 1999; and a second
review by Nicholas D. Kristof appeared in the New York
Tims Review of Books on December 12, 1999.
Mullins, Mark R. 1997.
"Aum Shinrikyo as an Apocalyptic Movement" in
Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem:
Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements: Thomas
Robbins and Susan J. Palmer, eds. New York, NY: Routledge.
Reader, Ian. 1997.
A Poisonous Cocktail? Aum Shinrikyoís
Path to Violence. Copenhagen, Denmark: NIAS
Reader, Ian. 2000.
Religious Violence in Contemporary
Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo. Honolulu:
University of Hawaii Press.
Shimazono, Susumu. 1995.
"In the Wake of Aum: The Formation and Transformation of a
Universe of Belief." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies.
Sims, Calvin. 2000.
"Under Fire, Japan Sect Starts Over." New York Times. Feb
Young, Richard. 1995.
"Lethal Achievements: Fragments of a Response to the Aum
Shinrikyo Affair." Japanese Religions. 20:2. 230-245.