- Killed 13 and injured thousands of people by releasing lethal nerve gas Sarin during the rush hour of Tokyo’s subway system.
- The cult’s beliefs ranged from Buddhist teachings to biblical prophecies, with an emphasis on doomsday prediction, after which they were to replace the government.
- The perpetrators were not common criminals, but doctors, lawyers, scientists and well-educated university students.
Aum Shinrikyo (オウム真理教) is an active Japanese new-age religious cult-like movement founded in 1987. Similar to other doomsday cults such as The Order of The Solar Temple and Heaven’s Gate, the members of the movement believed a doomsday prophecy, which included a World War III.
What started off as a yoga and meditation class in 1984 came to the center of worldwide attention when members executed a nerve gas attack of sarin to the Tokyo subway system in 1995, killing 13 and injuring over 1000 people.
The bearded man in the picture above is Shoko Asahara (麻原 彰晃) – the founder of the cult, who likes to wear satin pajamas, proclaimed himself as the reincarnated Jesus Christ himself and Japan’s only fully enlightened master.
Asahara was born to a large, poor family in Kumamoto Prefecture. Afflicted at birth with infantile glaucoma, he went blind at a young age and had partial eyesight only in his right eye. When he graduated from a school for the blind in 1977, he started to study acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine – common career opportunities for the blind in Japan.
In 1981, Asahara was arrested for practicing medicine without a license and selling unregulated drugs. This was the time that his religious quest started. Recently married and father of a large and growing family, he was struggling to make ends meet and dedicated his free time to the study of various religious beliefs from Chinese astrology and Taoism to Buddhism and esoteric Christianity.
Dissatisfied with traditional, dominant forms of Japanese Buddhism, Asahara found Tibetan and Theravada Buddhist teachings more appealing, mixing them with biblical prophecies. The emphasis was on the doomsday prophecy – a final conflict ending with a nuclear Armageddon, after which the members of the cult were to replace the government in the chaos following the war.
The cult’s followers, which included many well-educated people and numerous graduates from Japan’s elite universities, were taught to give total devotion to their spiritual leader Shoko Asahara. Several well-known religious scholars and philosophers in Japan praised Aum Shinrikyo as the authentic, practical religion.
Aum also established a presence in other countries, including Russia, Canada, Kazakhstan, United States, Germany, Taiwan, Sri Lanka and the former Yugoslavia. According to the U.S. government, Aum is a truly global-scale cult.
Aum became interested in the ideas and inventions of Nikola Tesla. In January 1995, its members tried to obtain a number of books, patents and writings by Tesla. Upon learning that after Tesla’s death the U.S. government seized most of his papers and “black penned” the material for national security reasons, Aum sent its members to the former Yugoslavia – the birth place of Tesla.
At its peak in the 1990s, the movement had 10,000 members worldwide.
At the end of 1993, Aum started secretly manufacturing the nerve gas sarin and stockpiling weapons. In 1994, the cult carried out the first chemical attack when its members released sarin in the city of Matsumoto. The attack killed 8 and injured 200 more. However, police failed to implicate the cult at the time.
On March 20, 1995, the time was ready for their biggest attack ever. In five coordinated attacks, five perpetrators, each carrying 0.9 litres of sarin, released the nerve gas on several lines of the Tokyo subway during the rush hour, while another five served as getaway drivers, killing 12 people, severely injuring 50 and causing temporary vision problems for nearly 1,000 others. The attacks caused a widespread panic and halted the whole nation.
Because sarin is extremely volatile, it quickly evaporates from a liquid form into a vapor and spreads into the environment. On the day of the attack, hospitals saw over 5,500 patients, many of whom were the "worried well" and had to be distinguished from those who were in contact with the actual gas.
Asahara and 13 others were sentenced to death by hanging. 80 other members received various prison sentences.
After Asahara's arrest and trial, the cult re-grouped in 2000 under the new name Aleph. While they distance themselves from Asahara, the Japanese government still considers the members a threat to society.
Currently, Aleph has approximately 2,100 members, many of them living communally in compounds.