Aum Shinrikyo
Most Notorious Cults

Shoko Asahara - Aum Shinrikyo

Early years

Asahara was born into a large, poor family of tatami mat makers in Japan's Kumamoto Prefecture. Afflicted at birth with infantile glaucoma, he lost all sight in his left eye and went partially blind in his right eye at a young age, and was thus enrolled in a school for the blind. Asahara graduated in 1977 and turned to the study of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, which were common careers for the blind in Japan. He married the following year and eventually fathered 12 children, the oldest of whom was born in 1978. However, Asahara's fourth daughter insists that he has 15 children. In 2015, two of his daughters apologized to victims of the sarin gas attacks.

In 1981, Asahara was convicted of practicing pharmacy without a license and selling unregulated drugs, for which he was fined ¥200,000 (US$1838.36).

Asahara's interest in religion reportedly started at this time. Having been recently married, he worked to support his large and growing family. He dedicated his free time to the study of various religious concepts, starting with Chinese astrology and Taoism. Later, Asahara practiced western esotericism, yoga, meditation, esoteric Buddhism, and esoteric Christianity.

Aum Shinrikyo

In 1987, Shoko Asahara officially changed his name from Chizuo Matsumoto and applied for government registration of the group Aum Shinrikyo. The authorities were initially reluctant, but eventually granted it legal recognition as a religious organization after an appeal in 1989. After this, a monastic order was established, and many lay followers joined. Shoko Asahara gained credibility by appearing on TV and on magazine covers. He gradually attained a following of believers and began being invited to lecture at universities. Asahara has also written many religious books, the best known being Beyond Life and Death, Mahayana Sutra, and Initiation. There also exists an anime that portrays Asahara and his cult in a protagonistic light.

The doctrine of Aum Shinrikyo is based on the Vajrayana scriptures, the Bible, and other texts. In 1992 Asahara published Declaring Myself the Christ, within which he declared himself "Christ", Japan's only fully enlightened master, and identified with the "Lamb of God". His purported mission was to take others' sins upon himself, and he claimed he could transfer spiritual power to his followers. He also saw dark conspiracies everywhere, promulgated by the Jews, the Freemasons, the Dutch, the British Royal Family, and rival Japanese religions. He outlined a doomsday prophecy, which included a third World War, and described a final conflict culminating in a nuclear "Armageddon", borrowing the term from the Book of Revelation 16:16.

Asahara often preached the necessity of Armageddon for "human relief". He eventually declared, "Put tantra Vajrayana into practice in accordance with the doctrines of Mahamudra," and he led a series of terrorist attacks using a secret organization hidden from ordinary believers. Aum Shinrikyo's violence against large numbers of nonspecific people is cited by those who have studied Vajrayana and Mahamudra as proof that Asahara did not understand them. Some people, including lawyers and journalists, saw through the religious fanaticism of Aum Shinrikyo. They continued speaking out about the danger of Aum Shinrikyo in spite of the danger to their own lives, but received little attention.

There were believers among the Japanese police force that had been secretly updating Aum Shinrikyo with details concerning investigations. The media not only helped increase the number of Aum believers, but in one case mistakenly helped Aum Shinrikyo commit an act of homicide (the Sakamoto family murder). In addition, several well-known religious scholars and philosophers praised Aum Shinrikyo as an authentic religion; some scholars even insisted that Tokyo subway sarin attack was not Aum's crime. As a result, many crimes perpetrated by the cult were not properly investigated.

Tokyo subway gas attack, and arrest

On March 20, 1995, members of Aum Shinrikyo attacked the Tokyo subway with the nerve gas sarin. Thirteen people died and thousands more suffered ill effects. After finding sufficient evidence, authorities accused Aum Shinrikyo of complicity in the attack, as well as in a number of smaller-scale incidents. Dozens of disciples were arrested, Aum's facilities were raided, and the court issued an order for Shoko Asahara's arrest.

On May 16, 1995, the police corps investigated the headquarters of Aum Shinrikyo. Asahara was discovered in a very small, isolated room in one of the facilities. Wary of possible Aum military power, the First Airborne Brigade of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force was stationed nearby to support the police if needed.

Many small glass bottles containing short curly hair were discovered in Asahara's private room. The bottles were labeled with the names of his female followers. Both marriage and sexual relations between pupils were forbidden by Asahara, but Aum believed that the founder was exempt from this rule and was permitted to have sexual relationships with many women for the integrity of initiation.

Asahara did not have a private residence, and therefore he held his relationships in official headquarters. When the woman was a virgin, she was considered to be a dakini. One such dakini took part in the sarin gas attack under Asahara's instruction.]

Accusations and trial

Shoko Asahara faced 27 counts of murder in 13 separate indictments. The prosecution argued that Asahara gave orders to attack the Tokyo Subway in order to "overthrow the government and install himself in the position of Emperor of Japan". Several years later, the prosecution forwarded an additional theory that the attacks were ordered to divert police attention away from Aum. The prosecution also accused Asahara of masterminding the Matsumoto incident and the Sakamoto family murder. According to Asahara's defense team, a group of senior followers initiated the atrocities and kept them a secret from Asahara.

During the trials, some of the disciples testified against Asahara, and he was found guilty on 13 of 17 charges, including the Sakamoto family murder; four charges were dropped. On February 27, 2004, he was sentenced to death by hanging.

The trial was called the "trial of the century" by the Japanese media. During the trials, Asahara resigned from his position as the Aum Shinrikyo representative in an attempt to prevent the group from being forcefully dissolved by the state.

The defense appealed Asahara's sentencing on the grounds that he was mentally unfit, and psychiatric examinations were undertaken. During the examinations, Asahara never spoke. However, he communicated with the staff at his detention facility, which convinced the examiner that Asahara was maintaining his silence out of free will. Because his lawyers never submitted the statement of reason for appeal, the Tokyo High Court decided on March 27, 2006 not to grant them leave to appeal. This decision was upheld by the Supreme Court of Japanon September 15, 2006. Two re-trial appeals were declined by the appellate court.

In June 2012, Asahara's execution was postponed due to arrests of several fugitive Aum Shinrikyo members.