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Shoko Asahara, the Leader of the Doomsday Cult Aum Shinrikyo, Was Executed Today

What Was Aum Shinrikyo & Why Did They Cause Japan's Deadliest Terrorist Incident?


Shoko Asahara, the leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, was executed by hanging today for the deaths of over a dozen people in a terrorist attack on a Tokyo subway in 1995.

I first heard of Aum Shinrikyo and its leader Shoko Asahara from the podcast Last Podcast on the Left, which has a fantastic breakdown on the origins of the cult and its leader. In 1995, the doomsday cult committed a deadly sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subway that killed 13 people, seriously injuring 54 and affecting 980 more. Some estimate that as many as 6,000 people were injured by the Sarin gas.

So what was Aum Shinrikyo? Who was Shoko Asahara and why did they commit this horrible crime? Well here is the cliff notes version. If you want two really good references, I’d check out the podcast mentioned above and the book Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Although if you live in New York City and take the MTA often, you might want to read it when you are on vacation and don’t have to deal with trains (I speak from experience).

Shoko Asahara was born Chizuo Matsumoto to a poor family and went fully blind in one eye and partially blind in another. During his youth, he was a bully who would tack advantage and manipulated the other kids in his school for the blind. So you know, a real fucking charming dude. At the time (1977) the most common jobs for the blind were careers in acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine. In 1981, Asahara was convicted of practicing pharmacy without a license and selling unregulated drugs. It was around this time he found religion. He also fathered a ton of kids.

In 1987 after going deep into multiple faiths: Chinese astrology and Taoism, western esotericism, yoga, meditation, esoteric Buddhism, esoteric Christianity and even a touch of science fiction (Isaac Asimov to be specific), he changed his name to Shoko Asahara and filed for registration of the group Aum Shinrikyo. It was just supposed to be a yoga and meditation class, but if you’ve seen Wild Wild Country you know that can escalate quickly.

Asahara grew in popularity and was viewed as a religious figure with the power to levitate. Then things took a dark turn in 1992 (year of my birth, a sign, who knows) Asahara published Declaring Myself the Christ, where he declared himself to be “Christ” and Japan’s only fully enlightened master and the “Lamb of God”. These are all signs of bad things to come by the way, if you have found a new spiritual faith. Just a heads up.

At its peak, according to ABC AU, “the cult had at least 10,000 members in Japan and overseas, including graduates of some of Japan’s most elite universities. A number lived at a huge commune-like complex Asahara set up at the foot of Mount Fuji, where the group studied his teachings and practiced bizarre rituals but also built an arsenal of weapons — including sarin” a nerve gas originally developed by the Nazis.

In a stereotypically red pill manner, Asahara said conspiracies were everywhere. But who were doing these dark things? The usual scapegoat suspects and some unique additions: the Jews (cliche), the Freemasons (red pill), the Dutch (that’s different), the British Royal Family (so not Team Royal Wedding), and other competing Japanese religions. In his doomsday prophecy, Asahara predicted a nuclear Armageddon that would lead to World War III.

March 20, 1995: five members of Aum Shinrikyo launched their chemical attack on the Tokyo subway system during peak rush hour. Each perpetrator carried two packets with .9 liters of sarin: you only need a single pinhead drop of sarin to kill an adult. At the assigned stations, the sarin packets were dropped and pierced with umbrella tips. Each cult member got off the train to meet their getaway car diver.

The packets were left on the floor leaking sarin gas into the train car and stations. The sarin hit passengers, subway workers, and those who came into contact with them. Sarin is one of the most volatile of the nerve agents. Within seconds it turns your nervous system against you.

In an article in The Atlantic that describes the effects of sarin gas, it describes some of the immediate effects of the gas on the human body:

Within seconds of exposure to sarin gas (or liquid, which evaporates easily), we start to notice the immediate effects of acetylcholine buildup. First, our smooth muscles and secretions go crazy. The nerves to those areas keep firing, keep telling them to go. The nose runs, the eyes cry, the mouth drools and vomits, and bowels and bladder evacuate themselves. It is not a dignified state.

Their chest tightens, vision blurs. If the exposure was great enough, that can progress to convulsions, paralysis, and death within 1 to 10 minutes.

Ambulances transported 688 patients and nearly five thousand people went to the hospital related to these attacks. After the arrest of 190 of the cult’s leaders in the investigation following the sarin attacks, it was discovered the group had been renamed Aleph and there were about 1500 followers remaining.

Shoko Asahara was charged with 27 counts of murder in 13 separate indictments. He was found guilty of 13 of 17 charges, and on February 27, 2004, he was sentenced to death by hanging. The capital punishment was postponed due to arrests of several fugitive Aum Shinrikyo members, but today the sentence was finally carried out.

Twenty-three-years later.

So what exactly was the goal or reason of this attack? Asahara created this warped concept of karma called ‘poa’ that stated that people with bad karma were doomed to an eternity in hell, and that it was fair to kill those at risk of bad karma in order to save them from hell. You were helping them, therefore this mass attack which led to the death and injury of so many people was, in the eyes of Aum Shinrikyo, a good thing. Also, for Shoko Asahara and most cult leaders, I’m sure it was a power move to show how much smarter and more powerful he was than everyone else. He wanted to rule, and ruling through fear has always been enough for weak men who think they are kings.

Just as a note, after Aum Shinrikyo was rounded up it split into the previously mentioned Aleph and Hikari no Wa. The Japanese government ended surveillance of Hikari no Wa as of 2017 but keeps Aleph under watch.

As I noted before, this is just a cliff note version of the cult, its origins and its crimes (I didn’t even get into the crimes before 1995 which include assassinations and another train attack) so if you like true crime check out the links I left above you. It’s super interesting!

(via AFP twitter, image: Handout/Getty Images)

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Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.