Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 18, 2001, pages 1-7
The Crimes and Teachings of Aum Shinrikyo
Hiroshi Hirata, Attorney at Law
Heiwa-No-Mori Law Office
The beliefs and crimes of Shoko Asahara’s Aum Shinrikyo and societal responses, police in particular, are reviewed. It is concluded that the most important lesson to be derived from the case of Aum is that authorities must be prepared to enforce existing laws, when violated by religious organizations, as vigorously as they do when violated by nonreligious organizations.
Aum Shinrikyo is a Buddhist-type religious group whose teacher and leader is Chizuo Matsumoto, known most commonly as Shoko Asahara (his Aum Shinrikyo name). Aum Shinrikyo began as a small yoga center in a local area. The group gradually grew over time and began to organize. It officially took the name “Aum Shinrikyo” in 1987, when it legally became a religious corporation.
Aum Shinrikyo (hereinafter Aum) claims to be a “Buddhist religious group, which worships Siva as its main God.” In reality, however, the special character of Aum’s teachings has to do with “supernatural powers” and the “end of the world ideology.” Aum teaches that:
In the past Asahara prophesized that before long Mt. Fugi would erupt and Japan would sink into the ocean. When this prophecy failed, Aum claimed that Asahara’s supernatural power had deferred the prophesied havoc. The failure of Asahara’s prophecy that the Third World War would begin in 1999, however, currently awaits an “explanation” since Asahara, who has been in jail since 1995, has not commented.
Aum claims to have about 30,000 followers, but in reality about 10,000 people Actually subscribe to Aum, with only a few thousand believers leaving their homes to become Aum members. It should be noted, however, that following Aum’s Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Metropolitan Subway System, over half of Aum believers left the group. At present, Aum’s estimated membership is 1,000, with several hundreds of these believers leaving their homes to join Aum. In 1995, Aum had facilities in 12 different cities throughout Japan as well as other branches in New York, Bonn, and Moscow.
Asahara and Aum aimed to conquer the world, meaning that the purpose of the “Japan Shanbara-ization plan” was to establish Aum in cities throughout Japan and make and expand Aum communities (Lotus Villages) in various areas of the country. It was Asahara’s ambition to “Shanbara-ize” or “Aum-ize” the world.
Asahara appealed to his followers by saying, “The day of final destruction is coming and this plan must be carried out as quickly as possible.” He ordered them to leave their homes to follow Aum and to gather large amounts of offerings or donations.
Aum/Asahara created a theory of evil that professed the following three major ideas:
Accordingly, it is beneficial to rid this world of these evil spirits so that they can be reincarnated for the coming world. Based on this theory, Aum took measures to kill those persons who opposed Aum. Asahara called homicides based on this theory “Poa” and taught his followers that “Poa” was “an act to save human souls.”
Aum's murder in November 1989 of Attorney Sakamoto, his wife, and his child was a crime based on this “theory of evil.” Also based on this theory were all of the homicide or near homicide cases Aum followers perpetrated following this incident up until 1995. These cases included the Matsumoto Sarin Incident (pursued by the courts), in which seven people died and over 100 people suffered injuries; the Tokyo Subway Sarin gas incident (mainly pursued by the police), in which 12 people died and over 5,000 people suffered injuries; and various terrorist type cases perpetrated against journalists and lawyers opposing Aum.
Although such activities carried out according to Asahara’s orders created problems in various areas throughout Japan, these activities strengthened the exclusive and willful consciousnesses of victims and bolstered the way of thinking (among its members) that “anyone who criticizes Aum is an enemy.”
From the homicide incident involving the deaths of the attorney Sakamoto and his family on 4 November 1989 onward, Aum’s acts became increasingly heinous. The religious group perpetrated acts such as abductions and homicides, illegal confinement of individuals, fraud, document forgery, illegal production of firearms, and the use of prescription or otherwise illegal pharmaceuticals. On 20 March 1995, Aum instigated the Tokyo Metropolitan Subway Sarin Gas attack, a criminal act against humanity never before witnessed in the history of crime.
Given this chain of events, we must ask how such heinous crimes could have been overlooked. Further, we must question what enabled Aum to increase and grow to the extent that an incident such as the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system could occur.
Various influential and powerful bodies within Japanese society assumed responsibility for allowing Aum’s growth and perpetration of heinous crimes. These bodies include the administrative government, the tax authority, the media, religious scholars, and established religious organizations and institutions. However, the Japanese police hold the majority of the responsibility.
Attorney Sakamoto represents all those who have become victims of Aum. Aum murdered Sakamoto and his family because Sakamoto took rigorous measures to oppose the organization. At the site of his homicide case (which at the time was labeled a kidnapping case), a “Prusha” (an Aum badge) was left behind. Even so, not until a very long period after the incident actually occurred did the police finally acknowledge that this case was criminal and that they neglected to conduct an investigation about Aum’s involvement. Because of this failure to act, perpetrators easily escaped or left the country, and dead bodies and relevant evidence were easily concealed. As a result, this case was not disclosed for nearly six years.
Even after the murder of Attorney Sakamoto and his family, Aum compelled a large number of its followers to leave their homes and live and work in Aum communes. Aum also made high-handed efforts to collect money.
Throughout Japan Aum caused trouble and many problems. Complaints and reports of damage regarding Aum’s conduct—including Aum’s forceful demands, its illegal transfer of residences throughout Japan, its confinement of children, and its installation of wire-tapping devices—were delivered to the police time and time again. However, the police conducted almost no investigations regarding these complaints and reports, thereby avoiding action against the group, as Aum was a religion.
The Abduction of a Manager of a Japanese Traditional Style Inn. In March 1994, Aum believers drugged and abducted the manager of a Japanese inn in Kobayashi City in Miyazaki Prefecture (Kyushyu). One of the abductors was his natural daughter. A large amount of evidence pertaining to this case was amassed demonstrating that this was a case of abduction vis-à-vis Aum to obtain the estate (financial assets) of the said manager. However, in response to the rescue pleas submitted by the family members of the manager, the police as well as the prosecutors failed to take action since the manager was “with his daughter who was an Aum believer.” A compulsory investigation of this case was conducted only after the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.
The Matsumoto Sarin Incident. In April 1993, Asahara repeatedly made statements in his sermons about the use of Sarin. At the same time, Asahara established front companies to purchase the raw materials to make Sarin and proceeded to manufacture Sarin within the Aum facilities in various locales throughout Japan. Aum persuaded its followers to believe that “the national power of Japan and the US military forces planned to launch a gas attack,” and filled the followers with fear of Armageddon. Followers were required to wear gas masks, and air-cleaning devices were installed at the facilities to intensify fears.
In April 1994, our Group of Lawyers in Opposition to the Victimization and Damages perpetrated by the Aum Shinrikyo reported Asahara’s sermons and statements regarding the use of Sarin to the Kanagawa Prefectural Police. The police responded without due consideration of our report. The police also failed to conduct any surveillance of Aum prior to or following our report. As a result, on 27 June 1994, the Aum terrorist Matsumoto Sarin Incident occurred against a judge, and the tragedy of this incident, which resulted in seven deaths and hundreds of casualties, could not be prevented. Following the Matsumoto Sarin Incident, in July 1994, the people in the surrounding area of an Aum facility (#7 Satayan) located in Kamikuishiki-mura (village) in Yamanashi Prefecture, complained of a strange odor similar to that of Sarin. However, the Nagano Prefectural Police, and the police as a whole, had no information regarding Aum, and thus could not conclude that this incident was related to the Matsumoto Sarin Incident at the time.
Following the Matsumoto Sarin Incident. Pursuant to the Matsumoto Sarin Incident, the heinous nature and acts of Aum Shinrikyo increased and deepened at an unprecedented rate. The “Lawyers Group to Formulate Counter Measures to Injuries and Damages caused by Aum Shinrikyo” reported to the Kanagawa Prefectural Police in September 1994 that Aum had begun to use LSD type substances as part of its initiation process to the organization. The same Lawyer’s Group also reported in October 1994 a lynching incident that occurred at an Aum facility. Further, on 20 September 1994, Journalist Shoko Egawa suffered a poison gas attack by Aum, and on 4 January 1995, Chairman Nagaoka of the “Victims of Aum Shinrikyo Group” was attacked with VX gas and nearly died.
In November 1994, a sample of the soil from the vicinity of Aum’s #7 Satayan facility in Kamikuishiki-mura (Yamanashi Prefecture) revealed the composition of Methylphospone Acid Monoisopropyll. By the end of 1994, it was discovered that an Aum-owned company had purchased large quantities of PAM, a Sarin detoxifying agent.
Although the police probably planned to initiate a compulsory investigation at a much earlier stage, such an investigation was delayed mainly due to the poor compilation and exchange of information and communications among Prefectural police agencies. The investigation was also prolonged because of other serious issues, such as dealing with the Kobe Earthquake in January 1995 and the Japanese General Elections. Finally, after the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Metropolitan Subway system, which aimed at attacking the Japanese National Police Agency, a compulsory investigation was initiated.
The Japanese police deserve blame for not assuming responsibility in taking measures against Aum Shinrikyo. If the police had made Aum a serious object of its investigations and had placed Aum under surveillance, the police could have responded appropriately and correctly to the Matsumoto Sarin Incident. At the very least, if the police had responded in good faith to the abduction of the manager of a Japanese Inn in Miyazaki Prefecture, in which a sufficient amount of evidence had been gathered as a result of a compulsory investigation, the Tokyo Subway Sarin Gas attack incident most likely could have been avoided.
In December 1999, new laws were enacted in Japan, which provide for restrictions and surveillance of organizations and members of those organizations that perpetrate indiscriminate acts of homicide against the population. These laws, which target mainly Aum, have been called the “Aum Counter-Policy Laws.” However, they have drawn strong criticism from opponents, who believe that the laws violate freedom of religion. We lawyers, who have been fighting Aum over a long period of time, consider these laws to be problematic and ineffective in helping religious group members leave their respective organizations and in providing them with the means for their social rehabilitation.
The lesson to be learned by Japanese politicians and government personnel from the Aum incidents is that they need not enact new legislation, but should instead stop using the fact that an organization is religious to avoid taking appropriate counter action, to make full use of existing laws, and to respond resolutely to each and every unlawful act perpetrated by cult groups.
Hiroshi Hirata is an attorney with the Heiwa-No-Mori Law Office in Fukuoka, Japan. He is a member of the Group of Lawyers in Opposition to the Victimization and Damages of the AUM Shinri-kyo (AUM Supreme Truth cult), an organization with approximately 300 member lawyers. He is also a member (former chair) of the Subcommittee on Consumers and Religious Organizations under the Committee on Consumer Problems of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, which handle complaints and troubles regarding fund-raising and financial activities of religious organizations.