Faces & Evil – Aum Shinrikyo

The Japanese say you have three faces.

The first face, you show to the world. The second face, you show to your close friends, and your family. The third face, you never show anyone. It is the truest reflection of who you are. So what would happen if you did?

February 1984, seeds of the flowers of evil where sown. In the district of Shibyua, Tokyo, a man runs a small class of meditation and yoga out of his one bedroom apartment. He is a father to his first daughter, and husband to Ishii Tomoko; his followers call him guru. His name by birth is Chizuo Matsumoto. All but blind in one eye, he is a practitioner of Chinese medicine and spiritual healing. A few score gather under the name Aum Shinsen no Kai – the Aum Group of Gods and Hermits, promised powers beyond the scope of mortals and miracle cures. Do all Matsumoto says, and you will achieve enlightenment. This man will later be known as Shoko Asahara, leader of Aum Shinrikyo, the group responsible for the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

Aum Shinrikyo 6

Due to his limitation, Matsumoto attended a school for the blind in Kumamoto prefecture. He left his home to live on campus at the age of six, where he learned very quickly, “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.” Young Matsumoto earned a reputation of bullying and manipulation during these years, eventually graduating in 1977 with dreams and aspirations of taking seat in the nation’s Parliament. At the age of 22, the youth sought higher education, applying for schools of renown, Tokyo University among them. Each of them denied him; in part due to his failure to pass entrance exams, and partly due to his blindness. When he married that same year and had a daughter, future prospects of education slipped out of his reach. Due to his limitation, Matsumoto turned to the traditional profession for the blind in Japanese society.

For the rest of the late 70’s, Matsumoto sold bogus herbal remedies at an outrageous markup until he was convicted for violation of lawful pharmaceutical practice in the early 80’s. The conviction resulted in the pharmacy’s bankruptcy in 1982. During this time, Matsumoto turned to the study of religion, a venture he had flirted with since the time of his marriage. By 1984 the yoga school and publishing house Aum Shinsen no Kai had regular attendees and was printing both the Vajrayana Sacca and Enjoy Happiness magazines. It all payed off one year later when the October issue of the occult magazine Twilight Zone featured a picture of the now guru levitating. Thousands flocked to the new hope. It was all to good to be true.

After the end of the US occupation in the 1950’s, Japan had to find it’s own two feet again. Come the turn of the decade, anti-war/pro-peace movements are on the rise, one of the most notable being the student protests that lasted all throughout the 60′. Prior agreements at the end of World War II had left the Japanese militarily reliant on what many felt to be the ‘big brother United States’. Weary that Japan might be dragged into the Vietnam War, students took to the streets, calling for change. The call echoed well into the 70’s, where Japanese Women’s Rights Movements and anti-nuclear sentiments found their stage.

student riots

By the 80’s, a schism began to form between the younger and older generations that can still be seen to this day. The older generation remembered the War. They had lived and experienced, perhaps even participated in the events of decades past. While maybe present, the emerging younger generation did not share the same understanding of the prior generations. The economic boom was celebrated by some as deserved deliverance for trials overcome. For others it was glutton materialism.

Then came 1987. The guru now took the name Shoko Asahara; the Aum Shinsen no Kai became known as Aum Shinrikyo – The Supreme Truth. No longer did Asahara’s disciples meet in Shinjiku, but in a compound in the foothills of Mount Fuji, purchased with money from his followers. The cult became known as a ‘religion for the elite’, recruiting students from the top universities (some of which Asahara was denied acceptance). Asahara now mixed the familiar teachings of Buddhism with those of Christianity, supplemented with cherry-picked prophecies of Nostradamus. The coming of Armageddon in particular, said to come about by nuclear war between Japan and the United States.

Membership into required that the initiate give all worldly possessions to the one true savior of mankind. Once a member of Aum Shinrikyo, you where not allowed to leave the premises. You where afforded two meals of the same bean paste, and told it would bring you into greater communion with Master Asahara. Through meditation and the words of the guru, less sleep was needed to complete your assigned chores. In return, your feelings, emotions, thoughts, and urges impeding greater spiritual understanding (termed ‘data’ within the cult) would be removed and replaced by Asahara himself, a self proclaimed Christ.

aum follower

Parents of the young adults grew concerned with the absence of their children that had lasted years without word. One man tried to escape, but was unsuccessful. Captured, he was brought before Asahara, who tried to convince him to stay. Upon his refusal, he was killed by being repeatedly dunked in a tank of freezing water, inducing shock and hypothermia. A few of the other disgruntled members tried to send word to the outside world, but remained mostly unheard by officials.

Just before the 1990 Diet elections, Aum Shinrikyo was recognized by the government as a religion, placing it under the country’s lenient laws of religious freedom. It was not uncommon during the 80’s to see new religions, shinshunkyo, be birthed only to die in few years time. It was a fad, one that transcends to today. According to Inken Prohl and John Nelsonin’s Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Religions, estimated members range close to 211 million individuals while the populous of Japan is only 127 million. The claim of Japan being non-religious is actually an unrealized paradox. Thus in this tumult, although controversial, never was there a reason to suspect Aum Shinrikyo in particular.

Nightmares of WWII left memories of a time absent freedom of religion. Upon the occupation, laws where placed into effect that would deflect any future meddling from the government in any practice of faith. This is as much a curse as it is a blessing, allowing for what are effectively tax-exempt business to eke out a living in the margins of society, abuse from political parties for driving votes, and even criminal activity in the case of Aum. Trying to avoid even the appearance of evil, Japanese public security forces think twice before interfering with a religious organization. Under these circumstances, Tsutsumi Sakamoto is a hero.

A human-rights lawyer, Sakamoto legally shook Asahara and his establishment to its very core. Charges of fraudulence where brought to court regarding the mystical properties of Asahara’s blood, which was sold for consumption. Claiming to grant greater unity with and powers of Asahara, when blood tests failed to produce results, Aum Shinrikyo was fined; more importantly Asahara’s divinity was now in question. Sakamoto also worked with the parents who’s children where integrated into Aum to create family support groups. November 4th, 1989, Sakamoto, his wife, and infant son disappeared. He had been preparing a civil lawsuit case against the cult.

Tsutsumi Sakamoto aum

Asahara and other members of Aum Shinrikyo ran for Diet the February following their official recognition. Despite the amount of disciples the murderous Christ had obtained, votes fell far short of even the membership of Aum, let alone comprising a pathetic part of the total vote. The final nail was placed in his dream of supreme ruler of Japan. With his failure to ‘peaceably’ take control of the government, Asahara sought to force his Armageddon upon the world.

With close to one billion dollars in assets, Aum Shinrikyo mobilized to produce a weapon of mass destruction. Famously, connections where made in Russia as to possible purchase of nuclear material. While it may seem unbelievable today, Russian nuclear security during the Cold War was lax at best. A notebook belonging to one of Aum‘s main negotiators had phrases translated from Japanese to Russian inquiring the purchase of nuclear arms. The following page featured a list of prices.

Forty members of Aum where also sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Ebola outbreak in 1992 under the guise of assisting relief efforts. What they where really after was a sample. They where unable to smuggle one back into Japan, thus ending prospects of weaponizing the virus. Although it would not have been nearly as dangerous as it was in Congo, it would surly would have struck fear into the hearts of many.

aum shinrikyo asahara march

The most rapid progress toward destruction would be made in Banjawan Station in Western Australia. A sheep farm in the middle of the desert, it is here that the sarin used in the subway attack was concocted. Asahara intended this to be a permanent Aum Shinrikyo residence, due to his belief it would remain untouched from the coming Armageddon. What is known to have transpired on location comes from post incident investigations. Residue from the sarin was found on the premises, as well as numberless bodies of dead sheep. Still concerning yet is the seismic activity that to this day goes unresolved.

In May of 1993, one month after Aum‘s purchase of the farm, a large fireball was seen in the sky, as well as reported low pitched rumbling. Various reports included an accompanying shock wave that ‘knocked beer cans off the table’ several kilometers away. Australia being the third largest exporter of uranium, a mine explosion was first suspect. However, such activities are illegal after dark, and the seismic activity recorded where 170 times more powerful then the largest known explosion at that time. It was as if 2,000 tons of high explosives had gone off, roughly between one-seventh to one-eighth the size of the 15,000 ton Hiroshima. A portable, or ‘suitcase nuke‘.

Furthermore, the sheep farm also sat atop a known uranium deposit, which was later proven Aum had been mining. The intentions where there. Of the 50,000 Aum Shinrikyo followers that spanned over six different countries, two where Russian nuclear scientists. Of the prices listed in the black market diary, many where in the millions; Aum wielded no less than one billion. According to Stanislav Lunev ,the highest ranking GRU defector, the number of ‘suitcase nukes’ that went missing during the Cold War “is almost identical to the number of strategic targets upon which those bombs would be used.” If what occurred May 1993 was in fact a nuclear test, it is the first and only nuclear test not to have been carried out by a government establishment.


It was a Monday. Many where returning to work – the same routine as usual. Five trains on the three main Tokyo subway lines, the Marunouchi, Chiyoda and Hibiya are boarded. The lines are set to converge at Kasumigaseki station, the heart of Tokyo’s government district, between 8:00 and 8:10. Members of Aum Shinrikyo, on a holy mission for their savior, are armed with liquid death. The Armageddon must come. For them, this is a deeply spiritual experience. Once and for all, ‘the Master’ will see our good works as faithful servants, and redeem us!

“It came from Nazi Germany, a little dangerous chemical weapon,

Sarin Sarin –,

If you inhale the mysterious vapor, you will fall with

bloody vomit from your mouth,

Sarin–, Sarin–, Sarin–, the chemical weapon.

‘Song of Sarin, the Brave “In the peaceful night of Matsumoto City

People can be killed, even with our own hands,

The place is full of dead bodies all over,

There! Inhale Sarin, Sarin,

Prepare Sarin! Prepare Sarin! Immediately poisonous gas weapons will fill the place.

Spray! Spray! Sarin, the Brave, Sarin.

Song of Sarin, the Magician – Aum Shinrikyo

The scene in the subway that morning was a Hell no one had expected. Passengers lie unconscious on the floor in pools of bloody vomit. Men claw at their eyes, women struggle to breath, children cry in pain but they don’t know why. The sounds of dry heaving can be heard over the clatter of metal on metal. First responders rush to their aid, but they too are claimed as victims. Panic, confusion. Twelve die in the attack; 50 suffer permanent, life-altering injury, not the goal of mass destruction the cult  had wished for. It seems Shoko Asahara is not truly omnipotent…

Riot policemen surround the Tokyo headqu

Ten days later, the head of the National Police Agency is shot thrice by a would-be assassin. April 15th, 20,000 police in full riot gear are deployed throughout Tokyo. Shops close, many stay home from work, no one rides the subways. Rumors spread across the nation that the enlightened guru Asahara had predicted similar events. One week later, Hideo Murai, Aum‘s Science and Technology Minister, calls a press conference. He’s stabbed to death outside Aum’s headquarters by a member of the Yakuza, in front of police and cameramen, before he has the chance to say anything.  Posters adorn every street corner for the arrest of the Aum members responsible.

May 16th, Asahara is found and placed into custody. Several other, more potent, gas attacks are thwarted. A letter bomb is sent to the governor of Tokyo, exploding and destroying the hands of his secretary. Public outcry reaches a head, and Aum Shinrikyo is stripped of it’s religious privileges that October. Police raided Aum facilities, unprepared for what they found. Failed escapees imprisoned in shipping crates, entire labs devoted to producing sarin, along with blueprints for firearm manufacture, stockpiles of automatic rifles and used rocket launchers, even a Russian MI-17 military grade helicopter. Photos of Asahara plastered on every wall, his chants and sermons sounding from every tape player. Aum Shinrikyo was ready to end the world at the whim of their master.

Asahara is tried and found guilty. Given the death sentence, he sits on death row where he still is today, silent, no longer the leader of his psychopath cult. His salvation falls short, even for himself. His two sons, still children at the time, where heralded as his successors briefly before senior member Fumihiro Joyu took the helm in 1999. Without Asahara’s manipulation, the pressure of anti-Aum groups that had formed over the years broke the cult apart.The events that transpired scarred many physically, but left deeper psychological affects.

I have an abiding anger toward the Aum Shinrikyo members involved in the gas attack – both those who are under arrest and those who where involved in other ways. I have met some of the victims, many of whom continue to suffer. and I have personally seen those whose loved ones where stolen from them forever. I’ll remember that for as long as I live, and no matter what the motives or circumstances behind it, a crime like this can never be condoned.

~ Underground Haruki Murakami

Aum Shinrikyo still lives on. Renamed Aleph in 2000, the cult now preaches peace and harmony, rejecting previous atrocities committed, going as far to apologize for the May 1995 gas attacks and even setting up a compensation fund. A shadow of it’s former self, Aleph is estimated to be around 1,600 members strong. But a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

aum shinrikyo paper

Since then, a founder of an anti-Aum group in the Diet was found murdered. In July of 2000, a former KGB operative was arrested for stockpiling weapons with the intention of wreaking havoc upon Japanese cities until the release of Asahara. Aleph has denied any association with either incident. However, the same year of their re-branding, Aleph was discovered to be in possession of and seeking sensitive information on several nuclear power plants around the globe, hacking into computer systems to do so. In 2002 the CIA classified Aleph as a cyber-terrorist threat. The Japanese say we have three faces.


I stare out the window as the breeze rolls through. The day is calm. I wonder, ‘Is this what it was like?’ Later today, I’ll leave and go about my errands without second thought. I may not take the subway, maybe I’ll walk instead. A creature of habit, I find myself underground. It could have been someone just like you or me, or anyone really.

Kasumigaseki station aum

They say in Japanese we have three faces, I can agree with that. The first face, the one you show the world, is cold, affording only politeness. The second face, you show to your close friends, your family. The walls start to come down, but must still remain to avoid being hurt by the ones we love most. The third face, you never show anyone. Why? Because we do not understand it, we are burdened by it. It is the truest reflection of who you are, and we must confront it, least history repeat itself.

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