Guest Post by T.S. Muffin man.
One cold but sunny February morning in 1990 I walked from my English school down the steep hill to Ebisu Station and happened upon a bizarre sight. White robed religious cultists wearing huge papier-mâché heads resembling their guru stood bowing to passing commuters. Others wore large blue Shiva elephant masks and handed out comic books explaining their guru’s philosophy. Young girl devotees intoned a jingle-like tune, “we love you Shōkō, oh yes we do. We love you Shōkō, oh yes its true”. This was the Disneyesque election campaign of the organisation that would gain worldwide notoriety as the first independent group to attempt mass murder using chemical weapons, the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyō.
Aum began as a small Buddhist-inspired religious organisation offering yoga, spiritual advancement and mystical powers to followers. The message of its founder, the partially sighted Shoko Asahara, appealed to some among the lost and alienated youth of Japan.
The cult found new members among the shy computer-obsessed introverts known as otaku. Others were products of Japan’s finest universities; doctors, chemists, biologists, graduates of applied physics and particle physics, disillusioned with the rote conformity of corporate Japan.
After the 1990 election fiasco, on which the cult squandered $7 million, Asahara, bent on revenge against Japanese society, began to predict apocalyptic events occurring in the near future. Soon afterwards, his organisation embarked on the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction to hasten the arrival of the guru’s predictions. Many of his followers genuinely believed that Asahara was spiritually enlightened, but a few used their superb education in a concerted attempt to ensure that their master’s doomsday prophecies became self-fulfilling.
From its inception, Aum was extremely successful at making money.
Those who joined the cult were compelled to donate their property and life savings to the organization. One Japanese magazine estimated that Aum gained $140 million from the life savings of members. The cult also benefited from generous tax breaks given to religious organisations. Devotees were required to wear battery-driven, electrode embedded caps that gave electric shocks to the scalp, supposedly to align the wearer’s brainwaves with those of their guru. The caps, known as PSI or Perfect Salvation Initiative, were rented out for $7,000 a month, or sold for up to $70,000. Over time, sales of this bizarre headgear earned the cult hundreds of millions of yen. Other sources of income included ‘miracle pond’ – bottled water taken from the guru’s bath, and ‘nectar water’ – ordinary tap water that Asahara had either chanted into or blessed. Another lucrative source of revenue was the cult’s computer businesses, which were able to undercut competitors’ prices by as much as 20%.
Aided by a high valued yen, the cult bought up real estate. By the mid-1990s Aum owned 280 sites across Japan, and others overseas, and at least 37 companies, including 10 chemical wholesale companies, 15 restaurants, real estate agencies, electrical firms, even personal matchmaking and baby sitting businesses. Its chemical wholesale companies were dummy organisations that were used to obtain the chemicals and specialised equipment needed to manufacture biological and chemical weapons.
In 1992, Aum Supreme Truth arrived in Moscow after an expensive media campaign. The cult rented the Palace of Congresses inside the Kremlin, and later the huge Olympski Stadium, for an Asahara lecture attended by nearly 20,000 Muscovitesi. Billions of yen was spent on these extravaganzas, as well as a twice-daily Aum broadcast on Radio Moscow, generous donations to universities, and gifts and bribes to influential politicians. One respected Russian newspaper estimated that the cult’s total spending in Russia amounted to U.S. $50 million. Aum achieved such phenomenal growth in Russia that, by 1994, there were 30,000 followers throughout the country, three times more than the membership in Japan.
Besides recruitment, Aum had an additional motive for setting up offices in Russia: it was easy to purchase weapons in the chaotic early post-Communist years. The recipe that Aum used to manufacture sarin nerve gas was Soviet, as were the AK-74 rifles that the cultists copied and came close to mass manufacturing. Notes made by Kiyohide Hayakawa, one of Asahara’s trusted deputies, reveal that the group made efforts to buy 4 second-hand T-72 tanks, plus sniper rifles and grenades. As preparation for the Armageddon that Asahara repeatedly forecast, Aum members took part in shooting drills at Russian military installations and actively sought members of Japan’s Self defence Forces as cult members.
Even before the failed 1990 election bid, Aum had begun to kill perceived enemies. Asahara described the murders he initiated as Poa, a Sanskrit word used to describe the taking of a soul to a higher level, in Aum’s case a perversion of an important Buddhist principle. Parents had begun to complain about children who vanished into the cult. When Yokohama lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto began to act as legal representative for these families, Aum members murdered him, his wife and their infant son, and disposed of the bodies in remote rural prefectures. The disappearance of the Sakamotos prompted the largest police manhunt in Japanese history, but the police failed to investigate the cult, even though a Sanskrit badge was found at the scene of the crime.
The Coming Apocalypse
One of the dominant elements in Aum’s route to mass violence was its millennial focus: its belief that society would decay and be subject to a violent end, a tenet common in Japanese Buddhist sects. By 1994, Asahara was predicting a “final war” in which invading American forces would kill nine out of ten people in Japan, and that much of the world’s population would be slaughtered by nuclear and biological weapons. Aum followers would of course be saved. To hasten the day of the apocalypse, the cult began to amass an arsenal of lethal weapons. Asahara’s chemists and botanists first manufactured botulism toxin. If pure, one millionth of a gram is considered a lethal dose. It shuts down the involuntary nervous system, leading to a long and excruciating death. Incredibly, Aum tried twice to kill the entire Japanese government, first in 1990, when they sprayed botulism round the Diet Building using a specially modified car, and then again in 1993 when they sprayed near the site of the imperial wedding of Crown Prince Naruhito. The attacks failed because the bacteria used was a strain that could not survive exposure to air. Still, the sheer chutzpah of the attempt is a clear indication of the megalomaniacal scale of Asahara’s thinking.
In late 1993, the cult converted a building it owned in the east of Tōkyō into a laboratory, and began to produce Bacillus anthracis – anthrax. Inhalation of just a few anthrax spores can lead to coma and death. On the roof of the building, cult members installed an industrial sprayer. Anthrax in liquid form was then dispersed over the surrounding neighbourhood. The device continued to spray for at least 24 hours and possibly several days. Though residents complained to the police of a revolting smell, and some reported stomach ailments and the deaths of pets, no-one died or showed signs of anthrax inhalation. Aum’s head scientist Endo had used a veterinary vaccine strain of the bacteria that lacked the ability to cause disease: had the strain used been virulent, many thousands could have been killed. Again, the police were reluctant to take action. They accepted the explanation that the smell was caused by the burning of perfume and soybean oil to “purify” the building. Over a five-year period Aum launched at least five biological attacks intended to take life. None were successful, mainly due to technological incompetence. Their scientists were to be more successful when using chemical agents.
The cult’s headquarters on the slopes on Mount Fuji at Kamikuishiki included a large building known as Satyan 7. The name “Satyan” was derived from the ancient Sanskrit word for truth. This particular building was used to manufacture a chemical nerve agent first discovered in Germany before World War Two –Sarin When pure, it is odourless, colourless and is so efficacious that a single drop on the skin can kill an adult. Death is slow and gruesome due to airway obstruction, and a weakening ability to breathe. Seizures and tremors are followed by convulsions, then coma, and finally respiratory failure. The computer-controlled laboratory within Satyan 7 was capable of producing two tons of liquid sarin a day. Asahara had ordered the production of a massive 70 tons. By 1993, he had begun to refer to Sarin in some of his sermons, and to complain that his headquarters were being gassed from the air by the Japanese and US military, yet still authorities failed to take action.
In 1994, a civil suit filed against the cult in Matsumoto City, located about 100 miles northwest of Tōkyō, provided the occasion to use their new nerve agent. Three judges were due to hand down a ruling in relation to land bought by an Aum front company. Asahara’s solution to the expected unfavourable judgement was to order sarin released outside the dormitory where the judges were known to live. A converted refrigerator truck was loaded with 40 pounds of sarin and equipped with a sophisticated battery-powered atomizer to disperse the gas. Members of the Aum team were given a sarin antidote and donned gas masks. After activating the atomizer, the truck drove slowly round the target area. However, the mixing device soon malfunctioned. The wind then changed direction, blowing the gas in the direction of densely populated apartment blocks. Aum’s botched attack killed nine people and caused 200 casualties, some with permanent damage to their lungs and nervous systems. The judges survived with only mild symptoms. Yet again, the perpetrators remained undetected.
Soon after the Matsumoto attack, leaks of noxious chemicals from Aum’s Mount Fuji chemical labs twice caused toxic chemical clouds to drift over the neighbouring Kamikuishiki community, causing headaches and nausea. Trees and plants in and around the site began to wither. Despite numerous complaints from locals about noxious fumes, damaged crops, mysterious illnesses and frequent strange noises, nightlong broadcasts of Buddhist chanting, despite accusations nationwide of land fraud, kidnapping, extortion and murder, and numerous complaints from the parents of children who remained incommunicado inside the cult, the authorities continued to vacillate. They were hampered by Aum’s tendency to use lawsuits to claim religious persecution, and also by the decentralised nature of Japan’s police force. The Sakamoto disappearance was investigated only by the Yokohama police, the Matsumoto gassing only by the inexperienced local force. Japanese police at the time were forbidden to use covert surveillance cameras or telephone wire-tapping. Rivalry between central and regional police forces meant that little information was shared. Once again, as in politics and within the bureaucracy, the segmentation and rivalry between groups that is widespread in Japan. “No! You’re not part of our group. Outsiders are denied access to this information”.
The cult began to produce the hallucinogenic drugs LSD and synthetic mescaline, as well as huge quantities of barbiturates and amphetamines. The latter was sold through yakuza connections. These drugs were very lucrative for a cult now spending tens of millions of dollars in preparation for the coming apocalypse. By the winter of 1994, ‘spiritual visions’ experienced during ‘psychedelic’ cult initiations convinced many gullible initiates that Asahara truly had divine powers. If it is true that the quality of an LSD experience depends almost entirely on set and setting, then in a scenario where persecution complexes, repeated doomsday pronouncements, endurance rituals, and electric zaps to the head via PSI caps occurred daily, one can only imagine how many bad LSD trips were now taking place at Kamikuishiki.
As Asahara’s sermons dwelt increasingly on disasters about to befall humanity, a siege mentality began to descend on the Mount Fuji headquarters. Sentry posts and barbed wire added to the growing sense of paranoia. Devotees lived in primitive conditions. Food was poor, sleep inadequate and absolute obedience mandatory. Disillusioned members who managed to escape were kidnapped. On return to Kamikuishiki they were tied up, subjected to psychological torture, and injected with sodium thiopental, a form of truth serum. This serum was also used on suspected spies and those thought disloyal to Asahara. Recaptured escapees were subject to repeat dunkings in near freezing water, or 15-minute immersions in scalding water to remove “bad karma”. Others were forced to take psychoactive drugs, subjected to subliminal suggestions, and, if still recalcitrant, were imprisoned in steel containers. Some escapees received electric shocks to the scalp that wiped out their short-term memories.
Inevitably, deaths began to occur. Cultists who became ill or mentally deranged were murdered. The bodies were shoved into barrels, and then reduced to dust in a large industrial microwave. There are at least 40 Aum members whose bodies have never been found. With each death, the paranoia among the group leadership increased.
By the end of 1994 Asahara predicted a “final war” and announced, “ I’m happy to say that World War Three is about to happen”. He intended the prediction to come true by staging a coup d’etat in Tōkyō in November 1995. Aum’s dummy companies had bought huge quantities of nearly 200 kinds of chemicals, which three secret chemical laboratories and two computerised and automated bio labs converted and mass manufactured into biological and chemical weapons. Members of Japans’ Self Defence Forces who joined the cult helped steal industrial secrets related to laser and biological weapons and formed an Aum commando unit.
By New Year 1995, this nominally-Buddhist organisation had built an arsenal that included VX, a nerve agent far more lethal than Sarin, and also tabun and soman nerve agents, anthrax, botulism and several hundred kilograms of mustard gas. They had also manufactured large amounts of TNT, and were in the first stages of mass-producing AK 74 assault rifles. 1,000 of these were intended for the final assault by Aum commandos on key political centres in Tōkyō. It is thought that Asahara intended to use the huge Mil 17 helicopter Aum had purchased in Azerbaijan to drop biological and chemical weapons on other central Tōkyō targets. Their scientists had also manufactured huge quantities of the final sarin precursors, enough to produce 50 tons of sarin. If the product were sufficiently pure, this would have been enough to kill tens of millions.
An extreme religious cult using chemical weapons to take control of the centres of a power in the world’s second largest economy seems like the plot of some third-rate Hollywood movie, yet Aum came within months of making this happen.
Japan’s Diet building has four main gates that are each guarded by only a few policemen armed with pistols. According to military journalist Hisayoshi Tsuge, “thirty guerrillas at each gate could easily overpower the guards. There would be so much confusion if they entered the building shooting that no one would be able to stop them before they reached the Prime Minister’s chambers. The element of surprise would be enough to guarantee success”. Nearby Kasumigaseki is the bureaucratic heartland of Tōkyō, as well as headquarters of Japan’s two main police organisations. An air-launched Sarin attack on this area, in combination with an attack on the Diet, would have paralysed administrative functions throughout a country where power is so centralised.
In the end, Aum machinations were stopped by its own hubris. When the sister of public notary Kiyoshi Kariya escaped the cult, Kariya was kidnapped, brought to Kamikuishiki, and injected with sodium thiopental in an attempt to force him to reveal her whereabouts. The drug caused the elderly man to fall into a coma and die. Though the body was microwaved and the ashes thrown into a lake near Mount Fuji, his disappearance and subsequent public and media outcry, with many openly naming Aum as chief suspects, forced Japan’s laggard police force to finally take action. Kariya had left a note for his family which read – “If I disappear, I was abducted by Aum Supreme Truth”.
An article on the front page of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper announced that traces of an organic phosphate compound that could have resulted from Sarin had been detected in soil at Kamikuishiki. Panic ensued as Asahara realised that massive police raids were impending. An estimated $30 million had been spent on Sarin production. Cult members were forced to pour most of the chemical stockpile into streams and riverbeds. Other chemicals were hastily buried, burned or moved from the site. Equipment was moved to other Aum properties, records were destroyed. Components for the AK-74 rifles were dumped into dams. Then, amid police preparation for the impending raid, and Aum panic, nature intervened.
On the very morning that massive police raids were due to take place, the 1995 Kobe Earthquake occurred. 6,434 people lost their lives. Damage to the city was estimated at approximately ten trillion yen ($100 billion). Police and SDF forces were forced to divert manpower to deal with the disaster. Many in Aum believed the earthquake to be a sign that the end of the world really was at hand, and that their guru had foreseen the event happening. Asahara at once took credit.
To forestall the impending post-quake police raid, he decided to launch Sarin attacks, via the subway system, upon two police headquarters in central Tōkyō. The fact that thousands of innocent commuters would be killed was irrelevant to a group that had twice tried to assassinate the entire Japanese government. The Tokyo subway system is the world’s busiest. In one day it transports 5 million people in coaches which are packed to 200% capacity during the morning rush hour. The nerve agent was to be released in subway cars that had been meticulously timed to converge, from different directions, at Kasumigaseki Station. The selected train coaches would arrive nearest the exits used by police from the National Police Agency and the Tōkyō Metropolitan Police Department.
Just after 8.00 am on the morning of March 20, 1995, Aum members used sharpened umbrellas to pierce eleven bags of liquid sarin placed on the floors of five subway cars. They then quickly exited at the following stations. Dozens of innocent feet trampled the bags, causing the sarin to leak and spread. The agent was only 30% pure, yet, in the crowded subway coaches, passengers went into convulsions. Panic ensued. Passengers forced all windows open as the gas caused their pupils to shrink to pinhole size. At the following stations, with tunnel vision and failing nervous systems, commuters staggered for station exits, vomiting and bleeding from noses and mouths, their motor control failing.
The resulting scenes were soon broadcast to a horrified world: thousands of office workers collapsed on roads outside subway stations, ambulance crews and doctors overwhelmed and unable to cope with the bizarre symptoms, and later, images of members of the military, clad in full chemical warfare suits, descending into eerily silent stations. The shock was all the greater because this was Tōkyō, generally considered to be the safest large city in the industrialised world. In total, 12 people died, 5,500 people were injured. Some were left in vegetative states; others still suffer from amnesia and post-traumatic stress disorders. Numbers of deaths would have been far higher had the sarin been pure or “if Aum had used an effective dispersal system, such as a vaporizer”.
Panic descended on the capital. For many weeks after the attack the perpetrators remained at large. The police investigation seemed to be going nowhere. Sports stadiums and department stores hired extra staff to search customers’ bags. Security was increased at airports. Cars were randomly searched, cyclists stopped, litter bins and coin lockers sealed. Gas masks and canaries sold out. Any suspicious package noticed in stations meant trains had to be halted while nervous rail staff investigated. Those who could travel to work by taxi did so, rather than risk going underground. What was truly frightening was that most employees have no choice but to use the subway system.
Two days after the attack, the police launched a 3,300-man raid on Aum facilities across Japan. At Kamikuishiki, police released over fifty emaciated prisoners from steel containers. In the basement of one of the buildings, they found dozens of blackened barrels, the containers for microwave disposal of murdered dissidents. In the next few months, Japanese television viewers were inundated with the same constantly repeated images of commuters lying stricken outside subway stations, and scenes of chemical warfare-clad police carrying canaries in cages into Aum facilities2. The tens of thousands of containers and bags of some two hundred chemicals found at the site revealed the intensity of the cult’s efforts to create weapons in sufficient numbers to paralyze one of the world’s largest cities.
In the weeks afterward, with the Aum leadership still not captured, and no knowledge of the quantity of chemical and nerve agents they possessed, nationwide anxiety remained high. Each Japanese television station devoted an average 35 hours a week to Aum coverage. Viewer apprehension was heightened by wild speculation about what the cult might possibly do in various unlikely scenarios. One newspaper offered this advice in case of further attacks – ‘flee in the direction in which you see fewer prostrate victims’.
On March 30, a gunman armed with a Magnum handgun attempted to assassinate the chief of the National Police Agency outside his apartment. Two months after the Sarin attack, Shōkō Asahara was arrested in a secret room hidden between floors of one of the Kamikuishiki buildings. Even this did not allay public anxiety. Asahara’s forecast that “something terrible” would happen in Tōkyō on April 15 caused police to take emergency measures. Hospitals stocked up on Sarin antidotes. A further 10,000 police were deployed across the city. Unsubstantiated rumours spread – that Aum would poison the water supply, or that the high-rise Shinjuku area would be the target of another sarin attack. Department stores closed for the day, giving such flimsy excuses as, “we had to take an inventory” and, “the air-conditioning needed to be checked”. Shops and subways were eerily quiet as Tōkyōites remained at home. Though nothing happened on April 15, four days later dense fumes wafting through Yokohama Station caused nearly 600 commuters to be hospitalised. Then, on April 23rd, live on camera, a right wing gangster wielding a butcher’s knife stabbed Aum’s ‘chief scientist’ Hideo Murai to death.
Please make it stop
It seemed the Aum saga would never end. Two weeks later, a bag burst into flames in an underground toilet in Shinjuku Station. The bag contained separate containers of sulphuric acid and sodium cyanide. Had the fire not been doused in time, the chemical combination would have produced hydrogen cyanide gas in sufficient quantity to pass through the air-conditioning system. Hydrogen cyanide is better known as Zyklon B, the same gas used in Nazi concentration camps. Shinjuku is the world’s busiest station, and tens of thousands use its labyrinthine underground passageways each day. By the end of June, all of Aum’s main leadership had been captured, yet the ordeal was still not over. When a parcel addressed to the governor of Tōkyō was opened by one of his secretaries, it detonated and blew the fingers off the man’s left hand. In July, four more hydrogen cyanide devices were found at major stations. Fortunately, all were safely defused.
Aum ringleaders have received either long prison sentences or the death penalty. Shōkō Asahara himself, now possibly insane, remains on death row, incapable of any form of communication. He will almost certainly be hanged: public opinion would preclude any other verdict.
Loss of faith
By 1995, the combination of huge political scandals, the fourth year of economic recession, the cataclysmic Kobe earthquake, and then the sarin and sodium cyanide gas attacks, led to a steady erosion of faith in authority. In just five years, the general mood in Japan had changed from exuberant overconfidence to one of pronounced fear and doubt. The Aum saga raises a number of disturbing questions, the most obvious being, “why weren’t they stopped much sooner”? At the time of the subway attacks there were 110 criminal cases outstanding against Aum on which the public prosecutors had yet to act. The reputation of the Japanese police was severely damaged by this case. In an attempt to divert attention from the central question of why the police had been so inept and had failed to take action against Aum years before the subway attacks, the police released details of interrogations of Aum members to the Press who then printed these details as if incontrovertible fact.
There are other unexplained aspects of the bizarre Aum story. When Japan’s Finance Minister Masayoshi Takemura called for an examination of Aum’s finances, he was rebuffed by police who were unwilling to disclose the information, even to a member of the cabinet who had proper jurisdiction. The murdered Hideo Murai claimed that Aum had assets of over US $1.2 billion. Other more conservative estimates place the cult’s wealth in the $164 – $246 million range. Yet both police and Aum repeatedly stated that donations from members were Aum’s sole source of income. The figures do not add up. The additional income almost certainly came from Aum’s computer businesses, but also the sale of illegal drugs on a huge scale.
There is yet another twist to the Aum Shinrikyo tale: when police raided its Kamikuishiki headquarters, they found over $8.25 million in cash and 10 unassayed gold bars. Under international law, gold must be stamped, with the weight, purity and name of the assayer, which then permits each bar to be traced. It is quite a coincidence that identical unbranded gold bars were found in 1992 police raids on the home of the leading LDP kuromaku Shin Kanemaru. Yamanashi Prefecture, where Aum’s headquarters were located, was Kanemaru’s constituency. This almost certainly explains why there has never been any serious investigation of Aum finances. The powerful in Japan do not do jail time.
Aside from the subway attacks themselves, many Japanese were deeply disturbed by the fact that such heinous acts had been carried out by graduates of elite Japanese universities. A doctor, two applied physics university graduates, and particle physics graduate from Tōkyō University were among those who manufactured or released the Sarin. The murdered Hideo Murai had been an astrophysicist who had an extremely high IQ. Seiichi Endo, Aum’s chief biological weapons expert, had a degree in genetic engineering from the prestigious Kyōto University. How could such products of the country’s finest education system turn against the society that had nurtured them?
In his book Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche novelist Haruki Murakami tells of his dissatisfaction with Japanese media treatment of the whole affair. He feels it is not enough to just see Aum as ‘other’, without also looking at society at large. Murakami points out that modern Japan lacks sufficiently strong values to attract those who handed to Asahara complete responsibility for their lives. The youth of Japan increasingly reject the values of their parents, and have become progressively disillusioned with the incessant conformity demanded in the educational and corporate worlds. Many in this alienated generation live in a world of comic books, violent video games, and a superficial smattering of western pop culture. All that was needed to tap into their sense of estrangement was a charismatic leader who promised deliverance: in this extraordinary case, one with a megalomaniacal and heinous bent.
Tony Smyth has been in Japan since 1980 and is an author and freelance writer. For more information see his website:http://fukushimatokyoquake.com