Aum Shinrikyo: Doomsday Cult That Attacked the Tokyo Subway System

Aum Shinrikyo in India
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In 1995, a deadly sarin gas attack in Tokyo claimed the lives of a dozen subway passengers, injured fifty more, and left thousands struggling to see when the gas filled their train cars. Tokyo’s police quickly determined that the attack, as well as a smaller one months earlier, was perpetrated by a doomsday cult known as Aum Shinrikyo.

History

Aum Shinrikyo was founded in Japan in 1985 by Chizuo Matsumoto. In 1987, Matsumoto changed his name to Shoko Asahara.

Asahara was born into a large and impoverished family in the Kumamoto Prefecture. He had limited vision in one eye, but was considered legally blind, and his parents enrolled him in a school for the blind. He soon developed a reputation at school for being a bully, and is said to have physically attacked other students and extorted money from his peers. After failing to be accepted into a university, Asahara began studying traditional Eastern herbal medicine in 1978. Within a few years, he was charged with practicing pharmacy without a license. 

Around this period, Asahara began exploring multiple spiritual perspectives: Taoism, Buddhism, the Hindu religion, and astrology. In the early 1990s, Asahara published a book in which he declared himself to be Christ. He called himself the Lamb of God.

Asahara announced that it was his job to take on the sins of the world, and that for this reason he could relieve anyone who followed him of their sins. He also wrote a detailed manifesto outlining his doomsday prophecy, which included a third world war started by the United States. Asahara claimed that only those who joined him in his new group, Aum Shinrikyo, would survive these end times.

Although Aum Shinrikyo was fairly controversial, it also attracted many highly educated and financially well-off people, and soon became known as a religious group for the elite of Japanese society. 

Beliefs and Activities

Shoko Asahara, leader of Aum Shinrikyo sect
Wojtek Laski / Getty Images

Asahara and his followers believed strongly in Biblical prophecies, particularly those surrounding the end times. Their plan of salvation included spiritual healing to cure physical illnesses, positive thinking to improve intelligence, and living by ascetic practices.

However, as the years passed and new Aum Shinrikyo members grew disillusioned, word began to leak out that new recruits were being held against their will and forced to donate money to the group. A lawyer named Tsutsumi Sakamoto, who had been representing families of cult members, disappeared in 1989 along with his wife and toddler son. When their bodies were found six years later, authorities concluded that they were murdered by members of Aum Shinrikyo.

In 1993, Aum Shinrikyo group began to secretly manufacture sarin and VX gas in a lab at their compound. They tested the substances on sheep, then proceeded to use the gas in several assassination attempts over the next year and a half.

In 1994, Aum Shinrikyo members released a cloud of sarin into the Japanese city of Matsumoto, killing eight people and injuring 500. The targeted neighborhood was home to several judges who were sitting on the council of a real estate lawsuit, which was expected to go against Aum Shinrikyo. Unfortunately, police were unable to determine that the cult was behind the attack.

Tokyo Subway Attack

Victims of the subway sarin gas attack in a hospital waiting room
Victims of the subway sarin gas attack in a hospital waiting room. Sygma via Getty Images / Getty Images

In March 1995, police were about to close in on Asahara and his followers for their role in the murder of Kiyoshi Kariya, the brother of a cult member who had escaped. Asahara was tipped off about the police investigation and decided it was time for a distraction. On March 20, 1995, members of Aum Shinrikyo working under Asahara's orders released a chemical nerve agent into the Tokyo subway system.

The attackers brought liquid sarin, carried in plastic bags and wrapped in newspaper, onto five separate subway trains during peak rush hour. Each individual who carried a packet of sarin also carried an umbrella with a sharpened tip. Once the trains arrived at pre-determined stations, they punctured the bags of sarin with the umbrella tip, then departed from the subway, leaving the sarin to leak out into the train cars.

Several of the trains continued on for multiple stops before anyone realized what was happening. By the time the attack had ended, Tokyo's subway line looked like a war zone. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote:


"Subway entrances soon looked like battlefields, as injured commuters lay gasping on the ground, some of them with blood gushing from the nose or mouth. Army troops from a chemical warfare unit rushed to the scene with special vehicles to clear the air, and men in gas masks and clothes resembling space suits probed for clues."

A single drop of sarin is enough to kill an adult. The attack left thirteen people dead and thousands injured from the effects of the nerve gas. Two decades later, many of the survivors say they still have vision problems as a result of the sarin exposure.

Aftermath

After the subway attack, police raided several of the group's compounds. Aum Shinrikyo's labs contained so many chemical compounds that, according to the authorities, they could have created enough sarin to kill four million people.

The police arrested hundreds of members of the group and apprehended Asaraha himself two months later. Two hundred cult members were convicted on charges related to the subway attacks, and thirteen of them – including Asahara – were sentenced to death.

In October 1995, the Japanese government officially stripped Aum Shinrikyo of its status as a religious group, but the group continues to operate as a non-incorporated religion. Following Asahara's arrest and trial, the group reinvented itself under the name Aleph, and currently has about two thousand members. The group remains under regular surveillance by authorities. 

In 2007, a splinter group called Circle of Light broke off from Aleph. Leaders claim that they are trying to return members back to their spiritual roots and away from Aum Shinrikyo's previous criminal activities.

Aum Shinrikyo/Aleph maintains compounds in several countries. In 2016, the Russian government declared them to be a terrorist organization, and banned them from activities in the country.

Shoko Asahara was sentenced to death by hanging in 2004 and was executed in 2018.

Aum Shinrikyo Key Takeaways

  • Founded by Shoko Asahara in the early 1990s, Aum Shinrikyo was a doomsday cult based in Japan.
  • Aum Shinrikyo conducted a deadly nerve gas attack on a Tokyo subway in 1995. Thirteen people were killed, and thousands were injured.
  • Two hundred Aum Shinrikyo members were convicted following the attacks. Founder Shoko Asahara received the death penalty and was executed in 2018.