Aum Shinrikyo: The Japanese Killer Cult That Wanted to Rule the World

They made weapons of mass destruction, worked with the yakuza, and killed anyone in the way. The U.S. was also in their cross-hairs. The leaders are now dead. Not the cult.


TOKYO—The leader of Japan’s apocalyptic neo-Buddhist cult, Shoko Asahara  (real name: Chizuo Matsumoto), aged 63, was hanged by the neck until dead on Thursday for his role in the 1995 sarin nerve gas attacks on the Tokyo subway and other brutal acts which resulted in the deaths of at least 29 people. Six other former disciples also were executed, according to Japan’s ministry of justice.

Asahara’s death sentence was finalized in 2006. The Japanese government, as a general rule, only carries out executions when all appeals and related court cases have been exhausted. Still, it’s unclear why these executions took place now.

During Asahara’s time as the leader of Aum Shinrikyo, he justified murder of opponents as “cleaning karma” (karma-otoshi) or “poa,” he worked with the yakuza, and planned acts of mass destruction.

In the final verdict upholding his death penalty in 2006, the guru’s motives were summed up succinctly by the court: “Asahara under the pretext of offering salvation fantasized about ruling Japan as its king. He tried to kill anyone who got in the way.”

But Japan was, in fact, too small for his ambitions. Many people still are not aware of what a global organization his group had become or the threat it posed to other countries, including and especially the United States. Aum Shinrikyo was virulently anti-American, anti-Semitic, and used offices in the U.S. to prepare for large-scale attacks in Japan and a future attack in New York as well. Asahara was plotting global domination.

Destroyer of Worlds

Aum Shinrikyo was a new religion founded in February 1984 that espoused a mixture of science, occultism, Buddhism, eastern religion, and new age theology. Asahara, the founder, was highly intelligent and charismatic. He was also legally blind, which added to his oracular aura. He claimed to be a deity, capable of purifying sinners, and a prophet of the end times.

Asahara recruited the brightest minds he could find and over the years began turning the cult into a brutally efficient war machine. As it recruited thousands of members, the group used mind control, psychedelic drugs, secret rituals, violence, and blackmail to keep them in line. Asahara eventually came to fancy himself as the incarnation of Shiva, the Indian god of destruction.  

By 1988, the cult was engaging in criminal behavior—forcing donations from members and holding them captive—that caught the attention of law enforcement. The point of no return came in February 1989 when several of Asahara's followers strangled to death cult member Shuji Taguchi, who had tried to leave the organization. Asahara ordered the execution.

Then, on Nov. 4, 1989, disciples of Asahara raided the home of Tsutsumi Sakamoto, a lawyer handling complaints against the religious group, kidnapping his wife and his one year old son. One member of the hit-squad was Asahara’s bodyguard, skilled in karate. He severely beat the lawyer before finishing him off and kicked his wife in the stomach while the other members strangled her. It was a crude and cruel execution.

After killing the Sakamoto family, the leaders of Aum Shinrikyo didn’t have qualms about a few more murders.

Why was the lawyer killed? A Japanese news network had filmed an interview with Sakamoto a few weeks earlier in which the lawyer had discussed his great concerns about the cult and its fanatical tendencies. The network showed the tape to Aum Shinrikyo senior members seeking comment. Tipped off to the problematic interview and increasingly annoyed by Sakamoto’s actions, the guru ordered his assassination.

The Kanagawa Police did a sloppy investigation of the the “disappearance” of the lawyer, even failing to find an Aum Shinrikyo badge that had fallen at the scene of the crime. Some speculate that their failure may have been due to a cult sympathizer within the police force. The television station did not air the interview after the disappearance of the family, or alert the police to the fact that it might inadvertently have given the cult a reason to kill them.  

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After killing the Sakamoto family, the leaders of Aum Shinrikyo didn’t have qualms about a few more murders. At about the same time they also were reaching the conclusion that they would need to rule Japan to bring about the apocalypse and spread the wisdom of Asahara.

It was estimated that Aum Shinrikyo had assets of close to a billion dollars by 1995.

In 1990, 24 members of the group ran for office in the Japanese parliamentary elections, but none were elected. So the cult’s top executives decided that violent revolution would be necessary—by any means possible.  They even created a shadow cabinet among members, so that they could quickly run Japan when the day came.

Asahara fancied himself a prophet and what better way to be a prophet than making what you say come true? He predicted the cult would be attacked with chemical weapons and that armageddon would come by 1995 or 1997 or 1999.

The firm began plans to create weapons of mass destruction. Yoshihiro Inoue, one of the Aum members executed on Thursday, stated in court testimony in 1997 that Asahara’s final goal “was to take over the world by spreading sarin in Japan and the United States, killing the Emperor, and winning over Russia by bribery.”

The cult needed funds to bring these plans to fruition and had no scruples about gaining those funds by any means possible. They began manufacturing methamphetamines and selling them to the Japanese mafia, the yakuza. The group successfully recruited several yakuza to its cause, assigning one to help manufacture guns—a rare item in a country with some of the strictest gun control laws in the world.

Hideo Murai, “The Minister of Science and Technology,” watched over the weapons development and acted as conduit to the yakuza. However, the cult also ran legitimate businesses: curry shops, personal computer stores, and yoga classes. It was estimated that Aum Shinrikyo had assets of close to a billion dollars by 1995.

Preparing for the End of Times

According to the 1995 “A Case Study on the Aum Shinrikyo” by the U.S.  Senate’s Government Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations—which was compiled with the aid of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Japan’s National Police Agency, The Australian Federal Police and others—the cult set up operations in at least seven different countries: Russia, Australia, Germany, Former Yugoslavia, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka. The United States was not only a training base and weapons development site for members of the cult, they also were considering a large scale attack on New York City, and they certainly had the capability.

According to the report, “Aum Shinrikyo came to the United States officially in late 1987 when it incorporated in New York City under the name Aum USA Company, Ltd., a not-for-profit corporation. Although the office purported to promote the cult's book sales and recruitment of followers, the Staff’s review of records and documents, and interviews of the manager of the New York office, establish that the office was also acting as a purchasing agent for the cult as it attempted to obtain high technology equipment, computer software and hardware, and other items from the United States, much of which was intended to assist the cult's militarization program. Additionally, in the 1990s the cult used a purchasing agent in California to facilitate acquisition of similar technology and hardware, and military equipment such as gas masks.”

As early as 1992 Aum was looking at ways to spread sarin via a helicopter.

The group purchased molecular modeling software and other materials in the United States which were most likely used to develop chemical weapons. They also tried to buy a high-powered laser system, costing nearly half a million dollars, presumably to weaponize it.

By 1993, the group was moving ahead with its development of deadly chemical weapons. It had managed to synthesize VX gas and sarin, a deadly nerve gas originally developed by Nazi Germany. The Australian Federal Police later found that in the spring of 1993 the cult had purchased a 500,000 acre sheep farm in Baniawarn, 375 miles northeast of Perth. They set up a high-tech laboratory on the farm.

In the same year, Hideo Murai, the supposed minister of science and technology, and other members, were stopped by Australian customs due to suspicious behavior. Customs officials searched their bags and found “four liters of concentrated hydrochloric acid, including some in containers marked as hand soap…. ammonium chloride, sodium sulphate, perchloric acid, and ammonium water.”

The Australian authorities confiscated all of the chemicals and some of the laboratory equipment. The police later confirmed that Aum had conducted experiments on the sheep there. The authorities extracted trace elements of sarin in the ground where a group of 29 dead sheep had been found.

The lambs to the slaughter preceded the mass murders that were to come.

As early as 1992 Aum was looking at ways to spread sarin via a helicopter to do maximum damage. In October of 1993, two cult members came to the U.S. to obtain pilot licenses for private helicopters. They received flight lessons from a private flight school in Florida. They obtained a private pilot rating for rotorcraft helicopters on October 31, 1993. Shortly after that, the group purchased a helicopter in Russia.

The Attacks

In June 1994, Aum did a test run of the sarin gas in a residential area of Matsumoto City, killing seven people and seriously injuring others. The first man to report the attack, whose wife died from exposure to the chemical agent, was suspected of being responsible. His name was leaked to the press by local police.

However, by January of 1995, Japan’s National Police Agency, was almost certain that Aum had released the nerve gas in Matsumoto City. Still, they took no decisive action. In fact, a team of police reporters led by Akihiko Misawa, at the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, on the front page of its Jan. 1, 1995 edition, boldly announced to the world that traces of sarin had been found in soil deposits from the group’s compound in Yamanashi Prefecture.

And then March 20 came. The original plan was to murder thousands of innocent people, perhaps in an effort to derail investigations into the cult’s activities. The only reasons Aum failed to do that were impurities in the sarin and a faulty delivery system. There are conflicting theories on why the attack was launched, in the end, with such evident haste. Asahara never explained.

The original plan was to place ten small containers of sarin on five trains running on three major lines of the Tokyo subway system (Marunouchi, Chiyoda and Hibiya), which have millions of riders.

Initially 12 people died and over 6,000 were sickened or injured. Massive panic ensued as the gas caused victims to choke, vomit and fall down with severe coughing.

They aimed for maximum damage by releasing the sarin during rush hour between 8:00 and 8:10 a.m.

The attack was aimed to culminate in Kasumigaseki, a major subway hub station, that is within walking distance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Finance, and both the Tokyo Police and the National Police Agency. Many of the commuters passing through Kasumigaseki station are public officials.

The plan did not go as expected. Initially 12 people died and over 6,000 were sickened or injured. Massive panic ensued as the gas caused victims to choke, vomit and fall down with severe coughing. First responders were also injured and at least one Metro employee lost his life trying to save commuters.

On March 22, two days after the attacks, police launched massive raids on Aum and its facilities.

On March 30 the National Police Agency Commissioner General Takaji Kunimatsu was shot and severely wounded in front of his home in Arakawa Ward. Many believed that Aum was responsible; the case was never solved.

On May 16, Asahara was finally found and arrested. The same month, Aum member, Toru Toyoda (on death row) and other members set up a machine to disperse a fatal cloud of cyanide fumes by placing it in an underground passage connected to megalithic transport hub, Shinjuku Station, but fortunately they failed.

What would have happened if the police hadn’t arrested the members for the attack? More than likely, they would have expanded the scope of their terrorist campaign to New York and beyond.

The cult’s chief of intelligence,,when captured by the police, had detailed notebooks outlining plans to carry out randoms acts of terrorism in major U.S. cities, including New York. The group also considered mailing packages of sarin to the U.S., to be collected by members and then used to launch a series of attacks.

In court testimony, other members of the group discussed further plans to unleash havoc in the United States. A senior police detective who worked on the case for three years told The Daily Beast on conditions of anonymity, “They had members who could go in and out of the United States who were trained to fly helicopters. There was serious consideration of chartering a private helicopter and spreading poison gas in New York City, near the financial center—where ‘all the Jews were.’”

The detective pointed out that dispersal of sarin via a helicopter would probably be an extremely poor delivery system. The detective explained,  “If you try and think of their plans rationally, it makes no sense, but Ashara believed himself to be a prophet and the group’s actions changed and shifted with his delusions and visions.”

Tying Up Loose Ends

As it became apparent that Aum was responsible for the sarin gas attacks, every host country began closing down the group’s operations. It was an embarrassment for Russia and Germany. And for certain yakuza groups, the chain of events resulting in the arrest of Asahara was seriously bad news. Especially for the Yamaguchi-gumi. It’s permissible to be a ruthless bunch of tattooed gangsters espousing chivalry, but it’s entirely unacceptable to be an accomplice to indiscriminate mass murder.

During the period leading up to the sarin gas attacks, when Aum Shinrikyo was making methamphetamines to raise money, it used its former Yamaguchi-gumi members to connect to the Yamaguchi-gumi organization, primarily the militant Goto-gumi faction (led by Tadamasa Goto). Soon it was wholesaling drugs, weapons, and powerful mini-incinerators to yakuza or their associates. One small scale incinerator was used by serial killer Gen Sekine and his wife to burn the bodies of their victims. The Goto-gumi, through front companies, also did a series of real estate transactions with the cult. The yakuza profited from their transactions and also played a role in silencing dissent and complaints in the areas where Aum set up their facilities.

The elimination of Murai effectively closed many avenues of the investigation.

Hideo Murai, who had been in charge of designing the cult’s chemical weapons, also was one of the chief liaisons to the Yamaguchi-gumi and Tadamasa Goto. As the investigation progressed and the yakuza organization feared its connections to the group would be made public, it apparently decided that Murai would have to go. On April 23, 1995, in front of a crowd of reporters outside Aum’s Tokyo headquarters, Jo Hiroyuki, a member of the Yamaguchi-gumi, stabbed Murai multiple times. He died a few days later.

At first Hiroyuki, who did not flee the scene, insisted that although he was a Japanese of South Korean descent, he was also a right-wing Japanese nationalist and acted on his own. Later, at his trial, he said he was ordered to make the hit by Kenji Kamimine, a senior leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi Hane-gumi—and promised a great promotion if he did it. Kamamine was never convicted for his part, if he played a part, in the murder. Even the Japanese courts handling the case noted, “There are many details behind the killing of Murai that are unclear.”  

The elimination of Murai effectively closed many avenues of the investigation. It should be noted that Hiroyuki, after being released from prison, went to work for Goto. While Goto is allegedly a buddhist monk, he is still running a criminal empire in Cambodia, according to U.S. authorities. Karma doesn’t catch up with everyone.

Many other former members of the cult, possibly 1,600 by some estimates, are still active in the two splinter organizations formed after the group’s dissolution. They are closely monitored by the police.

The Remaining Mysteries

There are many questions still surrounding Aum Shinrikyo: Why didn’t the police stop them when they could? How deeply did they infiltrate the Japanese government? Why is Aum still allowed to exist today, albeit under different names? And of course, why did the Ministry of Justice suddenly execute seven members last Thursday? Why that day?

There aren’t good answers to those questions—and the executions mean we may never really have the answers. Japan does have strong laws protecting religious freedom and police officers also crack jokes that if Aum is banned completely, the Public Security cops will have nothing to do and be unable to justify their budget. There is probably a grain of truth in that.  

There are six more members of Aum Shinrikyo on death row.

As to the timing of the executions, Nikkan Gendai, an evening paper, had a cynical answer to the last question: the hanging of Shoko Asahara comes just as the Shinzo Abe administration is trying to ram through the parliament an unpopular bill legalizing casinos, and faces multiple scandals. Perhaps the Japanese government killed some death row inmates to kill debate about other subjects.

The night before the execution, Abe and Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa attended a party in Akasaka, drinking sake with other members of the Liberal Democratic Party in what some construed as a celebration of the coming executions. A photo of the grinning PM and justice minister posted on twitter by one of the party attendees drew heavy criticism from death penalty opponents, and even the general public. Comments included, “You’d think that killing seven people wouldn’t be something to smile about” and “I guess it’s true that [in Japan] when a politician executes someone their support ratings rise.”

Of course, there are not many voices of sympathy for the seven executed.

There are six more members of Aum Shinrikyo on death row. Their final day of judgment will only come when the Japanese ruling party considers it politically expedient to execute them as well. Here in Japan, it’s often the case that when justice is served it’s also self-serving.