Written By: Aurora Caskey
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
The Yoga Doomsday Death Cult
Aum Shinrikyo was founded in 1984 by Shoko Asahara, a man who lived in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, Japan. What started as a yoga and meditation group morphed into an amalgamation of Buddhist and Christian theology, with charismatic leader Asahara at the center. Asahara maintained power over his followers through fear, intimidation, and even murder. In 1995, the group executed a chemical attack on trains in the Tokyo subway system, which killed 13 people. Asahara never publicly admitted to his crimes and was executed in 2018.
Who is Shoko Asahara?
Asahara was born Chizuo Matsumoto on March 2, 1955. He was one of nine children born to a poor couple and had glaucoma at birth, which meant he was partially blind in one eye. He was sent to a school for the blind, where he would bully the other children. He wanted to pursue medicine but could not because of his eyesight, so he became an acupuncturist. In 1978 he married his wife, with whom he fathered six children.
After an arrest for peddling fake medicines through his acupuncture practice, Asahara went on a solo sojourn to India, where he studied yoga and religious texts. Back in Tokyo, he launched Aum Shinrikyo, which took parts of Buddhism and mixed it with Millenarianism and Christianity. Millenarianism is essentially a belief system that foretells a coming upending of world order and implies that current political and social systems are irrevocably corrupt. Asahara declared himself the “Lamb of God” and claimed to have mystical powers, such as the ability to levitate. He recruited people who found themselves socially isolated in the urban metropolis of Tokyo, often young men who were looking for a belief structure.
Asahara gained control over his followers through mind control, coercion, mind-altering drugs, and violence. When one member tried to leave the group in 1989, Asahara ordered the others to strangle the man to death. Later that year a lawyer named Tsutsumi Sakamoto did an interview with a TV station where he discussed his concerns about what really goes on inside Aum Shinrikyo. Someone from the station thought it was a good idea to show the interview to members of Aum to request their comments. Under the orders of Asahara, cult members broke into Sakamoto’s home and severely beat him before executing him, his wife, and their one-year-old son.
After getting away with murder, Aum Shinrikyo started to crystalize its mission and send its ultimate plans into action. According to one member, Asahara’s 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.” By 1995, the cult had assets around the world (including legitimate businesses) totaling nearly $1 billion. The group sent members to Florida to take helicopter flight lessons and was successfully able to synthesize sarin gas. They ran a “test” flight in Matsumoto City, Japan that killed seven people. And still, the police originally suspected the husband of a victim rather than investigating the cult.
On March 20, 1995, Aum put its most ambitious plan into action. They released ten sarin containers on five different trains during morning rush hour in Tokyo. Their aim was to kill thousands but thankfully the plan was rushed, and only claimed 13 lives. Police raided Aum headquarters two days later, but Asahara wasn’t arrested until May. Had Japanese police not finally figured out the dark and twisted goals of Aum Shinrikyo, the cult would no doubt have launched other attacks in Japan and elsewhere. Members admitted detailed plans for other attacks, including ones on New York City, where they planned to mail sarin gas to cult members for them to launch attacks from America.
Following the botched attacks, Aum Shinrikyo went underground and Asahara went into hiding. He was finally captured and charged with 27 counts of murder. 191 other members of the cult were also charged with varying crimes. He was sentenced to death by hanging in 2004, but the sentence was carried out in 2018 after the appeals process and delay for other Aum members to convicted and sentenced. In Japan, those on death row don’t know when their execution is coming. They receive notice of their imminent death only a few hours beforehand. In total, 13 members of Aum were hanged for their crimes.
Shockingly, the Japanese government has allowed Aum Shinrikyo to continue, albeit under a new name. In 2000, they became Aleph. According to their public relations website, Aleph officially admits that Aum members were involved in illegal activity and condemn those actions, including the sarin subway attacks. They claim to have donated over 300 million yen (as of 2001) as recompense for the attacks, as well as given half a million US dollars to the Red Cross following the 9/11 attacks.
In 2007, former spokesperson and PR manager for Aum Shinrikyo broke away from Aleph and the defacto leadership role he assumed following his release from prison to form his own group. Called the Circle of Rainbow Light, the group is actively recruiting new members by holding ‘training activities’ in its dojo, which include Qigong (similar to Tai Chi), yoga, guided meditation, healing practices, and lessons on Buddhism. The Japanese government ruled to discontinue surveillance on the Circle of Rainbow Light in 2017 but retracted that decision in 2019. They said that The Circle of Rainbow Light still needs to be monitored because it contains original members of the terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo and because there is “no evident major change between the former group and the current group.”
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