On March 20, 1995 the Aum cult attacked passengers on the Tokyo subway. A liquid nerve agent was placed in five trains during rush hour. At least 12 people died; thousands were injured. The cult leader is on death row.
Japanese police carry out a terror attack drill at a subway in Tokyo
Previously, the number of people thought to have been injured in the Tokyo subway attack of 1995 was around 5,500 but recently Japan’s National Police Agency placed the number at over 6,000.
The attack was carried out by members of a cult called Aum Supreme Truth, who planted plastic bags containing sarin, a nerve gas, in five underground trains.
Inspired by Buddhism, Christianity and sci-fi
After the 1995 attack on the subway, police found gold bars, chemicals and millions of yen near an Aum compound
"The group was founded in the mid-1980s," explains Verena Blechinger-Talcott, an expert on Japanese politics at the Free University of Berlin. "It originally started out as a yoga class. The name Aum comes from a word in Buddhism, the Sanskrit syllable which represents the universe."
The cult was based on a combination of Buddhist and Christian teachings and also integrated science fiction. Blechinger says the group was inspired by a manga cartoon called "Starship Yamato" that was popular in the 1970s and 80s and told the story of aliens coming to earth.
Before the 1995 attack, the group worked on biological and chemical warfare techniques and recruited scientists. Experiments included planting substances in subways and spraying anthrax in the air.
Blechinger says the group also looked into cooperating with Russian nuclear labs. "The whole idea was that these were just preparations for some future attacks they wanted to perform. The idea of the group was to bring about the end of the world and cause the supreme forces that are somewhere out in the universe, those aliens, to come and save the world."
The group’s leader, who goes by the alias Shoko Asahara, had up to 10,000 followers at the cult's peak, many of whom lived in cult compounds.
Religion is important in Japanese society
Aum is banned in certain countries, including Russia, but not in Japan, which now has over 300 "new religions". Blechinger says religion and syncretism is very important in Japanese society.
"The group was not officially banned and is still active. They changed their name in 2000 because of the attacks, and are now called ‘Aleph’, which is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Again it means the first, the universal letter and they still have about 1,600 members."
The Japanese constitution protects religious practice. But after the attacks, a few small changes were introduced.
"It is still a touchy subject," says Blechinger. "There is the distrust in new religious cults, but overall, Japan is a very tolerant society, especially toward religious groups. It is considered a private thing, so as long as there are no signs that indeed there is a danger for society, there wouldn’t be public investigations into cults."
Shoko Asahara, the leader of the Aum Shinri Kyo cult, is on death row
Asahara, the cult’s leader, and 12 other high-ranking members are now on death row for an array of charges. 10 have exhausted their appeals. Several Aum members are still on the run.
Blechinger points out although there is an increasingly "strong anti-death penalty movement, the public is largely for the death penalty", especially when people such as Asahara are awaiting execution.
Author: Sarah Berning
Editor: Anne Thomas