Ringing in the Apocalypse:
Aum Shinrikyo, the Tokyo Subway, and Modern Terror
In March 1995, during rush hour, thousands of riders of the Tokyo subway fell victim to a Sarin gas attack. Members of the cult Aum Shinrikyo boarded the train with liquid-filled packets, punctured the packets, and these distributed gas, sometimes over 40 minutes, while Japanese commuters coughed blood, foamed at the mouth, and lost their eyesight. Twelve people died. The bizarre attack by the cult, and the responses of busy citizens illuminate the mindset of modern Japan, and broader human concerns in the late twentieth century.
Shortly after the terrorist attacks on the world trade center and the Pentagon hit the United States, I did a two book reading on this cult and their attack.
A Poisonous Cocktail?: Aum Shinrikyo's Path to Violence by Ian Reader examines the cult itself. Written in 199?, it is a scholarly account of the religious underpinings of the cult.
Aum was founded by a mostly-blind Japanese man Asahara Shoko,
Many books about cults trade in shocking, extreme behaviour. There are few moments of that here. Missing here are the lurid tales of sex and mind control typical of many cult tales. Sure devotees were encouraged to purchase Asahara's bathwater to drink towards enlightenment, as well as his blood. But this was less cultish devotion than you might read in Hammer of the Gods, the Led Zeppelin rock-biography. Instead, Reader observes Asahara and his followers acting increasingly threatened by the world around them, building to a fever pitch towards the end of the twenty-first century.
Aum was a hodgepodge religion, "ranging from the Japanese folk religious tradition, to Buddhism, Shinto and Christianity, along with an infusion of occultist and New Age ideas." (p.15) Reader cites Asahara's adaptation of a flowing beard and long Indian robes as an essential rejection of Japanese religious formalwear. Aum is drawn from Sanskrit and "refers to the powers of destruction and creation in the universe." In the beginning, Aum promoted a path to enlightenment with good old-fashioned aceticism: yoga, vegetarianian, manual labor, renunciation of desire. People with health problems, people lacking direction, people feeling alienated found a strict program that yeilded results. Heck, if anyone starts eating better, doing yoga, and meditating for much of the day, they're going to feel different, probably better.
Aum's theology from early on was ... underpinned by the notion that the world was predominantly sinful, and that life was primarily a process of suffering. Such ideas emphasised the importance of escaping from suffering through spriritual practice, and of finding reality not in the world of substance but in spiritual disciplines such as meditation. Thus Aum, in contrast to the other positivistic attitudes of most Japanese new religions, which offer their followers the potential for realisation, success and achievement in this world, not only asserted a critical and antithetical view of society and of Japanese materialism, but asserted the importance of withdrawing from it to practice austerities. This apparently idealistic rejection of wealth and materialism in favour of spiritual progress through asceticism, yoga and meditation attracted to it young, idealistic people who were dissatiostfied or disillusioned by the materialism, stifling conformity, rigid structures and competitiveness of Japanese society.While this sounds healthy, the energy driving Aum was twisted, and growing ever moreso. While many religions talk of the end of the world, and a few say the end is near (or "the end is nigh"), Aum built that call into a fever pitch.
As the number of followers increased, somehow the pressure increased as well. Asahara working to establish an understanding of how these folks decided to
"When I first got to IshigakiAum's strange attitudes made them authentic in a way. They began as a dedicated quote from the end about non-cushy religion.
A failure to communicate
This was appropriate to read shortly after the terrorist attacks on America in fall 2001. People with a bleak outlook on the current state of the world are lead to believe that they can bring about an apocalypse or faster spiritual ascention for themselves by attacking the fabric of society outside dedicated religion.
Benjamin Barber's Jihad versus McWorld thesis; that extreme religious authenticity emerges in late capitalism as a reaction to overwhelming materialism. Certainly a few Japanese people, living in the world's most dense consumer society, they were looking for something to believe in, regardless of how unsettling it might seem in hindsight.
There are other books on this subject, especially when you look under "doomsday cults," accounts of Aum are included with Jonestown, Branch Dividions, etc.