oct 2001Aum Shinrikyo:
Austere Japanese HodgePodge SciCult
In March 1995, during the morning rush hour in downtown Tokyo, members of the religious group Yasukuni Shrine Shinrikyo planted leaking packets filled with sarin gas on subway trains. As the gas spread, thousands of commuters inhaled the fumes, coughed blood, foamed at the mouth, and lost their eyesight. Twelve people died, hundreds were unable to work or function as they had before.
Who were these Aum Shinrikyo people? How in a society that emphasizes harmony did such a group decide to murder so many people? How did the modern technological state respond to such a deviously engineered attack?
Shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States, I did a two book reading on this Japanese cult.
A Poisonous Cocktail
Written in 1996 shortly after these events, A Poisonous Cocktail: "Aum Shinrikyo's Path to Violence" is a scholarly examination of the religious underpinnings of the Aum cult.
Aum Shinrikyo 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, amongst other things, as an essential rejection of Japanese religious custom.
In the beginning, Aum Shinrikyo promoted a path to enlightenment with good old-fashioned aceticism: yoga, a vegetarian diet, manual labor, renunciation of desire. People with health problems, people lacking direction, people feeling alienated found a strict program that yielded 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 Shinrikyo was more "hard-core" than most modern Japanese religions. Besides their dedication to denial, they took a pessimistic view of the Japanese society around them. Most modern religions are ultimately optimistic; whatever they say about sin and the end of time, the idea is to join the group to learn how to be an optimally productive, happy person, contributing to peace and heaven on earth. Not so with Aum:
[Aum] 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 dissatisfied or disillusioned by the materialism, stifling conformity, rigid structures and competitiveness of Japanese society.While materialist critique is important, Aum's decided antagonism grew restless. What was at first a desire to withdraw into meditation and austerity mutated into a desire to bring about the end ahead of schedule.
Part of this desire was fueled by their inability to effectively communicate outside of a small group of alienated like-minds. In 1990, Aum Shinrikyo decided to field some candidates from their "Supreme Truth Party" for the Upper House Elections. They lost in dramatic fashion; the way Aum Shinrikyo went about trying to win voters was more memorable than their candidates: "The Aum campaign itself was widely ridiculed, for it consisted largely of members donning Asahara masks and elephant masks signifying the Hindu deity Ganesh, and putting on song and dance performances and singing a ditty that endlessly repeated his name as they tried to attract people on the Tokyo streets." (p44)
Still thousands of folks willingly joined Aum, while thousands more lobbied against the group. Aum's demands that members become renunciates and leave their previous lives tore at Japan's tight family structure. In 1990, Aum Shinrikyo began in earnest to set up businesses and "Lotus Village" communal living situations around Japan, earning the antagonism of their neighbors: "Eventually Aum was embroiled in disputes and court cases wherever it tried to establish communes, both as a result of negative attitudes on the part of the local people and because it showed scant regard for legal processes, frequently putting up buildings without permission" (page 47). They felt persecuted and it accelerated their withdrawal; by 1994 Aum Shinrikyo was publishing extensively on the conspiracy to destroy their group by the Freemasons, the Jews, the Japanese Government, and the US Air Force, amongst others. In June 1994 Aum Shinrikyo would perform their first sarin-gas release in the town of Matsumoto, where some legal action was pending against them.
In addition, Asahara began to manifest a fascination with ultra-modern weapons in the wake of the Gulf-War: "Asahara often mentioned the Gulf War in his sermons, regarding it ... as a testing ground for weapons that might be used in Armageddon, especially by the United States, which figures often in his prophecies as the great enemy which would fight, and extinguish, Japan at Armageddon." (p56) Aum Shinrikyo began to experiment with sarin-gas. These experiments were carried out at their various communes, particularly Kamikuishiki. Occasionally there were some leaks and eruptions of gas that infected the people on the premises; Aum Shinrikyo was quick to decry their enemies for poisoning them with sarin gas. Strange strategy; decrying the use of something so rarified as sarin gas in a small town in Japan; either way it seemed to deflect curiously from the largely distant Japanese authorities.
Reader outlines how the essentially alienated character of Aum, their millennialist, world-rejecting tendencies, and a decided will to action lead them to work to bring about the end of the world:
...the inevitability, indeed, the desirability, of destruction as a means to the attainment of Aum's religious goal, and the need for the fulfillment of Asahara's prophecies, fused with Aum's rising sense of persecution, whose origins derive from its very nature as a religion opposed to the ways of the ordinary world and to mainstream society, to put Aum on a 'war footing' with Japanese society, with disastrous repercussions not only for those killed or injured through its activities, but for the movement itself.Published in 1996, this text serves to illustrate the events leading up to the sarin-gas attacks. His concluding chapter draws primarily on comparisons between Aum Shinrikyo and Rengo Sekigun ("the violent implosion of thew Japanese left-wing terrorist movement" in 1972 (p97)) and Rajneesh movement (another instance where a cult comes to feel persecuted and acts in unsavory ways, in this case the cult was based in Oregon in the 1980s). Otherwise, Reader is mostly able only to cite cases and criminal research pending at the time of publication. In 2000 Reader published Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo, which is likely to be a more comprehensive review of Aum Shinrikyo and the sarin-gas attacks.
Reader's A Poisonous Cocktail is a good short overview of Aum Shinriyko. He demonstrates a ready familiarity with the practices and lineage of this synthesized religion. Occasionally he uses sentences with too many subordinate clauses; at times it is hard to follow his thinking; at 112 pages, you can move quickly through regardless.
Underground is the first non-fiction book penned by the well-loved Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. While he was outside of Tokyo at the time, not even watching the frantic reports of the events unfolding on television, he found the 1995 gas attacks to be a turning point in modern Japanese consciousness.
Murakami set out to interview all manner of folks affected by the Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subways. Store clerks on their way to work, doctors waiting in hospitals for victims of a sudden mysterious epidemic, brothers who lost sisters. Participants range in age from their young twenties into their sixties and seventies. It's a broad cross-section of Tokyo commuter society.
Underground is a difficult read. Not because of the language; the writing is plain and direct. This translation makes for a casual but respectful style. Rather the stories themselves are unsettling. Reading about sarin-gas attacks on the subway doesn't give a sense of what it feels like, as much as Kiyoka Izumi (age 26) does here:
...when I took a deep breath, I got this sudden pain. No, it wasn't so much painful. Really it was like I'd been shot or something, all of a sudden my breathing completely stopped. Like if I inhaled any more, all my guys would come spilling right out of my mouth! Everything became a vacuum, probably because I wasn't feel well, I thought; but, I mean, I'd never felt so bad. It was that intense.Reading a firsthand account of attack with a barely detectable chemical is can be unsettling, especially as these accounts sit within the framework of people's ordinary lives. There is a pleasantly chatty quality to much of this book, stemming in part from Murakami's authorial narrative. each person is introduced with their age, status, employment, Murakami's impressions of them, and occasionally some comment on the relationship he developed with them.
And there's there's a chance to learn a lot about living in Tokyo. An event like this puts routine in focus, as people recall their patterns leading up to the gas attack, and how their ordinary daily life was upended. One man Michiru Kono (aged 53) wakes up each morning at 5.30 to water his eighty potted bonsai trees (p171). Tomoko Takatsuki likes to get to work ninety minutes early, "so I have a full hour and a half at my desk to read the newspaper of have a bite to eat." (p40). Aya Kazaguchi (aged 23) recalls her early morning Chiyoda line train ride:
Once I'm on, I stand by the door just leaning into this solid mass of people, maybe sleeping. Yeah, that's right, I can doze off standing up. Almost everyone does. I just close my eyes nice and quiet. Couldn't move if I wanted to, so it's easier that way. People's faces are so up close, like this, right? ... so I close my eyes and drift off...Each person gives a little Tokyo commuter snapshot before they relate how the gas affected them. For most people, the gas was not a sudden explosion, but rather a creeping sort of inconvenience that became a hell on earth. For many folks, it was not until things became very, very strange that they realized that something might be wrong. Passenger Shintaro Komada recalls:
...around Myogadani lots of people are beginning to cough. Of course, I'm coughing too. Everyone has his handkerchief out over his mouthy or nose. A very odd scene, with everyone hacking away at the same time. As I recall, passengers started getting off at Korakuen. As if on cue, everyone was opening the windows. Eyes itching, coughing, generally miserable... I didn't know what was wrong with me, it was all so strange, but anyway I went on reading my newspaper like always. It's a long standing habit.This man ended up riding the train for some length of time, even after this initial exposure, until he couldn't see and he couldn't walk.
Throughout the book there are many stories of people who couldn't see, couldn't breathe, but somehow found a way to crawl to work. This is unhealthy in individual instances; some of those interviewed feel angry at their countrymen for avoiding becoming involved, like 26 year old Kiyoka Izumi:
...there were people foaming at the mouth where we were, in front of the Ministry of Trade and Industry. That half of the roadway was absolute hell. But on the other side, people were walking to work as usual. I'd be tending to someone and look up to see passersby glance my way with a "what-on-earth's-happened-here?" expression, but not one came over. It was as if we were a world apart. Nobody stopped. They all thought: "Nothing to do with me."Other interviewees reserve their anger for the emergency services. Here Naoyuki Ogata decries a poor state of preparation, and poor detective work after sarin gas had already been used:
The Police showed up only after the rescue operation was practically over. Then they began directing traffic for the one ambulance that arrived. I don't know what's wrong with Japan's standby disaster arrangements. After all those sarin gas victims in Matsumoto, they ought to have learned a lesson or two. They'd identified a link between Aum and sarin at that time. If they'd followed that up this whole gas attack wouldn't have happened, or at least I'd have come away with less serious injuries.While some turned a blind eye, still other folks rushed in to help, at a cost to their own health.
This first part of the book is divided into sections for each of the six separate rail line attacks. Across disparate geographies and persons affected, there are near-infinite permutations. Murakami works to demonstrate how people's stories overlap, with some characters appearing more than once, refracted through the views of a coworker or a random passerby.
This English edition of the book merges two separate texts about the gas attacks. Murakami first interviewed the folks affected by the gas, and then interviewed members of Aum. This second portion offers first-hand accounts of how people might come to be involved with a cult, even a cult that aspires to bring about the apocalypse. In some ways, it is, perhaps, not all that different from any other cult story, where people who feel lost look for meaning or structure in their lives:
When I got to Ishigaki at first I wondered what was going on, but after a while I thought the way they did things made life easier - they'd give the order and you just did what they said. No need to think for yourself, or worry about every little detail, just do what you're told. We did things like group breathing out on the beach.In these interviews with eight former cultists Murakami is more actively engaged, poking at their assertions, asking questions. These were rank-and-file members, not the people responsible for making the decisions. The portrait that emerges is of a group of folks both lost and logical, in an unusual sort of way. Many of the people he interviews here have established intricate religious and philosophical theories. Many of them were unsatisfied with their life in school or at work. For them, Aum Shinrikyo was a sensible way to pursue enlightenment, or at least channel their energies.
One man interviewed, Hidetoshi Takahashi, has made much work of critiquing the cult since the attacks. Still he recalls what was so appealing about them when he first considered Aum:
When I was in college many new religions tried to convert me, but in terms of grappling with the direction the world had taken, seriously formulating a religious worldview, searching earnestly for a lifestyle that fit this view, and then rigorously putting it into practice, Aum stood out head and shoulders above the rest. Aum was the most amazing group of all. I really admired them for the way they practiced what they preached. Compared to them, other religions were resigned, cozy, comfortable, passive. Aum training was very, very tough. Their religious view - that you must transform your own body before you can transform the world - had a hard-hitting realism. If there's any chance for salvation, I thought, it has to begin like this.Some of the sex and drugs that was heretofore missing in accounts of the cult does come up in these stories. One young female cultist mentions that Asahara and some of the other senior leaders tried to have sex with her. Shortly after that, she entered a two year phase living with the cult from which she remembers nearly nothing. Several cult members mention that LSD was a part of the Aum Shinrikyo enlightenment rituals. Probably this is fairly standard cult stuff; Aum Shinrikyo does seem to have been largely focused on yoga, breathing and diet as the primary physical means of ascension.
Aum Shinrikyo had an ambitious science program staffed by graduates from some of Japan's leading universities. This is a shocking point for some; prestigious schooling is supposed to turn out the best young people in service of society. Still somehow in spite of their skill and position in society, these folks had not found a compelling outlet. It seems they felt alienated by mainstream society, or at least that their ordinary work lacked meaning. Murakami sees a parallel between these misguided minds and some Japanese history:
Perhaps the entity called Aum Shinrikyo resembles pre-World War II Manchuria. Japan established the puppet state of Manchuria in 1932, and in the same way, the best and brightest - the cutting-edge technocrats, technicians, and scholars - gave up the lives promised to them in Japan and went off to the continent they saw as so full of possibilities. For the most part they were young, extremely talented, and well educated., their heads full of newly minted, ambitious visions. As long as they stayed in the Japanese state, with its coercive structure, they believed it was impossible to find an effective outlet for all their energy. And that's exactly why they sought out this more accommodating, experimental land, even if it meant jumping off the normal track. In that sense alone they had pure motives, and were idealistic, filled with a sense of purpose. As far as they were concerned, they were proceeding down the "proper path.Each of the interviewed victims as well as the author, they are putting words to pages to participate in remembering. To avoid similar instances in the future, these people do not want Japan to forget what has happened. Still Murakami leads us to ask how it happened.
A failure to communicate
As the world celebrates the successes of technology and the rich flow of global trade and media, there are those who continue to ask timeless questions about the shape of human existence. Some of these people contribute a valuable sense of meaning for millions. Some of them develop a perverse sense of purpose for a few thousands.
People with a bleak outlook on the current state of the world are lead to believe that they can bring about a purgative apocalypse or faster spiritual ascension for themselves by attacking the fabric of the society surrounding their 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.
On the first page of Underground, Murakami cites two storied Chicago journalists:
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