Aum Shinrikyo: A Shadow in Japan's History

Since the defeat of Japanese imperialism in World War II, terrorist activity has been instigated by radical groups from both the far left and right of Japanese society. On the left, the Japanese Red Army committed numerous attacks both domestically and abroad throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Although there is not one single identifiable group on the conservative right, there have also been numerous attacks from this quarter, with some groups growing in popularity and violence in more recent years. However, the most highly publicized terrorist attack in Japan occurred in 1995 when the religious group Aum Shinrikyo released nerve gas into the Tokyo subway. This attack ushered in a new wave of biological terrorism and raised questions about new age religious groups around the world. Today, Japanese society struggles with the legacy of Aum’s violence and the treatment of religious organizations in Japan.

Like many left-wing terrorist groups with a socialist agenda, the Japanese Red Army or Sekigun, was composed mainly of youth from student protest movements in the 1960s. In 1969 it began its revolutionary movement with small domestic attacks focused on the three major cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. However, the police surveillance of Sekigun proved so effective that the group’s ideology evolved into one of global revolution and in 1970 a plane was hijacked and flown to North Korea where some of the members remain today. Meanwhile a Middle Eastern branch was created which for many years worked alongside the Palestinian Liberation Organization in training for and instigating terrorist attacks. The most infamous attack by Sekigun is known as the Lod Airport Massacre where 24 were killed and 80 injured at the main airport at Tel Aviv in 1972. Various other attacks including bank robberies, hostage taking and airport hijackings were carried out, but the attack at Lod still remains the most violent and some of the responsible members were not arrested until 2000.

Perhaps less violent, but more obvious to the Japanese public is a segment known as the Uyoku. This term generally refers to groups who are right-wing and share a common conservative ideology. While political beliefs may differ slightly between groups, generally they are excessively nationalistic, anti-socialist and xenophobic, believing in a return to militarism and the restoration of the Emperor’s power as head of state. Uyoku are most known to Japanese and tourists as the large vehicles, painted in Japanese characters and blaring traditional military ballads through loudspeakers, as they drive around busy urban centers to spread their nationalist message. While they are usually relatively harmless and ignored by the public and authorities, Uyoku have sometimes resorted to terrorist acts to spread their political message. Attacks are numbered in the thousands, ranging from intimidation of media opponents to outright assassination. In 1960 the stabbing of socialist leader Inejiro Asanuma was famously captured on film, in 1987 an Asahi Shinbun journalist was murdered, and in 1990 the Mayor of Nagasaki, Motoshima Hitoshi, barely survived an assassination attempt. According to estimates the number of far-right _groups is about 1000, with more than 100,000 members and appears to be increasing. Mainstream Japanese may be apathetic to their cause, but more and more frustrated youth are joining the ranks of _Uyoku and are increasingly resorting to terrorist acts to spread their political message.

While Japanese groups like Sekigun and Uyoku have been carrying out violent attacks for years, when it comes to any discussion of Japanese terrorism, they are generally overshadowed by the events surrounding Aum Shinrikyo. Aum was what the Western world refers to as a cult but in Japan was classified as a ‘new age’ religion. With Aum’s secretive nature and hero-worshipping of its leader Asahara Shōkō, it certainly exhibited many cult-like qualities. In March 1995, the most elite members of the cult entered Tokyo’s subway network during rush hour and released Sarin, a lethal nerve gas, which resulted in the deaths of twelve people and injured an estimated 5000 more. In June the year before, in an experimental and retaliatory attack against judges involved in a case against them, Aum had already killed seven in a sarin attack in the town of Matsumoto. These terrorist attacks were innovative on two fronts. They were the first terrorist group to launch a chemical attack against civilians and did so on one of the largest commuter transport systems in the world.

The fact that these attacks were carried out by a religious organization also made it unique. While Aum first started out as yoga center, by 1995 its followers numbered around 10,000, with over 1,100 of these living a strict communal lifestyle and it had amassed an empire believed to have been worth $1 billion. Aum defined itself as a ‘Buddhist’ movement but had its origins in Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, and Japanese folk traditions. Its most appealing aspects according to its members were its simplistic practices, the promise of delivery from ‘worldly attachments’, supposed paranormal experiences, as well as a sense of community. Asahara’s turn to a more apocalyptic message did not come until after a few public embarrassments such as the failure of Aum members to secure any seats in a general election in 1990. Asahara then focused on a belief structure that divided the world into good and evil. He believed that nuclear war was inevitable and Aum followers would be the only survivors, so he invited scientists to join Aum and began developing his own chemical weapons. While it is not entirely clear why Asahara chose to carry out the attacks when he did, it is believed that he was trying to initiate the nuclear war he had predicted and add credibility to his claims.

The aftermath of the 1995 attack was a large scale police investigation, a media frenzy and intense scrutiny of Aum Shinrikyo. Ultimately Asahara and over 100 members were indicted on charges of illegal production of chemical weapons and drugs, kidnapping, and murder. Asahara’s trial dragged on for years and his death sentence was not finalized until 2006, although he is still alive today. However, many of Aum’s victims do not feel that justice has been properly served as Aum Shinrikyo still operates as an organization after changing its name to Aleph in 2000. Aum has left a legacy of pain with many victims still suffering today. Renowned author Murakami, conducted a series of interviews with the victims and highlighted how many of them now deal with employment issues, psychological trauma and physical debilitation, that will likely stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Since the attacks and subsequent trials of guilty members, a new issue regarding the treatment of remaining members has arisen. Some members continued in Aum, even after it lost its official status and protection as a religious organization. Now they face various forms of persecution both from the public and authorities. The controversial documentary ‘A’ followed the actions of the cult’s spokesman after the attacks. The director Tatsuya Mori, felt that the depiction of Aum in the media was completely one-sided and wanted the world to see its human side. Now Aum members are being harassed by the public and in some cases are being denied civil liberties such as voting because their officials refuse to register them on town lists. The newly reformed group is Aleph and they aim for complete transparency, having publicly renounced the violent acts of their leaders and illustrated this clearly on their website. The question now is whether the Japanese public and authorities can continue to persecute Aleph. This issue is akin to modern treatment of Muslims following the September 11 attacks and is a problem around the globe. While the world may like to label Aum as a violent ‘cult’ the reality is they have been cleared by investigations and are simply trying to continue their religious practice in peace.

Despite Japan’s reputation as being a predominantly peaceful nation after World War II, there has been a history of terrorist violence in Japan. While Aum Shinrikyo has dominated most discussion in this history, both Sekigun and Uyoku have played their parts in disrupting order and spreading violence. Sekigun has largely disappeared now, but were responsible for numerous deaths. Uyoku have remained active as a conservative movement and are slowly gathering momentum in many urban settings, sometimes carrying out acts of violence. Aum still remains alive in the minds of most Japanese for its sarin attacks on a major subway system. The responsible members have now been convicted, the group has become Aleph and is attempting to leave this part of its controversial history behind. However, they are consistently persecuted because of their affiliation with Aum. As a society we must ask ourselves whether we can continue to condemn an entire religious group simply because a few radical group members decided to turn to terrorism.