The History of the “New Religion,” Aum Shinrikyo (Part 4 of 7)

Graduation Thesis on the Aum Affiar: Part 4 of 7

This is part 4 of 7 for my graduation thesis on the “Aum Affair” in Japan – a biological attack on the public by a Japanese “New New Religion.” This section will give a brief history of the “New Religion,” Aum Shinrikyo.

  • For the introduction (part 1), click here.
  • For an explanation of the first and second stages of Japanese religion (part 2), click here.
  • For an explanation of the third and fourth stages of Japanese religion (part 3), click here.
  • For a brief history on the “New Religious” group, Aum Shinrikyo (part 4), click here.
  • For a summary of the “Aum Affair” – a religious act of terrorism (part 5), click here.
  • For an explanation of how other religions in Japan reacted to the “Aum Affair” (part 6), click here.
  • For counterarguments and my conclusion (part 7), click here.

This is part two in a seven-part essay on the Aum Affair in Japan. It was written (by me) in late November as my graduation thesis. I originally did not plan on “publishing” it – but I am on my honeymoon for the next six weeks and will not be able to blog while I am abroad. In the mean time, I broke the capstone graduation thesis into seven parts and scheduled them to publish while I was gone. This topic, Aum Shinrikyo, is relevant to me because:

1. My husband’s father was a prominent police officer during the affair and was in charge of raiding and arresting Aum members

2. I am a Christian who has spent copious amounts of time in Japan – as a student, teacher, and/or “living witness.” I was struck by both the non-religious and religious elements of Japan and wanted to explore why it was that way. 

A Brief History of Aum Shinrikyo

Aum Shinrikyo (オウム真理教 literally pronounced “Ōmu Shinrikyō”) was founded in 1984 by Shoko Asahara, a partially blind, former acupuncturist who was forced to change professions after being convicted of illegally selling unregulated drugs to customers (Metraux, 1999). He studied religion on the side, before officially declaring himself the “Lamb of God” to lead Japan out of the future Armageddon (Snow, 2003). He created the New-New Religion, Aum Shinrikyo, in 1984 from the Sanskrit syllable Aum, representing the universe, and Shinrikyo, Japanese for the “religion of truth”. In 1989 it was approved as an official religion. Aum’s doctrine was loosely taken from the Christian Bible, with Buddhist and Taoism stories making occasional appearances (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). One of the founding principles of the Aum was the prophetic fact that the United States would be responsible for starting World War III in 1997 and that becoming a member of the Aum was necessary to prepare for the end of the world (Lifton, 2000).

While the religious practices of the Aum were mostly unknown, they often relied on hallucinogens, such as LSD, and heavy meditation (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). In some instances, potential members were kidnapped, drugged, and given electroshock therapy while watching Asahara’s presentations on religion (Lifton, 2000). The Aum found itself in the center of controversy within the first couple years of its official establishment, after a former member gave testimony to holding members against their will, forcing family and relatives to donate money to the organization, and restricting the movement of its current followers.

Aum Shinrikyo was different than other New Religions and New-New Religions because of both their confrontational nature and the types of individuals that were recruited as followers. While most New Religions and New-New Religions attracted housewives and day laborers who looked to religion to spice up their otherwise monotonous or unfulfilling life, Aum attracted predominantly young, educated, and ambitious Japanese men (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). A majority of their members were college educated young men from upper middle class families that were disillusioned with modern Japan. At its peak, Aum Shinrikyo had just over 10,000 members (Yoshiyuki, 2001). It required a much higher level of time commitment and religious practice and relied heavily on proselytization to attract new converts (Yoshiyuki, 2001). By most accounts, the Aum was perceived as an extremist group heading toward violent isolation and cultist activities (Kisala & Mullins, 2001).

Beginning in the years following Japan’s capitulation newspapers published exposes on New Religions and New-New Religions. In 1989, the Sande Mainichi published an expose on the shortcomings and faults of the Aum (Hardacre H. , 2003). It was only a matter of time after its establishment until the media threw mud on the Aum; being slandered in the media was almost a rite of passage for New and New-New Religions. Rather than responding passively and ignore the barb, however, the Aum launched a counter-attack by publishing a book highlighting the personal faults of the Sande Mainichi editor, as well as refuting claims made in the previous expose (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). Through personal connections of its steadily growing body of followers, the Aum was also able to get a television spot to air its side of the story (Hardacre H. A., 2008). This was the first instance in Japanese history where a religion responded forcefully to criticism by the media (Hardacre H. , 2003). However, critics argue that rather than endear the public to the Aum, this attack only further isolated the Aum from the public (Gardner, 2005).

Violence by the Aum Shinrikyo

On November 4, 1989, only months after Aum Shinrikyo was approved as an official Japanese religion, Sakamoto Tsutsumi, an attorney who represented the aggravated relatives and victims of Aum members (Aum Shinrikyo Higashi to Kai), his wife, and their infant son disappeared from their apartment in Yokohama (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). Sakamoto worked with parents who were unable to contact their children who had joined the Aum religion. Sakamoto had recorded an interview with the Tokyo Broadcasting Service (TBS) on October 26 that was scheduled to broadcast later that week. However, before the scheduled release date, three members of the Aum showed up at the TBS office and demanded the interview be cancelled because Sakamoto called the Aum religion “fake”, mentioning cases of kidnapping and evidence of extortion by Asahara. TBS complied with the request, cancelling the scheduled interview with Sakamoto in exchange for an exclusive with Asahara (Hardacre H. , 2003) (Metraux, 1999). No one knows how the Aum members knew about the offensive broadcast before it was released.

One week later, Japanese police officers responded to a missing person’s report for Sakamoto, his wife, and their infant son. An Aum badge was found in their apartment, but police officers were hesitant to accuse the Aum because they were wary of being perceived as discriminatory force persecuting religious activity and organization (Gardner, 2005) (Metraux, 1999). The post-war constitutional freedoms of religion declared that religions acted to promote the common good, such that the law ought to protect religions’ autonomy and privacy, rather than restricting them (Hardacre H. , 2003). The case was closed.

In February of 1990, Asahara and other Aum leaders lost bids for seats in the National Diet, Japan’s version of a bicameral legislature. The group had been hopeful they would be able to democratically control Japan by positioning themselves into places of administrative and political influence, but their plan was overwhelmingly unsuccessful. Asahara reacted negatively to this public rejection and decided that instead of peacefully coexisting with the government and accepting defeat, the Aum should create a new government with Asahara as a theocrat (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). From 1990 onwards, the Aum began stockpiling physical and biological weapons. In 1992, Asahara gave a series of lectures at top ranked universities in Tokyo, predicting an Armageddon that would wipe out 90% of the Japanese population through chemical warfare by the year 2000 (Lifton, 2000). Through his vast membership body, he was able to secure lecture spots and contacts across the globe. Shortly before the “Aum Affair,” he met with the Dalai Lama to discuss the fate of the world. Through his meetings and lectures, he urged his audiences who wanted to survive Armageddon to join the Aum.

The first actual act of bioterrorism was aimed toward the Court of Mastumoto, a governmental body that was challenging the Aum’s claim over land in Nagano prefecture. On the evening June 27, 1994, several key Aum leaders released containers of sarin gas in open spaces of subways of Matsumoto in the Kaichi Heights neighborhood. Six people were killed and two hundred were hospitalized. The husband of one of the victims, Yoshiyuki Kono, was named the primary suspect. He was dubbed the “Poison Gas Man,” fire from his work, and received daily death threats and abuse until the Tokyo attack of 1995. After the Sarin gas incident in 1995, blame was shifted to the Aum. Aum leaders claimed the Matsumoto Sarin attack was a test in preparation for a larger attack in Tokyo (Cornon, 2009) (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). While the intentions of this larger attack are unclear, many critics claim the Aum was planning to stage a coup or false Armageddon to increase membership.


Works Cited:

Cornon, Kurth Audrey. (2009). How terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaings. Princeton University Press.

Gardner A, Richard. (2005). Collective Memory, National Identity: Victims and Victimizers in Japan. 著: BadaraccoHClaire, Quoting God (ページ: 153 – 172). Waco: Baylor University Press.

Hardacre A ,Helen. (2008). Aum Shinrikyô and the Japanese Media: The Pied Piper Meets the Lamb of God. History of Religions, 171 – 204.

Hardacre, Helen. (2003). After Aum: Religion and Civil Society in Japan. 著: SchwartsFrank, PharrSusan, The State of Civil Society in Japan (ページ: 135 – 154). Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Kisala, Robert; Mullins, Mark. (2001). Religion and Social Crisis in Japan: Understanding Japanese Society through the Aum Affair. Tokyo: Sophia University Press.

Lifton, Jay Robert. (2000). Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism. New York: Macmillan Press.

Metraux, Alfred Daniel. (1999). Aum Shinrikyo and Japanese Youth. New York: University Press of America.

Snow L, Robert. (2003). Deadly Cults: The Crimes of True Believers. Greenwood Publishing Group.

Yoshiyuki, Takizawa. (2001). Aum Shinrikyo is a Band of Criminals, not a Religion. 著: KisalaRobert, MullinsMark, Religon and Social Crisis in Japan (ページ: 124 – 133). Hampshire: Palgrave.




Add me on Google Plus: +Grace Buchele

About Grace Buchele Mineta

I got into the writing business by accident. Now I live in the countryside near Tokyo with my husband, Ryosuke, where I draw comics, blog, and make videos about our daily life. Contact: Website | More Posts

2 Comments on The History of the “New Religion,” Aum Shinrikyo (Part 4 of 7)

  1. william chan // 29 January, 2014 at 9:59 am //

    Thanks for sharing your thesis in parts. Having major in religion and sociology, your articles are a good write and read. And hope married life is great. And Be careful renting cheap hotel in Peru. :-)

1 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Japanese Religion and Secularism: the First and Second Stages (Part 2 of 7) | Texan in Tokyo

Comments are closed.

error: Content belongs to Texan in Tokyo
%d bloggers like this: