The “Aum Affair” – Religious terrorism in Japan (Part 5 of 7)

Graduation Thesis on the Aum Affiar: Part 5 of 7

This is part 5 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 outline the “Aum Affair” and list the after-effects.

  • 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. 

The “Aum Affair”

One year later, on March 20, 1995, sarin gas was released on several trains heading toward Tokyo’s government center which later became known as the “Aum Affair.” Each of the five Aum members involved in carrying out the attack deployed two small plastic bags filled with liquid sarin nerve agent. In coordinated fashion, each member pierced their poison bag with the sharpened tip of an umbrella, swirled the mixtures together on the floor of the train, and then exited the train. Mass hysteria ensued as the liquid quickly turned to gas form, allowing the poison to rise and sickening the surrounding passengers. At the next subway stop, passengers poured frantically out of the poisonous train car, trampling subway workers before passing out, sick, in the streets above. With all the confusion above ground and in the station itself, paramedics were unable to quickly reach the collapsed passengers still inside the train (Lifton, 2000). As a result, twelve people were killed, five thousand five hundred were hospitalized, and thousands of others suffered life-long trauma (Hardacre H. , 2003) (Kisala & Mullins, 2001).

Because the Aum was currently under investigation for chemical weapons, they were the first suspect after the Sarin gas attacks in Tokyo.  On March 22nd, Aum facilities all over Japan were raided by police, their property and possessions were seized, and followers were arrested. While these seizures have been largely classified as illegal, no action against the police was taken, since it was deemed “extenuating circumstances.” (Kisala & Mullins, 2001) The Aum headquarters in Kamikushiki at the foot of Mt. Fuji had in their possession anthrax and Ebola cultures, containers of sarin gas, LSD, methamphetamine, a crude truth serum, a Russian military helicopter, several million dollars in US currency, and stockpiles of automatic weapons (Townshed, 2011) (Lifton, 2000) (Gardner, 2005). In the following days, close to 150 Aum members, Asahara included, were arrested.

On the evening of May 5th, a smoking paper bag was discovered in the men’s toilet in Shinjuku station, the largest station in Japan. It was a hydrogen cyanide contraption that, upon detonation, would have leaked into the ventilation system and killed at least 20,000 passengers (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). This, and many other crimes, were revealed in the following months as Aum members were detained, interrogated, and tried. Shoko Asahara, the leader and founder of Aum Shinrikyo, was sentenced to death by hanging. Twenty years later, his trial and of several Aum members are still underway. Several other key Aum members have been imprisoned and thirteen have been sentenced to death by hanging (Kay, 2012).  The most frightening aspect of the entire “Aum Affair” was the fact that no one is quite sure what they were planning to do. Some argue they intended to start a war, others thought they wanted to stage a coup to seize power from the Japanese Diet, and still others believed that it was the ramblings of a man-man, bewitching youth to sabotage Japanese society. Since his arrest, the leader of Aum, Asahara, has maintained a voluntary silence, so it is nearly impossible to gauge his true intentions.

In the wake of the “Aum Affair”

The vast majority of Aum members had no knowledge of the criminal activity their leaders partook in (Hardacre H. , 2003). They were just as shocked as the public of the discovery of a weapons depot at the Kamikushiki facility. Many members believed the Aum was framed for the sarin gas attacks by police officers who planted evidence (Hardacre H. A., 2008). However, one episode of irrefutable truth that came during the wake of the “Aum Affair” was the discovery of the bodies of Sakamoto, his wife, and their infant son partially decomposed in metal drums in the basement of an Aum storage house (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). Members admitted to kidnapping and killing the three on orders from Asahara (Hardacre H. , 2003). Once that came to light, other instances of Aum-led assassinations such as the lynching of former member Ochida Kotara in Feburary of 1994, the kidnapping, torture, and murder of public clerk Kariya Kiyoshi in February of 1995, the attempted assassination of controversial cartoonist Yoshinori Kobayashi, and the drugging of three Tokyo residents, one of which resulted in death, were uncovered by police (Lifton, 2000) (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). All assassinations (or attempted assassinations) were direct orders from Asahara (Snow, 2003).

Even when the evidence against Asahara and his leaders was revealed, many followers chose to stay with the Aum rather than returning home to face their mistakes. They had sacrificed years of their life and all their income to Aum, so forsaking their religion and returning home would acknowledge that their efforts were all in vain (Lifton, 2000). Furthermore, a majority of the members lived in Aum-designated compounds, isolated from the rest of society. They did not have enough money, job opportunities, social networks, or work experience to reintegrate themselves into society (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). For these followers it was easier to stay and quietly continuing practice within the Aum compounds.

In the months following the sarin gas attack in Tokyo, TV stations broadcasted news stories about the Aum up to 40-50 hours every week (Gardner, 2005). For nearly six months, lawyers, journalists, and members of anti-Aum movements rotated through television stations and programs. The average citizen was bombarded with threats of religious terrorism, stemming from the Defense Counsel for Countermeasures to Damages from Aum Shinrikyo. This group challenged the idea that all Aum followers were guilty or responsible for the “Aum Affair” and instead claimed that the average member was merely a victim of Asahara’s cultist mind control (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). They urged the general public to help lead friends and family members away from other “dangerous religious cults,” not just the Aum, and to take a firm stance against “cults” in Japan’s society (Snow, 2003). In this way, the Defense Counsel for Countermeasures to Damages from Aum Shinrikyo made the “Aum Affair” about something more than an isolated act of domestic terrorism; they drew connections between the Aum and other “potential religious cults” that existed in modern Japanese society (Kisala & Mullins, 2001).

On October 30, 1995, Aum Shinrikyo was stripped of their status as a religious organization under the Religious Corporations Law (RCL) of 1951 and subsequently filed for bankruptcy (Hardacre H. , 2003). Under the RCL, Aum had the legal right to own property and business enterprises and once it lost its’ status as a religious body, it lost a majority of its property, finances, and ability to legally recruit members (Metraux, 1999). While most religious groups hoped the government would end the matter there, by December, several other amendments to the RCL were adopted. The Religious Corporations Council now had the authority to detain and question religions suspected to be violating the law, as well as requiring religions to file taxes and register membership with the Ministry of Education (Hardacre H. A., 2008). The amendments to the RCL signaled an end to the era that began with American ideas of secularism and traditional Japanese views of a traditional religion where religion was a positive driving force in society (Hardacre H. , 2003).

After four years of stories and investigations of Aum kidnappings, extortion, and terrorist activities, and the public was ready to accept political action against all religions, regardless of whether it was a Shinto sect with a multi-century history or a fairly recent New Religion. Two “New Aum Laws” were passed to monitor current Aum activities and give compensation to victims of the 1995 Sarin gas attack. In the early 2000s, it changed its name from Aum Shinrikyo to Aleph, and continues to operate thanks to private donations and contributions.


Works Cited:

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.

Kay, Katty. (2012年June月14日). Last Aum cult fugitive Katsuya Takahashi arrested in Japan. 参照日: 2013年November月11日, 参照先: BBC News:

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.

Townshed, Charles. (2011). Terrorism: a Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.




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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 “Aum Affair” – Religious terrorism in Japan (Part 5 of 7)

  1. Austin Moore // 5 February, 2014 at 6:50 pm //

    Thank you for your very informative and well written account. It is hard to believe that 20 years have passed since the Tokyo subway attack. I can still vividly recall the t.v. news coverage.

    • It was very interesting interviewing my husband (and his father) about the Aum Affair and attack. My husband was a volunteer police officer (in middle school) when the attack happened; he was downtown at the police station when the first bits of gas were released.

      Even now, walking around Tokyo, it is terrifying to imagine that kind of thing happening. The subways are just too crowded.

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