The leader of Japan’s apocalyptic neo-Buddhist cult, Shoko Asahara (real name: Chizuo Matsumoto), aged 63, was hanged by the neck until dead on Thursday for his role in the 1995 sarin nerve gas attacks on the Tokyo subway and other brutal acts which resulted in the deaths of at least 29 people. Six other former disciples also were executed, according to Japan’s ministry of justice.
Asahara’s death sentence was finalized in 2006. The Japanese government, as a general rule, only carries out executions when all appeals and related court cases have been exhausted. Still, it’s unclear why these executions took place now.
During Asahara’s time as the leader of Aum Shinrikyo, he justified murder of opponents as “cleaning karma” (karma-otoshi) or “poa,” he worked with the yakuza, and planned acts of mass destruction.
In the final verdict upholding his death penalty in 2006, the guru’s motives were summed up succinctly by the court: “Asahara under the pretext of offering salvation fantasized about ruling Japan as its king. He tried to kill anyone who got in the way.”
But Japan was, in fact, too small for his ambitions. Many people still are not aware of what a global organization his group had become or the threat it posed to other countries, including and especially the United States. Aum Shinrikyo was virulently anti-American, anti-Semitic, and used offices in the U.S. to prepare for large-scale attacks in Japan and a future attack in New York as well. Asahara was plotting global domination.
Destroyer of Worlds
Aum Shinrikyo was a new religion founded in February 1984 that espoused a mixture of science, occultism, Buddhism, eastern religion, and new age theology. Asahara, the founder, was highly intelligent and charismatic. He was also legally blind, which added to his oracular aura. He claimed to be a deity, capable of purifying sinners, and a prophet of the end times.
Asahara recruited the brightest minds he could find and over the years began turning the cult into a brutally efficient war machine. As it recruited thousands of members, the group used mind control, psychedelic drugs, secret rituals, violence, and blackmail to keep them in line. Asahara eventually came to fancy himself as the incarnation of Shiva, the Indian god of destruction.
By 1988, the cult was engaging in criminal behavior—forcing donations from members and holding them captive—that caught the attention of law enforcement. The point of no return came in February 1989 when several of Asahara’s followers strangled to death cult member Shuji Taguchi, who had tried to leave the organization. Asahara ordered the execution.
Then, on Nov. 4, 1989, disciples of Asahara raided the home of Tsutsumi Sakamoto, a lawyer handling complaints against the religious group, kidnapping his wife and his one year old son. One member of the hit-squad was Asahara’s bodyguard, skilled in karate. He severely beat the lawyer before finishing him off and kicked his wife in the stomach while the other members strangled her. It was a crude and cruel execution.
“After killing the Sakamoto family, the leaders of Aum Shinrikyo didn’t have qualms about a few more murders.”
Why was the lawyer killed? A Japanese news network had filmed an interview with Sakamoto a few weeks earlier in which the lawyer had discussed his great concerns about the cult and its fanatical tendencies. The network showed the tape to Aum Shinrikyo senior members seeking comment. Tipped off to the problematic interview and increasingly annoyed by Sakamoto’s actions, the guru ordered his assassination.
The Kanagawa Police did a sloppy investigation of the the “disappearance” of the lawyer, even failing to find an Aum Shinrikyo badge that had fallen at the scene of the crime. Some speculate that their failure may have been due to a cult sympathizer within the police force. The television station did not air the interview after the disappearance of the family, or alert the police to the fact that it might inadvertently have given the cult a reason to kill them.
After killing the Sakamoto family, the leaders of Aum Shinrikyo didn’t have qualms about a few more murders. At about the same time they also were reaching the conclusion that they would need to rule Japan to bring about the apocalypse and spread the wisdom of Asahara.