March 20, 1995 – The Tokyo Subway Sarin Attack
By early 1995, Aum Shinrikyo had already carried out multiple assassinations and attacks using sarin gas, and their allies from within the self-defense forces had notified the group about an imminent police raid scheduled for March 22. This prompted the group to launch their Tokyo subway attack to create confusion and ward off the police investigations.
For a More Detailed Account
Newspapers on the Day of the Attack
Thanks to this Japanese blogger who provides photos of the newspaper from that fateful day, I found the original newspaper articles, including the chart titled “Recent Incidents of Deadly Poisons and Abnormal Odors” (closeup of original chart) (English translation of chart) (entire page 15) — exactly as I remembered it! This is definitely worth a look, especially if you can read Japanese.
News Reports in the Aftermath of the Attack
Shrouded in an Air of Legitimacy
An Attack that Shook Japanese Society to Its Core
Aum’s leader, Shoko Asahara, had earned a black belt in Judo, which as a Japanese martial art was supposed to teach ethics in addition to combat skills. This black belt was later rescinded. Asahara even claimed he could levitate. In the aftermath of the attack, it was revealed that many of Aum’s followers had attended Japan’s elite universities and were considered Japan’s brightest and best, including the chemists who manufactured sarin gas in Aum’s own facilities. This was a shock to many people in Japan. They could not understand how people so “smart” could hold beliefs that seemed so foolish. Yet, as many former followers have pointed out, Aum quenched its followers’ thirst for spirituality in the sea of materialism of modern Japan. In fact, it may have been the followers’ narrow academic focus that made them particularly susceptible to Aum’s teachings and its offering of spirituality. One person explained the mindset of Aum’s followers by this quote from the writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”
Aum’s Campaign to “Prove” Their Innocence
- “Sarin manufacturing is impossible at the Satyan 7 building”
- Dr. Barry Fisher: “There are some extremely serious issues with the Japanese Constitution and system.”
- Dr. Thomas F. Banigan: “Attempting to manufacture sarin at Building No. 7 would be an act of suicide. It’s impossible.”
- Dr. J. Gordon Melton: “Aum Shinrikyo is true to traditional Buddhism.”
- Dr. James R. Lewis: “Not the same as brain-washing. Aum’s training is orthodox yoga.”
- “Aum is innocent of the sarin charges!”
- “It was the police who captured and kidnapped children!”
Scan of Aum Shinrikyo Newspaper Distributed in Summer 1995
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Background of Visit by U.S. Scholars Who Declared Aum Innocent
In May 1995, Aum contacted an American group known as AWARE (Association of World Academics for Religious Education), founded by American scholar James R. Lewis, claiming that the human rights of its members were being violated. Lewis recruited human rights lawyer Barry Fisher, scholar of religion J. Gordon Melton, and chemical expert Thomas Banigan. They flew to Japan, with their travel expenses paid by Aum, and announced that they will investigate and report through press conferences at the end of their trip.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokyo_subway_sarin_attack
In the press conferences, Fisher and Lewis announced that Aum could not have produced the sarin with which the attacks had been committed. They had determined this, Lewis said, with their technical expert, based on photos and documents provided by the group….
Ian Reader concluded that, “The visit was well-intentioned, and the participants were genuinely concerned about possible violations of civil rights in the wake of the extensive police investigations and detentions of followers.” However, it was ill-fated and detrimental to the reputation of those involved.
Final Word – A Symptom of Deeper Societal Problems in Japanese Society
Aum’s rise also points to shortcomings in traditional religion, and mirrors the growth of new religions (新宗教), which includes religious cults, in Japan.
Still, Japan’s experience may also provide some answers too. Aum famously dabbled in yoga and meditation. Judo (of which Asahara was a practitioner, unfortunately) was originally intended to not only teach self defense, but also teach ethics, morality, and being a part of a group. Some would say that youth football leagues in the U.S. serve the same purpose by keeping youngsters out of trouble and giving them guidance by mentors. Although Judo and football are primarily thought of as just sports, maybe we should also realize that these activities can also give people direction and meaning to their lives, which is needed now more than ever.
Credits: Top image courtesy of FreeImages