Aum Shinrikyo and the Subway Gas Attacks: Recollections from a Tokyo Resident

The nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo on March 20, 1995 shocked Japan and the world. As a Tokyo resident at that time, here’s my personal account as a subway commuter that day (but not a victim of the attack), how people reacted to the attack, what it revealed about modern Japan, and its profound and lasting impact on Japanese society.

March 20, 1995 – The Tokyo Subway Sarin Attack
The Tokyo subway sarin attack (地下鉄サリン事件) was carried out during the morning rush hour on March 20, 1995 by members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult. In five coordinated attacks, the cult members released deadly sarin gas on three Tokyo subway lines, killing 13 people, severely injuring 50 (some of whom later died), and causing temporary vision problems for nearly 1,000 others.
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
For more details about the attack, how it unfolded, and its aftermath, we recommended these two books.
Although published in 1996 (does not include information on the later trial and execution), this book presents a detailed analysis of Aum complete with maps and diagrams and highly detailed accounts without becoming overly sensational. A great introduction to the Aum cult in Japan and its distinctively Japanese characteristics.
This book attempts to answer the “Why” of the Tokyo subway gas attack. The author carefully describes the process by which a seemingly innocuous religious group gradually turned into an obsessive, hateful, paranoid, and deadly cult. A gripping read.
Video (English): One Day That Changed Asia — Tokyo’s Sarin Scars
An excellent overview of the attack, the events leading up to it, and how it changed Japanese society. This video features an extensive interview with Ian Reader (author of the book above).

Newspapers on the Day of the Attack
Newspaper on day of Aum Shinriko subway attack
Immediately after the attack, I bought the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper to glean more information because so many details were still unclear. The newspaper presented a detailed account of the attack and its impact, but did not reveal any details about who could have carried out the attack. Then, I remember vividly that the last page of the newspaper presented a chart of recent poison gas incidents in Japan with details of when and where they happened. This chart used the phrase “near Aum Shinrikyo facilities” multiple times, and by doing so, directly pointed the finger right at Aum! It was a clever way of identifying who did it without actually saying that they did it.
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
As Aum Shinrikyo’s involvement in the subway attacks became clear, more and more news reports focused on the religious cult, who they were, and how they carried out the attacks. Aum representatives often appeared on TV news talk shows to fervently defend their group and deny the allegations. (New York Times article shortly after the attacks – registration required) However, it eventually reached a point where the evidence was just too overwhelming and members were being arrested one after another. The unraveling of Aum’s inner workings revealed that the subway attack was a culmination of numerous attacks on innocent people and opponents. One of the most shocking incidents was an assassination of a lawyer (and his family) who was pursuing a class-action lawsuit against Aum for its crimes (it was an unsolved crime at the time of the attack).

Shrouded in an Air of Legitimacy
Aum Shinrikyo had far reach and was deeply intrenched in Japanese society. They had built an international movement that even had a New York branch and ran a large, active branch in Russia. They had formed their own political party (Shinri-to) and tried unsuccessfully to run for political office. Asahara had even met numerous times with the Dalai Lama. To his followers, Shoko Asahara projected an image as a respected, new-age religious leader.

An Attack that Shook Japanese Society to Its Core
Anti-Aum Shinrikyo protest
The attack did more than just harm Japan’s reputation as one of the safest countries in the world. It also brought into question its very institutions and culture.
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.
To provide an answer as to why cults can entice so-called “smart and intelligent” people and get them to do inexplicably things, this Quora user provides an excellent examination of cult techniques such as “love bombing” and how they gradually exert control.

Aum’s Campaign to “Prove” Their Innocence
As a part of its well-organized campaign protesting its innocence, Aum distributed newspapers at train stations around Tokyo. In the summer of 1995, I myself picked up one at JR Suidobashi station, and I’m sharing the scans below. Some headlines from that newspaper:
  • “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
Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4Page 5
Page 6Page 7Page 8Insert Page 1Insert Page 2
Aum Shinrikyo newspaper distributed in central Tokyo in the summer of 1995

Background of Visit by U.S. Scholars Who Declared Aum Innocent
Wikipedia describes the background for the visit by these U.S. scholars.

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.
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
Now that nearly 30 years have passed since the subway attacks by Aun Shinrikyo, we can look at the incidents with a more objective eye. Aum’s appeal stemmed from a desire for meaning and purpose by young people in Japan’s materialistic and status-driven society. Although Japan has a proud history and rich traditions, those were not enough to fulfill the spiritual needs of these young people who were ensnared by Aum. And with Japanese society’s single-minded focus on status based on the school or company you belong to, it’s no wonder that some young people who had reached “elite status” still felt empty. Of course, this sense of emptiness is not unique to Japan either.
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.
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