Human beings constantly search for their place in the world, trying to figure out what their purpose is. However, all that searching sometimes leads people down a dangerous path.
In the early 1980s a Japanese man opened a yoga school which he later turned into a religious cult following after amassing a group of followers. Yet when he became increasingly paranoid and delusional, he managed to convince his followers to carry out a heinous attack. Years later, the group has finally been brought to justice.
A Developmental Defect
Shortly after his birth on March 2, 1955, doctors discovered that a baby boy born to a large, poor family in southern Japan had infantile glaucoma. The condition, which he had been born with, is caused by a rare developmental defect that causes pressure to build inside the eye, which if left untreated can result in optic-nerve damage.
A Challenging Childhood
Unfortunately for the baby boy named Chizuo Matsumoto, his infantile glaucoma was never treated. As a result, he suffered permanent damage to his eyes. At a young age, he went completely blind in his left eye and partially blind in his right.
A Different Path
Because of his severely impaired vision, his parents believed it would be best for him to attend a school for the blind. Matsumoto graduated the school in 1977. Instead of following in his family’s footsteps as tatami mat makers, he decided to continue his studies as he needed to find a job that he could do with such limited sight.
Supporting a Family
Matsumoto decided to study acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine as they were common careers for the blind in Japan at the time. In 1978, Matsumoto ended up getting married and starting a family with his new wife. Together, the couple would later have 12 children.
An Illegal Income
In order to support his growing family, Matsumoto sold herbal remedies. When that failed to bring in enough money, the young man started illegally selling unregulated drugs. But it wasn’t long before he was caught by the police.
An Added Strain
In 1981, Matsumoto was charged and convicted of practicing pharmacy without a license as well as selling unregulated drugs. As punishment, he was ordered to pay a fine of ¥200,000 (equal to about $1,800). The fine only put an added strain on the already struggling family.
Turning to Religion
Matsumoto turned to religion to help relieve the mounting pressure. He spent all of his free time studying a variety of religions and religious concepts. Over time, Matsumoto studied everything from Chinese astrology, Taoism, yoga, meditation, western esotericism, esoteric Buddhism, and esoteric Christianity.
The Yoga School
In 1984, Matsumoto founded a yoga training school he called Aum Shinsen no Kai. After a pilgrimage to the Himalayas in 1987, Matsumoto changed his name to Shoko Asahara. He also changed the name of his yoga school to Aum Shinrikyo.
Aum is a sacred Hindu symbol and is considered to be the Hindu universal name for the Ultimate Reality or Ultimate Consciousness. Shinrikyo means “supreme truth.” Asahara then applied for his group to be legally recognized as a religious corporation. While authorities were hesitant to approve the application, it was eventually accepted in 1989.
After becoming a religious corporation, Asahara quickly amassed a group of followers. In the early days, Aum Shinrikyo mixed Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Later, however, Asahara also started introducing apocalyptic Christian prophecies to his teachings.
Asahara told his followers that he was a reincarnation of the Hindu god Shiva. At times, he also claimed to be Christ and the first enlightened person since Buddha. His message particularly appealed to students at elite universities — students with money — looking for a more meaningful life.
Thousands of Believers
At its peak, Aum Shinrikyo had 10,000 members throughout Japan and several thousand around the world. They truly believed he was the ultimate savior. His followers also believed in his mission, which was to take others’ sins upon himself.
Going to Extremes
He claimed he could transfer spiritual powers to his followers. Many of those followers paid him thousands to drink Asahara’s bath water and blood. As time went on, Asahara’s teachings became more extremist, paranoid, and violent.
A Doomsday Cult
Aum Shinrikyo quickly devolved from a yoga school and religious organization to a doomsday cult. Asahara told his followers that Armageddon was coming and that only he and his followers would survive. Everyone else who died when the end of the world came would go straight to hell unless they were killed by a member.
Under Asahara’s leadership, the group became more violent. They would kidnap, injure, and even kill opponents. They also organized several attacks using chemical and biological agents. After producing their own sarin, a deadly World War II-era nerve gas used as a chemical weapon, Asahara organized an attack on a Tokyo subway.
The Tokyo Subway Attack
On the morning of March 20, 1995, about five members of Aum Shinrikyo carried out the attack. While thousands were commuting to work on one of the busiest subway systems in the world, the cult members boarded and exited several train cars. They left behind bags full of punctured vials of sarin.
The Death Toll
As the gas leaked, passengers initially felt stinging in their eyes. Within seconds, commuters began choking, vomiting, going blind, and becoming paralyzed. A total of 13 people died and about 5,800 more were severely injured.
The attack was traumatizing for Japan, which normally has extremely low levels of crime. In the wake of the attack, authorities arrested Asahara and some of his followers believed to have been involved in the subway attack as well as other murders and several smaller terrorist attacks.
In 2004, Asahara was sentenced to death. The arrested cult members were given the same sentence. In Japan, however, a death sentence can’t be carried out until every appeal has been made and concluded. So for years after the deadly attack, the people of Japan were forced to wait for justice to be served.
Just is Finally Served
That waiting finally came to an end in July of 2018 when Asahara and six of his followers were finally put to death by hanging. “The pain and anguish of the people who were killed and their families as well as of the survivors left with disabilities, was unimaginable,” said justice minister Yoko Kamikawa. “I reacted calmly … But I did feel the world had become slightly brighter,” said Atsushi Sakahara, who survived an attack. “It will be impossible to ever forget the incident, but the execution brings a kind of closure.”