Asahara in 1995
March 2, 1955
Yatsushiro, Kumamoto, Japan
|Died||July 6, 2018 (aged 63)|
|Cause of death||Execution by hanging|
|Occupation||Cult leader, founder of Aum Shinrikyo|
|Spouse(s)||Tomoko Matsumoto (took the name "Akari Matsumoto" after her release from prison)|
|Criminal charge||Murder, terrorism|
|16 May 1995|
Shoko Asahara (麻原 彰晃, Asahara Shōkō, March 2, 1955 – July 6, 2018), born Chizuo Matsumoto (松本 智津夫, Matsumoto Chizuo), was the founder of the Japanese doomsday-cult group Aum Shinrikyo. Asahara was convicted of masterminding the deadly 1995 sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway, and was also involved in several other crimes. He was sentenced to death in 2004. In May 2012, his execution was postponed due to further arrests of Aum Shinrikyo members. He was executed by hanging on July 6, 2018.
Asahara was born on March 2, 1955 into a large, poor family of tatami-mat-makers in Japan's Kumamoto Prefecture. He had infantile glaucoma from birth, which made him lose all sight in his left eye and go partially blind in his right eye at a young age, and was thus enrolled in a school for the blind. Asahara was known to be a bully at the school, taking advantage of the other students by beating them and extorting money from them. He graduated in 1977 and turned to the study of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, which were common careers for the blind in Japan. He married the following year and eventually fathered 12 children, the eldest of whom was born in 1978.
In 1981, Asahara was convicted of practicing pharmacy without a license and selling unregulated drugs, for which he was fined ¥200,000 (equivalent to about ¥260,000 in 2019).
Asahara's interest in religion reportedly started at this time. Having been recently married, he worked to support his large and growing family. He dedicated his free time to the study of various religious concepts, starting with Chinese astrology and Taoism.
In 1984, Asahara formed Aum Shinsen no Kai. He changed his name from Chizuo Matsumoto to Shoko Asahara and renamed his group Aum Shinrikyo in 1987. Asahara applied for government registration and, although authorities were initially reluctant, after an appeal, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government eventually granted it legal recognition as a religious corporation in 1989.
After this, a monastic order was established, and many lay followers joined. Asahara gained credibility by appearing on TV and on magazine covers. He gradually attained a following of believers and began being invited to lecture-meeting at universities. Asahara also wrote several religious books, including Beyond Life and Death and Supreme Initiation.
The doctrine of Aum Shinrikyo is based on the Vajrayana scriptures, the Bible, and other texts. In 1992 Asahara published Declaring Myself the Christ, within which he declared himself Christ, Japan's only fully enlightened master, and identified with the Lamb of God.
His purported mission was to take others' sins upon himself, and he claimed he could transfer spiritual power to his followers. He saw dark conspiracies everywhere, promulgated by the Jews, the Freemasons, the Dutch, the British Royal Family, and rival Japanese religions.
Asahara often preached the necessity of Armageddon for "human relief". He eventually declared, "Put tantra Vajrayana into practice in accordance with the doctrines of Mahamudra," and he led a series of terrorist attacks using a secret organization hidden from ordinary believers.
Tokyo subway gas attack, and arrest
On March 20, 1995, members of Aum Shinrikyo attacked the Tokyo subway with the nerve agent sarin. Thirteen people died and thousands more suffered ill effects. After finding sufficient evidence, authorities accused Aum Shinrikyo of complicity in the attack, as well as in a number of smaller-scale incidents. Dozens of disciples were arrested, Aum's facilities were raided, and the court issued an order for Asahara's arrest.
On May 16, 1995, the police investigated the headquarters of Aum Shinrikyo. Asahara was discovered in a very small, isolated room in one of the facilities.
Accusations, trial and execution
Asahara faced 27 counts of murder in 13 separate indictments. The prosecution argued that Asahara gave orders to attack the Tokyo Subway in order to "overthrow the government and install himself in the position of Emperor of Japan".
Later, during the trial which took more than seven years to conclude, the prosecution forwarded an additional theory that the attacks were ordered to divert police attention away from Aum. The prosecution also accused Asahara of masterminding the Matsumoto incident and the Sakamoto family murder. According to Asahara's defense team, a group of senior followers initiated the atrocities and kept them a secret from Asahara.
During the trials, some of the disciples testified against Asahara, and he was found guilty on 13 of 17 charges, including the Sakamoto family murder; four charges were dropped. On February 27, 2004, he was sentenced to death by hanging. The trial was called the "trial of the century" by the Japanese media. Meanwhile, Asahara resigned from his position as the Aum Shinrikyo representative in an attempt to prevent the group from being forcefully dissolved by the state.
The defence appealed Asahara's sentencing on the grounds that he was mentally unfit and psychiatric examinations were undertaken. During much of the trials, Asahara remained silent or only muttered to himself. However, he communicated with the staff at his detention facility, which convinced the examiner that Asahara was maintaining his silence out of free will. Owing to his lawyers' failure to submit the statement of reason for appeal, the Tokyo High Court decided on March 27, 2006, not to grant them leave to appeal. This decision was upheld by the Supreme Court of Japan on September 15, 2006.
Asahara was executed by hanging on July 6, 2018, at the Tokyo Detention House, 23 years after the sarin gas attack, along with six other cult members. Relatives of victims said they approved of the execution. Asahara's final words, as reported by Detention Center officials, assigned his remains to the fourth daughter, who is unsympathetic to the cult and plans to dispose of the ashes at sea; this is being contested by the wife, third daughter, and other family members, who are suspected of wanting to enshrine the ashes where believers can honor them. As of March 2020, the ashes were still at the Tokyo Detention Center.
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- Asahara, Shoko (1988). Supreme Initiation: An Empirical Spiritual Science for the Supreme Truth. AUM USA Inc. ISBN 0-945638-00-0.—highlights the main stages of Yogic and Buddhist practice, comparing Yoga-sutra system by Patanjali and the Eightfold Noble Path from Buddhist tradition.
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- A, a documentary film about Asahara made in 1998 by Tatsuya Mori on IMDb
- A Japan Times article about two documentary films on Aleph
- A2, a follow-up documentary made in 2001, also by Mori on IMDb
- Aleph: the organization's official website, with an English section
- BBC profile of Asahara