by Jackie Fowler
For Soc 497: Independent Studies
Fall 1998
University of Virginia
Last modified: 07/16/01

from ReligiousMovements Website


I. Group Profile

  • Name:               Aum Shinrikyo

  • Founder:            Asahara Shoko (born Chizuo Matsumoto)

  • Date of Birth:     1955

  • Birth Place:        Kyushu (southern island of Japan)

  • Year Founded:   1986



The history of Aum Shinrikyo begins with the founder, Asahara Shoko. He attended a school for the blind from the age of five (Mullins: 315), and after graduating in 1977 he moved to Tokyo (Shimazono: 385). Despite earnest efforts, he failed the entrance exam at Tokyo University and turned to studying acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine. He married in 1978; he and his wife sold herbal medicine and natural foods, and he continued his study of acupuncture (Mullins: 315). Shimazono states Asahara’s move to Tokyo marked the beginning of his intense interest in religion (385). Through his "search for faith," he joined Agonshu, a "New New Religion" that stressed liberation from bad karma via meditation (Shimazono: 385). This belief emerges slightly altered in Aum Shinrikyo belief system. In Aum, a believer can "remove bad karma" by enduring various sufferings. Members use this idea to justify the abuse of other members (Shimazono: 386).

In 1984, Asahara and his wife began holding regular yoga classes, and here gained some following (Mullins: 315). While in India in 1986, Asahara claims to have recieved enlightenment while alone in the Himalayan Mountains, and upon his return in 1987 he changed his name from Chizuo Matsumoto to the "holy" Asahara Shoko (Mullins: 315). He continued his religious activities and named his group Aum Shinrikyo. Aum is Sanskrit for the "powers of destruction and creation in the universe," and Shinrikyo is the "teaching of the supreme truth" (Reader: 15). As the group’s name suggests, the goal is to teach the truth about the creation and destruction of the universe (Mullins: 315).

In 1989, the group attempted to register with the government under the Religious Corporations Law (shukyo hojin ho). Such registration includes benefits like tax privileges, the right to own property as an organization, and protection from any state or other external interference (Reader: 35). At first, registration was not permitted due to a series of complaints from families of the shukkesha, a practice that demands that individuals sever all ties with family and cease communication (Reader: 36). Aum publicly responded to the rejection with demonstrations, law suits, and a legal appeal against the decision. In August 1989 Aum was granted the legal status (Reader: 37). This began a trend, as Aum came to greet every difficulty with vigorous denials and law suits.

"It thus used apparent adversities to gain further attention and publicize itself, whilst also, perhaps gaining the impression that it could overcome any external problem through agressive responses" (Reader: 37).

In May 1989 several parents hired the Yokohama lawyer Sakamato Tsutsumi, as he had had previous experience with child/parent estrangement in connection with New Religious Movements (Reader: 37). In August 1989, the Sunday Mainichi (a prominent Japanese newspaper) began a seven-part series on the group. The series included accusations that members were separated from their families, complaints that children received no formal schooling, and speculation about "blood initiations" and large, involuntary donations from members (Reader: 38). In response, the newspaper received 200 letters and postcards from former members and families expressing their grievances (Reader: 380). Also in response to the series, the Aum Shinrikyo higaisha no kai (Aum Shinrikyo Victim’s Society) was established (Reader: 38). Aum responds with threatening plans to sue the editors and senior executives of the Sunday Mainichi.

Around this time, Sakamoto uncovered a faulty claim. Asahara claimed that tests conducted at Kyoto University revealed his blood contained unique DNA. This "finding" constituted the blood initiation that was believed to enhance "spiritual power enhancement." No such tests were run (Reader: 38). In November 1989, Sakamoto disappeared along with his wife and infant son. The blood and Aum badge found on the scene pointed to the group, but Aum denied involvement. Investigations yielded no direct evidence against Aum in connection with the disappearances, and the group embraced the chance for publicity (Reader: 39). In actuality, the three bodies were uncovered in three separate mountain locations in September 1995, nearly six full years after the disappearances (Mullins: 320).

In July 1989, Asahara professed political action was necessary to save the world (see Beliefs) and hence the Shinrito ("Supreme Truth party") political party emerged (Reader: 44). Their purpose was to publicize Aum’s teachings, offer salvation to a wider audience, and provide Aum with access to publicity (means to aforementioned ends). All twenty five candidates from the party lost, and because they had truly expected to win, this served a great blow (Reader: 44). The election led to more legal problems as accusations arose that several hundred followers falsified their legal residence so they could vote within Asahara’s constituency (Reader: 44). The Supreme Truth’s overwhelming defeat led to what Richard Young called "Aum-Bashing." "’[This practice] became almost a national pastime’" (Reader: 44). This nation wide response led to further estrangement of the group (Reader: 45).

This period marked a major shift in Aum ideology. A group that initially sought to prevent an apocalypse now realized a new goal; they had to limit the number of deaths through religious activities and preparations (Mullins: 316). They could no longer save the world but needed to protect themselves (Reader: 46). Asahara announced the need for followers to prepare for the inevitable Armageddon, and they began construction on nuclear shelters and communes where they could escape worldly distractions (Reader: 46). This isolation strengthened the influential power of Aum’s leadership and the hierarchic structure that was based on ascetic attainment (Reader: 49). Many failed attempts to improve the group’s public image led to a stronger feeling of persecution among the Aum members and inner dependence (Reader: 54).

Takahashi Masayo was one of four members accused in the 1995 Tokyo sarin gas attack, and he outlined a sequence of events in court. In this sequence, Takahashi indicated that in March 1993, Asahara gave orders to manufacture sarin gas, however it has not been ruled impossible that such plans were made as early as 1990 (Reader: 72). An Aum official named Murai Hideo (who was murdered in April 1995) is believed to have received Asahara’s orders to develop chemical weapons (Reader: 73). Murai then placed Tsuchiya Masami, who has a Master’s degree in organic chemistry, in charge of chemical weapons research (Reader: 73). Tsuchiya’s team successfully made sarin in late 1993 (Reader: 77), and he now faces various charges in connection with the "Aum Affair."

On June 27, 1994, clouds of sarin engulfed the Kita-Fukashidistrict of Matsumoto (central Japan) (Reader: 78). Seven people died and hundreds were injured. Initially, a local gardener was falsely accused and was cleared only after many months of investigation (Reader: 70). Testimony revealed Asahara ordered the attack in the vicinity of three judges set to hear a case against the group (Reader: 79). The refrigerated trucks were equipped with spraying mechanisms and driven from Aum’s main facility to Matsumoto. This gassing successfully injured the judges (Reader: 80).

In the summer of 1994, Aum established its own "government" in opposition to the Japanese government (Reader: 81). Similar in organization to that of the Japanese nation, Aum’s governmental structure promoted Asahara’s personal "imperial aspirations" (Reader: 82). On July 9, 1994, a serious gas leak lead to reports of Aum members running in gas masks from a facility building. Trees and grass in the area suffered evident, unnatural damage (Reader 78). Finally, in January 1995, the link between the Matsumoto incident and the gas leak was made public (Reader: 83).On March 19, 1995, police entered Aum headquarters in Osaka and arrested three members for an alleged abduction of a disruptive, disobedient member (Reader: 85).

On March 20, 1995, in the midst of morning rush hour, ten highly placed members boarded five trains at different stations. At a predetermined point in time, the ten members punctured bags of sarin wrapped in newspaper with umbrellas as they left their trains (Reader: 86). The Kasumigaseki Station suffered the worst of the attack. The time and place appear to have been deliberately selected, as Kasumigaseki Station is located under many government offices and the National Police Agency’s headquarters (Reader: 87). Twelve people died and thousands were incapacitated in this March gassing (Reader: 87).

Various violent incidents followed. On March 30, 1995, there was an attempted assassination of police Chief Kunimatsu, the head of the National Police Agency, and subsequent gas attacks occurred on trains in the Tokyo-Yokohama area. In these cases there were deaths or serious injuries (Reader: 87). Many printed publishings available as of December 1998 support the notion that the government ordered the disbandment of Aum Shinriyko in December 1995 (Reader: 85). However, a web site maintained by the Foreign Press Center of Japan discloses information to the contrary. According to this site, on January 31, 1997 the Public Security Examination Commission rejected a request submitted by the Public Security Investigation Agency to disband the cult under the Antisubversive Activities Law.


The Public Security Examination Commission states conditions have changed much since the arrests of all high ranking Aum officials, but stressed the need for close monitoring by the police and the Public Security Investigation Agency. The group did not fall under two stipulations in the Antisubversion Activities Law; they failed to have a political objective and they did not organize a series of related incidents. The site includes several supportive editorials from Japan’s leading newspapers. Though not as active, Aum Shinrikyo remains intact at present.

  • Sacred or Revered Texts: Aum Shinrikyo has no specific sacred text. Asahara has published a number of works, and most are drawn from his sermons. His works contain a mixture of Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist ideas, and as 1995 approached, his sermons and publications had a stronger Apocalyptic focus drawn from Christian thought, specifically Revelation.

  • Cult or Sect: Negative sentiments are typically implied when the concepts "cult" and "sect" are employed in popular discourse. Since the Religious Movements Homepage seeks to promote religious tolerance and appreciation of the positive benefits of pluralism and religious diversity in human cultures, we encourage the use of alternative concepts that do not carry implicit negative stereotypes. For a more detailed discussion of both scholarly and popular usage of the concepts "cult" and "sect," please visit our Conceptualizing "Cult" and "Sect" page, where you will find additional links to related issues.

  • Size of Group: There is presently much speculation about the group rebuilding but current figures include 500 fulltime devotees as opposed to the 1,100 members during the time of the gassings. As of May 1998, when the new Tokyo Center was completed, there are now twenty-six centers nationwide.

  • Remarks: A series of legal reactions followed the gassings in 1995, and cases are far from over as of December 1998. The following are only some of the legal events. Between March 22 and May 16, 1995, 200 Aum members were arrested. After weeks of searching, Asahara was found hiding in a secret room in Kamikuishiki, the village where the group’s main facility was located (Mullins: 319). He had in his possession a "considerable" amount of cash and gold bars (Mullins: 319). Also recovered were several comatose followers, found to be under the influence of such drugs as pentobarital (anesthetic which can cause convulsions, mental instability, and even death) (Mullins: 319).

Asahara and 104 followers have been indicted on various charges. Asahara himself has been indicted for:

  • murder in relation to the Tokyo sarin gas attack on March 20, 1995 (twelve dead and 5,500 injured)

  • murder in relation to Matsumoto Nagano Prefecture sarin gas attack in June 1994 (seven killed and 600 injured)

  • kidnapping and murder of Tsutsumi Sakamoto (Lawyer representing Aum member parents) and his wife and infant son

  • kidnapping and death of Kiyoshi Kariya (Tokyo notary public) in February 1995

  • lynching of Kotata Ochida ("’uncooperative’" Aum member) in February 1994

  • illegal production of various drugs (Mullins: 319)

Though Asahara maintains his innocence, many followers have confessed their involvement in these crimes and have claimed they acted under Asahara’s direct orders (Mullins: 320).

The first attacks targeted wavering members, or those about to leave the group. Police reported thirty-three Aum followers are believed to have been killed between October 1988 and March 1995. Further police speculation includes several lynching, eight deaths from intense ascetic training, two suicides, and twenty-one missing people who are presumed dead (Mullins: 320). Russia’s involvement with Aum Shinrikyo has not yet been fully researched (Reader: 75).

  • Updates:
    Under the leadership of Fumihiro Joyu, Aum Shinrikyo is now seeking to regroup and rebuild. In an effort to change its image, Aum, has changed its name to Aleph, which means to start anew (Sims: 2000).

    It is not clear just how much distance the renewed Aleph has placed between itself and Shoko Asahara. They have not renounced the founding leader Asahara. In an interview with the New York Times Joyu stated

    • "Just like you wouldn’t stop your connection with physical fathers and mothers who commit a crime, we will not sever our connection with our spiritual father."


    Still, Joyu says that profits from their business activities will be used to compensate victims for prior wrongdoings of the sect.

    Joyu also claims the reorganization will lead to a more democratic group and that the Japanese no longer have reason to fear the group. In the meantime, according to Sims,

    • "Aum’s every move is being monitored by authorities under a new law passed last year that allows the police and Justice Ministry officials to enter sect facilities at will to conduct inspections."


    For the lastest news on Aum Shinrikyo/Aleph, see the web site of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR).

II. Beliefs of the Group

Aum Shinrikyo offers liberation from suffering and illness, and Mullins states,

"Aum can best be viewed as an eclectic Buddhist movement that draws on various Asian traditions, such as yoga and Tibetan Buddhism" (Mullins: 315).

  • Full of Hindu motifs and practices, the primary deity in Aum is Shiva, the god of destruction. This deity embodies Aum’s main focus, the creation and destruction of the universe. The Buddhist ideas incorporated include transmigration and rebirth, the world of suffering, and the goal of better rebirths and enlightenment through meditation (Reader: 16).


  • Asahara borrows the idea of the bardo, a Tibetan concept that defines a 49-day transmigration period after death (Reader: 17).


  • Asahara’s interest in the Book of Revelation and Prophecy of Nostradamus is reflected in his predictions for 1999. He initially taught that members must work to transfer evil energy into positive energy and avoid mass destruction via nuclear war. To be specific, 30,000 had to achieve liberation through Asahara’s teachings to save the world from such a fate. His theory of prevention shifted dramatically, and by 1990 he focused on mere survival (Mullins: 316).


  • This is where he proclaims this importance of nuclear shelters and other such preparations. His goal, through what he called the "Lotus Village Plan," was for small communes to be self-sufficient and able to rebuild civilization (Mullins: 317).


  • Richard Young, through his connections with a young member, was able to attend a sermon in the early 1990’s. During these years Aum Shinrikyo was already under great scrutiny within Japanese society. He breaks the sermon down into three main parts: "the problem," "the ideal," and "the way." The problem, he says, was that "[Asahara] became so obsessed with what was wrong with Japan that he lost confidence even in the power of Buddhism" (Young: 235).


  • His early focus on the decay of spirituality and denounced materialism faded into the background and Aum’s leader failed to grasp the ethical fundamentals of Buddhism. Next, the "ideal" world for which members strived was vaguely explained and "disconcertingly mundane.

    • "By following his prophecies, Japan would become a national community and the world would be in a state of global peace (Young: 236).

    • "In reality [however] it was a caricature of the authoritarian society he chaffed against" (Young: 236).


  • Finally, Asahara outlined "the way" to the ideal state. The ultimate goal for each individual member was to attain buddhahood through initiation by the master himself. Asahara had already "explored the inner world of self" and promised levitation, clairvoyance, and a breaking of the life cycle (Young: 236).


  • He failed to emphasize the importance of ethical training and a life of virtue. Young says Aum was not a "user-friendly religion" (Young: 237).


  • Asahara focused on ascetic practice (discipline) and yogic technique (mind over body empowerment) (Young: 237).

  • Asahara stressed isolation as crucial in serious training as the impure outside world only contaminated members -- tight bonds kept all those involved pure (Young: 241).


  • Young states this isolationism and apocalyptism is nothing more than a "symbolic projection" of Asahara’s anxiety and vulnerability of his achievements in a hostile world (Young: 241).


  • The leader himself was "a guru with a very nasty persecution complex and delusory notions of grandeur (Young: 244).


  • He convinced his followers that such solitude was for their own welfare, and used drugs to keep them docile (Young: 242).


  • The Master was more of a controller than a guide, as he used his influential powers to dominate Aum members. The traditional Indian guru would place the needs of his followers before his own (Young: 243).


  • His constant creation of more complicated levels of ranking and definitions of enlightenment suggests that Asahara created such obstacles out of fear his followers would surpass him in their dedication and practice (Young: 243).

Aum Shinrikyo’s belief system began as a mixture of traditional religious thought but continuously shifted towards a more apocalyptic movement.



III. Bibliography