Shoko Asahara is dead. The leader of the Japanese death cult Aum Shinrikyo was hanged along with six of his followers after 22 years of imprisonment following the Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks in 1995. By the time Aum Shinrikyo had killed 13 people and injured thousands, the cult claimed tens of thousands of members and, according to estimates, was worth over $1 billion.
Born Chizuo Matsumoto, the boy who would be Shoko Asahara grew up as a violent and sadistic half-sighted bully in a school for the blind. Later he would entice some of Japan’s absolute best and brightest into an apocalyptic crusade with anime, sci-fi, parlor tricks, and LSD. He was a walking parable of primordial evil and a villain whose very existence degraded the foundations of our collectively agreed upon reality.
On Friday July 6, Japanese officials announced that the executions had been carried out. Shoko Asahara and six other members of Aum Shinrikyo, Tomomasa Nakagawa, Tomomitsu Niimi, Kiyohide Hayakawa, Yoshihiro Inoue, Seiichi Endo and Masami Tsuchiya, were hanged. Capital punishment is handled with secrecy in Japan: the dates are not announced and neither the public, nor prisoners’ families and legal teams are informed until after the execution. Prisoners themselves are sometimes not aware that they will be killed until hours before.
Shizue Takahashi, a representative of a victims’ advocacy group and widow of a man killed in the sarin attacks, expressed disappointment with the way the executions had been handled:
“When I think of those who died because of them, it was a pity (my husband’s) parents and my parents could not hear the news of this execution. I wanted (cult members) to confess more about the incident, so it’s a pity that we cannot hear their account anymore.”
There are indeed many mysteries that still surround Aum Shinrikyo. One of the strangest may be the rumors of secret super-weapons tests at the West Australian ranch the group used as a biological and chemical weapons lab, Banjawarn station. On May 23, 1993 locals observed bright flashes of light and a sonic shock-wave in the area around Banjawarn. The event was strong enough to measure 3.6 on the Richter scale, and to this day it is unknown what actually happened there, or if it was caused by Aum Shinrikyo or just a coincidence.
That Aum Shinrikyo could have been suspected of clandestine super-weapons tests is not surprising. Shoko Asahara dealt in science fiction. He based his cult’s aesthetics and messaging off sci-fi classics like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and anime series like Space Battleship Yamato. Aum Shinrikyo even released recruitment videos done in anime style. Asahara told his followers that he had magic powers and if they followed his teachings they too could learn wizardry. Those teachings included banning personal hygiene, physical abuse, force-feeding, sexual humiliation, and wearing a cap that delivered intensely painful electric shocks directly to the brain on Asahara’s command.
How something as vile as Aum Shinrikyo could be so successful is a question as old as the problem of evil itself, but they were successful. Their members included high-ranking officials in the Japanese police, military, and parliament. They claimed 10,000 members in Japan and 30,000 members abroad, mostly in Russia. Aum Shinrikyo’s members were highly intelligent as well, Asahara’s inner circle included some of Japan’s top scientific minds, holding advanced degrees in physics, mathematics, and chemical engineering among others.
Asahara taught that there was a coming third world war that would end all of humanity, and that the only way to save the human race—which, after the fall, would be composed only of Aum Shinrikyo members, with Asahara as god-king of the ashes—was to end the world on their terms. The sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway station were intended to trigger that third world war. Thankfully, the attacks were botched. Tokyo police have said that if the attacks had gone off as planned, tens of thousands would have been killed.
Aum Shinrikyo still exists to this day. Because of Japan’s laws regarding religious freedom, the cult was allowed to continue, though under heavy surveillance. In 2007 a split divided Aum into two groups: Hikari no Wa and Aleph. Surveillance on Hikari no wa was ended in 2012, but Aleph continues to be monitored. Aleph has approximately 1,500 current members.
There are six remaining cult members on death row, the dates of their executions are not known.
You can read more about Aum Shinrikyo in a brief history of the group I wrote this past winter, and if you want to go real deep into the weirdness surrounding Japanese death cults, Mysterious Universe episode 18.06 is one of the most frightening things you’re likely to ever hear.