March 20, 1995. It seemed like a typical Monday morning in Tokyo, yet as the millions of commuters boarded their trains during rush hour, little did they know of the destruction that lay ahead.
By Matthew Hernon
Amongst them were five men carrying plastic bags containing the chemical agent sarin, a colorless gas 26 times more powerful than cyanide that can suffocate, choke and blind victims. At prearranged stations near the central government district the perpetrators dropped the sarin packs and punctured them several times with the sharpened tips of their umbrellas. Killing 13 people and injuring more than 5,500, it was the most severe attack to occur in Japan since the end of WWII.
The atrocity was orchestrated by Shoko Asahara—the half-blind leader of the religious group Aum Shinrikyo. At the time of the attack he was estimated to have more than 40,000 followers worldwide. At initiation ceremonies, which allegedly involved hallucinogens like LSD, the guru asked his disciples to reject materialism by handing over their wealth. In return he promised to bestow superhuman powers upon them. He declared himself “Christ” and pledged to take away their sins. His apocalyptic prophecies included the prediction of a third world war instigated by the US.
After his arrest on May 16, 1995, much of the press attention focused on Aum’s spokesman, Fumihiro Joyu. An icon for teenage girls, he appeared on TV almost daily after the event defending the cult. He was in Moscow at the time of the attack and has since gone on to renounce his former teacher; however, he’s still viewed suspiciously by the general public and the authorities, who continue to monitor his every move. So 20 years on from the tragedy what are his thoughts on Aum and Asahara? Weekender met with him in Setagaya at the headquarters of his current organization—Hikari no wa—to find out.
“I don’t view Aum as a unique singular phenomenon,” Joyu says. “In history groups like this have appeared cyclically in different forms—it could be a nationalistic country, a political theory like communism or a religious movement. The ideology may sound different, but fundamentally it’s the same: We are 100% right, our opponents are completely wrong; it’s our job to save the world. I think there are similarities between Aum and ISIS: elite members, a hatred of the US, the belief that the end of the world is coming. History is constantly repeating itself.
Humankind survived through the Cold War because the USSR and America had rational leaders; that’s not the case with terrorist groups. We’ve recently seen the death of a few hostages in Syria, but in the future the target could be whole cities like London, New York or Tokyo. We can’t stop the development of biological weapons. In the wrong hands who knows what could happen? Armageddon is a possibility. Before I was on the criminal side; now I’m concerned about becoming a victim.”
Joyu’s words may sound somewhat sensationalist, but with the Tokyo Olympics coming up there is unquestionably an increased risk of a terrorist attack in the future. Democratic Party member Yoshifu Arita—who has written extensively about Aum in the past—believes “insecurities may continue to grow,” because of the Japanese government’s determination to “exercise the right of self-defense, send troops overseas and heighten activities in Islamic countries.” Unlike Joyu, however, he doesn’t see any real parallels between ISIS and the Japanese religious sect that caused so much devastation in the nineties.
“I don’t think you can compare the two,” Arita tells Weekender. “The Islamic State has grievances with the economic poverty and discrimination that Arab citizens face in various European countries. Aum, on the other hand, was a unique, creepy organization that used violence against, and sometimes murdered, critics who spoke out against them after they lost the elections in 1990. I’m not sure if we’ll see anything like that again. I don’t view Hikari no wa as a threat, but Aleph as an organization continues to unconditionally follow Shoko Asahara, and therefore could potentially be dangerous.”
Aum changed its name to Aleph in 2000, with Joyu as the initial leader. He then left seven years later after falling out with prominent figures because of what he says was their “continued devotion to the guru’s teachings.” He also informs me that Asahara’s family is still pulling the strings behind the scenes. I am interested in finding out more about the enigmatic ruler. Joyu clearly had a huge amount of respect for him in the past, but when he talks about him now there is still a note of sympathy in his voice.
“He has a human disease,” Joyu says. “In this capitalist world we’re constantly looking to outdo each other. People who aren’t evaluated highly in society suffer because of an inferiority complex. They blame the surrounding environment for their shortfalls. Some choose to deal with this in a very negative way—this could be through suicide or in more extreme cases, like with Asahara, murder. He experienced many disappointments and failures in his life: his parents sent him away to a school for the blind, he couldn’t get in to a top university, he had run-ins with the police—these kinds of incidents caused him lots of pain and he chose to deal with that by lashing out at society.”
“I think rather than just condemning people like this we should try to understand them better and attempt find a psychological vaccine for their disease. One way of doing that is for someone like me, who was infected and managed to recover, to let people know what happened and how we can prevent it from occurring again in the future.”
“I’ve been approached by people in America—including an anti-terrorist group under the Obama administration—wanting to hear about the general psyche of Aum members and asking how the biological weapons were made. They understand that a terrorist threat could potentially come from anywhere. The Japanese government doesn’t seem to realize this; they only seem to focus on my group and Aleph. That is why no politician has ever come to me or any other ex-Aum member to ask about what happened in the group.”
Joyu claims that his current organization—Hikari no wa—has no affiliation with his former teacher and is actually a “school of philosophy rather than a religious faction.” Pictures of Asahara, altars and religious books have subsequently been removed; yet, there remains a great deal of skepticism surrounding the group.
Outside the headquarters there are three banners which roughly translate as “You’ve changed your name, but you’re still Aum,” “Go home to your parents,” and “We’ll never forget the sarin gas attack.” There are around two or three protest rallies a year in front of the compound, and while Joyu feels more secure than before (the apartment was shot at when he first moved in) he still usually goes out with a cap and glasses just in case anyone recognizes him.
The Public Security Intelligence Agency (PSIA), believing Hikari no wa is still “under Asahara’s influence,” monitors the organization’s activities closely. During our interview Joyu takes me outside to point out an investigator across the street; he says someone is standing there every day making notes, but there usually isn’t anyone at the other eight branches. It is the Waseda University graduate that the authorities are most interested in—they have been watching him since his release from prison in 1999.
His arrest four years earlier was related to a controversial land deal in Kyushu and had nothing to do with the sarin gas attack. He was in Russia at that time, but flew back soon after to defend Aum and its leader. He regularly made statements to the press pledging his support for the man he saw as his “spiritual father.” I ask Joyu, now aged 52, if he knew that the attacks had been carried out by his organization when he made those comments defending the cult?
“Although I wasn’t 100% sure, I had strong suspicions that it was done by our organization,” he says. “Research into chemical and biological weaponry began in 1989 and by 1993 there was a member who could make a small amount of sarin. When Mr. Hayakawa—another disciple who was with me in Moscow—said it must have been us, I thought he was probably right. At the time, though, I believed it was my job to protect Aum so we wouldn’t be banned. I was excited by this role in a bad way. Looking back of course I regret making the comments I did. As time passes people’s ideas change.”
Speaking in near-perfect English, Joyu comes across as an extremely articulate and intelligent individual. Once a bright young engineer with the Japanese space program, he was one of a number of elite university graduates and professionals who joined the cult. There were brilliant scientists, cardiologists, and physicians. Hideo Murai—who was killed soon after the attack in front of the media—was a talented astrophysicist with a reported IQ of 180. How could such highly educated people be brainwashed by a man who was so unhinged he even thought the Dutch were conspiring against him?
“Many of us viewed Aum with a sense of mysticism,” Joyu says. “We felt there was something holy and extraordinary about the organization. Asahara was very charismatic and told us that if we worked for ordinary companies we’d just be part of the crowd—with him we could be someone important that would go down in history. At that time doomsday books were in vogue and he painted us as saviors.”
“He stimulated our self-esteem. I was told I was the bodhisattva—one of the four sublime states a human can achieve in life [the others being an Arhat, Buddha or Pratyekbuddha]. Of course I was thrilled to hear that, but by 1989 I was starting to have my doubts about his unrealistic claims. I was torn between reason and my faith in the leader. I think many members felt the same.”
Asahara targeted highly trained professionals looking for more meaning and spirituality in their lives. He then manipulated them and used their advanced scientific skills to instigate one of the most abhorrent crime sprees in modern history, culminating in the horrific attacks on Tokyo’s Underground. Twenty years on the effects are still being felt. According to a survey by a victim support organization, around 29% of the people involved in the attack that fateful Monday morning continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, while more than half still have health problems today. For the sake of the victims and their families we must never forget the tragedy that occurred on March 20, 1995: The day when Japan’s image as a haven of public safety was shattered forever.