Aum Shinrikyo (Aleph)

One of the most dangerous cults in modern history

1984 - present

Shoko Asahara, founder and leader of Aum Shinrikyo
Shoko Asahara (founder)

Few organizations evoke as much dread and fascination as Aum Shinrikyo. With an amalgamation of Buddhist and Hindu cosmology, New Age theories, and apocalyptic visions, Aum Shinrikyo—a name that translates roughly to “Supreme Truth”—promised salvation in a world on the brink of annihilation. The reality, however, was an almost unimaginable landscape of criminality, including kidnappings, murders, and an audacious act of domestic terrorism. 

At the center of Aum Shinrikyo’s web was its charismatic leader, Shoko Asahara. Born Chizuo Matsumoto, he was a failed businessman and a partially blind acupuncturist before metamorphosing into a spiritual guru. His personal magnetism and purported spiritual insights attracted a following that eventually included some of Japan's most educated and technologically proficient individuals.

Asahara proclaimed himself the “Christ” for the modern age and professed that only through him could people attain enlightenment and escape the apocalyptic calamities that awaited the world. He drew liberally from various religious and esoteric texts, concocting a complex narrative that he used to coerce his followers into doing unspeakable acts.

To the outside world, Aum Shinrikyo appeared to be just another spiritual community, albeit with some eccentric teachings. The cult even achieved official status as a religious organization in Japan in 1989, giving it tax benefits and a veneer of legitimacy. Followers wore simple clothing, performed austere practices, and appeared wholly devoted to their spiritual pursuits. Yet, behind this façade lay an underworld of illegality and moral decay.

As Aum Shinrikyo’s ranks swelled into the thousands, the cult grew more militaristic and apocalyptic in its rhetoric. Asahara started preaching about an imminent World War III, instigated by the United States, which would culminate in a nuclear Armageddon. However, Aum’s followers were told that they could survive this doomsday scenario by remaining loyal to the cult.

To prepare for the end times, Aum Shinrikyo started stockpiling weapons and even ventured into the production of chemical agents. The cult's technical experts went to great lengths to manufacture sarin gas, a potent nerve agent, and experimented with VX gas, an even more lethal substance. These were not just theoretical endeavors; real-life tests were conducted on stray animals, and eventually, human victims.

The cult's criminal activities took a much darker turn on June 27, 1994, when sarin gas was released in the residential neighborhood of Matsumoto, resulting in seven deaths and injuring hundreds. Astonishingly, the authorities initially failed to trace the attack back to Aum Shinrikyo.

However, it was the Tokyo subway sarin attack on March 20, 1995, that finally stripped the cult of its enigmatic aura and exposed its true, malevolent nature. In a carefully coordinated operation, cult members released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system during rush hour. The aftermath was catastrophic: 13 people died, and more than 50 were left seriously injured, with thousands more affected to varying degrees.

After the Tokyo subway attack, a massive police operation was initiated to apprehend Asahara and other key members of Aum Shinrikyo. Asahara was found hiding in a concealed room within one of the cult’s complexes and was subsequently arrested. A series of trials followed, exposing a wide range of criminal activities that went far beyond the sarin attacks. In 2004, Asahara was sentenced to death, a sentence carried out in 2018.

Today, various splinter groups of Aum Shinrikyo continue to exist, albeit under close scrutiny and with a much-reduced following. The original cult was reorganized in 2000 under the name “Aleph.” They changed their doctrine, apologized to victims, and started a compensation fund for those killed in their terrorist acts. However, it is still seen as a threat by many and maintains a status of a terrorist organization by governments worldwide.

Religion: Buddhism/New Age

Founder: Chizuo Matsumoto ("Shoko Asahara")

Founded: 1984; reorganized in 2000 under the name "Aleph"

Size: 40,000 at height; 1,500 as of 2011

Location: Japan (Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Minami Ward)

Also called: Aleph

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Discovery Channel documentary


In "Destroying the World to Save It," National Book Award-winning psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton delves into the dark psyche of millennial cults, with a particular focus on Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese doomsday cult responsible for the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack. Leveraging unprecedented access to former cult members, Lifton provides an in-depth examination of how charismatic leader Shoko Asahara melded New Age philosophy, ancient rituals, and apocalyptic sci-fi to create a deadly ideology. He then mobilized educated disciples, including scientists, to produce weapons of mass destruction. Lifton warns of the increasing risk in the 21st century that cults and extremist groups could enact their own apocalyptic visions, underscoring an emerging global threat that requires immediate attention.

In this haunting work of journalistic investigation, Haruki Murakami tells the story of the horrific terrorist attack on Japanese soil that shook the entire world.

On a clear spring day in 1995, five members of a religious cult unleashed poison gas on the Tokyo subway system. In attempt to discover why, Haruki Murakmi talks to the people who lived through the catastrophe, and in so doing lays bare the Japanese psyche. As he discerns the fundamental issues that led to the attack, Murakami paints a clear vision of an event that could occur anytime, anywhere.

On March 20, 1995, a sarin gas attack in the subways of rush-hour Tokyo killed 12 people and seriously injured 5000 others. The Japanese police identified the perpetrator as a small religious group called Aum Shinri Kyo, or the Aum Divine Truth Sect. Searches of Aum compounds around Japan, arrests and confessions of members, and a rising pile of evidence of the manufacture of chemical weapons by the group led to the arrest of Asanhana, the sect's guru leader, who was put on trial for murder. This study provides an account of the first terrorist attack in Japan directed at civilians and also offers analysis and interpretation based on the author's knowledge of Japan and new Japanese religions.

The Tokyo subway attack in March 1995 was just one of a series of criminal activities including murder, kidnapping, extortion, and the illegal manufacture of arms and drugs carried out by the Japanese new religious movement Aum Shinrikyo, under the guidance of its leader Asahara Shoko. Reader looks at Aum's claims about itself and asks, why did a religious movement ostensibly focussed on yoga, meditation, asceticism and the pursuit of enlightenment become involved in violent activities?

Reader discusses Aum's spiritual roots, placing it in the context of contemporary Japanese religious patterns. Asahara's teaching are examined from his earliest public pronouncements through to his sermons at the time of the attack, and statements he has made in court. In analysing how Aum not only manufactured nerve gases but constructed its own internal doctrinal justifications for using them Reader focuses on the formation of what made all this possible: Aum's internal thought-world, and on how this was developed.

Reader argues that despite the horrors of this particular case, Aum should not be seen as unique, nor as solely a political or criminal terror group. Rather it can best be analysed within the context of religious violence, as an extreme example of a religious movement that has created friction with the wider world that escalated into violence.

Aum Shinrikyo and Japanese Youth offers insights into Japanese spirituality by analyzing the motivations of those who joined the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect. This group attracted worldwide attention after its poison gas attack on the Tokyo subways in March, 1995. Daniel A. Metraux explores the reasons that thousands of Japanese people, many of them youths, joined the sect. He questions why they joined it, what they expected of their membership, and why they stayed involved or left. Metraux finds that most of the members got involved for religious and social reasons and did not partake in the terrorist and criminal activities of the leaders of Aum Shinrikyo. In addition, the author examines how the Aum situation reflects a growing sense of alienation from the traditional Japanese religion and culture among some of the young and middle-aged Japanese people, providing important information about the present status of the Japanese people.

Aum Shinrikyo and Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Case Study
(Lawrence A. Greenfeld and Steven K. Smith)

Terrorist attacks by domestic groups are a potential threat to the American public. The devastation of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City is an example of an effective attack by a domestic group using only conventional weapons. In 1995, the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo set a precedent by conducting an effective domestic terrorist attack using chemical weapons against commuters in the Tokyo subway system. An examination and analysis of the environment in which the cult operated, the cult itself, and the attacks it committed using weapons of mass destruction (WMD), provides U.S. authorities with lessons they can apply to improve efforts designed to reduce the probability that WMD attacks ever occur on U.S. soil. This paper examines the phenomenon of Aum Shinrikyo. Part 1 is a general description of the WMD problem that confronts us today, explains the significance of the problem and outlines the limitations of the study. Part 2 describes the origin, development and characteristics of Aum Shinrikyo in order to provide a basis for analysis in following chapters. Part 3 describes several WMD attacks committed by the cult, including the Tokyo Subway attack. Part 4 is an analysis of the political and cultural elements affecting the environment in which the cult operated and an examination of specific and relevant characteristics of the cult itself. All combine to contribute to the formulation of detection and prevention efforts designed to identify and preempt domestic WMD threats. Part 5 presents overall conclusions and recommends areas of further research.