When they finally found him, he was meditating, seated in the lotus position in a three-foot-high space the size of a large coffin. Japanese police, clad in riot gear and watched by millions on television, had just used a huge circular saw to cut a hole in the steel walls outside his tiny hiding place. Yet Shoko Asahara, 40, spiritual leader of the Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth) sect, displayed an almost supernatural calm as they read the arrest warrant. "I understand," was all the bearded, white-robed guru said as he was led away. The spectacular arrest ended a massive manhunt that began on March 20, when clouds of deadly sarin gas were released in the Tokyo subway system - killing 12 people and injuring 5,500. Other bizarre events followed, including the public murder of a sect official and an assassination attempt on Japan's top policeman, adding to a climate of fear that is almost unprecedented in postwar Japan. "I am so glad the police arrested Asahara," Nori Fukuyama, a Tokyo businessman, said last week. "My nights have been troubled. Now, I can rest a little."
For many Japanese, however, the sect - and the country's treatment of it - have raised troubling questions. Although group members sometimes fast to the point of starvation or pay as much as $200 to drink Asahara's bathwater, the sect cannot be dismissed merely as a collection of lost souls. Among its 10,000 members in Japan - the group also has followers in Russia and the United States, among other countries - are many experienced lawyers, chemists and others who have trained at some of Japan's most respected institutions. Their search for meaning, Japanese analysts say, to some extent reflects a spiritual vacuum at the core of Japanese society. And they caution that a government-led clampdown on unconventional religious groups could lead to civil-rights abuses of the sort that were common in pre-war Japan. "People could turn away from religion and start believing more strongly in the state," says Susumu Shimazono, a professor of religion at the University of Tokyo. "This trend smacks of military Japan. It is worrying."
But Japanese police have been sensitive to such worries. That is partly why they moved with great caution against the sect. Their other concern was more pragmatic: they wanted to prevent reprisal attacks. And fear of such attacks appeared to be well-founded after the first police raids on 25 sect locations, including the group's headquarters, on March 22. Hundreds of police wearing gas masks and carrying canaries in cages, searched the sect's compound of prefabricated buildings in a small farming village 100 km west of Tokyo. They found tons of the chemicals needed to make sarin, a deadly nerve gas invented by the Nazis. Subsequent searches turned up sophisticated laboratory equipment, supplies for biological warfare and millions of dollars in cash and gold. From the beginning of the investigation, the group has vehemently maintained its innocence, instead blaming the Japanese and United States governments for the gas attack.
The strategy of moving slowly seemed to pay off, even if it sometimes appeared unorthodox to foreign observers. Prior to last week's arrest of Asahara, police had arrested or detained more than 200 Aum followers, most on minor charges such as traffic violations. Even so, normal cult activities were allowed to continue - resulting in incongruous scenes such as the spectacle of hundreds of Aum priests praying at the group's headquarters, while thousands of police officers combed the area around them. One such search, in late April, led to the discovery of eight truckloads of chemicals in a hidden chamber. Police also announced that they believed more than 20 members of the Japanese army were adherents of Aum. Embarrassed officials said the men would be allowed to remain in the military on the grounds that to remove them would violate their freedom of religion. One army sergeant was eventually arrested, but only after police gathered evidence suggesting that he had thrown a firebomb at an Aum office on March 19, apparently to create the impression that the sect was being persecuted by its enemies.
Still, some Japanese questioned the slowness and conservatism of the police approach. "The arrest came too late," said Tokyo resident Masaru Ohara, 55. "I guess the police had their reasons, but they could have nabbed Aum earlier." Indeed, the country has endured a series of other attacks while waiting for a resolution of the case. In mid-April, there were two more gas attacks in Yokohama, a busy port near Tokyo. Then, on May 6, two vinyl bags containing the chemicals needed to produce cyanide gas were discovered in the restroom of a busy Tokyo subway station. None of those episodes caused death or were conclusively linked to Aum Shinri Kyo, but that did little to allay the growing fears of the Japanese public.
There has also been mounting evidence that those responsible for the gas attacks were prepared to target individuals. On March 30, an unidentified gunman shot Takaji Kunimatsu, director of Japan's 220,000-member National Police Agency, and the man in charge of investigating the Tokyo sarin gas attack. He was hit four times, in the leg, chest and abdomen, as he crossed the lobby of his apartment building on his way to work. He survived the attack but his recovery is expected to be prolonged.
Then, on April 23, the sect's senior scientist, astrophysicist Hideo Murai, was stabbed in the stomach as he walked through a throng of reporters towards an Aum office in Tokyo. The event was witnessed by thousands of television viewers, who watched in shock as Murai slumped to the ground, blood streaming through his fingers. Police arrested Hiroyuki Jo, who claimed to be part of a right-wing group bent on revenge against Aum. But police said they believed that Aum orchestrated the killing, possibly because of Murai's importance to their investigation. And on the evening of Asahara's arrest, a parcel bomb blew off the hand of a secretary in the offices of Tokyo's highest official, equivalent to mayor.
For some observers, the case against Aum Shinri Kyo symbolizes a new kind of peacetime terror, one that is as mysterious as it is deadly. Until the March subway attack, the group was merely one of hundreds of religious sects that have proliferated in Japan over the past two decades. A pastiche of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs, with elements inspired by science fiction and scientific experimentation, the cult seemed more eccentric than dangerous. One example: many of its adherents pay more than $10,000 a month for a crude helmet that zaps the wearer with six volts of electricity. The device is said to help believers align their brain waves with those of Asahara.
Asahara is partially blind, the sixth of seven children of a poor tatami mat maker from the southern island of Kyushu. He apparently suffered a personal crisis in 1982 when he was fined for selling useless Chinese remedies. By 1984, he had rebounded, opening a yoga school and then founding Aum Shinri Kyo in 1987. The sect, which preaches a doctrine of spiritual enlightenment through yoga and other physical rituals, was particularly successful with the well-heeled and university-educated, and Asahara quickly grew wealthy. His wife and five children lived with him at the group's headquarters, where they were maintained in style, even though many other sect members live in filthy conditions and suffer from malnutrition. Police said they were partly tipped off to his location last week because followers kept returning to the site with expensive melons, one of Asahara's favorite foods.
Prof. Shinichi Nakagawa, a religion expert at Chuo University in Tokyo, says that when he met Asahara in 1989, he found him charismatic. "He was rational and humorous, while at the same time unsophisticated and spontaneous - traits the Japanese lost long ago," he says. But after being resoundingly defeated in the Japanese parliamentary 1990 elections, Asahara seemed to change. "When I met him in 1990, he was not the tranquil man I knew," Nakagawa says. "He seemed burning from within."
Indeed, Asahara's personal vision is apocalyptic. He has preached that poison gas attacks will end the world in 1997 for everyone except followers of Aum. The connection between that teaching and the sect's stockpile of sarin-making chemicals remains shadowy, but police say there were enough such materials in the group's possession to kill millions of Japan's 125 million people. For Nakagawa, such nihilism points to a profound emptiness at the centre of Japanese culture. "Economic success has alienated us from our past traditions that were our spiritual support," he says. The immediate effects on Japanese society, however, may be more fundamental. "I'm glad Asahara was captured," says Ken Hongo, 35, an English teacher in Tokyo. "But I kind of envy Aum. They shook the self-satisfied Japanese system that has refused to acknowledge its problems. I hope Japanese society takes a good hard look at itself now." That may happen, but for most Japanese the most pressing concern is to safeguard the public from future terrorist attacks.
Maclean's May 29, 1995