A pedestrian walks past a screen flashing news on the execution of Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, in Tokyo on July 6. Photo: AFP/ Toshifumi Kitamura
A pedestrian walks past a screen flashing news on the execution of Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, in Tokyo on July 6. Photo: AFP/ Toshifumi Kitamura

Justice finally caught up with Shoko Asahara, 63, the founder of Aum Shinrikyo, a murderous neo-Buddhist cult most infamous for a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. He and six former disciples were executed this morning.

According to Japanese media reports, the execution took place around 7am. All seven men were hanged. The Ministry of Justice formally announced the executions later in the day.

Aum Shinrikyo, which can be translated as “Supreme Truth,” was founded in 1984 by a nearly blind, charismatic guru named Chizuo Matsumoto – better known by his religious name, Asahara Shoko. The group recruited college students, members of the intelligentsia and engineers, but also attracted fanatics as it became more radicalized.

On March 20, 1995, Aum members released sarin gas on the subways of Tokyo, killing 13 people and injuring over 6,000.

Police raided Aum sites almost immediately after the attack. Mystery continues to surround why the cult was allowed to operate as long as it did, especially considering that as early as January 1 of that year, there were reports of traces of sarin found at Aum premises.

The group had plans to distribute sarin over the city via helicopter, which could theoretically have killed thousands. In anticipation of the planned attack, in 1993 Aum trained helicopter pilots in the United States and purchased a helicopter in Russia.

Why was justice delayed for so long?

Asahara’s death sentence was finalized on September 15, 2006 after he had exhausted all appeals.

In Japan, the death penalty is usually only carried out after every single legal avenue has been exhausted. The only publication that seemed to be aware that execution was imminent was the tabloid weekly Asahi Geino, which ran an interview this week with Asahara’s former close associate Fumihiro Joyu, in which he discussed what he thought would happen after Asahara’s execution.

Joyu leads an Aum Shinrikyo splinter group and served as the cult’s leader in Moscow for several years.

Media outlets friendly to the Shinzo Abe administration have speculated that, with the emperor due to retire next year, the government went ahead with the executions because it wanted to put this shameful piece of history to rest.

Others hint that the timing of the executions was intended to draw attention away from controversial legislation pending in parliament, as well as from a series of scandals involving the prime minister himself. The Japanese government has been known to stifle controversy by executing prisoners on death row or announcing unpopular decisions on days when they are sure the events will be buried among other news.

The majority of the Japanese population supports the death penalty.

From counter-culture to killer cult

In its early days, Aum emphasized spiritual practice, yogic feats and magic. Asahara claimed to be able to levitate, and the Japanese media treated him with a mixture of reverence and humor.

However, the group always had a propensity for violence and for harassment of its opponents. The turning point was the murder of a lawyer and his wife and one-year-old son in November 1989. The lawyer had been involved in lawsuits against the group.

From that point on, violence escalated as the cult expanded. It set up branches in Russia, Australia, and even the United States. In 1990, after 24 members of the group ran unsuccessfully for office in Japan’s parliamentary elections, Aum began to hatch plans to take over the Japanese government, including creating their own shadow ministries.

According to official government documents, in 1993, they began developing sarin, a nerve gas first manufactured in Nazi Germany, and tested it on a farm in Australia. In 1994, the group gassed an entire neighborhood in the city of Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture, killing eight and injuring several hundred.

Even though police incompetence was blamed for the arrest of an innocent man for the Matsumoto atrocity, speculation over law enforcement shortcomings only grew when police failed to prevent the deadly Tokyo subway attack in 1995.

One answer may be that Aum had managed to place cult members in important positions within the police force. Aum had certainly managed to infiltrate the police, the Self-Defense Forces and even the Japanese government, creating an intelligence net that may have kept them ahead of the law.

Even the Yakuza severed ties

Aum had even more sinister associates. To help fund their operations, they manufactured methamphetamines and weapons which they sold to Japan’s organized crime groups, or yakuza, including the country’s largest criminal syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi.

After the sarin atrocity, however, it seems that even the yakuza decided to cut ties with Aum – in spectacularly ruthless style. On April 23, 1995, just over a month after the sarin attack, the group’s conduit to organized crime, Hideo Murai, was stabbed to death by a Yamaguchi-gumi member. The murder took place in front of reporters.

That effectively silenced further investigations into the group’s yakuza ties. At the trial of Murai’s assailant, the judge noted: “There are many mysteries to the background of this murder that remain unsolved.”

The cult was as ruthless in dealings with its own members as it was with enemies. Those who left or tried to leave were murdered or tortured. The practice of killing enemies of the organization was justified as karma-otoshi “getting rid of [bad karma]”. Asahara explained to his disciples that, by killing the enemies of the group, they were releasing them from their ignorance and allowing them to move onto a new incarnation where they could obtain enlightenment.

Remarkably, the group, thanks to Japanese freedom of religion laws, was not disbanded immediately after the Tokyo subway atrocity, though it was stripped of its status as a religious entity, and was declared bankrupt in 1996.  It continued to operate, albeit with altered teachings and under close police observation, and rebranded in 2000 to ‘Aleph.’ That group later shrunk when ex-Aum spokesman Fumihiro Joyu created  splinter group ‘Hikari no Wa’ in 2007.

Aside from the seven executed today, six other Aum Shinrikyo members remain on death row. Police were out in unusual numbers in Tokyo on Friday, for fear that remaining true believers might engage in retaliatory action.