ON THE morning of March 20th 1995 your columnist arrived at work to see the pavements outside his office covered with poisoned commuters. Some were unconscious. Some were twitching or choking, like soldiers in a Wilfred Owen poem. Men in hazmat suits were everywhere. Office workers sat in a nearby park repeating like a mantra: “It’s so terrifying.”
It was the worst terrorist attack in modern Japanese history. Members of Aum Shinrikyo, an apocalyptic cult, had released nerve gas on the Tokyo subway. Their targets were crowded trains that converged on Kasumigaseki, in the heart of Japan’s government district. The aim was to kill officials on their way into work, and somehow hasten the end of the world. Twenty-three years later, on July 6th, Shoko Asahara, the bearded guru who masterminded this atrocity, was hanged, along with six accomplices.
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He was the first truly modern terrorist. As David Kaplan and Andrew Marshall note in “The Cult at the End of the World”, Aum was the first group without state patronage to make biochemical weapons on a large scale. “A college education, some basic lab equipment, recipes downloaded from the internet—for the first time, ordinary people can create extraordinary weapons.”
Mr Asahara’s followers included scientists and engineers, one of whom worked for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, an arms manufacturer, and helped the cult steal secrets from it. Aum built a weapons factory inside its compound near Mount Fuji, where it stockpiled the ingredients for enough sarin (a nerve agent) to kill millions. It was due only to incompetence that the death toll on the subway was just 13, with more than 6,000 injured. The terrorists used bags of liquid sarin, which they pierced with sharpened umbrellas. The liquid took time to evaporate and spread, giving thousands a chance to escape. The attack made policymakers around the world fret that an equally homicidal but more effective terrorist group might one day obtain weapons of mass destruction—a fear that contributed to the Iraq war in 2003.
Mr Asahara’s teachings were plainly loopy. He took a mish-mash of Buddhist and Hindu precepts, stirred in a bit of Nostradamus, added a huge dollop of reverence for himself and charged acolytes their life’s savings for devotional tapes, books and guidance. He made them fast until they were weak, drink his bathwater until they felt sick and wear electrode caps on their heads to jolt them into enlightenment. He often predicted the end of the world, by sarin or an American nuclear strike on Tokyo.
At its peak, Aum had perhaps 10,000 members in Japan (and more overseas). Some people wonder: why did so many bright young Japanese fall for such an obvious charlatan? Mr Asahara, a former seller of quack medicines, ordered his followers to subsist on boiled vegetables while he gorged on prawn tempura and drove a white Rolls-Royce. Sociologists speculated that there was something unique about the empty materialism and stifling conformity of Japanese society that drove youngsters to look for an alternative. The guru’s teachings may have been utter nonsense, but was modern Japan “able to offer…a more viable narrative?” asked Haruki Murakami, an angstful novelist.
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Yet there is not much uniquely Japanese about Aum. Human beings, once they are rich enough not to worry where the next meal is coming from, often fret about the meaning of life. Charismatic gurus offer answers. “The Master Asahara is like Buddha,” a believer told Banyan after the nerve-gas attack. “He feels other people’s pain more than any other human being. He can teach you to escape from the pain that is caused by human desires.”
All countries have cults, and being well schooled is no protection against brainwashing. The techniques that Aum used—isolating people in cells, subjecting them to physical duress and sleep deprivation, making them shave their heads and cast off their old identities, telling them to empty their minds and endlessly repeat mystical chants—have been used by countless other groups throughout history to break down resistance to the leader’s will. And once they have submitted, true believers can sometimes be convinced to commit appalling crimes: think of the 276 children murdered by the Jim Jones cult, of Islamic State drowning infidels in cages, or of centuries of atrocities perpetrated in the names of Jesus, Allah and even the Buddha.
The most distinctively Japanese part of Mr Asahara’s story is how he was brought to justice. At first, he wasn’t. Mindful of how the old military regime persecuted the pious, Japan’s police long treated religious groups with kid gloves. They left Aum alone even as evidence mounted that it was kidnapping people and murdering critics. The subway attack came as the cops were belatedly poised to take action, and was partly aimed at stopping them. (The National Police Agency is near Kasumigaseki.)
When the police finally moved, they did so with overwhelming force. Two days after the subway attack, 2,500 of them raided a dozen cult properties with riot gear, gas masks and caged canaries. (With a straight face, a spokesman said they were investigating a kidnapping.) They arrested Aum acolytes for jaywalking and bicycle theft, and questioned them for weeks to find out where Mr Asahara was hiding. (Suspects can be held for 23 days without charge in Japan.) They eventually found him in a crawl-space in a building they had already raided several times.
It then took 23 years to hang him. The outcome of his trial was never in doubt: the conviction rate in Japanese courts is over 99% and there were literally warehouses full of evidence against him. Yet his first trial lasted seven years—like many in Japan, it was not held on consecutive days. His appeals dragged on until 2006. He lingered another 12 years on death row, never knowing each morning whether he would be hanged that day. This is how Japan treats the condemned. It is not how anyone should be treated, not even a monster like Mr Asahara.