This month, I wanted to try something a little different. I wanted to talk about an interest of mine that I don’t think I’ve ever discussed online before, so… bear with me, ‘cause it’s kinda weird. I’m really into cults, and cult mentality… I just find it interesting, so I listen to a lot of podcasts like Last Podcast On The Left, which discusses everything from serial killers to UFO sightings, and Lore, which approaches the same subjects in a much more… sedate fashion. I haven’t really done a lot of reading around these subjects, until recently I started reading a book by possibly the most famous Japanese author, Haruki Murakami (村上 春樹), about the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. The book itself is made up of interviews with people affected by the attack, and focuses on the human side of such a terror attack. It’s truly fascinating, and I just wanted to talk a little bit about that today. Now as a disclaimer, I just want to make it clear that I was born in 1990, so I was too young to remember the attack first hand. In fact, before it was covered by Last Podcast, I had absolutely no idea that it had happened. I’ve done some casual reading around the subject, but nothing substantial until I got to Murakami’s book. But before we get to the attack itself, we need get into some backstory… in particular that of one man: Shōkō Asahara (麻原 彰晃).
Shōkō Asahara was born Chizuo Matsumoto (松本 智津夫) in 1955 in Yatsushiro (八代), Kumamoto Prefecture (熊本県) in south-western Japan. He was born without sight in his left eye, and partially blind in his right, so he attended a school for the blind and, leaving school, began studying acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine. He married and fathered 12 children (though this figure is disputed, his fourth daughter insists that he has 15 children), and in 1981 he was fined ¥200,000 (about £1,350) for practicing medicine without a license. Around this time, he began studying various forms of religion. In 1987, he officially changed his name to Shōkō Asahara and applied for government registration of the name Aum Shinrikyō (オウム真理教), which after some reluctance was granted official recognition as a religious organisation in 1989. In 1992, Asahara published a foundational book which would outline a doomsday prophecy, including a third world war and which culminated in a nuclear armageddon. Despite this and numerous people speaking out about the danger of such an organisation, Aum Shinrikyō would grow into a fully fledged cult over the next few years.
As part of his plan to bring about the prophesied armageddon, Asahara planned an attack on the Tokyo subway system using sarin gas, which is approximately 500 times more deadly than cyanide and is classified as a weapon of mass destruction, outlawed by the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1993, which entered into force in 1997. The attack was carried out on the 20th of March, 1995. Five members of the cult, namely Ikuo Hayashi (林 郁夫), Kenichi Hirose (広瀬 健), Toru Toyoda (豊田 亨), Masato Yokoyama (横山 真人), and Yasuo Hayashi (林 泰男) were to board five separate trains with bags of liquid sarin, which they were to puncture with sharpened umbrella tips and then exit the trains and meet getaway drivers who would take them away from the scene. The liquid sarin would turn to gas almost immediately, affecting anybody aboard these trains which at the time would have been packed with commuters. The attack killed 12 people, severely injured 50 and caused temporary sight problems in 5,000 others, making it the deadliest attack on Japanese soil since the end of the second world war.
After reading some of the accounts in Murakami’s book, the cultural differences between Japan and every other country I’ve lived in are clearly apparent. We hear from one man, a station attendant at Kasumigaseki (霞が関) who, after helping two of his colleagues clear liquid sarin from the platform after removing it from the train (at this time, they did not know what the liquid was), he went back to his office with a bin liner filled with sarin-covered newspaper and continued to work until he passed out. Another man tells of being on the train, directly in front of where the bag was punctured, before going to his office and working until 5:30pm, because he didn’t feel that his symptoms were serious enough to seek treatment. I would recommend that anyone who is interested in this sort of thing pick up Murakami’s book as a matter of urgency, it’s such an enthralling read. The mundanity with which some of these people describe what happened to them genuinely boggles the mind, especially with the backdrop of such tragedy. I would also recommend checking out the podcasts I mentioned at the beginning of this post, if you’re interested in plunging to the deepest depths of human nature. Now I’m going to go and listen to some Disney songs to get my mind off of this. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next month.