Shoko Asahara
Shoko Asahara on the cover of Time magazine.
Shoko Asahara on the cover of Time magazine.

Shoko Asahara (麻原 彰晃, Asahara Shōkō, born Chizuo Matsumoto (松本 智津夫, Matsumoto Chizuo) on March 2, 1955) is a founder of the controversial Japanese new religious group Aum Shinrikyo (now known as Aleph). Asahara has been convicted of masterminding the 1995 Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway and several other crimes, and has been sentenced to death. His legal team appealed the sentence, but the appeal has been declined, and he is currently awaiting execution.

Early Years

Shoko Asahara was born into a large, poor family of tatami mat makers in Japan's Kumamoto Prefecture. Afflicted at birth with infantile glaucoma, he went blind at a young age in his left eye and is only partially sighted in his right. As a child, Asahara was enrolled in a school for the blind.

Asahara graduated in 1977 and turned to the study of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, which are traditional careers for the blind in Japan.1 He married in 1978.

In 1981, Asahara was convicted of practising pharmacy without a license and fined 200,000 yen.

Asahara's religious quest reportedly started at this time, while he was intensely working to support his family. He dedicated his free time to the study of various religious concepts, starting with Chinese astrology and Taoism. Later, Asahara practiced Indian esoteric yoga and Buddhism.

Relatively little is known about this period of Asahara's life.

Birth of Aum Shinrikyo

In 1987, Asahara returned from a visit to India and explained to his disciples that he had attained his ultimate goal: enlightenment. His closest disciples offered him money, which he could now accept, and Asahara used this money to organize an intensive yoga seminar that lasted several days and attracted many people interested in spiritual development. Asahara himself coached the participants, and the group quickly started to grow.

That same year Shoko Asahara officially changed his name, and applied for government registration of the group Aum Shinrikyo. The authorities were initially reluctant to accord it the status of a religious organization, but eventually granted legal recognition after an appeal in 1989. After this, a monastic order was established and many of the lay followers decided to join.

Aum Shinrikyo: the Doctrine

The doctrine of Aum Shinrikyo is based on the original Buddhist sutras (scriptures) known as the Pali Canon. Other than the Pali Canon, Aum Shinrikyo uses other texts such as Tibetan sutras, Yoga-Sutra by Patanjali, and Taoist scriptures. The sutras are studied together with comments written by Shoko Asahara himself. The learning system (kyogaku system) has several stages: only those who complete a preliminary stage may advance to further steps, and only after successfully passing an examination.

Shoko Asahara has written many religious books. The best known are Beyond Life and Death, Mahayana Sutra and Initiation.

According to Asahara's teachings, ascetic practice is important, as in the teachings of Kagyudpa — a Tibetan Buddhist school. Modern technology, such as computers and CD players, can be used to complement the ancient meditations, according to his teachings. To justify the achievement of a certain stage of religious practice, practitioners must demonstrate signs such as cessation of oxygen consumption, reduction of heart activity, and changes in the electromagnetic activity of the brain. The intensive practice (retreat) rooms are equipped with corresponding sensors.

Aum Shinrikyo in Russia

Asahara succeeded in deploying a dense grouping of Aum Shinrikyo in Moscow, Russia, where he was supported by Vice-Prime-Minister Oleg Lobov. From 1992 to 1994 the Russian Federal Radio broadcast Asahara's sermons every evening, from 9 to 10 pm.

Tokyo Subway Gas Attack, Accusations, and Trial

On March 20, 1995, members of Aum attacked the Tokyo Subway System with the nerve gas sarin. Twelve commuters died, and thousands more suffered from after-effects. After finding sufficient evidence, authorities accused Aum Shinrikyo of complicity in the attack, as well as in a number of smaller-scale incidents. Tens of disciples were arrested, Aum's facilities were raided, and the court issued an order for Shoko Asahara's arrest. Asahara was discovered in a very small, completely isolated room of the building belonging to Aum, meditating. Asahara had strongly spoken against oily meats and junk foods, deeming them a tool of a Judeo-Freemason conspiracy. Going against these teachings, deep-fried prawns were found in his refrigerator after the capture. It is notable that after the Tokyo sarin gas attacks, the Dalai Lama referred to him as his "friend, albeit an imperfect one”; only later he did distance himself from the Guru.2

Shoko Asahara faced 27 murder counts in 13 separate indictments. The prosecution argued that Asahara "gave orders to attack the Tokyo Subway" in order to "overthrow the government and install himself in the position of king of Japan". Several years later, the prosecution forwarded an additional theory that the attacks were ordered to "divert police attention" (from Aum). The prosecution also accused Asahara of masterminding the Matsumoto incident and the Sakamoto family murder. According to Asahara's defense team, a group of senior followers initiated the atrocities, keeping them a secret from Asahara.

Some of the disciples testified against Asahara, and he was found guilty on 13 of 17 charges, including the Sakamoto family murder, while four were dropped. He was sentenced to death by hanging on February 27, 2004.

The trial has been referred to as the "trial of the century" by the Japanese media. Yoshihiro Yasuda, the most experienced attorney on Shoko Asahara's defence team, was arrested and was unable to participate in his legal defence, though he was subsequently acquitted before the end of the trial. Human Rights Watch criticized Yasuda's isolation. Asahara was thus defended solely by court-appointed lawyers.

Shortly after the beginning of the trial, Shoko Asahara cooperated with his defence counsel and provided explanations regarding the doctrine of Aum Shinrikyo, aims of the organization, and other matters. Later he resigned from the post of Aum Shinrikyo representative in order to help prevent the group's forceful dissolution. Since then, Asahara has ceased to speak even with his family members and supposedly spends his days in meditation. Media reports referred to Asahara "sitting with eyes closed" or "incoherently mumbling" during his trial hearings.

The legal team appealed against the ruling on the grounds that Asahara was mentally unfit, and psychiatric examinations were undertaken. During the examination, conducted by a psychiatrist, Asahara never talked. However, he communicated with the staff at his detainment facility, which convinced the examiner that Asahara was maintaining his silence out of free will (as stated in the report). Because his lawyers didn't submit the statement of reason for appeal, Tokyo high court decided not to grant them leave to appeal on March 27, 2006. This decision was upheld by the Supreme Court of Japan on September 15, 2006.

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