The Cult at the End of World. DAVID E. KAPLAN AND ANDREW MARSHALL MAGAZINE DATE OF PUBLICATION: 07.01.96. 07.01.96
The Cult at the End of World. DAVID E. KAPLAN AND ANDREW MARSHALLMAGAZINE DATE OF PUBLICATION: 07.01.96. 07.01.96
In 1984, guru Shoko Asahara had a one-room yoga school, a handful of devotees, and a dream: world domination. A decade later, Aum Supreme Truth boasted 40,000 followers in six countries and a worldwide network that brought it state-of-the-art lasers, lab equipment, and weaponry. Aum's story moves from the dense cities of postindustrial Japan to mountain retreats where samurai once fought, and then overseas – to Manhattan and Silicon Valley, Bonn and the Australian outback, and finally to Russia. It is there, in the volatile remains of the Soviet empire, that the cult found ready suppliers of military hardware, training, and, quite possibly, a nuclear bomb.
Aum leaders systematically targeted top Japanese universities, recruiting brilliant but alienated young scientists from chemistry, physics, and engineering departments. They forged relations with Japan's ruthless crime syndicates, the yakuza, and with veterans of the KGB and Russian and Japanese militaries. They enlisted medical doctors to dope patients and perform human experiments that belong in a horror movie.
For years this went on, with barely a question from police or the media on three continents. Before long, Aum had become one of the world's richest, most sophisticated, and most murderous religious sects. Few would know the scope of the cult's madness until Aum burst onto the world scene in March 1995 with a cold-blooded nerve gas attack in the subways of rush hour Tokyo.
In a world poised between the Cold War and the new millennium, the tale of Aum is a mirror of our worst fears. Heavily armed militias, terrorist cells, zealous cults, and crime syndicates all find their voice in the remarkable ascent of this bizarre sect. For years, experts have warned us: the growing sophistication of these groups, combined with the spread of modern technology, will bring about a new era in terrorism and mass murder. The coming of Aum Supreme Truth shows just how close these nightmares have come to reality.
The story of Aum is the story of its charismatic and increasingly psychopathic leader, Shoko Asahara. The son of a dirt-poor weaver of tatami mats, Asahara attended a boarding school for the blind. There the partially sighted boy grew into a bully, dominating and scamming his classmates. Eventually, he opened an acupuncture business that specialized in quack cures, but in 1986, the ever-ambitious Asahara was traveling the Himalayas in search of enlightenment.
On descending the mountains, Asahara transformed himself into a guru, shopping the world's religions to form Aum. He blended mystical Buddhism with Hindu deities, added the physical rigor of yoga, and, from Christianity, drew on the concept of Armageddon. But Asahara the con man never lay far from the surface. The aspiring guru also began to offer an array of high-tech devices, shortcuts on the road to enlightenment for the youth of Japan. There were electrode caps, astral teleporters, magic DNA – one could give Aum credit for enterprise, at least. Unfortunately, the cult's darker side would not be limited to scamming naive kids out of their hard-earned money.
The best and brightest
They came from college campuses, from dead-end jobs and fast-track careers. Thousands flocked to Asahara's embrace, seeking Aum's promise of enlightenment, community, and, most of all, supernatural power.
They were nearly all young, wide-eyed kids in their early and mid-20s. Some dropped out of Japan's finest schools to join the cult, leaving behind families, friends, and bright futures. Others left the nation's top companies in steel, computers, insurance, and other fields.
Asahara found the weak point in Japan's new generation and then pressed with every resource he had. In magazines, videos, and books, he took his message to the youth of his country, appealing to the lost and alienated. Aum members wrote stories and placed ads claiming they had gained powers of telepathy and levitation, offering to teach others these secret skills. Their favored publications: a booming genre of science-fact, science-fiction magazines with names like Mu and Twilight Zone.
The magazines were only part of a wave of popular culture that dealt in the far-out and the fantastic. Young people immersed themselves in a world of fantasy – movies, cartoons, computer games, comics – in violent tales of half-human, half-computer cyborgs and explosive, galactic battles fought between superbeings. All this was fertile ground for Asahara and his apocalyptic vision.
A whole generation grew up watching anime, brilliantly animated cartoons like Space Battleship Yamato and Naushika in the Valley of the Wind. Many graduated to the gekiga – ultraviolent, book-length comics drawn with realistic pictures and dramatic narratives, filled with graphic depictions of rape, murder, and a decadent, retrograde future.
Of those seeking out Aum, many were students of the sciences or technical fields like engineering. More than a few were the otaku – Japan's version of computer nerds – technofreaks who spent their free time logged on to electronic networks and amassing data of every type. They were invariably described as quiet kids, with little apparent interest in the outside world. They spent what free time they had absorbed in their comics and their computers.