The ghosts of Aum Shinrikyo

A horrifying New Year’s wake-up call in Japan

Francis Grice

National security, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia, The World

7 January 2019

Japan needs to step up security measures against the cult’s successors, Francis Grice writes.

For nine injured people and many more bystanders in Japan, the year 2019 began with horror rather than joy. Ten minutes after midnight, a car ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians who were celebrating along Takeshita Street, near the Meiji Shrine. The man driving the car, Kazuhiro Kusakabe, was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder and was found to have kerosene in his car and on his clothes.

Kazuhiro stated initially that he had conducted a terrorist attack, but later claimed he had in fact just been protesting against the death penalty. At this stage, it is unclear whether he was remonstrating against capital punishments in Japan as a whole or against last year’s execution of 13 ringleaders from the terrorist group known formerly as Aum Shinrikyo (Aum), but investigators are reported to be looking into whether Kazuhiro has ties with any of its three successor sects. If so, his attack could represent a first strike in a broader backlash against the executions, which experts have long warned could turn the former terrorists into martyrs.

During its heyday, Aum – led by the self-proclaimed guru, Shoko Asahara – had 10,000 followers in Japan and 65,000 followers worldwide (including 30-50,000 in Russia), and maintained foreign branches in Sri Lanka, Germany, Australia, and the United States. The organisation had built an extensive chemical and biological arsenal, and conducted widespread financial scams, extortion, and other financial malfeasance in order to fund its operations.

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Driven by a delusional paranoia that the world’s security forces were closing in upon it, the millennial cult launched at least nine undetected and predominantly ineffective biological attacks against Japan during the early 1990s. These were followed by the infamous Sarin Gas attack on the Tokyo Subway in March 1995, which killed 12 commuters and injured thousands more. The death toll would have been much higher had it not been for unintended impurities in the chemical composition.

In the aftermath of the attack, Japan’s police eventually apprehended the main ringleaders of the cult and 13 of them were placed on death row, where they remained until their executions last year. Yet, some senior figures were acquitted or set free after short prison sentences – most notably the senior executive, Fumihiro Joyu, who was sentenced to just three years in prison. Joyu went on to become the new head of Aum in 2000 before founding his own successor sect in 2007.

While the government stripped Aum of its protected religious status in 1995, it failed to ban the group under its Subversive Activities Prevention Law in 1997, resulting in Aum being allowed to continue legally operating in Japan.

In contrast, Aum remains outlawed as a terrorist organisation today in the United States, the European Union, and many other countries across the world, with even Russia finally banning the cult in 2016.

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In 2000, Aum renamed itself as Aleph, and two splinter groups – Hikari no Wa and Yamadara no Shudan – broke off in 2007 and 2013 respectively. Between them, they are reported to possess JPY 1 billion in assets, with 1,650 Japanese members, and 460 Russian followers. Their appeal seems to be growing rather than diminishing over time, driven by increased recruitment activities, especially amongst high schoolers and university students through social groups, sports organisations, anti-nuclear gatherings and social networking services.

Despite their renunciations of the old Aum and their proclamations of peaceful intent, all three sects continue to exhibit troubling behaviour. For its part, Aleph demands submission to Asahara, celebrates his birthday annually, and obstructs government inspections of its facilities, while Hikari no Wa retains a structure that is nearly identical to Aum at its peak and preaches absolute devotion to the doctrine of Asahara. The smallest of the three sects, Yamadara no Shudan, is even more fanatical about Asahara.

Given the devotion of all three sects towards Asahara, his execution last year must have been profoundly shocking and, quite potentially, inflammatory.

Yet, the Japanese response to Aum’s successors has been muted. All three were kept under surveillance until 2017, but little else was done to dismantle their infrastructure, discourage recruitment, or destroy their operating capabilities.

This state of affairs is so bizarre that even the Japanese police crack jokes about how the sects are only tolerated in order to provide the Public Security Intelligence Agency (PSIA), who are tasked with monitoring their activities, with a rationale for their budget.

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The past two years have seen positive and negative developments. On the one hand, a series of raids into Aleph’s offices in 2017 spurred by the organisation’s recruitment methods were a hopeful sign that the PSIA might be taking the threat more seriously. On the other hand, Hikari no Wa is no longer under surveillance following a successful legal bid in 2017. This means that a successor to one of the world’s most disturbing terrorist groups is now at liberty to act as it pleases, wholly free of outside scrutiny.

Regardless of what the investigators eventually discover about Kazuhiro’s motives, the attack stands as a stark reminder that the successors to one of the world’s most terrifying terrorist groups remain an active danger today. Existing efforts to combat this menace should be maintained and increased, including through a resumption of monitoring for Hikari no Wa, increased interdiction of the covert recruitment activities for all three sects, and a reconsideration of whether the trio could be legally outlawed and forcibly closed.

Without decisive actions of this kind, the type of horrifying attack that marred the start of 2019 could grow in number and magnitude over the years ahead, with catastrophic results.

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