Aum Shinrikyo and Its Weapons of Mass Destruction

ICSA e-Newsletter, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2009.

Aum Shinrikyo and Its Weapons of Mass Destruction: Tragic Consequences of Poor Anti-Cult Measures in Japan

Masaki Kito

An attorney from Japan summarizes the 13 cases brought against Aum Shinrikyo from 1988 through mid-2005 that resulted in the conviction and death sentence of the group’s leader, Shouko Asahara. The discussion focuses on whether the Japanese national government, and the country’s legal and criminal systems as they currently operate can effectively identify, address, and prevent harmful acts and human rights violations by destructive cults.

On February 27, 2004, Shouko Asahara (i.e., Chizuo Matsumoto, born on March 2, 1955) was convicted and sentenced to die after decisions in 13 cases that included charges of murder; attempted murder; damaging of corpses; abduction, confinement, and fatality; violation of the Law of Controlling Manufacture of Arms, Weapons and Related Items; and preparation to commit murder.

The Tokyo High Court decided to dismiss the appeal by Asahara’s defense counsel because counsel did not submit a statement of reason for appeal. In his statement of reason for dismissal, the Chief Judge Ken Suda acknowledged Asahara’s competency to stand trial based on the psychiatric expert testimony of Dr. Sen Nishiyama in February 2005; thus, the court rejected the plea for suspension of the trial. At the same time, the Chief Judge Suda criticized the defense’s attitude wherein the defense counsel did not submit the statement of reason for appeal by the due date (August, 2005), while the counsel had been pleading for suspension of trial, asserting that “the defendant (Asahara) lacks communication capacity and ... he lacks litigation capacity.”

In contrast, all six of the expert medical witnesses appointed by the defense counsel and who had visited Asahara concluded that Asahara’s “litigation capacity is questionable.” So there remains persistent public criticism that the court decision will make “the truth of the Aum case, and truth of whether Asahara really has lost his capacity to stand trial” vanish forever in the abyss of uncertainty.

Although the defense counsel filed a petition of objection to the court’s decision, the Tokyo High Court (Chief Judge Isamu Shiraki) supported the previous decision of March 27 and overruled the objection on May 29, 2005. Further, the defense counsel filed a special appeal to the Supreme Court on June 5, 2005; however, the definitive judgment of the death penalty is highly predicted.

Violent Crimes Executed by Aum Shinrikyo

In the series of acts Aum Shinrikyo conducted and for which the group has been indicted, at least 27 people have died. For us to reach a good understanding of how armament of this religious community took place, it is very important to review the community’s activities in chronological order.

The first case of death (Case 1), the Majima case, took place late in September 1988. In this case, a lay believer/disciple Teruyuki Majima accidentally died during ascetic training at the group’s Fuji Headquarters Training Hall. In the middle of the training, Majima began to raise a queer cry and to show other signs of lunacy; others in the hall splashed water and thus drowned him to death. Majima’s body was incinerated, and the ash was discarded in Lake Motosu. No one has been indicted for his death.

Another believer/disciple who had been involved in the Majima case was murdered early in February 1989. The believer, Taguchi, had tried to leave the group and was murdered, to conceal the death of Majima.

Until this point, human rights violations by the Aum group were directed toward the members of the group. But starting with the Sakamoto Family Case, the group turned to arming itself with a view toward attacking people outside the group. On November 4, 1989, the events in the Sakamoto Family Case (Case 2) took place. The lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, who had been supporting people aggrieved by the group, was murdered at his home, together with his wife and son.

As the first step toward building up its armed forces, Aum tried to culture anthrax bacteria. In the summer of 1992, defendant Asahara directed a question to defendant Seiichi Endo, an executive member of the group sentenced to die at the first trial because of his involvement in the Matsumoto Sarin case, and who has filed an appeal: “What type of bacteria is more toxic than botulinum?” Endo replied “anthrax,” and Asahara directed Endo to acquire anthrax. Endo then acquired vaccine strains of anthrax from a lay follower of Asahara who had been engaged in medical research, and he stored them.

Fumihiro Joyu (another executive member who later was in charge of the group’s activities in Russia) instructed Kazuyoshi Takizawa (who later became Undersecretary of the group’s Science and Technology Agency) to develop a spraying device and a mass culturing system of anthrax. Then two other executive members of the group, defendants Kazumi Watanabe and Toru Toyoda (both were later appointed Undersecretaries of the group’s Science and Technology Agency), manufactured and installed the spraying device named “Water Mach” at the group’s Kameido Training Center. They sprayed anthrax twice during the period between June and July 1993 in an attempt to kill local residents indiscriminately. Fortunately, these attempts were aborted, and only strong odors were exuded because the anthrax bacteria had been sterilized by the high pressure in the spray nozzles.

This event could have been catastrophic if the group’s attempts had been successful. However, no one was ever indicted in the case only because the group’s attempts were aborted,

After this, the group vigorously pushed forward to arm itself with weapons for mass murder. The cases for which Aum has been indicted and convicted are as follows:

Case 1 – Majima Case (fatality). Discussed above.

Case 2 - Sakamoto Family Case (murder). Discussed above.

Case 3 – Sarin Plant Case (preparation of to commit murder). Construction and operation of a Sarin plant between November 1993 and the end of December 1994 with the intention of producing Sarin.

Case 4 – Takimoto Sarin Case (attempted murder). Attempted murder of Taro Takimoto, attorney-at-law and member of the Legal Defense Team for victims of Aum, by making him inhale Sarin gas.

Case 5 – Matsumoto Sarin Case (murder, attempted murder). Release of vaporized Sarin gas in the city of Matsumoto, murdering seven and severely injured four citizens.

Case 6 – Manufacturing Rifles (violation of the Law of Manufacture of Arms, Weapons and Related Items). Attempted manufacture of approximately 1,000 rifles during the period between the end of June 1994 and March 21, 1995, and the manufacture of one rifle during the period between the end of December 1994 and January 1, 1995.

Case 7 – Ochida Case (murder and damaging of the corpse). Murder of a live-in communal member who had escaped from the community and sneaked into the community’s facility and attempted to lead out his ex-colleagues. His body was incinerated on January 30, 1994.

Case 8 – Tomita Case (murder and damaging of the corpse). As the result of an unsuccessful attempt to deliver a believer to spy on the police, murder and incineration of the member’s body by the group on July 10, 1994, to conceal the facts.

Case 9 – Mizuno VX Case (attempted murder). The group’s attempted murder by spraying VX gas on a believer who tried to leave the group, on December 2, 1994.

Case 10 – Hamaguchi VX Case (murder). Murder, using VX gas, of a business person the group suspected of being a police spy based on a biased presumption. on December 12, 1994.

Case 11 – Nagaoka VX Case (attempted murder). Attempted murder by the group, using VX gas, of the chairman of the Aum Victims Group, on January 1, 1995.

Case 12 – Kariya Case (crimes of abduction, confinement, and fatality). In the group’s attempt to locate a believer to obtain a large donation, abduction, confinement, and overdose by anesthetic causing death, followed by incineration of the body of the believer’s elder brother, on February 28, 1995.

Case 13 – Sarin Attack on Tokyo Subway (murder, attempted murder). dispersed by the group in five trains on three lines of the Tokyo subway system, with 12 murdered and 14 severely injured passengers, on March 20, 1995.

Please note that, to minimize the length of the trial, the prosecution indicted only the extreme cases of severe injury and death for the Tokyo and Matsumoto Sarin Cases. In fact, approximately 660 people were injured in the Matsumoto case, and approximately 5,500 people were injured in the Tokyo Subway Case.

By the way, Fumihiro Joyu, who is the current chief representative of Aum Shinrikyo, was sentenced to a 3-year jail term for perjury; he has already done the time and has left prison. Kazuyoshi Takizawa has been sentenced to an 8-year jail term for preparation to commit murder. Kazumi Watanabe has been sentenced to a 14-year jail term for preparation to commit murder. Toru Toyoda has been sentenced to die for his involvement in the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system and has filed an appeal to the Supreme Court.


As can be said relative to cults in general, acceptance of murder is the most severe abuse of human rights. The first indication of such severe abuse is observed in how a group abuses and exploits its members. The most explicit indicators of abuse and exploitation of human rights in cultic groups are labor exploitation, sexual exploitation, and child abuse. The case of Aum Shinrikyo is a typical example of such evolution. Starting with exploitation of its followers, Aum gradually advanced to malignant antisocial activities and to perpetrate the crimes against Mr. Majima, Mr. Taguchi, and then attorney Sakamoto and his family.

Followers’ sensory paralysis relative to the violation of human rights within the group leads to the same sensory paralysis relative to the human rights of those outside the group. In the case of Aum, this progression finally led to destructive acts such as terrorism.

The crucially important issue is how we can establish a system to stop the continuation of destruction by such cultic groups. We must have a system to ensure an investigation of such groups from the outside whenever signs of labor exploitation, sexual exploitation, and/or child abuse are found within the groups. We must employ social, legal, and administrative interventions to deal with the first signs of human rights abuse. Most cases of abuses can be dealt with by law enforcement.

Although the Child Abuse Prevention Law was enacted in 2001, I must say that unfortunately the current Japanese legal system is insufficient or even poor to enable such interventions.


In summary, I offer the following observations about the above-referenced cases brought against Aum Shinrikyo and the group’s current status within the Japanese legal system, and about potentially harmful cultic groups in general.

Negligence by the Police Agency

The Matsumoto Sarin case took place in June 1994. By the end of the same year, the police suspected that Aum owned a Sarin chemical weapon and had begun considering a compulsory investigation of Aum. Yet Aum attacked the Tokyo subway with Sarin on March 20, 1995. We still are eager to know what the police agency had been doing during this period between June 1994 and Mary, 1995 because the police have disclosed no information in this regard. If the police had only supervised the suspects during this period, the subway attack might have been prevented. Or I can also say if the police were keeping their eyes on the suspects, the crime was committed under their noses, which then brings up the question of whether the police were negligent.

Questionable Strengthening of Police Authority and Power

In a sense, it can be said that the police were not able to prevent Aum’s runaway violent criminal activities because of police negligence. Yet, until today, the power of the police has continued to increase over the past 10 or more years under the banner of helping victims and preventing organized crimes.

How can we justify the legitimacy of strengthening police authority when we lack sweeping national efforts to identify effective anti-cultic measures based on a comprehensive review of Aum and its actions? Addressing cultic issues requires involvement of a wide range of specialties, including psychiatry, child welfare, and tax evasion. Therefore, pan-departmental efforts are necessary that involve the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Labor; the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology; the National Tax Administration Agency; and all other relevant government ministries and agencies.

On June 8 of this year (2005), the private-sector group Organization for Supporting Victims of Crimes by Aum Shinrikyo was established. The objective of the organization is to maximize compensatory payment to the criminal victims by taking over the general financial claims from former business partners of Aum Shinrikyo (the group has changed its name to Aleph, yet Aum Shinrikyo remains the publicly recognized name). The current total debt held by Aum is approximately 5.1 billion yen as shown through bankruptcy procedures; and out of this 5.1 billion yen, debt to the victims and bereaved family members adds up to 3.8 billion yen. After two debt services to date, only about 30 percent of the debt has been paid.

Insufficient Crime Fighting Measures for Cultic Issues

Using only conventional crime-fighting measures cannot prevent the problems associated with cultic activities. Just as measures against terrorism call for more general and comprehensive multidisciplinary actions, so do anti-cult measures require an extremely wide range of expertise. In Japan, as noted earlier, only in 2001 did enforcement of the Child Abuse Prevention Law begin. And even so, legal approaches to sexual and labor exploitation of children in cultic groups are very difficult, and often they are ineffective (refer to the Home of Heart presentation at ICSA’s 2005 Annual Conference).

Crime-prevention measures cannot address many of the aspects involved for those coping with cultic issues—for example, why cults are formed, what systems are needed to reduce the number of cults, psychological analysis of cult members, and support for people leaving cults. Even after the Aum cases had taken place, a substantial number of other cult-related cases also occurred, including the religious corporation Hounohana Sanpogyo’s case, which resulted in more than 80 billion yen in financial damages being awarded, and in which law enforcement rescued the corporation.

Among these cultic cases are those of the Unification Church, which have been the most serious, large-scale cases in Japan. Japanese lawyers began to work on the spiritual sales cases in February 1987, and they formed the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales ( for the purpose of recovering damages and extirpating spiritual sales. During the 19 years between February 1987 and December 2005, lawyers of the National Network consulted for 26,000 related cases, and the overall sum of monetary damages awarded is well over 9.4 billion yen. These figures simply demonstrate the seriousness and extraordinary nature of the harm the Unification Church has caused. Despite the number of Supreme Court decisions that have been successful for the aggrieved parties, the unjustifiable situation remains that law enforcement has established no criminal case n Japan against the group.

In short, in Japan, measures to deal with cult-related issues have yet to mature, and there is still a long way to go before truly effective precautions and measures against terrorism and cultic activities can be introduced. Even given the potential establishment of a legal system that can cope with cultic issues, unless we really reinforce public awareness of such issues, the legal system will be little more practical than pie in the sky.

Lack of National Government Oversight

We have counted 19 casualties and 6,000 injured in the Matsumoto and subway cases. Yet, albeit these events are unprecedented in the world, the Japanese government has not even conducted a general examination, compiled a general report, or opened a parliamentary special committee on them.

Why did these situations occur? How can we stop recurrence of such events in the future? We have no answers yet from the national government.

Furthermore, what has been a major issue recently in Japan is that Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzou Abe, who is recognized as the next Prime Minister, sent a congratulatory telegram to the convention/mass-wedding ceremony of the Unification Church in May this year. The situation in Japan, where the government totally lacks awareness that cultic issues are issues of human rights as well as international issues, is more than just regrettable. We wish to learn from ICSA’s experience and expertise to make positive changes in such situations.