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In the aftermath of Aum Shinrikyo: lessons learned from the Japanese response


Since the 9/11 attacks the terrorism and ‘radicalisation’ agenda has been so dominated by discussions about Islam that it is easy to forget the extent to which, between 1995 and 2001, such discussions were played out in the shadow of the 1995 Tokyo subway attack and the manufacture and use by its perpetrators of chemical and biological weapons (CBW - also known as WMD, weapons of mass destruction) such as the nerve gas sarin. The attack was carried out by the Japanese religious movement Aum Shinrikyō (Aum Supreme Truth as it termed itself in English), led by its charismatic leader Asahara Shōkō. It provoked widespread shock among policy makers and counter-terrorism agencies that had worried about the possibility of terror groups acquiring and using WMD, but were taken completely unawares by it happening in a society, Japan, which had been seen as safe and off the map of potential terrorist activities, and by a group, Aum, that was ‘completely off the radar’, as a senior FBI official later told me. The attack led to widespread rethinking among security groups, alerting them as never before to the “killing power of religion”, [1] and helped convince many in the field that a new era of terrorism, whose themes would be religious, apocalyptic and concerned with WMD, had dawned.[2]

Aum Shinrikyō was a communal millennial movement with a potent critique of contemporary society, which it denounced as obsessed with materialism and in need of urgent change before it was engulfed in catastrophes that would bring about the end of the world. It believed that a radical world transformation was needed to eradicate the overarching materialist culture of the modern age, and to bring about a spiritual transformation and the dawn of a new age. Its leader prophesied that Aum had a sacred mission to bring about this peaceful spiritual transformation, but he became convinced that so few people were listening to his message of ‘truth’ that only an actual final war could bring about the transformation needed. As such, Aum became increasingly focused on the notion that the world deserved to be punished for its obsession with materialism and that a final war (in which it would lead the forces of good against the forces of evil – including the US and Japanese governments) was necessary and to be welcomed in order to achieve this. It began to prepare accordingly, acquiring conventional and making biological and chemical weapons, which Asahara had predicted would be crucial elements in this final war, and eventually using them against enemies, including the general public, who by 1995 had come to be seen by Aum as part of the evil world that needed to be destroyed. The Tokyo attack – the second mass attack by Aum using sarin – was a manifestation of Aum’s militant intentions.

While Aum may have been pushed into the shade by later Islamic groups, the significance of the attacks and the lessons that have been drawn from it remain pertinent. It brought the issue of religion to the fore of discussions about terrorism and extremism well before 9/11 began to awaken politicians and others to the need to take religions seriously as an item on the political and security agenda. It also raised numerous questions about why highly educated young people (as Aum’s senior figures were) could be persuaded by seemingly extreme religious beliefs and so convinced of the evil nature of the world that they were prepared to cause mass destruction, all the while seeing their deeds as spiritually meaningful acts and part of their sacred mission to transform the world.  In addition, it led to widespread discussions about the relationships between religion and society in Japan, about the very nature of religion, and about how to deal with the problem of ‘religion’ in a liberal democratic society that constitutionally upheld the right to freedom of religious worship. These questions remain crucial to wider discussions that have been part of the post 9-11 world and that have given rise to websites such as this one.

Japan and the question of religion

One question widely asked after the attack was why did the police not intervene earlier in Aum, especially since there had been signs that the movement was becoming increasingly militant and that it had probably committed earlier acts of violence. Prior to 1945, the state promoted a form of religious nationalism that led to dissenting religions being suppressed by the police in the name of the state; afterwards, a new constitution guaranteed religious freedom and protection from state interference. After 1945 any move by the police to intervene in a religious movement would evoke memories of the pre-1945 situation and hence the police were fearful of intervening in Aum until the situation became so serious that they could no longer avoid it. The post-war consensus that religion should be protected from state intrusion also was based on the view that although religion was a private affair, religions operated for the public good and helped frame a modern civil society, while religious freedom was itself a basic component of a liberal democratic society.

That consensus was overturned after Aum. Public pressure for reforms to reduce guarantees of protection for religion, along with pressure from the political right seeking to exert more control over religions that appeared to deviate from Japanese norms, led to reforms of the Religious Corporations Law (which provides religious groups with protection and tax breaks) that gave the state greater powers to access information about religious groups. This law applied to all religions, and caused complaints that all religions in Japan were being punished for the misdeeds of one. The problem, of course, was that any reform of the constitutional position of religion within the Japanese state of necessity had to apply to all, but there was a general feeling that after 1995 the balance of state-religious relations had turned against religions, and was eroding religious liberties. Public attitudes, too, indicated not simply a call for greater control over religions but a widespread turn against religion, with surveys from 1995 on showing a continuing fall in religious engagement and affiliation, and a general view that religions were all potentially dangerous and in need of control, and that public religious proselytising should be restricted or banned.

Aum also faced special monitoring, and two separate laws were passed to enable the security agencies to have access to Aum’s records, centres and other information relating to the group. Aum did not disappear after 1995; while its leaders were arrested and tried for their crimes, a small number of (innocent) devotees remained loyal and the movement continued, albeit changing its name to Aleph, renouncing the doctrines that had previously legitimated its violence, and seeking to find a way for members to continue practising their faith while showing they were no longer a threat. They continue to do so, but remain under strict surveillance and controls that have led them to complain about the potential violation of their rights of religious freedom.

After the attack: the rhetoric of ‘cults’ and ‘mind control’

After the subway attack and as evidence of Aum’s violent transformation (which included a retreat from engagement with the wider world, a descent into paranoia, and a conviction among Aum devotees that the world at large was evil and needed to be purified by violence) became widespread, a key question that dominated discussions in Japan was why did its disciples become so committed to a belief system that was deeply paranoid and violent? The puzzle appeared greater because Aum devotees included many (including doctors, lawyers and other professionals) who had attended Japan’s leading universities and who, in the minds of society at large, ought to have been able to avoid becoming obsessed with such ways of thinking. The involvement of the highly educated indicated that education need not be a barrier to the development of extremist thoughts; indeed it suggested that those with high levels of education might even be more able to develop critical attitudes to the societies they lived in. Aum’s devotees clearly, as later research indicated, were successful in society but also found that success – grounded in modern capitalist careerism and materialism – to be unrewarding and shallow, leading them to seek spiritual alternatives. In a real sense, their rejection of society was linked to their ability to perceive the problems with it – and that would have been a potentially very painful issue for Japanese society to confront.

However, relatively little attention has been paid to these issues in Japan. Academic analyses showed that Aum’s devotees were sincere, that they were truly repelled by what they saw as the destructive materialism of the contemporary world, and deeply adhered to their beliefs. These analyses also showed how certain modes of religious orientation, in conjunction with the ways in which religious groups experience and interact with the world around them, can precipitate increasingly extreme positions and give rise to violence. However, the more common response and way of ‘explaining’ Aum – especially in the media – has centred on concepts that are not dissimilar to the notion of ‘radicalisation’ and suggest that somehow Aum devotees were manipulated into their violent ways by a core of unscrupulous extremists.

The most widespread way of interpreting what happened with Aum revolved around two claims: that Aum was not a religion so much as a ‘cult’, and that its leader and his closest disciples used ‘mind control’ to attract people into this cult and manipulate them into committing acts of murder and terror. Although the term ‘cult’ has a classical sociological meaning related to a newly formed group centred around a charismatic leader, it has in recent times, been used to imply a movement that is somehow not truly ‘religious’ but is instead irrational, dangerous, and focused on the manipulation of members who are lured into the movement by cunning and basically fraudulent leaders who use the chimera of religion to further their own ends. This type of framing became widespread in the anti-cult movements that arose in the US and elsewhere in conjunction with, and in response to, the emergence of a number of alternative groups that developed in the counterculture era of the 1960s and beyond. The term ‘cult’ was quickly picked up in Japan after Aum was used to present a potent message: Aum was not religious but simply a cult used by Asahara and his closest acolytes to fulfil their own fantasies. Through Aum they could trick and manipulate naïve idealists seeking alternative ways of life and wanting to get away from the rampant materialism of modern society.

By designating Aum as a ‘cult’ critics could argue that it should not be afforded the status of religion – and hence should not be protected by the laws and principles of democracy that prevailed in Japan. Aum has, indeed, been stripped of its status as a registered religious corporation. While all religious groups have been affected by the post-Aum reform of the Religious Corporations Law, the emphasis in the media on the notion of ‘cults’ has impacted widely on any group that appears in any way to challenge social norms. Several groups have been called ‘cults’ by the media or by those seeking to disparage particular movements, and have faced opprobrium as a result. In 2002, for example, a reclusive group called Panawave, seeking to withdraw from engagement with the outside world in rural Japan, found itself besieged by the media and the police, both of whom labelled it the ‘next Aum’. It subsequently became clear that Panawave, while appearing eccentric from the perspective of society at large was harmless and that its members were not intent on mass destruction.

Underpinning the notion of ‘cults’ is the notion that such groups exercise “mind control” to manipulate their followers. The ‘mind control’ argument is in essence a descendant of ‘brainwashing’- the ‘theory’ so widely used to portray and critique religious groups in earlier times, and that was roundly critiqued through empirical studies into why people joined certain groups that supposedly used ‘brainwashing’ to entrap their members.[3] The general public and media focus after Aum – largely driven by the media, politicians seeking to increase state controls and power, and ‘anti-cult’ groups – emphasised ‘mind control’ as a causal factor in the affair. It served to ‘explain’ why people who were articulate and intelligent, might join what were perceived as strange cults and engage in anti-social acts. The concept posited a sinister manipulative leader and his/her close followers, who seditiously tricked naïve people into following them and doing their bidding. Just as with ‘brainwashing’, the idea of ‘mind control’ has failed to properly explain how and why the Aum Affair occurred, and has been wholly deficient in understanding the interactions of religious leaders and followers. Studies of charisma have shown that followers are not simply sheep following their leaders, but are active participants in the construction of their leaders’ charisma; leaders in turn are dependent on followers for their spiritual power and for their ability to project such charismatic power.[4]

The reflections by numerous people involved with Aum (including several of those convicted of its murderous crimes) have also shown clearly that those who joined Aum and rose to high levels in the movement were not manipulated by an ‘evil’ guru, but were active participants in their processes of joining and becoming ardent followers. Such accounts show that people can believe sincerely in particular beliefs to the extent that they are prepared to kill for them, and that when groups of people with similar views operate together, they are far more likely to engage in violent acts. What they do not show is that the process of becoming involved with and committing to such extreme beliefs and paths of actions, is a one-way process ‘guided’ or controlled by sinister figures preying on people who would otherwise have been content to live ordinary lives. Rather, the devotees who joined Aum did so for very cogent reasons related to their own dissatisfaction with the world around them, coupled with an earnest desire to seek new spiritual ways forward and because the messages that Asahara was projecting fitted closely with their views of the world.

Conclusions: Mind control and the fallacies of radicalisation

In Japan it is hard to avoid the feeling that there were two predominant repercussions from the Aum case. The first was that all religious groups suffered as a result, both in public perception and in legal terms. Because one registered religion had made weapons of mass destruction and committed crimes, all religions were in need of greater control. Beyond that, questions, allegations and public presumptions that certain groups might be not religions at all, but ‘cults’ and hence inherently dangerous, became widespread. All of this led to legal reforms that affected all religions, with many groups complaining, rightly, that they were all being punished for the sins of one, while some were harassed because, like Panawave, they simply looked different.

The second repercussion was that a particular mode of ‘explaining’ why people might espouse the sorts of viewpoints that led Aum to violence, became predominant to the extent that it effectively drowned out attempts to contextualise the beliefs and experiences of Aum or to examine in any detail the processes through which Aum turned to violence. The chosen paradigm, of ‘mind control’, has worked well in producing a demonised category (the so-called ‘mind controllers’ such as Asahara) but it has failed to indicate why he and other senior disciples themselves espoused the views they held and why they were so sincere in this. The problem here, of course, was that if serious attention were paid to the underlying critiques Aum was making of society, or to analysing the deeper issues related to Aum’s turn to violence, it would require confronting questions about why Aum felt the need to become militant – questions that would have to examine what it was that Aum was so critical of. The concept of ‘mind control’, by positing a core nucleus of evil manipulators, has helped to deflect this questioning and evade the deeper debates and examinations that otherwise would be required.

All of this has resonance for discussions about radicalisation and responses to extremist acts in Britain or elsewhere. The first point to note is that responses to Aum have led to restrictions on, and at times harassment of, other religious groups in Japan. Often this has been done by a rampant and unrestrained media, supported by those who want to increase the power of the state. This is particularly worrying and ironic given that the constitutional settlement after 1945 and Japan’s laws on religion, were designed to protect against those very aspects of state power and control that so damaged Japan in the 1930s and 1940s, and to increase freedoms and enhance democracy. The repercussions of Japan’s response to its one case of public religious violence has been to erode those freedoms. That is a path that needs to be avoided and if we can learn one lesson here from Japan it is not to allow minority actions to influence the broader flow of public policy or to let singular cases be the driving forces behind actions that affect all.

More concerning is that the Japanese reaction and its focus on notions such as ‘cults’ and ‘mind control’ creates two basic false images. One is to create a false model of religion (by implication, suggesting that when a religious group goes against prevailing social mores, it is not really a religion but something else – such as a cult). This perception – emphasised by political leaders after 9/11 when they spoke of ‘true’ religion and sought to portray what had happened on that day as nothing to do with Islam – helps in the construction of an idealised vision of religion that fits with social norms and does not posit any critical challenge to society as it is. However, it fails totally to encapsulate the point that in-depth analyses of Aum have shown: that people can carry out violent acts and be sincerely religious at the same time. The uses of notions such as ‘cult’ serve (just as do idealised images of ‘true’ religion) to remove from analysis the very things that should be the centre of our concerns, namely why the sincerely religious can be overtly violent. It also carries implications that religions should, if they are to fit with what society wants and not be tarred as deviant, be socially compliant – surely a contradiction to the notion of religion as a means of expressing visions of how things ought to be rather than how they are.

The other concern is that the rhetoric of ‘mind control’, descended as it is from the flawed notion of ‘brainwashing’ sounds rather similar to that of ‘radicalisation’. That again appears to rely on a notion of those who are led into extremism by a core of hardened manipulators. The current concept of ‘radicalisation’ certainly looks very much like a reframing of these earlier flawed ways of looking at processes of religious adherence and engagement. Focusing on the idea that people become ‘radicalised’ and hence led to extremes by manipulative figures, is to miss the wider issue of how people actually become involved in religiously driven extremist and violent behaviour. By missing this point, and focusing on a process that, whether given the label ‘brainwashing’ or ‘mind control’ or ‘radicalisation’, appears dependent on an external malign force capturing unprepared and naïve people who are channelled into violence by such manipulators, we fail to understand the real issues at stake. In cases such as Aum and earlier new religions, the focus on labels and assumptions meant a failure to grapple with the real reasons why sincere people joined Aum and helped wholeheartedly in its increasing extremism. Sadly, the same mistakes are being made again in the context of ‘radicalisation’ and the assumptions it brings with it.

The problem with such approaches, whether under the rubric of ‘mind control’ or ‘radicalisation’ is that they posit simplistic ‘answers’ to difficult questions that go to the very heart of and foundations of modern societies. There were distinct reasons why Aum devotees felt as they did, sought radical alternatives that rejected modern materialism, engaged in strict ascetic practices and meditation, and aspired to a vision of a new world based on matters of the spirit not the material. One can say the same about those who have engaged in subsequent acts of violence with religious connotations. Without understanding and recognising the intensity of such beliefs, one is not going to even begin to gain a grip on the notion of why people commit such deeds. To see it as simply or mainly something to do with ‘radicalisation’ – a process that remains only vaguely defined and one-dimensional and that is fraught with the same problems as ‘mind control’ and other notions centred around it is to lose sight of the key issues in cases such as Aum. That again provides an important lesson and suggests that a more sophisticated and less blinkered reaction than that of the notion of ‘radicalisation’ is essential in order to respond to and think about these issues and find ways of understanding why such things happen.


Further reading:

Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Ian Reader, and not of  Reader is Professor of Religious Studies at Lancaster University. His research interests lie in pilgrimages, popular religious practices in Japan as well as the Aum affair and through this to the influences of religion in the broader contemporary context of terrorism.

1. Benjamin, David and Stephen Simon. (2002). The Age of Sacred Terror. New York: Random House: 439. BACK UP TO TEXT

2. Reader, Ian. (2012). ‘Globally Aum: the Aum Affair, Counterterrorism and Religion’. In Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 38 (2) in press (April 2012) in the special edition Aftermath: The Impact and Ramifications of the Aum Affair in Japan and Beyond.  Eds. Ian Reader and Erica Baffelli. BACK UP TO TEXT

3. One of the most significant studies that demonstrated the problems with the notion of ‘brainwashing’ is Eileen Barker’s 1984 book The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? (Oxford: Basil Blackwell). BACK UP TO TEXT

4. I discuss this issue in my book Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyō (Richmond: Curzon) 2005, esp. pp. 235-241 and cite a number of examples of how gurus and disciples interacted to enhance the guru’s charismatic standing.  Mary McCormick Maaga (1998), Hearing the Voices of Jonestown: Putting a Human Face on an American Tragedy (Syracuse, USA: Syracuse University Press) provides an excellent study of the Peoples Temple tragedy at Jonestown, Guyana, 1978 in which she shows how the charismatic leader, Jim Jones, and his main disciples were bound together in a process that led to the tragedy and in which the support of disciples underpinned the standing of their leader. BACK UP TO TEXT

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