Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

FALSE PROPHET: THE AUM CULT OF TERROR

Holy Mountain

Aum world headquarters at foot of  Mount Fuji
Aum world headquarters at foot of Mount Fuji

Of all the images westerners have of Japan, Mount Fuji would be the best known and the most readily identifiable. What was once an active volcano now lies dormant, towering above the surrounding countryside, eerily beautiful but no longer dangerous.

In 1988, a less impressive structure took shape near the base of Mount Fuji. The group of ramshackle buildings that were to become Aums world headquarters would never approach the beauty of their surroundings, but were set to unleash a destructive force almost as dangerous as Mount Fuji at its most active.

The compound that housed Aum was nothing more than prefabricated shacks, trailers and warehouses surrounded by a high boundary fence. Within its walls, Asahara, the self styled holy man, was building an empire. Hundreds of people came to hear him and paid plenty to receive his blessings. They slept on bare floors for a week, received one meal a day of steamed vegetables and sat through an endless series of lectures that, among other things, taught the participants to cut their ties with non-believing family and friends and join Aum. The cost? A mere $2,000 for the week.

Many felt the need to follow blindly and gave up jobs, family and social contact to join. After being welcomed to their new way of life, some gave their savings and possessions voluntarily to the cause. Those new members who wished to play a greater role in Asaharas vision became "nuns" and "monks" and dedicated their lives to the service of their new-found master. To show their loyalty, they were required to donate their cash, savings, securities, real estate, jewelry and anything else of value to Aum. Following these donations, which also included all bank, credit cards and access codes, they were made to swear this oath: I entrust my spiritual and physical self and all assets to Aum.

In return, they received an indoctrination of meager diets and sleep deprivation. Together with a barrage of Asaharas teachings, this succeeded in transforming them into true believers. Whole families joined the sect, the parents having to sign a document absolving Aum of any responsibility should the children come to harm.

Young and old, poor and wealthy alike joined, including children who had run away from home. When the parents of some of the children contacted the cult to inquire about them, they were given very little assistance and told not to try and contact them further.

Many young people were caught up in the euphoria of Aum. By 1990, 15 percent of Aum followers were under the age of 20. If it was freedom these people sought, they were soon disillusioned. Deviations from the rules were punished swiftly and severely. Offenders were deprived of food and warmth and the more serious offenders were locked in tiny rooms without food or bedding and made to listen to recordings of Asaharas teachings at full volume day and night. Simple misdemeanors such as falling asleep during lectures were punishable in a similar manner.

As the membership increased, so did the profits. Sales of Aum publications and other merchandise doubled almost overnight. The increasing profits created another challenge for Asahara -- taxation. After consulting lawyers and investment experts, Asahara applied for official religious status for Aum. Under Japanese Religious Corporation Law, any religious group could apply for such status, which included generous tax breaks, as long as it adhered to certain guidelines.

As many people saw Aum as an antisocial cult, particularly parents who sought the release of their children, its application was rejected. What followed was a concerted campaign of members of Aum harassing officials, picketing offices and writing threatening letters. Lawsuits were filed against the governor of Tokyo for delaying proceedings until finally, not wanting to violate Japans sensitive religious freedom laws, the governor approved the application and Asahara got his tax concessions.

Aum had succeeded in winning an important victory and continued making its presence felt. Several publications began running stories of Aums "twisted doctrines" and "unhealthy influences" on much of Japans youth.  The Sunday Mainichi ran several articles criticizing Aum and its teachings.

Asahara, angered by the articles, went with a group of his followers to the paper's office to demand that the articles be withdrawn. When editor Taro Maki refused, Asahara approved a vicious campaign that saw Maki and his family harassed and belittled in public. Aum even went to the length of publishing a special book that criticized Maki and his paper and distributed it throughout Japan. Night and day, a barrage of abusive telephone calls besieged Maki and his family. Finally Maki had a massive stroke and the members of Aum gloated over what they perceived as "heaven's vengeance."

Even though the complaints against Aum were growing, both in the press and from private citizens, the police did nothing. They were reluctant to follow up on allegations of cult behavior and mind-control as they did not want to be seen to oppress the religious freedom that Japan had fought so hard to regain.

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