Aum Shinrikyō’s Legacy and Japanese Pop Culture

On 20 March 1995, The Aum cult released self-made Sarin gas in the metro of Tokyo. 13 people died, and more than 5000 people got injured. Till then, those “new religions” (shinshūkyō 新宗教) had not been causing such serious accidents, and were left undisturbed in their activities. The reason for that, is that the Japanese were afraid to break the law of “freedom of religion” and to create a precedent that would be similar to the institution of shintō as a state-religion in WWII. Therefor, new religions were tolerated and could spread their popularity across all layers of the Japanese – and sometimes foreign – population. These newly formed religious movements gathered a considerable number of followers, what made scientists think of this after-war period as “the rush hour of the gods”. Aum was supported by ten thousand members in Japan. Most striking is the fact that many highly qualified, young graduates from top universities joined Aum, what gave them the label of “The Elite Sect”.

In the aftermath of the 1995 terrorist action, or so-called “post-aum period”, the New Religious Movements faced strong opposition by the public opinion. The government did well in solely focussing on the severe punishment of Aum members. If they had been carried along with the public rage, there would have been the risk of endangering article 20 of Japan’s Constitution.

Anti-Aum protest

Anti-Aum protest

Some New Religious Movements share following two characteristics (only what’s in bold letters), which I adopt to Aum Shinrikyō (given explanation). I have no knowledge of all New Religous Movements, so I do not at all claim that each of them engages in terrorist actions, nor do I believe their members to be treated in the way as Aum members were. On the contrary, except for a few ones like Aum, New Religious Movements are peacefully pursuing and developing their spiritual life.

  • A central, spiritual leader: The almost blind Shōkō Asahara formed Aum Shinrikyō in 1984 and was granted legal recognition 5 years later. The doctrine he promoted, contains several elements of Buddhism and Shintoism, as well as Christianity and Hinduism. He proved his born leadership i.a. by performances of self-levitation. He also declared himself “Christ”. Asahara was condemned to capital punishment, but is still in death row.
  • The Apocalypse Scenario: Aum-followers strongly believed Nostradamus’ prediction of a millennium-ending apocalypse. This subscribed to a utopian view on a perfect world (“shambhala”, paradise) they could help to establish. By ending the sinful world a bit earlier, for example. Many members in search of a spiritual way had joined because they felt a decline of society due to too much focus on materialism. There was a possibility of salvation for human beings, be it evidently limited to members of Aum. These people underwent ‘survival training’. Methods like brain washing and feeding chemicals and drugs were used to remove anxiety. Some died because of too much intensive training (i.e. lack of sleep and food) and were secretly cremated and buried with the remains of murdered opponents.

Nowadays, Aum’s legacy still wanders around in Japanese people’s mind, as is visible in following products of pop culture.

Bloody Monday

(ブラッディ・モンデイ) drama, 11 episodes, 2008, adaptation of the same-titled manga

A terrorist group threatens to murder Tokyo’s population by spreading a deadly virus, called Bloody X. The story revolves around a school boy who succeeds to stop the organisation’s evil moves by hacking into their computers and system. If you are fond of thrilling, sensational drama, then I can recommend you this one. Maybe the story turns highly unlikely after nine episodes and the hacking skills of our young hero are far from belief as well, but that doesn’t make it not worth watching.

Now, back to reality. While watching, I immediately felt the resemblance with the gas attack of 1995. Leader of the terrorist cult group is “High Priest” Kamishima Shimon, who possesses the unearthly powers to kill people while being imprisoned (the magic is later on revealed; compare with photos of Asahara’s levitation, as they turned out to be taken while he ‘hopped’ in Lotus position). What’s so attractive about the massacre, is that the terrorists can become God, being in possession of both the virus and anti-virus. So, as the end of the world is absolutely necessary, fortunately they can choose who stays free of bloody noses. Their justification for murdering Tokyo’s population goes as follows:

This country is rotten. In order to regenerate the world, everything needs to be reset.

Sounds a lot like Asahara and his followers, isn’t it? Another resemblance has to do with Aum’s foreign business. In 1992, Asahara traveled to Moscow on a “Russian Salvation Tour”. A central office in the capital and three branch offices were opened, and 30,000 Russian joined the cult organization (at least that is the number Aum claims). The reason for many young Russian to devote themselves to Asahara and his theories, was the same as the Japanese youth: they were looking for spiritual nourishment. After the Cold War, they had lost the relationship with traditional christianity and turned towards more mystical beliefs. In Bloody Monday, Russia plays an important role as the location for the first experiments with the virus.

20th Century Boys

(二十世紀少年) manga by Naoki Urusawa, 1999, 22 volumes

20thCentury Boys- UrusawaLeader and Savior of the World “Friend” takes care of the end of the world, according to a plan he made with his school comrades a long time ago. Again, a virus with bloody results is featured, as well as the divine talent of “Friend” himself to fly and raise from the dead. He gains enormous popularity among the Japanese youth, and even starts his own political party (which is not without any foundation in real life: see the Facts for more on Sōka gakkai and Kōmeito).

Urusawa always does a great job, and this SF-manga contains again a thrilling story. That such things could happen in real life seems absurd, but you never know… One psycho and his ideology can cause a lot of harm. If people are discontent with their present society, who stops them from believing in a better world? In their conviction of helping mankind for their own good by slightly accelerating world’s end, they would go smiling around to spread gas and viruses. And there lies the hidden fear of all: no exposed violence and display of power, but how the fragility of people like you and me, can be used so easily.

Facts for Fun

– The internationally known cult movement Sōka gakkai formed in 1964 its own political party, Kōmeito. Scarcely 5 years later, it was Japan’s third largest political party. Nowadays, they represent 10% of national voters. Although the band with Sōka Gakkai has been officially broken, meetings behind the scenes still happen.

– Aum Shinrikyō still exists: it changed its name to Aleph. The members abandoned terroristic plans, but are not yet quite accepted by Japanese society.


– The inspiration and some info I gathered during the lessons of Japanese religions.

– Metraux, Daniel Alfred. Aum Shinrikyo’s Impact on Japanese Society. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.

– First picture is from Wiki Commons. On the site where I found the photo of Asahara on the cover, a lot of information about Aum can be found.

– watch Bloody Monday and Bloody Monday 2 online


One thought on “Aum Shinrikyō’s Legacy and Japanese Pop Culture

  1. Pingback: Japanese Crime Drama | nippaku

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