On 20 March 1995, Japanese New Religious Movement Aum Shinrikyo carried out an orchestrated attack on the Tokyo subway system – puncturing newspaper-wrapped plastic bags full of deadly sarin gas, leaving a dozen people dead and hundreds more injured. At the time, it was the deadliest incident to occur in Japan since the second World War. Following the attack, the country entered a deep period of introspection, not only amplifying the already building sense of social stagnation in the ‘lost decade’ of Japan in the 90s, but also fundamentally changing the way the Japanese thought about religion.
In this essay, I will attempt to dissect a particular niche of media ‘fascination’ with Aum – both in coverage of the movement following the 1995 Sarin Gas attacks, as well as in a range of popular media that has begun to incorporate Aum as a kind of go-to proxy to symbolise the concept of a ‘non-traditional’ terrorist threat.
In a world where the mass public consciousness of terrorism-as-concept has arguably become inherently associated with either a ‘Muslim threat’ or ‘far-right threat’, despite the reality of the 1995 Sarin Gas event, the idea of a ‘Buddhist terrorist’ seems to maintain a notion of the ‘alternative’ – taking on lurid, almost fantastical qualities. I will analyse both Western and Japanese narratives, touching on a persistent notion of the ‘outsider’ portrayed in both and why this generates an increasing relevance to wider modern society.
Aftermath – The construction of a ‘public consciousness’ of Aum
A fundamental aspect to understanding the sheer volume of media coverage devoted to Aum comes in the concept of the creation of a wider ‘public consciousness’ of the cult. In Did Aum Change Everything? Levi McLaughlin discusses a kind of ‘scapegoat mechanism’ in which a social outsider serves as a target for public fear when society feels it is at risk – developing into a constant cycle of catharsis and anxiety. Aum – as the outsider – is something to be feared, but if ‘normal’ life is to continue, it is also a fear that must be conquered and moved beyond. By extension, the more that Aum is developed and shaped within the public consciousness into an apotheosis of the ‘other’, the more it can be targeted and combatted.
McLaughlin raises the point that 1995 may have “triggered a paradigm shift in Japan, turning a general sense that religions are mostly ‘good’ entities deserving legal defense into a widespread suspicion that religions are potentially ‘dangerous’ organisations against which the public should be protected”.
There are a number of key concepts at work here, specifically in the distinction between a ‘good entity’ and a ‘dangerous organisation’. On one hand, the somewhat nebulous term ‘entity’ – on the other hand, a clearly defined ‘organisation’ – complete with the corporate, contemporary connotations such a word comes with. In this sense of ‘danger’, the public anxiety that McLaughlin discusses elsewhere now achieves tangibility. Suddenly, the fear is real – transcending into something dangerously physical.
It is in this light that we can analyse discussion of Aum’s parallels between Buddhist doctrine and violence – for example, as detailed in Aum Shinrikyo – Insights Into How Terrorists Develop Biological and Chemical Weapons;
“Some forms of Buddhism, such as Zen Buddhism as practiced in Japan, adopt the view that draining bad karma from novice practitioners sometimes requires using physical force to purify, exorcise or drive spiritual pollutions and spirits away from the body. In mid-1988, [Aum founder] Asahara ordered [his wife] to become a committed member of Aum, but she refused. He had her beaten 50 times with a cane and then thrown into isolation to “meditate” in darkness for seven weeks.”
Here, we see a through-line drawn between Buddhism and bodily violence. Complications arise however, when incidents like these are analysed in the context of whether that violence can be specifically classified as ‘religious violence’, or rather – as Brian K. Smith describes: “external to some self-proclaimed ideal form of the true nature of religion.” As such, was Aum’s violence an inseparable manifestation of their religious beliefs, or was it instead violent actions by individuals of a criminal mindset, of which religion was simply one aspect of their character makeup?
In casting Aum as something inherently new, or differentiated from a perceived ‘norm’ of what a religion should be, discussion of the cult often centres around a trifecta of aspects: charisma, technical sophistication, and vast monetary wealth. In this light, Aum is thus also cast within the context of something fundamentally tied into three of the largest driving forces of a modern, capitalist society.
As much as Aum are portrayed as outsiders, they are at once also smoothly integrated into contemporary social norms – the notion that while they might have been inwardly ‘alternative’ or abnormal in their ideals, outwardly they presented as respectable, well-educated members of society such as doctors, lawyers and university students. In this, then, there was a fear in its own right – that suddenly, anyone could be a terrorist; even those that society traditionally held in the highest regard. As Ian Reader details: “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.”
We see this typified in Hayashi Ikuo, the cardiovascular surgeon who served as Aum’s ‘Minister of Health’ – forming part of what has been termed a ‘government in waiting’; deliberately warping and mirroring the Japanese government in the construction of various levels of bureaucratic hierarchy, including ministries of health, defence, welfare and science. In essence, a dressing of ‘legitimacy’ – ie. the formal machinations of a modern society.
As one of the individuals who personally carried out the sarin attacks, descriptions of Ikuo in the media invariably introduce him first and foremost as a doctor / trained physician; continuing to detail his background as a graduate from the ‘elite’ Keio University. He was not only called on to administer drugs to hesitant Aum members considering renunciation, but also travelled with his wife to the USA to collect documentation on the use of sarin gas prior to the attacks.
This notion of Ikuo as an ‘informed’, intelligent individual even continues into his fate post-1995. During what the media termed ‘the trial of the century’ as the Aum members were brought before the court to face justice for their actions, due to Ikuo’s reports to the Japanese police about who the perpetrators of the attack were (in addition to detailing post-attack Aum actions) as well as his acceptance of responsibility in court, he was ultimately exempted from the death penalty and instead given life imprisonment. In essence, not only was information and knowledge a fundamental part of Ikuo’s persona, it had now effectively ‘saved’ him from death.
In reports of the trial itself, we see a continual process of exaggeration and sensationalism from the media. A contemporary CNN report opens with a description that feels like it could have come straight from the script of a Hollywood movie: “Riot police ringed the courthouse and helicopters whirred overhead as opening statements began.” Japan is said to have ‘come to a halt’ as the trials began, while the scale of the attacks’ fallout is emphasised in the ‘extraordinary gesture’ of a reading during the trial of the names 3,789 victims. We are told that: “15,000 people lined up before dawn for a lottery awarding the 48 seats available to the public.”
Already, we see the horror and viscerality of the attacks themselves as a real-world event being absorbed into an amorphous media generation comprised of aggrandising language and hefty numerical figures. In this manner, we see a return to the cycle of catharsis and anxiety discussed in McLaughlin’s Did Aum Change Everything? – the fear of Aum as a dangerous religious entity now displaced onto a larger-than-life version of Aum as circus freakshow, complete with lotteried tickets.
In a Japan Times report of the trials, the background details of founder Asahara’s life reach almost-ludicrous proportions as they recount his appearance on a popular TV variety show: “In one televised question-and-answer session, the affable guru fielded queries from teens, including about how he washed his long hair in the shower. ‘I use shampoo products made for babies,’ he said to the audience’s delight.” Elsewhere, a BBC article details how Asahara would sell both his blood and bath water to followers – for a price.
Bound up in these periphery profile details of Asahara’s life, we see a continuing creation of Asahara’s ego as a driving force behind Aum – both pre-1995 in terms of building the movement itself, and post-1995 in serving as the centre of a massive swell of media commentary that would cement the concept of Aum within the public consciousness. Rei Kimura’s Aum Shinrikyo – Japan’s Unholy Sect discusses how Asahara would focus on making key Aum figures ‘feel important’, which would in turn feed his own sense of self-importance, whilst a CNN article notes Asahara’s admiration of Hitler, casting him within a wider context of persona-driven incitements to violence.
Thus, Aum and Asahara – as entities – can be shown to exist as a kind of psychological perception that invariably eclipses their real-world existence. Within Aum, this functioned on an individual level – driven by Asahara’s charisma and a constant sense for members to need to feel ‘important’. Outside Aum – within the public consciousness – it was driven by extreme degrees of media coverage: “From 22 March until June 1995, Aum Shinrikyo was the lead story on every news network in all time slots; broadcasters’ statistics indicate that television networks dedicated more than five hundred hours to Aum coverage between mid-March and early June.”
This profuse level of media attention is important to note because just as perception can eclipse reality, that very same perception can lead to inaccuracy or misplaced fear. Returning again to McLaughlin’s Did Aum Change Everything?, it is worth noting that the post-1995 media coverage is specifically referred to as ‘the Aum media narrative’ – implying a degree of construction or manipulation in the story being conveyed by the media to the public. Indeed, employing terms like ‘swayed’ and ‘influenced’, McLaughlin goes on to discuss the potential of media conflation between Aum and another Japanese New Religious Movement; Soka Gakkai – something born out by sample reader responses that begun to associate Soka Gakkai with the same sense of danger as Aum.
The discussion elaborates on how in the post-1995 environment, whilst Aum’s ‘real world’ threat has been essentially removed – with its leaders in jail and finances/weapons seized – a fear of a perceived ‘threat’ persisted, equating to calls for legal measures to disband Aum and safeguards to protect against future violence from religious organisations. Here we have a prime example of how the degree of media coverage – and resultant manipulation of public consciousness – has in essence constructed a ‘proxy’ Aum; one that in reality does not exist, but in the potentially misguided belief that it does, has real-world ramifications, not only to other unrelated religious movements, but to wider society as a whole.
The ‘threat’ – and most significantly – a religious threat, remains enigmatic, intangible. While terrorist sects or ‘outsider’ cults can be eliminated through the death or imprisonment of its leaders, the root ideas behind these groups and – more widely – religion as an ‘existence’ in modern society can not be so conveniently locked up or swept away.
In April 2016, the BBC reported on the re-emergence of elements of Aum in Russia, with raids on dozens of properties linked to the cult. With a ‘new’ Aum renamed as Aleph, alongside a smaller group called Hikari no Wa (headed up by former Aum spokesman Fumihiro Joyu), suddenly the ‘threat’ was manifesting itself in the real world again. Following a decade of post-1995 media narrative, had the cycle of catharsis flipped to anxiety again?
Once again, as with so many articles on Aum, the BBC piece highlighted the ‘elite’ nature of Aum’s former membership: “Much has been made of the group’s promise of a more meaningful life to young people from academically pressured backgrounds who had to look forward to similarly pressured careers.” Here, more than ever, there seems to be the application of a kind of universality to the conditions that spawned Aum – reduced down to a demographic that could reasonably be said to apply to a significant proportion of young people in the world today.
In narratives like this there is a sense, perhaps, that part of what drives the media fascination with Aum – beyond the sensationalism of the group and personas such as Asahara, as well as the raw historical facts of the 1995 attacks themselves – is this very notion that to live in a modern society is to live in a state where the component elements that make up Aum or Aum-like groups will always be inherently present.
The 1995 attacks were solid proof that given the right situational ‘ingredients’, a developed society could produce a group like Aum. A decade on – with monetary wealth, scientific acumen, religious ideals, the allure of charismatic personas, academic and workplace pressure remaining constants in a wider melange of contemporary lifestyles, the odds can only suggest that given the right impetus, said ‘ingredients’ could once again be assembled in a similar manner.
From Japan to the West – Translating the ‘alternative thrill’ of Aum via popular media
In his essay Perspective Chronologies, Commonalities and Alternative Status in Japanese New Religious Movements, Ian Reader focuses on how definitional frameworks and discussion of Japanese New Religious Movements invariably centres around “their public perception as “alternative” and “outsider” movements, and through their contradistinction to established mainstream traditions”.
Two elements are of note here – both the notion of ‘public perception’, and the continuing narrative strand of New Religious Movements (including Aum) as alternative / outsider. In combining the two, there is the inherent notion of conveying something non-mainstream to a ‘public’, ie. mainstream audience. And it is in this respect that we would argue that popular media and in particular, fiction, has a key role to play in generating and expanding upon what Aum means to a wider public.
A recent fictional work to place the concept of Aum – and by extension, the concept of a ‘Buddhist terrorist’ – at the centre of its narrative was BBC Radio 4’s audio drama Red And Blue. First broadcast in 2012, the radio play tells the story of military consultant Bradley Shoreham, who has been invited to discuss possible war game scenarios involving new terror attacks on London. In a key scene, Shoreham directly mentions Aum:
“Forget Muslim terrorism for the moment, what about Christian terrorism? But it’s not just Christians, it’s far more worrying than that. It’s all faiths. Many faiths. You have Hindu terrorism, Sikh terrorism, or come to that, Buddhist terrorism. Ah yes, that was the one. The one to fear. The harbinger. Aum Shinrikyo. A Buddhist cult with American new age leanings that sold drugs and murdered its own disciples… An army of monks, hard to swallow I agree, but look at what they did. What they achieved. They manufactured anthrax. They killed people with the botulinum toxin. Only one person in the history of chemical warfare has been killed by VX gas and that person was killed by Aum Shinrikyo cultists.”
Here, not only do we see Aum presented as a direct ‘alternative’ to Muslim or Christian terrorism, but with specific (and lurid) detail afforded to their methods of chemical and bio-terrorism. Couched in the language of chemicals, a contrast is drawn between the notion of ‘an army of monks’ and the frightening newness of science-as-weapon. The speech continues, this time focusing in on the unrealised potential of Aum having access to an atomic device.
“They say that Aum even detonated an atom bomb…. A bunch of yoga Buddhists setting off the first civilian atom bomb. There’s no doubt that Aum could have done it. They could have built a bomb. They had the money, they had the scientists. And that could have been a nuclear bomb exploding on the Tokyo subway, not sarin. They believed in ‘poa’… it means righteous murder. Killing someone so they can be more successfully reborn. Karmic murder.”
In mentioning ‘poa’, we see echoes again of the specific parallels between defined religious concepts and bodily violence. As Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence detail: “The most audaciously destructive theological invocation of the Aum scheme was a notion that the righteous killing of everyone in the world could confer immortality on sinful people who might perish for eternity if allowed to live out the normal course of their lives.”
In both senses, we see a neat juxtaposition of two parts – ‘karmic murder’. On one side – religion, on the other – violence. In the two descriptions of poa, we see a tendency toward bombast – it is ‘audacious’, ‘righteous’, ‘destructive’. Not merely violence, but full scale murder. In this – the fundamental ‘shock value’ of Aum to a Western audience, a subversion of received perception of Buddhism as something peaceful; now offered up in a work of fiction precisely because it allows scope for this dramatic ‘unveiling’ of hard violence. In Aum, the ‘otherness’ remains constant; and as such, the ‘overall strangeness’ is allowed to maintain its distinct narrative thrill – in both fiction and the news – when offered up as one of many ills born from modern society.
Many of these themes also emerge – albeit masked in layers of symbolism – in the 2011 anime series Mawaru Penguindrum, directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara. The show depicts the lives of siblings Himari, Kanba and Shouma Takakura – whose missing parents have been accused of a terrorist attack that took place on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, drawing a clear allusion to Aum. At numerous points in the series there are references to an allegorical Child Broiler, a place for those who will ‘never amount to anything’, in a grim echoing of the real-world incident in which an Aum member burned the body of another cultist in a ‘man-sized oven’.
Whilst also touching on the shocking violence of Aum, Mawaru Penguindrum also alludes to the impact on the lives of the Tokyo populace post-Aum; a ‘traumatised zeitgeist’, as anime critic Andrew Osmond puts it. Tellingly, by casting its three central characters as the children of the initiators of the terrorist attacks, the show also alludes to Aum founder Asahara’s reported fathering of at least 15 children; the lasting impact best summed up in a Japan Times interview with Rika Matsumoto – one of Asahara’s children – who “realizes her father’s notoriety has made it impossible for her to live a normal life.”
The striking nature of using such shocking (and comparatively recent) real-world events as a basis for a popular anime seems to have provoked particular discussion within the West – where it becomes part of a broader theme of something ‘other’ than the norm depicted in Japanese mass-media. Indeed, a Google search for ‘aum shinrikyo penguindrum’ turns up no fewer than four full pages of results purely dedicated to English language fan-written essays and blog posts analysing the anime’s inclusion of Aum as a plot element. The apparent ‘mystique’ of Aum now viewed through the lens of a swathe of Tumblr thinkpieces and social-media-savvy online writers pushing these to a captive audience.
The dark irony, of course, is that in featuring Aum within an anime – direct parallels are being drawn with Aum’s own public relations activities, which utilised both manga and anime to project its ideals through a populist mouthpiece. Founder Asahara is even known to have discussed his fandom of classic anime series from the 70s and 80s with other Aum members. Via these processes of influence by and self-generation of media content – Aum was essentially already moving in the very same spaces that media about Aum would move in during the following decades. Aum wasn’t merely being consumed by a popular-media fandom, they were the fandom themselves.
Aum’s depiction in media – and crucially, popular media – as well as the continuing sense of it as something ‘alternative’ or counter-culture/counter-society bears particular attention precisely because this very notion of the ‘alternative’ serves as a kind of self-generating publicity outlet. As Tomohiro Osaki writes for the Japan Times: “Swayed by a mixture of dark fascination with the outlaw life and dissatisfaction with their own lot, a small but passionate group of young people are bound by their professed admiration for the criminal members… Calling themselves “Aumers,” some adore the cultists as if they were pop idols. Others say they feel excited by their insanity and even identify with them.”
As shown above, the language used to describe Aum – both in fiction and in reality – continually resorts to notions of excitement or even identification with their activities. When we are removed from the actual horror of Aum’s atrocities – when we aren’t the actual recipients of those atrocities – the ‘otherness’ begins to translate from fear to excitement. The ‘dark fascination’ becomes a kind of irresistible pull, primed to shake up a stagnant system of normality. The ‘scapegoating’ and fear-mongering discussed in the first half of this essay has now comes full circle – there is now also an attempt to explain and identify why people might have been led to join Aum. But is this a kind of catharsis, or simply another manifestation of our anxieties around contemporary society?
In an interview, Kunihiko Ikuhara – the director of the aforementioned Mawaru Penguindrum – spoke of the gas attacks and the climate of Japan at the time: “I suppose this world had become bipolar before we noticed. The feelings of those who were not able to get along with this world were ignored or how should I put it… That was left boiling in a place deep under the skin, I guess.” This sentiment hones in on a notion of displacement from society – that same sense of the ‘alternative’ or ‘other’ pushing individuals out of the mainstream.
Haruki Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche – which contains a number of interviews with people affected by the 1995 attacks – uncovers similar sentiments of alienation and ‘not fitting in’, with one of the interviewees stating: “You have to distinguish Shoko Asahara from the ordinary rank-and-file believers. They aren’t all criminals, and some of them have truly pure hearts. I know many people like that and feel sorry for them. They don’t fit into the system because they’re not comfortable with it or because they’ve been excluded from it. That’s the kind of people who join Aum.”
By analysing persistent themes in media coverage of Aum Shinrikyo, its activities and key personas within the movement, we can see the emergence of a specific narrative that acts as a crucial component in the shaping of a wider ‘public consciousness’ of both the group itself and religion in general. In the manifestation of fear and ‘threat’ – both real and perceived – we can understand an evolving cycle of anxiety and catharsis; which not only coalesces around certain salient points (eg. origins, key individuals) but also seeks to understand exactly why Aum resonated in the public psyche in the way it did.
Beyond this, Aum’s religious origins form an inherent part in its sense of ‘overall strangeness’ – the allure of the ‘other’ or ‘alternative’ which we have seen manifest itself in fictional works based around Aum. Here, many of the same notions of exaggeration and sensationalism employed by the news media help transform the ‘threat’ of Aum into a narrative ‘thrill’. Specifically, in conveying a notion of Aum to a populist audience potentially unfamiliar with its religious roots, we begin to see the development of a kind of fascination with its sense of the ‘outsider’, incorporating elements of excitement and potentially even identification.
The concept of a tragic real-world event becoming part of sensationalist narratives – both fictional and within news media – is nothing new. Rather, by analysing the lasting media footprint such an event creates, we can begin to gain a better understanding of the kind of societal forces at work both within the public consciousness, and the individuals that help make up that consciousness. Why did this happen? What was different about it? Why might people be interested in it? Could it happen again? The cycle of anxiety and catharsis continues.
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