Ben Hills

The tour bus pulls up at the side of the road in a rolling green ocean of grassy fields where black and white Friesian cows stand lazily chewing the cud. Autumn showers dance in the sunshine, the weather Japanese call “fox’s wedding rain”.

The passengers press their cameras against the windows and fire off roll after roll of film. They are aiming not at the peaceful pastoral scene but at a clutter of white buildings on a nearby hilltop. Their hideous bulk dominates the landscape – huge hangars three storeys tall, many of them without even a window, built of boiler-plate coated with white rendering. Mysterious ducts festoon the walls. Warning signs hang from ropes. Riot police stand guard with clubs and shields.

Welcome to Kamikuishiki, the sleepy farming village that became Japan’s heart of darkness. It was from these alien-looking structures that a reign of terror was launched that not only changed the lives of the local dairy farmers but destroyed, almost overnight, Japan’s belief in itself as the world’s safest and most law-abiding nation.

These are the now-notorious “satians” (it means “holy place” in Buddhist sacred texts) from which a cult called Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) waged an unholy war aimed at overthrowing the Japanese Government and fulfilling its prophecy of Armageddon.

From here, brainwashed followers of a fat, bearded, purblind guru named Shoko Asahara, who claimed he was a god and predicted the world would end in 1997, set forth on a campaign of mass murder as horrific as anything perpetrated by Black September, the Mafia or the Cali drug cartel.

For six years, while the police and public officials sat idly by – ignoring more than 100 criminal complaints – Asahara’s disciples ravaged the country, kidnapping, torturing and killing. The massacre of 12 people in a Nazi nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subways last March, which finally galvanised the authorities into action, was only the most apocalyptic of the cult’s outrages.

On Thursday, Asahara will be arraigned in the Tokyo District Court for 23 murders in which he was allegedly involved over a six-year period – men, women and even a baby, who were poisoned, strangled, suffocated, boiled and beaten to death when (police allege) the guru ordered his followers to “poa” them, a Sanskrit word taken from the Tibetan Book of the Dead meaning “ascend to heaven”. And those are just the bodies they have found.

Police have linked the cult with another 20-30 disappearances, making this the bloodiest string of serial killings in Japanese history – 260 people have been arrested on charges including murder, kidnapping, extortion, manufacture of weapons and poisons.

“Nobody knows how many more bodies have been disposed of around here,” says Seiichi Takeuchi, who raises beef cattle on a neighbouring property and who led the local campaign against Aum. “I would guess 30 or 40 … but it’s just a guess.” Satian No 2, into which Takeuchi once smuggled himself in a desperate attempt to get evidence to force the authorities to act, was where many of the death sentences decreed by the guru against critics of the cult – or wavering followers – were carried out.

Confessions by cult followers, leaked by the police, tell of a young man garrotted with a rope, and an 81-year-old woman boiled to death in a super-heated bath. In the basement, police discovered an industrial-scale microwave oven. The bodies of many victims were reduced to cinders, then scattered in the foothills of Mount Fuji.

“We knew right from when they moved here six years ago that they were up to no good,” says Takeuchi. “They were following people around, taking down car registration numbers, tapping phones, building illegal buildings. We complained and complained, but the police and the local government refused to act.” He points to a patch of bare soil next to Satian No 7 – the building where prosecutors allege Aum manufactured lethal sarin gas by the tonne – which was denuded one night by a toxic leak. The police took soil samples and, Takeuchi says, identified it as sarin residue four months before the subway attack – but did nothing.

A month earlier, a young nurse escaped from the cult and sought refuge with a local farmer, one of many escapees among the 500 or so followers living in the satians. She told police she had been kidnapped and held prisoner for three months in a freight container, handcuffed and forced to eat her food from the floor “like a dog”. Still the police refused to act. Takeuchi, 67, shakes his head in disbelief. “If only they had taken action then, all those lives would have been saved. Bureaucratic negligence and laziness caused this disaster.”

The police are in Kamikuishiki in force now. They guard every building, including those where a hard core of about 150 followers are still holed up, refusing to believe the overwhelming evidence, praying for the release of their guru. An eerie chant fills the air – a tape of Asahara singing “astral music”. Once Asahara claimed 10,000 young followers in Japan and thousands more in other countries to which he exported his apocalyptic doctrine. Now, there are only 1,400 – the rest have quietly returned to their families, the children have been placed in care, and many are suing to recover hundreds of millions of dollars which they were forced to hand over to the cult. Aum once said it was worth $1.3 billion.

A skinny young man with his head shaved to stubble, wearing a T-shirt and wire-framed glasses, stands guard in a wooden sentry box outside one of the satians. He says his family name is Honma (“my other name is a secret”) and he has been a follower of Shoko Asahara for five years. Honma says the Government, the police and the media are lying about Aum’s involvement in the sarin gas attacks – Japan’s equivalent of the CIA was really responsible.

“Soshi (“the founder”) is not a murderer,” Honma says. “He carries on his back the evils of the world. He is a great saviour. We ask him what will happen if the kidotai try to evict the remaining followers (Parliament is debating declaring Aum a ‘subversive organisation’ and disbanding it). We would never use violence.”

Left hanging in the air is the possibility of mass suicide.

The pending trial is already the biggest thing Japan has ever seen. Seven months after the gas attack on the subways, TV is still giving wall-to-wall coverage of Aum on a scale to rival the O. J. Simpson trial in America – the four commercial stations all have permanent teams hunkered down in caravans around the Kamikuishiki complex, ready at a moment’s notice to switch on live satellite coverage.

Asahara and 260 of his followers have been held for five months in police detention cells – under Japanese law, people can be held incommunicado, without bail and under constant interrogation, virtually indefinitely. The main charges against them relate to the subway massacre, a sarin attack last year on the mountain town of Matsumoto which killed seven, and the murder on November 4, 1989, of the anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife and baby son.

The Sakamotos were kidnapped by eight men who broke into their apartment in Yokohama. They were murdered by being injected with chemicals, bludgeoned and strangled. Police refused to investigate their disappearance, claiming they might have left home voluntarily. After confessions by cultists, the bodies were exhumed from bush graves last month, nearly six years later. Asahara and five others were charged.

But there is an astonishing range of other charges, from the manufacture of thousands of parts for AK-47 sub-machine guns to breaking into Japan’s biggest defence contractor, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and downloading data on laser-guided weapons from its computer. Aum, in short, was preparing for all-out war.

Tokyo is still in a state of shock after the horror of the subway attack. Scores of Asahara’s followers escaped because police delayed, then bungled raids on the cult – at Tokyo subway stations, from which vending machines, luggage lockers and garbage cans have been stripped for security, “wanted” posters carry the pictures of 10 top lieutenants who are still on the run.

Just a fortnight ago, police warned that the cultists might be planning further horrors after the discovery of eight kilograms of sodium cyanide – enough to kill 70,000 – in a mountain hideout. The lair had been used by Satoru Hirata, a member of Aum’s “intelligence unit” who is wanted for murder.

Asahara, 40, still dressed in his trademark fuscia-coloured robe, has been glimpsed through the windows of the police van taking him to court for arraignment proceedings. His lawyer has told followers the guru has “regained his health and his eyesight” through meditation while in custody and relayed the message: “Wait for my return. The most important thing you can do is work hard and contribute cash.” And cash is still pouring in. In a country obsessed with the latest fad, Aum is mega-trendy. In the suburb of Koenji, Aum followers in white dentist-type tunics operate a gift-shop and meditation room (“mystical experiences, money-back guarantee”), one of seven such centres around Japan.

Here, you can buy Asahara T-shirts, telephone-cards, books, posters, comics, calendars, video and audio tapes. A restaurateur near Kamikuishiki invented a rice-based takeaway he called “Harumageddon” – a play on the Japlish for Armageddon.

Ignoring a stall across the road where a man with a megaphone denounces Aum’s crimes and seeks signatures for a petition to outlaw the cult, curiosity-seekers – many of them young women – fork out hundreds of dollars for souvenirs and sign up for “yoga lessons” in a room upstairs.

They appear never to have heard of the hideous rituals to which apprentice followers are subjected – drinking Asahara’s sperm and bathwater, undergoing injections with drugs such as sodium pentothal, sensory deprivation, isolation from friends and family – the classic techniques of brain-washing.

As race was the issue in the O. J. Simpson trial, so there will be another co-defendant alongside Asahara in the Tokyo District Court dock: the Japanese judicial system.

It will be impossible for Asahara to get either a speedy or a fair trial, according to one of Japan’s most famous criminal lawyers. Makoto Endo was a judge until he resigned in disgust at the way Japanese courts are rigged against the accused – 98 per cent of criminal charges result in a conviction and in almost all cases the police manage to extract a confession.

Asahara will plead not guilty, an extraordinary rarity in itself. He repudiates a “confession” said to have been extracted under duress. Endo expects it will take 15 to 20 years for the judges to decide on his guilt or innocence.

If he is convicted, some time after 2010, Asahara will be sentenced to death. Japan hangs two or three murderers a year and has about 60 people on death row. But Asahara will most likely die of old age in prison long before his appeal process is completed.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 21 October 1995
Edition: Late
Section: Spectrum
Sub section: Page: 9
Word count: 1631
Caption: Shoko Asahara and his wife, Tomoko…the heavyweight guru of the Aum Shinrikyo cult has been implicated in 23 murders.