Aum Shinrikyo

A Japanese doomsday cult responsible for the deadly 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack.

Religion: Buddhism/New Age
Founder: Chizuo Matsumoto (“Shoko Asahara”)
Founded: 1984; reorganized in 2000 under the name “Aleph”
Size: 40,000 at height; 1,500 as of 2011
Location: Japan (Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Minami Ward)
Also called: Aleph

Aum Shinrikyo, now officially known as Aleph, is a Japanese new religious movement that gained international notoriety following its orchestration of the deadly 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack. Founded in 1984 by Shoko Asahara, the group combined elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christian apocalyptic prophecies, along with Asahara’s idiosyncratic teachings, to form a doomsday cult that believed in an impending Armageddon.

Shoko Asahara, born Chizuo Matsumoto, established Aum Shinrikyo with a vision of creating a new spiritual movement that would prepare its followers for the end of the world, which he claimed was imminent. Asahara portrayed himself as a Christ-like figure, claiming he could transfer spiritual power to his followers and save them from the coming apocalypse. His teachings were a syncretic mix of various religious traditions, with a strong emphasis on esoteric Buddhist and Hindu practices, as well as apocalyptic Christian prophecies.

The group initially focused on spiritual development and attracted a significant following, including highly educated individuals, in Japan. Aum Shinrikyo’s practices included meditation, ascetic exercises, and the use of hallucinogenic substances to achieve altered states of consciousness. Asahara’s charismatic leadership and claims of supernatural abilities played a key role in recruiting and retaining members.

As Aum Shinrikyo evolved, it developed a more sinister aspect. The group began amassing wealth, acquiring property, and creating a paramilitary wing. Asahara’s teachings became increasingly apocalyptic, predicting a world war initiated by the United States, which he claimed would lead to a global Armageddon. He justified violent actions as necessary means to prevent this apocalypse and to establish a new world order under Aum’s leadership.

The Tokyo subway sarin attack on March 20, 1995, marked the peak of Aum Shinrikyo’s violent activities. Cult members released sarin gas, a lethal nerve agent, in a coordinated attack on several lines of the Tokyo subway system during rush hour, killing 13 people, severely injuring 50, and causing temporary vision problems for nearly 1,000 others. This attack was one of the most severe acts of domestic terrorism in Japanese history and brought Aum Shinrikyo to the attention of the world.

Following the subway attack, Japanese authorities conducted a massive crackdown on the cult. Asahara and several key members were arrested, and the group’s assets were seized. In 2004, Asahara was found guilty of masterminding the attack and several other crimes and was sentenced to death. He was executed in 2018.

After the 1995 attack, Aum Shinrikyo underwent significant changes. The group renamed itself Aleph and publicly disavowed Asahara and his violent teachings. Under new leadership, the group claims to have adopted a more benign form of spiritual practice and that has distanced itself from its violent past.

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