Aum Shinrikyo is a new religion which has spread among young people since the late 1980s. Although the group would be considered a "cult" by many American scholars, Japanese scholars lack the equivalent concept, with the result that the group is merely called a "new religion" (shinshukyo) or "new new religion" (shin-shinshukyo).
Founded by Asahara Shoko (1955-), Aum Shinrikyo steadily attracted new members after its initial founding; since adopting a monastic system in 1989 and organizing itself in a kind of commune, the group has been viewed critically by general Japanese society. In particular, rumors have recently spread to the effect that members wishing to leave the group have been kidnapped and confined, and the level of conflict with ordinary society has heightened. A few rumors have also been heard regarding the alleged production of poisonous substances by the group.
Against this backdrop, a poisonous substance believed to be the nerve agent sarin was simultaneously spread in several locations throughout Tokyo's subway system on March 20 of this year. This attack produced numerous casualties, including twelve deaths and numerous persons hospitalized, and the incident threw much of the Japanese populace into a near-panic situation.
Believing that Aum Shinrikyo was directly related to the poison gas incident, a combined force of over 2,500 Japanese police began a series of widespread searches and investigations on March 22, centering on twenty-five Aum facilities in Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures. The immediate justification for launching the investigation was the February 28 abduction of Kariya Kiyoshi, a notary public in Tokyo. Kariya's whereabouts remain unknown, but the fingerprints of an Aum official were found in the rental van which was used in the kidnapping.
Then, shortly after the initial investigations had begun, Director Kunimatsu of Japan's National Police Agency was shot and seriously wounded in an assassination attempt. While no evidence has been gathered regarding the identity of the assassin, most Japanese seem to suspect that Aum Shinrikyo was involved.
As a result of the investigations, it is now becoming clear that Aum possessed several large chemical production facilities, where evidence points to the presence of poisonous substances, and that the group used drugs in the attempt to control followers.
Aum Shinrikyo's chief media spokesman Joyu Fumihiro has made almost daily appearances on television since the beginning of investigations, claiming that the group is, on the contrary, a victim of attacks and religious persecution. But it is sure that few Japanese consider his protestations credible. Also, the Japanese media has tended to broadcast news of the incidents with the implicit assumption that they are all related to the Aum group.
Further, Murai Hideo, one of Aum's executive leaders and director of the group's "Ministry of Science and Technology" was stabbed and killed by a right-wing fanatic on April 23, raising further enigmas regarding the incidents. In sum, the entire Japanese nation has been caught up in the Aum frenzy, leading to calls for the disbanding of the Aum group and debates regarding the advisability of revising the Religious Legal Persons Law. The overall situation has been extremely abnormal. Television stations have brought up the issue on a daily basis, and public anxiety does not appear ready to subside. It would appear that a good deal of time will still be required to bring the true facts to light.
Aum Shinrikyo gives its own unique interpretation to the originally Christian notion of Armageddon, the eschatological battle between good and evil. The group claims its purpose is to survive this final conflict and preserve Buddhist culture.
On the one hand, the group gives an appearance of Buddhist fundamentalism by its adoption of the monastic code and attempts at Buddhist hermeneutics based on the Pali canon. On the other hand, Aum also has remarkably modern features, such as its free use of cartoon animation in its literature, its attempts to apply advanced scientific technology, and its adaptation to the era of computerized and other modern media of communication. This group thus suggests important topics for sociological study, including the social background to its appearance, and the analysis of its organization.