News regarding the massive earthquake which struck Japan's Kobe-Osaka area in January and resulted in over five-thousand deaths has been overwhelmed by recent allegations and revelations regarding the new religious sect Aum Shinrikyo ("Supreme Truth").
Founded in 1987 by Asahara Shoko (the sect was given official status as a religious legal person in 1989), the Aum sect's teaching is based on Asahara's own interpretation of Tibetan tantrism and elements from other religions, and involves claims of supernormal powers and mystical experience as means to salvation.
Some twenty members of the group campaigned in the 1990 general Diet elections; while none of the group's candidates was elected, the campaign attracted popular attention for its musical jingle and the bizarre appearance of youthful members who stood in front of major commuter train stations wearing full-head elephant masks while passing out political and religious literature (including comic books which depicted the miraculous benefits claimed to accrue from membership in the group).
Trouble has swirled around the sect since its founding, most relating to its strict isolation of members from families during training, and its reported demands that members make large financial donations to the group. In several cases, the sect has been accused of kidnapping recalcitrant believers or their family members and confining them for lengthy periods, sometimes under the influence of narcotic drugs.
Most recent suspicions, however, have focused on the sect's possible involvement in the March 20 attack on the Tokyo subway system, in which a toxic substance, identified by authorities as the nerve agent sarin was disseminated in some six locations through three subway lines. The attack resulted in twelve deaths and over five-thousand injuries, of whom more than fifty remained in critical or serious condition at the end of March.
As in similar cult cases elsewhere, accusations of "brainwashing" (senno) are heard frequently in reference to Aum Shinrikyo, and some Japanese opponents of the group have developed their own "deprogramming" (datsu-senno) techniques in the attempt to recapture the minds of believers. Interestingly, both Aum and the "deprogrammers" have relied on similar techniques of what might be called "hypnotic indoctrination," using video and audio tapes containing lengthy repetitions of expressions meant to instill the desired behavior. In the case of "deprogramming" tapes, expressions such as "I can think for myself" are repeated at length, under the assumption that the phrases will have some positive effect on the listener. Apparently, however, few questions are raised regarding the fundamental validity of the concepts of brainwashing and deprogramming, one more reflection of the intensely emotional level of the debate.