Japan hangs cult leader Shoko Asahara, 6 others for 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack

Shoko Asahara had been on death row for over a decade for the attack that killed 13 people and injured thousands more.
Shoko Asahara had been on death row for over a decade for the attack that killed 13 people and injured thousands more. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (REUTERS, AFP) - The former leader of Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese doomsday cult that carried out a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, was executed on Friday (July 6) alongside six other members of the cult, Japanese media reported. 

Chizuo Matsumoto, who went by the name Shoko Asahara, was the first of 13 scheduled to be hanged for the attacks. He had been on death row for over a decade for the attack that killed 13 people and injured thousands more.

Six more Aum Shinrikyo members were executed Friday along with their “guru”, Japanese local media reported.

Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga confirmed the hanging, but there was no immediate comment from him or the justice ministry on the other cult members.

The Aum Shinrikyo, or Aum Supreme Truth cult, which mixed Buddhist and Hindu meditation with apocalyptic teachings, staged a series of crimes including simultaneous sarin gas attacks on Tokyo subway trains during rush hour on March 20, 1995.

Sarin, a nerve gas, was originally developed by the Nazis.  The Tokyo attacks left 13 dead and injured more than 6,000. 

The images of bodies, many in business suits, sprawled across platforms stunned Japan and shattered its myth of public safety. 

More than 20 years of trials involving Aum members, including Asahara, came to an end in January 2018, when the life sentence of Katsuya Takahashi for his part in the 1995 subway sarin gas attack was upheld by the Supreme Court. Thirteen cult members were then on death row. 

An official at the justice ministry said he could not immediately confirm the reports. 

Support for the death penalty remains high in Japan, and some relatives of those killed in the attack lamented Friday that Asahara was not executed sooner.  

“We knew that it was coming... (but) it is really regrettable that it took 23 years from the incident,” Sizue Takahashi, whose subway worker husband was killed in the attack, told public broadcaster NHK.  

“There are people like my husband’s parents who passed away without knowing it happened.” 

Charismatic speaker

Born Chizuo Matsumoto in 1955 on the south-western island of Kyushu, Asahara changed his name in the 1980s, when the Aum cult was being developed. 

Virtually blind, he was seen as a charismatic speaker who cloaked himself in mysticism to draw recruits including doctors and scientists to the doomsday cult he developed in the 1980s. 

At its peak, the cult had at least 10,000 members in Japan and overseas, including graduates of some of Japan’s most elite universities.

A number lived at a huge commune-like complex Asahara set up at the foot of Mount Fuji, where the group studied his teachings and practiced bizarre rituals but also built an arsenal of weapons – including sarin. 

The cult also used sarin in 1994, releasing the gas in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto on a summer night in an attempt to kill three judges set to rule on the cult. The attack, which failed, used a refrigerator truck to release the gas and a wind dispersed it in a residential neighbourhood, killing eight and injuring hundreds. 

The 1995 Tokyo attack prompted a massive crackdown on the cult’s headquarters and the arrest of Asahara and other group members.  

Asahara was sentenced to hang in 2004 on 13 charges, including the subway gas attacks and a series of other crimes that killed more than a dozen more people. The sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2006. 

He pleaded not guilty and never testified, but regularly delivered rambling and incoherent monologues in English and Japanese in court during the eight years of his trial. 

Asahara said that the United States would attack Japan and turn it into a nuclear wasteland, He also said he had travelled forward in time to 2006 and talked to people then about what World War Three had been like. 

The Aum cult, now renamed Aleph, officially disowned Asahara in 2000, but it has never been banned and experts say the former guru retained a strong influence, with some members using pictures of him and recordings of his voice for meditation. 

Foaming at the mouth, bleeding

The attack during the capital’s notoriously crowded rush hour paralysed the Japanese capital, turning it into a virtual warzone as injured people staggered out of the underground struggling for breath and with watering eyes. 

Some keeled over, foaming at the mouth, with blood streaming from their noses, as the rush hour attack unfolded. 

The sarin had been released in liquid form on five subway carriages at different points throughout the network.  The first sign of it was a smell similar to paint thinner, but soon commuters began cough uncontrollably, recalled Sakae Ito, who was on the crowded Hibiya line that day. 

“Liquid was spread on the floor in the middle of the carriage, people were convulsing in their seats. One man was leaning against a pole, his shirt open, bodily fluids leaking out.”

Police were first alerted just after 8:00am and panic soon set in, with subway workers screaming at people to evacuate and passengers convulsing on carriage floors. 

The Japanese Self-Defense Force was called in and descended into the depths in hazmat suits and gas masks to assist the injured and deal with the poison. 

Despite the horror that persists over the Aum’s subway attack and other crimes, some experts had warned against the execution of Asahara and his acolytes.  They fear his death may trigger the naming of a new cult leader, possibly his second son. 

And the execution of Asahara’s followers risks elevating them to “martyrs” in the eyes of remaining cult adherents, warned Taro Takimoto, a lawyer for relatives of cultists, in an interview with AFP earlier this year. 

“We should have them talk until they die a natural death so that they help prevent a recurrence,” he said.