The name Kamikuishiki, which means Upper Nine One Color, sounds
quaintly whimsical in Japanese- along the lines of Little Diddleford,
say, or some similar village setting for an English detective
novel. On a recent visit to Kamikuishiki, I found nothing to
explain the odd name; but no one in Japan needs to be told what
it is famous for, or why it has become a connoisseurs' tourist
attraction. For centuries, it was an obscure hamlet-and would
dearly love to be one again-but for a four-year period ending
in 1995 it was the headquarters, secret laboratory, and alleged
death factory of the doomsday religious cult Aum Shinrikyo (the
True Teaching of Aum). There, Aum's charismatic leader, His (self-styled)
Holiness Shoko Asahara, readied his Berchtesgaden for the final
nuclear battle of light against darkness-an event he forecast
to take place late last year.
Asahara is due to go on trial in Tokyo on April 24th,
six days after President Clinton concludes a scheduled visit to
Japan. The guru is charged with the murders of twenty-five people,
including eleven who dies in the sarin nerve-gas attack in the
Tokyo subway system in March of last year-a terrifying incident
that put more than five thousand people in the hospital, and shocked
the world with its televised images of choking and vomiting rush-hour
riders staggering out of the subway exits. Asahars has proclaimed
his innocence, and the Japanese media are predicting the trial
of the century, which, given the complexities of the Japanese
legal system, it may well outlast. To the despair, their village's
instant of fame seems set to go on and on.
Kamikuishiki sprawls at the lower slopes of Mt. Fuji, seventy
miles southwest of Tokyo, on the side of the holy mountain which
faces away from the capital. Remote from major traffic arteries,
the village is difficult to reach by bus or train. Fuji is no
more than a gigantic, shapely pile of cinders, so its slopes are
useless for the traditional Japanese crops-rice, tea, and the
mulberry trees that feed silkworms. Since ancient times, the
area has been a wasteland, and the other side of the mountain
is still an artillery and tank range for the Japanese military
and for the United States Marines. When Japan adopted the custom
of drinking cows' milk, after the Second World War, however, the
side that does not get shot at proved ideal for dairy farming.
The relatively cheap (by Japanese standards) land, the isolation,
Fuji's sacred cone soaring overhead, and uninquisitive neighbors
were attractions that persuaded the Aum cult to start buying unconnected
plots from Kamikuishiki's farmers-who had no idea what the purchasers
had in mind.
A visitor needs help in finding the scattered sites of the extensive
Aum operation. This is available at a roadside noodle shop, newly
opened for business at the turnoff for Kamikuishiki from the main
road. Residents refuse to discuss the cult: they have posted
the area with signs reading, in polite but firm Japanese, "We
do not want to hear about Aum. You are upsetting our cows. Please
go away." But the noodle vender, being neither a local nor
a farmer, gladly marks maps, and has even worked up a line in
black humor. "Don't get wrapped in Saran," he cheerily
calls out to customers paying for their bowls of noodles. (The
nerve gas and the food wrap sound similar in Japanese.) With
more than two hundred cars arriving every weekend, not to mention
endless busloads of camera toting tourists, Kamikuishiki's first-ever
restaurant is, its proprietor told me, doing a brisk business.
The Aum buildings look like parts of a factory complex. The largest,
which is three stories high, stands behind rather dilapidated
canvas screens that serve to conceal the fact that it was constructed
without windows. Visitors are not allowed into most of the complex-all
approach roads are blocked, and the police say that the buildings
still contain evidence that may be needed. But published photographs
show that enormous Styrofoam relief of Shiva, the Hindu god of
destruction and regeneration, which dominates the mediation hall,
concealed the door to a hidden chemical laboratory, and that various
basements held gas analyzing devices, machine tools and parts
for making automatic weapons, and an industrial-scale microwave
oven, which is widely reported to have been used for reducing
human bodies to powder-thus disposing of the remains of some thirty
people who allegedly died or were murdered within the complex.
Aum's private heliport, hidden in a wood three miles from the
main complex, is open to any visitor able to find it. It is surrounded
by a twenty-foot-high stockade that is now in a poor state of
repair and so is easily penetrated. Inside sits the cult's helicopter,
a Soviet-built MI-17. On the day of my visit, I met a pimply,
undernourished young man who was wearing a shabby purple windbreaker
and a helmet festooned with wires supposedly designed to pick
up the brain waves of the guru. (These helmets, which made the
many Aum members who wore them look like minor characters in "Ghostbusters,"
are reported to have cost their pious wearers the equivalent of
ten thousand dollars a month to rent.) He approached me somewhat
diffidently and asked whether I had been sent to fly the helicopter
(I happen to be Australian but to a hopeful eye could, I suppose,
be taken for either a Russian or an American), and he seemed bitterly
disappointed to learn that I was not. When I asked the youth
why he stayed in the cult, and whether he had heard lately from
the guru, who is now being held at Tokyo police headquarters,
he said that he knew nothing and had nothing to say.
Apart from the oppressive police presence (I counted six armored
buses-transport for a hundred riot police), the tourists, a few
bewildered Aum members not under indictment but with nowhere else
to go, and the professional garrulous noodle server, Kamikuishiki
has reverted, at least outwardly, to being a sleepy village.
Not far away, the pupils of a hang-gliding school provide a touch
of color against the mountainside; horseback riding, hiking, and
other rural pastimes unrelated to doom and death have come back.
What the prosecutors say went on here seems unreal, a nightmare
that fades with the light of day. Once or twice, I had to remind
myself that these country roads are, according to cult members'
confessions, dusted with the ashes of dead.
In the nineteenth century, Japanese officials, distributing family
names to the common people as part of a modernization program-before
then, only the gentry had them-were fond of the name Matsumoto
(Foot of the Pine Tree), which is easy to write in simple Sino-Japanese
characters, and fills columns in every Japanese telephone book.
When, on March 2, 1955, a fourth son was born to a poor family
of that name living ins a small town on the southern island of
Kyushu, his parents gave him an equally plebian first name, Chizuo.
The combination, Chizuo Matsumoto, is reassuringly unpretentious;
English speaking can hear much the same folksy tone in Jim Jones.
When Chizuo was an infant, his eyesight was damaged by glaucoma,
which meant that the he could never follow his father into the
humble job of making tatami mats. At the age of six, he was sent
as a full-time boarder to a prefectural school for the blind.
He never lived with his family again.
Many Japanese have speculated about how blind the guru actually
is. He has been filmed playing catch with his disciples, and
this has led to conjecture that his blindness is a sham; the issue
will be prominent at his trial. School records say that he is
totally blind in one eye, and has only thirty-per-cent vision
in the other. He can read, slowly, with a magnifying glass, and
he probably could have attended a regular school, but then his
parents would not have received the welfare checks given to help
support disabled children. Partly sighted in an all-blind school,
the young Matsumoto became a leader. He escorted fellow-pupils
to snack shops, for instance, on the condition that they paid
for him. He also displayed a vivid imagination, and entertained
fantasies about reigning over a kingdom of intelligent robots.
In the Japan of that period, the disabled had a limited choice
of occupation; those classified as blind were traditionally trained
as masseurs or acupuncturists, whatever their intellectual potential.
Nevertheless, in 1973, when Matsumoto was eighteen, he enrolled
in a cram school in Tokyo in a bid to enter Tokyo University,
the gateway to a political career. But he failed to accomplish
a feat all but impossible against fully sighted competitors, and
resorted to his predestined trade. Drifting into a fringe world
populated by mystics and charlatans, who exploited a combination
of the Chinese techniques of acupuncture and herbal medicine with
fortune telling and the occult, he opened his own shop near Tokyo.
Around this time, the down-home, short-haired Chizuo Matsumoto
became the bearded, flowing-maned Shoko (a homonym for the word
meaning "an offering of incense") Asahara (an uncommon
family name that, to Japanese ears, has much of the tony ring
of its literal English translation, Linfield).
Asahara began developing a winning personality that was to bring
him tens of thousands of adoring followers. He is short, with
a tendency toward plumpness. Near-blindness gives him the vulnerability,
and the quiet authority, of helplessness. He is normally affable
in manner, was often seen (until he was indicted for mass murder)
smiling and joking, and is described by old associates, especially
women, as "cuddly"-a quality not possessed by many masculinity-obsessed
Japanese men. Those who knew him as a herbalist say that he "understood
human problems" and "was a good listener"-qualities
that brought converts to his cult and, in time, made the subsequent
confessions all the more appalling.
In 1982, Asahara was investigated for selling a worthless infusion
of orange peel, an offense that resulted in the revocation of
his herbalist's license. He told a woman assistant, "I believe
that the future lies in religion." Forced to close down
his shop, Asahara left for India, in search of enlightenment.
By his own account, he attained it in the Himalayas sometime
around 1984, when he was twenty-nine. The Japanese media have
reported that, during the same period, a long-haired, bearded
young man of Oriental appearance was forcibly removed by guards
from an enclosure in India where he was trying to have his photograph
taken beside the sacred fig tree under which the Buddha himself
achieved enlightenment, in 528 B.C., at the age of thirty-five.
Asahara returned to Japan and founded a small publishing house
and a yoga and meditation circle with half a dozen followers,
who met in a rented room. He called his group the New Society
of Aum-the word "Aum" (more commonly rendered in English
as "OM") being a Sanskrit mantra that represents the
three major Hindu gods, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva-later changing
the name to Aum Shinrikyo, the True Teachings of Aum. Guru Asahara's
breakthrough into the paranormal big time came in late 1985, when
the Japanese occult magazine Twilight Zone ran a photograph
of him meditating in the lotus position while apparently floating
One of his earliest followers, a former insurance-company employee,
turned out to have a head for business, and the guru himself,
who was in theory above worldly matters, also showed a keen interest
in commerce. In August of 1989, after much rowdy agitation by
his followers, Aum Shinrikyo was recognized as a religious corporation
by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government-a move that conferred upon
it tax exemptions or tax reductions in a number of business enterprises.
Within a year and a half, Aum, financed by gifts from followers
of as much as half a million dollars each, owned and operated
an empire of labor-intensive, low-startup-cost businesses: computer
retail outlets, noodle shops, health clubs, a telephone dating
club, and, incredibly, a babysitting service.
Who staffed these lucrative enterprises? Mostly, enthusiastic
young volunteers from Aum-run communes that opened all over Japan.
Changes in Japanese society had given the guru a source of cheap,
endlessly renewable, highly motivated labor. The conflict between
generations is a worldwide phenomenon, and Japan is no exception.
The generation of Asahara's parents had never known anything
but drudgery, war, defeat, hunger, and more drudgery, but by the
nineteen seventies Japan had become a great economic power, with
the basics of life guaranteed to all. A number of young Japanese
began to view the standard means of establishing security-namely,
signing on for lifetime employment with some stuffy company; living
with your out-of-touch parents until marriage, often arranged;
and mortgaging your own and your children's futures to pay off
a huge loan on a tiny "rabbit hutch" house-as kind of
death-in-life. With a slowing economy, low starting wages, and
some of the world's highest rents, it is still all but impossible
for young Japanese to move away from home, much less try out various
life styles in search of self-fulfillment.
Asahara offered these restless youngsters not only jobs but also
a Japanese variation on the nineteen-sixties' innovation of discontented
American youth: communal living. The Aum members were overwhelmingly
young; many of their leaders joined when they were in their late
teens or early twenties. Their retreats were decorated with Indian
motifs, which were fashionable among young Japanese, and buildings
were given Sanskrit names. One former convert summarized his
initial impression of Aum as "curry and yoga." Aum
dropouts as well as those members who retain their Aum faith describe
life in the communes as resembling an Asian version of Woodstock,
complete with music, dancing, drugs (mostly LSD, which the police
say Aum clandestinely manufactured to brighten up its meditation
sessions), and endless, drowsy late-night speculation about the
meaning of life.
Traditionally in Japan, such speculation has been regarded as
the province of the aged. But television, which was first seen
in 1953, two years before Asahars was born, broke the bonds of
centuries. Japanese TV, like TV in the West, mostly features
a youthful world in which age and parental authority are not respected.
Japanese TV stars are young, and are replaced by new talent every
few years. Many find fame in the science-fiction serials that,
to the despair of parents, clog early-evening TV and remain popular
with the young adults raised on them. Descended from the venerable
lizard Godzilla, these serials, as Professor Helen Hardacre, of
Harvard, writes, draw on a set of stock characters and situations;
an evil power from outer space, whose aim is to subjugate all
humanity, using ordinary people who have been turned into robots
by drugs (the mind-altering, not the mind-expanding, kind), telepathy,
and perverted science; and, opposing this monster, the always
young "warriors of truth." The action is mostly special-effects
combat involving laser beams, plasma rays, and the like. The
warriors of truth, who sound a lot like Japanese teen-agers, submit
unconditionally to the will of a leader of superhuman courage.
Obedience to his orders is the only justification needed for
action, however violent; compromise or the peaceful resolution
of conflict is never considered. The killings goes on, at the
leader's command, until the warui yatsu, the bad guys,
are dead. Shin'ichi Ichikawa, one of Japan's leading creators
of science fiction, had publicly admitted that, to his deep regret,
he sees much evidence of the influence of TV serials, his own
included, on the infantile, black-and-white moral universe of
Recruiting for Aum was conducted by the young, of the young, with
much youthful exuberance. Cheerful followers in white robes would
stand at subway exits handing out invitations to free yoga sessions.
Those who attended the sessions were given pamphlets on meditation,
correct breathing, and similar nonlethal topics. Prospective
converts saw the guru mostly on TV screens-not on the commercial
channels but in training films shown in the communes. Live action
footage depicted the guru apparently performing miracles like
levitation, while animated films showed him flying through cities
and passing through walls. Other footage showed Aum rites: young
adherents of both sexes-clad in white satin and wearing, with
a very Japanese sensitivity to status, colored sashes indicating
religious rank-approaching the tubby guru, resplendent in see-through
golden silk robes, prostrating themselves, and reverently kissing
Some followers in their late teens were simply having a good time
among people of their own age, away from parental supervision
while the guru floated, godlike, far above in a heavenly TV world.
Like other deceptively easy-to-join cults, however, Aum had an
unpleasant fate in store for those who tried to leave: they were
told that they would burn in a Buddhist Hell. Rescuing backsliders,
some cult members have confessed, turned into kidnapping the,
and, as that went unpunished by the law, kidnapping turned into
murder. Yoshihiro Inoue, who is expected to be a key witness
against Asahara, told the Tokyo district court that he had taken
part in the subway gassing but was pleading not guilty, on the
ground that he had been following orders, and would have been
killed if he had disobeyed. Inoue, who was twenty-five years
old at the time of the attack, joined the cult in high school
and had no experience of adult life before Aum.
Slightly older members, however, has real intellectual achievements,
predominantly in the sciences, before they joined Aum. The fact
that they did join it-and that some still believe in the guru-has
caused much soul-searching among thoughtful Japanese. "How
did we fail them?" an educator wailed at a recent conference
of the Japan Teachers' Union, Shinnosuke Sakamoto, a typical member
of the older group, who is now thirty-two, described his enlightenment
to the Associated Press last May. A candidate for a doctorate
in anthropology at Tokyo University, the pinnacle of the Japanese
scholastic system, Sakamoto had become interested in Aum as a
possible subject for his dissertation. Hearing Asahara on tape
at a cult training center, he was impressed. "I admire the
supreme master," he said. "The young anthropologist
made a ten-day pilgrimage to Kamikuishiki, where he was sent to
meditate in a small, dark cell, scores of which honeycomb the
Aum complex. After twelve fearful hours alone, Sakamoto said,
he was a vision of his research papers being tossed into the air
and scattered to the winds. His academic aspirations, he realized,
were causing his spiritual pain. Giving up ambition, "I
felt as if I had ascended to a higher stage," he told the
A.P. "A bright light fell from above and entered me."
Sakamoto defended both the cult's pharmacopoeia ("What's
wrong with having such a wonderful experience with the help of
drugs?") and its kidnapping of disaffected followers. Aum,
he said, was only trying to help the confused who had lost their
way. Even after the subway gas attack and Asahara's arrest, Sakamoto
still believed in him.
But Sakamoto was not admitted to the guru's inner circle, so he
knew nothing about its members' apparent involvement with weapons
and nerve gas. Upon attaining successive levels of enlightenment,
Aum believers, particularly those with property, administrative
skills, or qualifications in the "hard" physical sciences,
were encouraged to seek ordination. This required taking vows
of chastity; cutting all ties with the world; renouncing families;
and signing over worldly possessions to the cult, including real
estate, savings, clothes, telephone calling cards, and personal
seals. Such seals are the Japanese equivalent of signatures,
and possession of them enabled Aum to operate the bank accounts
of ordained members, who were also asked to do what they could
to turn over family property.
In 1989, when Aum was recognized as a religious body, it claimed
four thousand members, of whom three hundred and eighty were ordained.
Six years later, in a report on Aum's terrorist activities, the
United States Senate's permanent subcommittee on investigations
estimated the cult's worldwide following at fifty thousand and
its global assets, in real estate and in shares and other securities,
at more than a billion dollars. Aum USA Company, Ltd., which
had been incorporated in New York City in 1987, attracted only
a few converts, mostly of Japanese origin. Aum's activities in
the United States were confined largely to making high-tech purchases.
Asahara had similarly poor success in other countries, but some
thirty thousand joined in Russia-a nation of disintegrating moral
values, unfocused religious longings, and weak law enforcement.
The secretive yet high-profile faith was spotted early by the
Japanese media. On October 2, 1989, the Sunday Mainichi,
one of Japan's biggest-selling magazines, began a series of articles
on the cult-entitled "Give Back My Child!"-by interviewing
six families who charged that Asahara had stolen their children,
who were actually in their late teens or older, had joined the
cult without parental permission and had cut ties with their families.
According to Helen Hardacre, the cult responded by blocking the
street outside the home of the magazine's editor, Taro Maki; placarding
his neighborhood with posters accusing him of sacrilege; and posting
similar leaflets in the toilets of the magazine's offices, thereby
inviting the (probably correct) inference that an Aum mole had
penetrated the staff. A series of confrontation on TV between
the magazine's executives, along with other media figures, and
members of the Aum hierarchy followed. The Aum representatives
turned out to be young, good-looking, eloquent, and well educated
(two of them were lawyers). Many viewers saw the debates as yet
another conflict of the generations, and the publicity brought
Aum a flood of new recruits. Later, it was reported that Asahara
had considered but then thought better of plans to kill Maki and
blow up the magazine's building.
The parents, however, were not about to give up. They formed
an organization, Concerned Parents of Aum Children, and were helped
by a group of lawyers, including a crusading young Yokohama attorney
named Tsutsumi Sakamoto (no relation to the converted anthropologist),
who had prominently represented labor activists dismissed by the
national railways. The parents planned to bring suit against
the cult to produce their children and return assets that they
said had been acquired by coerced "donations." The
lawyers' team collected numerous statements on the religious and
business practices of Aum, which they intended to bring before
the Japanese courts. After a Tokyo TV stated taped a blistering
interview with Tsutsumi Sakamoto, the station was visited by an
Aum delegation. The delegation next visited Sakamoto at his office
to persuade him to apologize for his remarks in the TV interview.
He refused, and said that, far from withdrawing them, he would
fight Aum all the harder. The lawyer's doggedness threatened
the guru's rapidly expanding plans.
Four days later, on November 4, 1989, Sakamoto, his wife, and their year-old son disappeared. Friends found their apartment in disarray, and an Aum lapel badge on the floor. Last September, the police, acting on a confession from a former Aum member, found the Sakamotos' remains buried in three makeshift mountain graves, far from Yokohama. A six-man Au