Underground: The Cult of Aum Shinrikyo

Underground: The Cult of Aum Shinrikyo

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TOKYO, JAPAN - JANUARY 27: Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo members wearing their guru Shoko Asahara's masks parade on January 27, 1990 in Tokyo, Japan.
Picture: Sankei via Getty Images
Author Murakami Haruki asked members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult what made them devote themselves to the group. Here are their answers.

Content Warning: The following essay contains graphic details of assault, torture and murder. Reader discretion is advised.

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. All ages given are as of the year 1997, when the interviews were originally conducted.  Interview excerpts have been formatted into shorter paragraphs for readability.

Part 1: Underground: The Stories of Japan’s Sarin Attack Victims


The second half of Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche—simply known as The Place That Was Promised (約束された場所で, Yakusoku sareta basho de) in its original Japanese—is a collection of interviews and essays compiled by famed speculative novelist, Murakami Haruki (Norwegian Wood, 1Q84).

Originally published in Japan on November 30, 1998, The Place That Was Promised chronicles the testimonies of former and active members of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo–the same cult responsible for the Tokyo Sarin Subway Attack three years prior.  

The US and UK English translations were published on June 1, 2000. Philip Gabriel served as the English translator for The Place That Was Promised, which will be the main source for this essay.

Murakami’s motivation to conduct these interviews was straightforward. Though Underground  was met with great praise, a few people criticized that the perspective was too one-sided.  Moreover, he wanted to understand what would compel people to not only join such a reclusive cult, but engage in such terroristic violence?  


While he–and many other Aum members–did not excuse the Sarin Subway Incident, it was clear to him that there was something within Japanese society at large that contributed to this behavior.  There was a disconnect, a lack of empathy taken to a huge extreme, and it gave rise to Aum Shinrikyo itself, and its subsequent followers.

I was also motivated by a strong sense of fear that we had still not begun to deal with, let alone solve, any of the fundamental issues arising from the gas attack. Specifically, for people who are outside the main system of Japanese society (the young in particular), there remains no effective alternative or safety net.

As long as this crucial gap exists in our society, like a kind of black hole, even if Aum is suppressed, other magnetic force fields—“Aum-like” groups—will rise up again, and similar incidents are bound to take place.

-Murakami Haruki, preface, The Place That Was Promised

As a result, Murakami reached out to Aum Shinrikyo members–both active and inactive–for commentary concerning their experiences and opinions on the terrorist attacks.  It’s worth noting that his interviewing style in The Place That Was Promised was much more confrontational than in Underground.  This was done to prevent rambling and proselytizing on the interviewee’s part.

Before we get to the interviews, it’s important that we get a fuller understanding of Aum Shinrikyo’s founding, and their history of violence.

The Founding of Aum Shinrikyo

In 1984, an unlicensed, alternative medicine specialist named Asahara Shoko (born Matsumoto Chizuo, 1955-2018) founded the aforementioned cult.  It was originally known as Aum Immortal Mountain Wizard Association (オウム神仙の会, Oumu shinsen no kai) and focused heavily on yoga and meditation.   Based in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, the Aum Immortal Mountain Wizard Association’s teachings borrowed from multiple religious and spiritual movements, notably Buddhism, Christianity and the Nostradamus Prophecies.

Around [1979] The Nostradamus Prophecies was popular. You know—the idea that the human race would vanish in the year 1999. This was happy news to me because I hated the world. It was unfair, and the weak would never be saved. When I thought about the limits of society, the limits of people, it made me even more depressed.

-Hosoi Shin’ichi, former member of Aum Shinrikyo and interviewee for The Place That Was Promised

As is common knowledge, the 1980s brought great economic prosperity to Japan, but it left a few people–especially the elite, hungry for more meaning outside material achievement.  Consequently, the elite became Aum Immortal Mountain Wizard Association’s main target, for not only did they have the desire–they also had the money to pay for the cult’s exorbitant fees.

By 1989, the cult–now simply known as Aum Shinrikyo (オウム真理教, Oumu Shinrikyo), was officially recognized as a religious organization.  Three years later, the founder Asahara would declare himself to be Christ, and that his mission was to rid the world of its sins.  To make matters worse, while Nostradamus predicted the world would end in 1999, Asahara said it would end two years earlier–in 1997.  His growing power, influence and passionate doctrine began to catch the eyes of the law.

It was around this time, that the violence commenced.

The Sakamoto Family Murders

TOKYO, JAPAN – OCTOBER 25: Leader of Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo Shoko Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, attends a press conference on October 25, 1990 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

Sakamoto Tsutsumi (1956-1989) was a prominent lawyer from Yokohama who specialized in anti-cult lawsuits.  Most notably in 1987, Sakamoto won a class-action lawsuit against the Korea-based Unification Church, a cult centered around Christianity.   This victory gave him enough public notoriety to take on Aum Shinrikyo a year later, in 1988.

The main objective in this new class-action lawsuit was similar to that of the previous case. He wanted to prove that Aum Shinrikyo not only actively solicited members, but that members were held by the cult against their will through nefarious means.  Ultimately, Sakamoto aimed to bring enough public attention to Aum Shinrikyo’s seedy practices to render them bankrupt and force them to disband.

What eventually caused Aum Shinrikyo to go on the lethal offense however, was a blood test taken by Asahara Shoko himself on October 31, 1989.  Wanting tangible proof of Asahara’s claim to a “special power” that seemingly relegated him to divine leadership, Sakamoto Tsutsumi convinced him to undergo testing.  The blood test results showed no anomalies, soundly nullifying Asahara’s outlandish claim.

Sakamoto gave an interview to Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) about this significant evidence.  Unfortunately–and unbeknownst to him–a producer at TBS secretly showed a recording of the interview to Aum Shinrikyo before its broadcast.  Many ethics specialists would later argue that this lapse in journalistic judgment sealed the Sakamoto family’s fate.

I was sure that there was no way our group could hide something like the Sakamoto affair for so many years. Because the whole organization was so haphazard. It was like communism: if you made a mistake, you wouldn’t get fired, and though we say we had “jobs” in Aum, it’s not like we were drawing a salary or anything. I wouldn’t call it irresponsible, exactly, there was just no sense of individual responsibility.

-Kano Hiroyuki, member of Aum Shinrikyo and interviewee for The Place That Was Promised

On November 4, 1989, several Aum members, most notably chief scientist Murai Hideo, martial arts master Hashimoto Satoro, Nakagawa Tomomasa and Okazaki Kazuaki–broke into Sakamoto Tsutsumi’s home.  After mercilessly beating Tsutsumi, his wife Satoko and their infant son Tatsuhiko , the perpetrators injected them with potassium chloride–a chemical agent that can cause cardiac arrest in lethal amounts.

When the injections didn’t immediately take effect, they strangled all three of them instead.  They all died that early morning.

After murdering the Sakamoto family, the perpetrators smashed the deceased’s teeth, placed their bodies in metal drums, and buried them in three different prefectures.  Their bodies weren’t found until six years later, after the captured perpetrators confessed after the Sarin attacks.

The Matsumoto Incident

On June 27, 1994, around 10:40 pm, Aum Shinrikyo sent a converted refrigerator truck to the upscale Kaichi Heights neighborhood in Matsumoto, Nagano.  This truck was re-purposed to spray sarin aerosol, poisoning people in the process. The target: a group of judges who were overseeing a prominent real-estate case against Aum Shinrikyo.

Around that time, Asahara Shoko had planned to set up an office and factory in the southern Matsumoto area, which residents vehemently opposed.  The backlash was so strong that a relevant petition garnered 140,000 signatures–equivalent to 70% of the city. Yet, the backlash was of course, warranted.  By the early 90s, Asahara’s cult of personality had evolved from zealous admiration to obligatory worship:

I subscribed to the Aum journal Mahayana from the very first issue. In the beginning it was a good magazine. They took great care in presenting the experiences of actual believers, and had stories on “How I Became an Aum Member,” using people’s real names. I was impressed by their honesty.

After a while, though, the magazine didn’t focus on individual members but solely on Asahara, raising him higher and higher with everyone worshiping him. For instance, when Asahara was going anywhere believers would lay their clothes on the ground for him to walk on. That’s a bit much. It’s scary—worship one person too much and freedom goes out the window.

-Namimura Akio, former member of Aum Shinrikyo, interviewee for The Place That Was Promised

On the fateful night that would henceforth be known as the Matsumoto Incident, or the Matsumoto Sarin Attack, eight people died and over 500 people were injured. It was an eerie precursor of the terrorist attacks to come nine months later on the Tokyo Metro.

Different Members, Different Memories

Anti-Aum Shinrikyo demonstration
An anti-Aum Shinrkyo demonstration in Japan. Such demonstrations became more consistent – and more vehement – in the wake of the Sarin gas attack. (Picture: Wikipedia)

Masutani Hajime, 32, former Aum member

Before joining Aum, Masutani Hajime studied architectural design and enjoyed drawing.  He developed an interest in Aum Shinrikyo after coming across their literature in a bookstore, and he thought that “maybe instead of painting, living a religious life will help [him] get closer to the reality inside [him].

He dropped by the dojo in Kyoto–where he was studying at the time–and fell in love with the minimalist interior.  This would be around 1983-1984, so Aum Immortal Mountain Wizard Association was still very much in its humble beginnings.  Additionally, this meant Asahara was still accessible even after his sermons, during “Secret Yoga” sessions.

After years of volunteering, conversing with Asahara and Murai Hideo (chief scientist and later co-perpetrator of the Sakamoto Family Murders), Masutani became a renunciate in 1990, and moved into the headquarters at Mt. Fuji. He was shuffled around different departments–first construction, then home economics, before finally ending up at the Animation Division, where he was tasked to create propaganda:

It was pretty crude stuff. We used animation to explain how [Asahara] had supernatural powers. Him hovering in the air and so on. A real film would have been convincing, but no one would be convinced by a cartoon. The final product was awful. Around this time I had more opportunities to be with [Asahara]. I found myself growing more mistrustful of him and of Aum.

-Masutani Hajime, former Aum member and interviewee for The Place That Was Promised

The longer he stayed, the more he noticed Aum’s gradual shift to violence.  Sermons focused more on Vajrayana Tantra, an approach to Buddhist enlightenment involving complex exercises and visualizations. Martial arts became a part of sermons.  This added a war-like atmosphere to the cult that caught Masutani off guard. He began to doubt whether or not he should remain in Aum.

Our training started to include being hung upside down. Anyone breaking commandments had their legs tied up in chains and they were hung upside down. It doesn’t sound like much if you just describe it, but it’s torture, plain and simple. The blood drains from your legs and it feels like they’re about to be torn off.

By breaking commandments I mean anything from breaking the vow of chastity by having relations with a girl, or being suspected of being a spy, or having comic books in your possession …

The room where I worked at the time was directly below the Fuji dojo and I could hear these loud screams from above, real shrieks, people yelling, “Kill me! Put me out of my misery!”—the kind of barely human voice wrung out of someone in excruciating pain. Pitiful screams, as if the space there itself was warped and twisted: “Master! Master! Help me!—I’ll never do it again!” When I heard them I just shuddered.

…But what’s weird is that many of the people who were hung upside down like that are still in Aum. They’d suffer, be taken to the edge of death, and then be kindly told “You did well.” And they’d think, “I was able to overcome the trials given to me. Thank you, O Guru!” 

Of course if they carried it too far, you’d die. They never told us, but that’s how [Ochi Naoki] died.

-Masutani Hajime, former Aum member and interviewee for The Place That Was Promised

Other forms of torture included drug initiations via LSD, intrusive interrogations, and solitary confinement. Masutani himself was drugged and thrown into a cell with nothing but water and a chamberpot.  This was the closest he had been to death itself. It was his breaking point.

After the drugs wore off, Masutani managed to escape the Mt. Fuji headquarters. With borrowed money from a stranger, he took a bus back to his family in Tokyo.  He had been gone from the secular world for five years.

Unfortunately, because he had been distant from his family for so long, their relationship fell apart and he moved out.  At the time of the interview in 1997, Masutani was working part-time and had kept his former Aum membership a secret for the longest time.

Iwakura Harumi, 32, former Aum member

Iwakura Harumi was an office worker before she joined Aum.  Her daily life included working, drinking and partying, especially during the Bubble Economy.  She felt prosperous and fulfilled. However, in her mid-twenties, once her friends got married and started families of their own, Iwakura felt abandoned.

One day, when she was getting her haircut, one of the beauty shop staffers struck up a conversation and showed her an Aum pamphlet.  In this pamphlet were purification techniques. This appealed to Iwakura, after the techniques greatly improved her health. Afterward, the male staffer encouraged her to join him at the Aum meetings:

When I went to the dojo I saw renunciates in sweatshirts, all very calm, serene even, and I was taken with this way of spending time. It was a world light-years away from the noise and clamor of the company and commuting.

-Iwakura Harumi, former Aum member and interviewee for The Place That Was Promised

Similar to Masutani Hajime, Iwakura Harumi became a renunciate in 1990, after years of folding handbills for them. The key turning point for her renunciation was the Ishigaki Island Seminar, which was held that April.  It was at this seminar that Aum Shinrikyo talked of Armageddon, commonly known as the day of reckoning.

However, Iwakura was not interested in the religious aspect of the cult.  She simply “thought it was great if all kinds of attachments could be eliminated”.   As such, when she renounced the world, she quit her job, gave away all her possessions, and donated all her money to the cult.

Upon her arrival at the Mt. Fuji headquarters, Iwakura met Asahara for the first time. From her perspective, they hit it off.  He knew everything about what she did in the secular world, including “using up all her merit” and “being out with too many men”.  Murakami rightfully points out that this is a ruse, and that Asahara definitely looked into Iwakura’s background before meeting her in person.  Iwakura is aware of this in hindsight. But it was different for her as a renunciate:

I know that, but he was the Final Liberated One, and in that special atmosphere, with him very deliberately saying these things, I just had to think, “Wow. That’s something!” It really was. At first I was a bit scared, though. “You could never fool this man,” I thought. Life at Aso was hard. It was really cold, and the people around me seemed like oddballs, they were so self-centered. They had no common sense, and thought only of themselves.

In contrast, the people at the upper levels, the leaders, weren’t strange at all. They were great. I was really able to talk freely, in private, with Masters I was friends with. People might not like me to say this, but Eriko Iida [senior Aum officer; convicted of illegal confinement], Tomomitsu Niimi [getaway driver for the Tokyo Subway Sarin Attack], and Hideo Murai were, for me, good people. The people below were weird, though, by and large. We just didn’t hit it off.

-Iwakura Harumi, former Aum member and interviewee for The Place That Was Promised

Sadly, Asahara’s friendship with Iwakura had ulterior motives.  He tried to coerce her into sexual intercourse, under the guise of a “special initiation”.  Iwakura would stiffen up each time he tried to touch her, as “his role as a guru and a question of sex were two different things, and [she] hated the idea”.  While she knew sexual initiations took place, the fact that it involved Asahara himself was difficult for Iwakura to comprehend.

In 1993, following the deferred sexual coercions, Iwakura was forced under electroshock.  As a result, she lost two years’ worth of memories. She doesn’t remember what her infraction was. The most she could piece together was that she was suspected of relations with another man, which was forbidden in the cult. 

Aum Shinrikyo carried out the subway attacks in 1995. The senior members were arrested.  The remaining senior members became even more chaotic and tyrannical as a result. Iwakura chose this moment to escape.  With financial assistance from her mother, she managed to work various jobs and save up enough money to get a driver’s license and a car. Yet she still had doubts about her life in the outside world:

There were a lot of very appealing people in Aum. Completely different from the people I’ve known in the outside world. Relationships in society are always so … superficial, but in Aum we all lived together in one place, almost like a family.

I love children. My younger sister’s children are adorable, but for me to get married, have a family, children—it’s difficult, having been a member of Aum. When I think about talking about my Aum background on a date, I don’t think I could … A big factor has got to be the fact that my own family was so dysfunctional. People raised in happy families probably wouldn’t join Aum.

-Iwakura Harumi, former Aum member and interviewee for The Place That Was Promised

At the time of the 1997 interview, Iwakura Harumi was living on her own and working at a beauty shop.


As mentioned in Part I of this series, Asahara and the main perpetrators of these terrorist attacks were arrested on May 16, 1995.  Roughly five months later, Aum Shinrikyo was stripped of its status as an officially recognized religion. The trial began in 1997, and lasted for over 20 years due to witness testimonies and appeals on the defendants’ behalf.  

Eventually in late January of 2018, the final life sentence was upheld.  In total, 190 Aum members had been convicted of crimes including kidnapping, murder and assault.  13 senior members, including Asahara himself, were hanged that July.

After the cult renamed itself Aleph, another group split off from them and named itself Hikari no Wa, or “Circle of Rainbow Light”.  Neither group adheres to the doomsday doctrine of Aum Shinrikyo, nor do they worship the late Asahara Shoko. Despite these facts–and recognised as legal religions, both Aleph and Hikari no Wa are still kept under heavy government surveillance.

In August of 2018, legal authorities decided to preserve over 700 documents in relation to the trial, so as to prevent events like this in the future.

Personal Note

In the grand discussion of cults, Aum Shinrikyo is nothing new.  As is par for the course, a charismatic overbearing person took advantage of the most vulnerable, and exploited them for personal gain under a false doctrine.  However, there is a unique factor with new religious movements in Japan–the desire for something among the material, within a newly wealthy society.

It is important to note that most of the Aum renunciates–especially those who participated in the terrorist attacks and other atrocities–were members of the elite.  They were highly favored in secular life and favored in the cult as well.

In other words, not every Aum member by default would commit murder, nor be asked to do so.  Only the highest-ranked and most loyal would.  This fact was highly neglected in the race to sensationalize the tragedy. It was only brought up when people asked the question, “How could these well-heeled people do something like this?”

Most interviewees state a desire along the lines of a cross between meritocracy and spiritual fulfillment. Hayashi Ikuo, the former senior medical doctor who is currently serving a life sentence as a perpetrator in the Subway Sarin Incident, expresses as much in his memoir, Aum and I:

In his sermon Asahara spoke about the Shambhala Plan, which involved the construction of a Lotus Village…Astral medicine would examine the patients’ karma and energy level, and take into consideration death and transmigration […] 

I’d had a dream of a green, natural spot with buildings dotting the landscape, where truly caring medical care and education were carried out. My vision and the Lotus Village were one and the same.

-Hayashi Ikuo, convicted Aum member

After referencing this excerpt, Murakami concludes that Hayashi and similar individuals were searching for a utopia to devote themselves to, other than the status they had gained in mainstream Japanese society. 

In The Place That Was Promised, Murakami asks a question of all the interviewees: If Asahara Shoko or another senior Aum official had asked them to release sarin gas on the Tokyo Metro, would they have done it?  Most of the interviewees vehemently said no, but most of them expressed empathy as to why the perpetrators did go through with it:

 I think [I would have released the sarin], but there’s a trick to doing it. The people who carried out the crime were put in a position where they were caught off guard by the orders and couldn’t escape. They’d gather in Murai’s room and suddenly the leaders would broach the topic, telling them: “This is an order from the top.”

An order from the top—that was like a mantra in Aum. The people who carried out the crime were chosen from among the strongest believers. “You’ve been specially chosen,” they were told. The leaders appealed to their sense of duty. Faith in Aum meant total devotion.

That’s why I wasn’t chosen to commit the crimes. I was still at the bottom of the heap and hadn’t yet reached enlightenment. In other words Aum didn’t trust me enough.

-Takahashi Hidetoshi, former Aum member and interviewee for The Place That Was Promised

It was the early-to-mid 1990s when Aum Shinrikyo was deep within their doomsday doctrine, and were attempting to invoke Armageddon on the world as a way to save themselves.  This is the power of indoctrination. Instead of logic being used to solve problems, logic is instead used as a means to an end, no matter how fatal the ending may be.

Despite being much shorter than its Underground counterpart, The Place That Was Promised is an important primary source not only about Aum Shinrikyo, but about the isolating and dysfunctional factors that would cause people to join cults in the first place.  

Additional Sources

  1. “The Sarin Gas Attack in Japan and the Related Forensic Investigation.” OPCW, 1 June 2001, www.opcw.org/media-centre/news/2001/06/sarin-gas-attack-japan-and-related-forensic-investigation.
  2. Biographics. “Shoko Asahara: The Cultist Who Terrorized Japan.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, January 15, 2019. Web. February 20, 2020.

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Thalia Harris

Thalia-Marie Harris is a North Jersey/New York native, currently residing in Tokyo, where she works as an ESL teacher and freelance writer. Her previous pieces have appeared in Metropolis Tokyo and pacificREVIEW.

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