Steamrolled Inhibitions: Aum Shinrikyo’s motivations for the 1995 sarin gas attack

One reading which I was assigned last semester revolved around learning about the Aum Shinrikyo gas attacks in the Tokyo subways of 1995. A pretty good documentary has been made about the incident, but for those that aren’t looking to procrastinate for 46 minutes, a quick read of the relevant Wikipedia article would be enough to fill you in on what happened.

Reading through excerpts of Underground by Murakami Haruki, an interesting picture then developed based on his interviews with those affected and some cult members, culminating in Murakami’s personal essay on the possible reasons for why the incident occurred. This image seemed fairly interesting, resulting in this post on two themes that I think is relevant to the incident but require further expounding.

But first, to establish what Murakami mentioned within his essay, a brief summary is necessary. He implies that Japanese individuals are little different from the perpetrators of the attack, in that they were created by the same Japanese society, but chose different paths. His final few paragraphs are worth quoting for the depth of thought displayed (bolded portions are my additions):

But at the same time who would ever thinkI’m an unimportant little person, and if I end up just a cog in society’s system, gradually worn down until I die, hey – that’s okay”? More or less all of us want answers to the reasons why we’re living on this earth, and why we die and disappear. We shouldn’t criticize a sincere attempt to find answers. Still, this is precisely the point where a kind of fatal mistake can be made. The layers of reality begin to be distorted. The place that was promised, you suddenly realize, has changed into something different from what you’re looking for. As Mark Strand puts it in his poem: “The mountains are not mountains anymore; the sun is not the sun.”

In order that a second and third Ikuo Hayashi don’t crop up, it is critical for our society to stop and consider, in all their ramifications, the questions brought to the surface so tragically by the Tokyo gas attack. Most people have put this incident behind them. “That’s over and done with,” they say. “It was a major incident, but with the culprits all arrested it’s wrapped up and doesn’t have anything more to do with us.” However we need to realize that most of the people who join cults are not abnormal; they’re not disadvantaged; they’re not eccentrics. They are the people who live average lives (and maybe from the outside, more than average lives), who live in my neighborhood. And in yours.

Maybe they think about things a little too seriously. Perhaps there’s some pain they’re carrying around inside. They’re not good at making their feelings known to others and are somewhat troubled. They can’t find a suitable means to express themselves, and bounce back and forth between feelings of pride and inadequacy. That might very well be me. It might be you.

Murakami, Haruki, Alfred Birnbaum, and Philip Gabriel. Underground. New York: Vintage International, 2001. 364.

To some extent, he’s of the opinion that the cultists didn’t differ externally from other citizens in sociological or cultural characteristics, but seemed misguided and perhaps had been dealt a blow that they were unable to recover from. Whether natural or incidental, the state of mind which they were in made them vulnerable to the tactics employed by the cult, which, combined with psychological reinforcements, led them to engage in cult activities wholeheartedly. Some of which included the Tokyo subway attacks.

That then, sets the tone for the two themes that I’ll elaborate within this post: Freedom and Inhibitions. The approach that I’ll be taking is not to ask why, but ask, why not? The search for ‘why’ is often done for practical reasons: what were their motivations in carrying out something like this? Was it for personal gain or fulfillment, advertisement for the strength of their cult? It is believed that in asking why (after asking ‘how’), better solutions can be devised, for if people understand why they should not do something, they will not seek  information on how to do said thing.

An important concept within criminal law is that of ‘means, motive and opportunity’. Although they do not establish guilt by themselves, it hardly needs to be said that lacking any one of these three would weaken the case for the prosecution that a particular individual carried out the alleged act. In the context of analyzing a security incident, then, one can see how each question is well designed in its purpose.

How addresses the means and opportunity available to the perpetrators. How did this cult recruit the brightest students from Japanese universities and convince them to carry out this heinous act? How did they develop sarin gas undetected, and how were they able to deploy the deadly gas without arousing any suspicion?

Why questions the motive. It can be linked to ‘how’ questions, as in ‘Why did the best students join this cult despite being people of supposed ability in logic and reasoning?’. ‘Why did the cult choose to carry out this method of attack as opposed to some other location or through other means?’

A noteworthy endeavor, and one that I will be following in asking ‘Why not’? For it seems that if one can ask ‘why?’, then ‘why not?’ is a simple extension to the question that requires scrutiny as well. As is so often the case, understanding what is not, or might not be, can prove illuminating in understanding what it is. At the very least, one would have understood a little more about something through knowing what it is not.

This brings me to the first theme on freedom, which is something that the cult offered to its members. To quote again from Underground (bolded emphasis mine),

I’m sure each member of the Science and Technology elite had his own personal reasons for renouncing the world and joining Aum. What they all had in common, though, was a desire to put the technical skill and knowledge they’d acquired in the service of a more meaningful goal. They couldn’t help having grave doubts about the inhumane, utilitarian gristmill of capitalism and the social system in which their own essence and efforts – even their reasons for being – would be fruitlessly ground down.

Ikuo Hayashi, who released sarin gas in the Chiyoda Line of the subway, leading to the deaths of two subway workers, is clearly one of those types of people. He had a reputation for being an outstanding surgeon, devoted to his patients. More likely it was precisely because he was such a good doctor that he began to mistrust the present-day medical system, shot through as it is with contradictions and defects. As a result, he was drawn to the active spiritual world that Aum provided with its vision of an intense, perfect utopia.

In his own book, Aum and I, he writes the following about the image he had at the time of Aum:

‘In his sermon Asahara spoke about the Shambhala Plan, which involved the construction of a Lotus Village. There would be an Astral Hospital there, and a Shinri School that would provide a thoroughgoing education […] Medical care would be so-called Astral Medicine, which would be based on Asahara’s visions of another [astral] dimension and memories of past lives he would see during meditation. 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 thus had a dream of devoting himself to a utopia, undergoing strenuous treatment unsullied by the secular world, putting into practice a kind of medical care he could give all his heart to, and making as many patients happy as he possible could.

Murakami, Underground, 362-363.

As clearly illustrated above, the cult offered the members considerable freedom in multiple areas that they valued. Freedom from stress, for those that felt the inevitable pressures of life. Intellectual freedom, for the implementation of new ideas and technology, including funding, for research and experimentation that might otherwise have been denied by society on moral or financial grounds. And spiritual freedom, in exploring a common utopia while being the first to bring this dreamy landscape to actualization…a pioneer of sorts.

I suspect that it is when individuals are given freedom, that great progress is made. Whether that progress is beneficial or harmful to a particular group of people or society in general will be debated by those affected and unaffected by the inventions, but given free rein, the human mind is capable of incredible feats. It is possible that some of these innovations derived from the cult members feeling free in their own manner aided the cult in recruitment and amassing of the considerable wealth that funded its research. Said freedom may also have given them ingenuity to prevent curious individuals from learning more of their devious plans.

One could argue that it was a failure of the Japanese police force to detect and deter this threat, while others might say that it is a hallmark of Japanese society that causes one to ignore that which does not concern one. If this reality of police ineptness and societal indifference had been realized and exploited by the cultists who were part of society themselves, it would go a long way towards explaining the ‘how’ of their means and opportunity consolidation.

But questioning how much freedom the cult gave to its members seems more appropriate for the questions of why. In answering the question of why students from the brightest universities joined this cult, it seems highly likely that they were seduced by a particular narrative propagated by the cult in a moment of weakness. Admittedly, one has the benefit of hindsight in knowing that the attacks were committed in 1995, for those that joined before had little idea of what the future might be. But in answering the question of ‘why didn’t the new cult members leave when they had joined the cult?’, the freedom factor that formed a major portion of said narrative is also satisfying in its reply: ‘The cult offered them something they had yearned for, why would they leave something when they had found something of value, to them, within it?’

Both recruitment and retention based on what the cult had offered, that of freedom to individuals seeking it, have been covered above. The next topic then deals with that of internal inhibitions, which are referenced within the title.

Many struggle to understand how the cultists willingly carried out their leader’s orders to gas the subway despite full knowledge of sarin gas’s lethal nature. ‘Brainwashed individuals, unable to distinguish between right and wrong‘ seem about right to explain why the cultists carried out the attack.

But if one were to consider self-doubt, then it is a rather large jump from ‘Someone has told me to do this, even though I know it will harm others’ to ‘I’m going ahead to do this, consequences be damned.’ Some questions which may have ran through the cultists’s minds are offered below:

  • What about those that will be killed or injured as a result of this? (Human concern for the well-being of others despite not knowing them personally. Concern for others as opposed to below’s concern for self.)
  • What would happen to me if I had been caught? (Out of self preservation, perhaps?)

Most of these questions would have introduced doubts, which, if acted upon by others knowledgeable of the events and involved individuals, may have given them pause in the carrying out of their actions. However, these internal, mental roadblocks or inhibitions were quite nicely steamrolled through both religious belief and general societal apathy. The former answers the second question while the latter answers the first.

  • What about those that will be killed? Damn if I care, society doesn’t care about me anyway. I’m always the average individual, just another cog in the machine. If society doesn’t give a shit about me, why should I waste my time caring about those that are coldly indifferent towards me?
  • What would happen if I was caught? Nothing bad will happen, since I believe that …

The former would have no doubt been strengthened by a setback in life (romantic, with friends or in one’s ambitions), while the latter was filled by whatever the person used to assuage their concerns over possible consequences of their actions.

The religious factor is the key to understanding societal’s confusion over their seemingly warped morals and lack of concern for others. I don’t think that they were unable to distinguish between what was right and wrong*, but rather that they were fully convinced of how right their actions were, and may even have viewed themselves as being saviors of sorts to ordinary, unenlightened citizens. Viewed in that light, claims of them being brainwashed seem strange. Some members may definitely have simply relied on Asahara for complete guidance, but a more nuanced picture emerges if one considers the above musings. One which says “No, these cultists weren’t brainwashed. They were thinking individuals who completely accepted what was offered to them, but they were no puppets in their own mind.” An argument could always be made about them being unknowingly manipulated by the elite cult members or Asahara himself, but to mangle a well-known quote, ‘Who manipulates the manipulators?’

*One could very well imagine the following conversation taking place: “Why can’t you see that this is right and this is wrong and you’re doing wrong? Why can’t you distinguish between right and wrong?” “I have distinguished between right and wrong. I’m right, and you’re wrong.’

Elite manipulation as a strategy to explain individual actions work if there is a dominant elite with submissive underlings, vulnerable to ideological domination. But then in a case of Russian dolls, one then has to understand what motivates the elite if they are assumed to not be brainwashed. In this case, I feel that Murakami’s interviews are enlightening in underscoring how these elite members were not puppets as sometimes portrayed in media accounts of their mental state, but rather individuals who chose a different path.

In short, this past incident continues to be a shadow of Japanese society, for one can’t quite shake off the feeling that Murakami was on to something in his essay. What needs to be done, or whether anything should be done is as debatable as the topic itself, but it becomes increasingly clear that there is a considerable subtlety of psychological motivation, reinforcement and persuasion involved in what was an otherwise unremarkable terrorist attack.

To address an idle thought, what made them choose to attack a busy, bustling subway instead of a prominent political or military target? I can only hazard a guess, but I daresay they would still have chose the train stations even if they were capable of carrying out an effective attack on hardened political or military targets. The logic behind their actions seems similar to that of Oregairu in Episode 12: When a prideful but inadequate individual seeks prominence despite being ignored by society, they will take measures akin to false humility. Find an iconic location that fits in the Goldilocks Zone: Not too popular, nor too empty. What would be the purpose of a protest, or an act of defiance, to empty seats? At the same time, the idea of carrying out something in too crowded a location and the associated fear triggered, even if illogical, causes them to moderate their decisions. Hence, the situation unfolded, with regrettable consequences for those caught in the crossfire of their vendetta against society or pursuit of self-actualization.

I believe that the sentiments which resulted in the initial recruitment of the cult members are quite accurately represented in these three songs: World Domination, The Lost One’s Weeping and Abstract Nonsense. That these three songs resonate with many who feel down and out despite external appearances does not imply that depressed individuals are somehow predisposed to committing terrorist acts. At the same time, however, one rarely seems to come across a genuinely happy, well adjusted individual with a sense of purpose that murders others intentionally or otherwise. The cultists may have had a strengthened concept of self, or personal identity, after having joined the cult (which sounds ironic, but refer to the freedom thesis above), but Ikuo Hayashi’s would logically seem to be the rule rather than the exception. For if one has all that one wants, the offerings by the cult would not seem as attractive.

Does this post argue that freedom and lack of mental inhibitions caused the gas attacks? Far from it, but as life often is, there lacks a singular cause for an event. A series of preceding steps or a myriad of causes often result in the circumstance observed, albeit to varying degrees even for similar situations. In writing this post, I hope to have shed more light on two factors which I believe deserve more elaboration befitting of their importance within the tragedy’s narrative.




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