March 20

This Day in History

General Interest

Mar 20, 1995:

Nerve gas attack on Tokyo subway

At the height of the morning rush hour in Tokyo, Japan, five two-man terrorist teams from the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult, riding on separate subway trains, converge at the Kasumigaseki station and secretly release lethal sarin gas into the air. The terrorists then took a sarin antidote and escaped while the commuters, blinded and gasping for air, rushed to the exits. Twelve people died, and 5,500 were treated in hospitals, some in a comatose state. Most of the survivors recovered, but some victims suffered permanent damage to their eyes, lungs, and digestive systems. A United States Senate subcommittee later estimated that if the sarin gas had been disseminated more effectively at Kasumigaseki station, a hub of the Tokyo subway system, tens of thousands might have been killed.

In the attack's aftermath, Japanese police raided Aum Shinrikyo headquarters and arrested hundreds of members, including the cult's blind leader, Shoko Asahara. The cult, which combined Buddhism and yoga with apocalyptic Christian philosophy, was already under investigation for a 1994 sarin attack that killed seven, and for the murder of several political opponents.

During the 1980s, Asahara, a self-styled Buddhist monk, began winning numerous converts to his Aum Shinrikyo cult, whose name translates roughly to the "Supreme Teachings of Om." Asahara exploited the spiritual vacuum left by Japan's economic boom years and promised religious rebirth and supernatural powers to young Japanese who felt uncomfortable within their country's rigidly homogenous society. In 1989, Aum was recognized as a religious corporation in Japan, and by 1995 it had a worldwide following of more than 40,000 people and assets in excess of $1 billion.

In the early 1990s, Asahara added Christian apocalyptic beliefs to his Buddhist teachings and proclaimed that he was the reincarnation of both Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha. Aum became militant, stockpiling weapons and recruiting brilliant young scientists to help him accumulate an arsenal of biochemical weapons, including advanced nerve agents such as VX and killer diseases such as Q-fever and anthrax. These weapons, Asahara promised, would lead Aum Shinrikyo to victory in the coming Armageddon.

More than a dozen political opponents to the cult were murdered, their bodies incinerated in specially built microwave ovens, and in June 1994 Aum staged its first sarin gas attack in Matsumoto, west of Tokyo. A car, modified to strategically release the lethal gas, was driven near a dormitory where judges and court officials conducting a case against Aum were staying. Seven people died, and 150 people were injured. Japan's authorities, hindered by constitutional protection of religious organizations, failed to arrest Asahara or suppress his cult, though they were the prime suspects in the attack. In early 1995, Asahara told his followers that World War III had begun, and a second sarin attack was planned for the Tokyo subway system, which carries some four million riders a day.

In the years since the 1995 attack, five Aum members have been sentenced to die for the murderous acts committed by the cult at Kasumigaseki station and elsewhere, and others have been sentenced to varying prison terms. Shoko Asahara, was sentenced to death by hanging in February 2004, but continues to appeal the decision.

Aum Shinrikyo was stripped of its legal status and tax privileges as a religious organization, but the Japanese government concluded it was no longer a threat and stopped short of using an anti-subversion law to ban it. Aum has changed its name to Aleph, which is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and meant to signify renewal, and maintains an impressive following.

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