Note
Aum Shinrikyo changed its name to Aleph in January 2000 for legal reasons. This writeup concerns the history of the organisation before that change.

Aum Shinrikyo (sometimes anglicised as Shinri Kyo) is a religious sect/cult originating from Japan that is infamous both for its Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks, and the rumours of a nuclear test in Australia.

Early Years
Chizuo Matsumoto was born in 1955 on Kyushu. After an unremarkable childhood he failed to get into Tokyo University, and so instead began to study traditional Chinese medicine. He joined a religious movement called Agonshu and became very interested in spirituality.

The history of Aum Shinrikyo begins in 1984, when Matsumoto and his wife began to hold regular yoga classes. He established himself as a minor religious leader, and had only a few followers.

This all changed after his visit to the Himalayas in 1986. Matsumoto claimed to have achieved enlightenment, and changed his name to Shoko Asahara. He named his movement Aum Shinrikyo. Aum is a Sanskrit word that is related to concepts of creation and destruction, and Shinrikyo is Japanese for "supreme truth religion".

Rise to Prominence
It was at this point that Aum Shinrikyo fully formulated its beliefs and practices. Aum Shinrikyo is heavily influenced by both Buddhism and Hinduism, but the central belief is that an Apocalypse is coming, and this can only be prevented by bringing people to salvation. This required giving up everything to Aum Shinrikyo, and living a life of ascetic devotion. New initiates were often demeaned and tortured, as were those members who seemed about to leave.

The group acquired official religious status from the Japanese government in 1989, but not without some difficulty. Like many cults Aum Shinrikyo demanded that its members sever all ties with their family, a practice that lead to complaints from the affected families. The word Shukkesha refers to one who has abandoned their family and joined the cult. Aum Shinrikyo was subject to several other legal challenges, one of which culminated in a prominent lawyer's disappearance and finally became an object of national ridicule, when of 25 candidates in the 1990 elections none were elected.

With the group apparently in trouble Shoko Asahara announced a shift in ideology. With the failure of Aum Shinrikyo's political mission the apocalypse could no longer be prevented, and must instead must be prepared for. The organisation became isolationist, and concentrated itself on acquiring safe houses and weaponry. It is at this point that chemical weapon manufacture began, and the nuclear test may have occured.

Era of Terrorism
The first notable act carried out by Aum Shinrikyo was carried out on June 27, 1994. Specially converted trucks were used to release sarin gas in the middle of Matsumoto. This achieved the presumed aim of incapacitating several judges who were presiding over Aum Shinrikyo related trials, and also lead to seven deaths. Unfortunately this incident was not traced back to Aum Shinrikyo for some time. Suspicions were raised by an incident the following month when an accident at an Aum Shinrikyo compound led to several members fleeing, clad in gas masks.

On March 19, 1995 the Japanese police raided an Aum Shinrikyo building in Osaka and arrested several members on kidnapping charges. The next day, during the morning rush hour 10 Aum Shinrikyo members simultaneously released sarin gas at several different points on the Tokyo subway. The powerful nerve agent led to the deaths of over 10 people, and affected hundreds more, especially around the Kasumigaseki station.

Several other incidents occured soon after, such as the attempted assasination of the Chief of Police in Tokyo. Following these, Shoko Asahara was arrested, and a lengthy series of legal proceeding began.

Recent developments
It was only in 2000 that Shoko Asahara admitted his involvment in the attacks, and soon afterwards Aum Shinrikyo distanced itself from him by renaming themself Aleph. However the organisation is still under extensive investigation by the Japanese government.

Update: 27/2/04
Asahara has been sentenced to death after a lengthy trial. Read the full story here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/3491488.stm


Sources:
  • http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/aums.html
  • http://www.gospelcom.net/apologeticsindex/a06.html
  • http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol5no4/olson.htm
  • http://www.ict.org.il/inter_ter/orgdet.cfm?orgid=68
  • gn0sis (Many thanks for a few corrections)

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