Cults of the World: Aum Shinrikyo

*Post written by James Wethington, senior library assistant of the University Archives and Special Collections.

Prophet of Poison After the Tokyo suffers a nerve-gas attack, suspicion focuses on the leader of an apocalyptic cult. By David Van Biema The Canaries went first. Policemen in protective suits, ridiculous looking things with gas detectors hanging out in front, bore the cages before them as they made their way grimly through the country road in the Mount Fuji foothills toward what looked to be a factory compound. It was 7 AM. There were more than a thousand police; those who didn’t wear protective suits watched the canaries closely. If the compound doors opened and the birds died, they would flee for their lives. The bird lives. And day after day investigators raided the headquarters and hideaways of the suspect religious cult. Day after day they emerged with ton after ton of chemicals – sodium cyanide, sodium fluoride, phosphorus trichloride, isopropyl alcohol, acetonitrile – some benign, but others deadly, and still others that if mixed together might create something deadlier still.

Time Magazine article relating to Aum Shinrikyo, 1995. Source: CS 042-1, Aum Shinrikyo collection.

Welcome to part two of “Cults of the World”. Inside of the communal studies collection at the University Archives and Special Collections, there is information on several cult groups. Cults are not just in the United States but they can pop up everywhere. The next communal group in the series, Aum Shinrikyo, started in Japan, morphed radically, and caused harm on innocent bystanders.

Aum Shinrikyo, Japanese for “supreme truth”, began in 1987 by Matsumoto Chizuo, known as Master Asahara Shoko to community members. The community started due to disagreement about “… traditional Japanese Buddhism” (Melton, 2017). Shoko combined numerous apocalyptic prophesies from Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian religions and the prediction of World War III with the impact for Japan; moreover, they believed after World War III, they would be the only ones to survive (, 2018; Melton, 2017). The majority of community members were college students because “… of the group’s promise of a more meaningful life to young people from academically pressured backgrounds who had to look forward to similarly pressured careers” (, 2018).

In Japan, the Aum Shinrikyo cult released the chemical agent sarin in a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway. About five thousand people became sick and a dozen were killed, 1995. Source:

Authorities cleaning Tokyo subway cars to get harmful and deadly chemicals, 1995. Source:

On March 20, 1995, Aum Shinrikyo did the unthinkable in Tokyo. (2018) stated, “… during rush hour, cult members punctured bags filled with a liquid form of the nerve agent sarin, using sharpened umbrellas, on train lines that went through Tokyo’s political district. The attack killed 13 people and injured thousands more. In subsequent months, cult members carried out several failed attempts at releasing hydrogen cyanide in various stations.” Because of the attack, thirteen members were sentenced to death, including Shoko; moreover, the community disbanded after the Japanese government took a large amount of their property and they changed their name to Aleph (Melton, 2017).

After the 1995 attack, the group went into hiding. By 2007, there were fifteen hundred members and a new leader and successor, Joyu Fumihiro; however, Fumihiro decided to create his own organization, Hikari no Wa. Some remaining members left Japan and went over to Europe. Some officials investigated some former members because of fear the group would harm citizens similar to the 1995 attack. There are some former members in Japan but they are nowhere as powerful when they first started (, 2018; Melton, 2017).

In the University Archives and Special Collections, Aum Shinrikyo is located in our Communal Studies collections. Aum Shinrikyo is one of nine collections containing information on cults. All materials are available at the University Archives and Special Collections: if you are interested in more materials, please email to

References (2018). Aum Shinrikyo: the Japanese cult surfacing in Europe. Retrieved from

Melton, J. G. (2017, November 20). Aleph. Retrieved from

This entry was posted in Communal Studies, Cult, Japan, Murder. Bookmark the permalink.

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