Japan Terrorism

Aum Shinrikyo: A Cult of Terror

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Throughout its history, Japan’s proclivity toward highly centralized forms of government has prompted no small amount of social resistance. As an imperial democracy with an extensive history of regional conflict, occupation and human rights abuse, Japan has engendered resentment, resistance and organized acts of subversion for its political, military and economic activities at home and abroad. Across the latter half of the 20th century though, it is increasingly its relationship with the United States that has embroiled Japan in controversy and invoked the ire of socialist groups, anti-imperialist organizations and revolutionary militants. As a result, Japan has long battled a significant terrorist threat, and particularly on its own soil where a number of groups continue to act in defiance of the Japanese government and its various military and diplomatic alliances. The focus in this discussion will be on Aum Shinrikyo/Aleph (Aum), both for its relative prominence in Japan and for its perpetration of the worst terrorist attack in modern Japanese history; the Tokyo subway attack of 1995. Subsequent to outlining Aum Shinrikyo’s identity and activities, the research will consider the organization relative to other Japanese terror groups. Particularly, the Japanese Red Army (JRA) and India’s Maoist Communist Center (MCC) have been selected because these are classified as terrorist organizations but each varies with regard to the level of threat represented.

Detailed Profiles:


Aum Shinrikyo was formed in 1984 as something of a vague amalgam of beliefs. At the time of its inception, the nature of the organization which was then called Aum Shinsen no Kai, was more of a cult than a terrorist group. However, the teachings and orientation of its founder and leader, Shoko Asahara would evolve with the growth of his power, the intensification of his personal delusions of grandeur and the extent of his amassed wealth. As with most cults, Aum would draw in its followers using a selective combination of spiritual ideologies drawn from existing religious traditions in order to justify an array of ideological imperatives. Among them, the acceptance of Asahara as “Supreme Leader” was essential. (GTD, 1)

Gradually, the mysticism feeding into Asahara’s ideology would invoke imagery of a coming nuclear holocaust waged between Japan and the United States. It is compelling here to note the ways in which Asahara would manipulate the psyche of his followers based on the events of history while simultaneously devising a motive for resistance driven by the close diplomatic relationship between the United States and Japan. Indeed, as the organization gathered steam in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Asahara became increasingly convinced that violent action would be necessary on the part of Aum in order to prevent the coming apocalypse. To justify this, the organization would develop a doctrine called ‘poa’ which insisted that murder on spiritual grounds was righteous and justified. (GTD, 1) in this regard, there are echoes the doctrines already in place amongst Islamic militants throughout Asia and the Middle East.

So would a parallel become evident to such fundamentalist organizations as Asahara’s cult transitioned into an active armed organization. Accordingly, “the cult began to assemble its own militia and reorganized its leadership structure as a shadow government. This cabinet had ministries in charge of different areas such as Science and Technology, Intelligence, and Construction.” (GTD, 1) These areas would eventually give way to the various methods of intended terrorist activity that would come to fruition for Aum.

Indeed, its interest in areas of science and technology were not idle. During the early 1990s, Aum revealed one of the most pressing terrorist threats to the modern world as it carried out a series of attacks through biological and chemical hazards on unsuspecting civilians. A June 1993 attack from its own headquarters in Tokyo would be a failure for the use of a non-infectious strain of anthrax. However, attacks carried out in Matsumoto City in June of 1994 and, most famously, in a Tokyo subway during a March 1995 morning rush hour, would have far graver results. The use of sarin nerve gas would result in wide casualties, several fatalities and a revelation as to the serious danger which a terrorist attack could represent with the use of chemical weapons. (GTD, 1)

Asahara would be held responsible for the Tokyo subway attacks, tried and sentenced to death, as would be a number of others with core affiliation to Aum Shinrikyo and the planning of the attacks. Asahara appealed his sentencing and remains in prison. Aum also remains in operation and has never been fully outlawed by the Japanese government. Accordingly, “PSIA has monitored Aum since 2000 under the Organization Control Law, a measure that allows the Agency to conduct on-site facility inspections and to obtain quarterly operational reports from the group. Both groups continued to perpetuate the ideology of Aum founder and sarin gas attack planner Chizuo Matsumoto, aka Shoko Asahara. PSIA inspections revealed that many original Aum members continued to hold leadership positions in the groups, and that Aum facilities maintained portrait photos and video teachings of Asahara.” (OCC, 2) All indications are that though aspects of the organization no longer preach violence, justify murder or plan terrorist attacks, Asahara’s teachings remain influential. Therefore, it should be regarded not only that Aum Shinrikyo is dangerous but also that it should be aggressively monitored with intent to force disbandment.

This differs somewhat from the course of the Japanese Red Army, which was a product of the student movement of the 1960s. Like many of its contemporaries around the world, this group was essentially driven by the ideologist imperatives of a burgeoning communist revolution throughout Europe and Asia. Formed in 1970 by Fusako Shigenobu, “the group became one of the most feared and infamous terrorist organizations in the world during the 1970s by hijacking several commercial airliners and holding the French embassy in the Hague hostage.” (GTD, 1) the organization contrasts Aum particularly due to its era of operation. Disbanded since the imprisonment of its leader in 2000, it is not today considered an active terror group. However, in its time, its activities were audacious and constituted a genuine threat to Japanese and global security.

As something of an Indian counterpart to the JRA, at least with respect to its stated philosophy, the Maoist Communist Center (MCC) would similarly be an outgrowth of the permeation of communist ideologies in the 1960s. Formed in 1969, it would actually be the organic outgrowth of coordinated resistance efforts by a number of smaller communist organizations. According to the Global Terrorism Datebase, “the MCC was composed of rebellious elements that chose not to join the newly formed Communist Party of India — Marxist Leninist [CPI (ML)]. From 1969-1975, the MCC went by the name Dakshin Desh.” (GTD, 1) as a result, the MCC established itself as a fringe group with connections to activities of armed rebellion. By contrast to the JRA, the MCC would actually gain some success by engendering the support, or at least entrenching its authority over, peasants in villages in regions outlying firm government control.


It is difficult to identify the core goals which now drive Aum’s organization. Its splintered capacity indicates that some profess to the goals of meditation and spiritual worship which were its original teachings. Others profess to those goals aimed at dismantling imperial Japan and resisting its close ties to the United States. From the perspective of those providing Japan with a national security strategy, it seems most appropriate to identify the organization with these latter goals. Though the organization has not carried out an attack since 1995, it is reasonable to deduce that this is because of its massively depleted capacity as a result of its core members having been imprisoned and its central operations dismantled by oversight and financial disruption. In any event, we may identify the goals of Aum Shinrikyo, Aleph or any other organization operating under Asahara’s ideological umbrella as having the goal of destroying Japan’s imperial authority and undermining its central government.

These anti-imperialist ambitions are a common thread across many of Japan’s terror organizations. Indeed, this would be the declared and primary goal of the Japanese Red Army as well, which sought to achieve a communist overthrow of the government by violent revolutionary tactics. In particular, it channeled many of its actions toward undermining Japan’s connection to western global alignments such as those which protect the state of Israel. Indeed, as we will discuss hereafter, JRA inserted itself into the affairs of the Middle East, identifying the United States, Japan and Israel as a corrupt trinity.

Though the MCC proceeded from a similarly stated goal of overthrowing its own government for a communist revolutionary government, it would pursue this goal with almost totally domestic ambitions. The affairs of nations outside of its region did not register into the scope of its ambitions. Based on its operations, it ultimately seems that the goal for the MCC has been to establish at least a strong pan-maoist region in India with the intention of eventual unification of cessation.

Purpose of Attack:

As with its goals as a whole, the general purpose of the attacks levied against the Japanese public by Aum Shinrikyo is not entirely clear. As is often the case with cult-based acts of terror, there is a heavily mix of religious fervor, political rhetoric and self-indulgence. Indeed, all of these may play into the hazy motives of Aum Shinrikyo. Indeed, the Global Terrorism Database identifies the moment at which the organization transitioned into militancy as being in response to a lost parliamentary election. When the cult’s selected representatives failed to gain a single parliamentary seat, Asahara contended that the Japanese government had conspired to keep his party out of the decision-making body of their nation. This would be grounds for future armed resistance. Consistent with this act of self-interest, future attacks would directly target those who seemed to represent a political or legal threat to Asahara himself. (GTD, 1)

The Japanese Red Army would instead be more directly geared toward distinct political objectives relating to its socialist orientation. With respect to the attacks which it would undertake, its tendency to target civilians in commercial airliners would underscore a strategy of hostage-taking and subsequent diplomatic negotiation. For instance, “in 1975, the JRA embarked on a successful campaign to free all of its imprisoned members by taking hostages and using them as bargaining chips.” (GTD, 1)

The MCC’s methods of ‘attack’ have more generally taken the form of armed resistance to larger opposing forces such as the government’s military. With respect to its identify as a terrorist organization, its legal procedures may be considered a method of attack on human rights. In the regions where the MCC had established a sphere of control, its imposition of harsh communist legal courts contributes to what the Global Terrorism Database reports is at least 100 executions annually.

Area of Operation:

Though Aum is an organization based in Japan and founded with Japanese interests in mind, it is an international terrorist organization, so regarded for its bases of operation in other parts of the world. Accordingly, “Aum Shinrikyo actively recruited among professionals and students from Japan’s top universities. The cult also enlisted over 300 scientists with degrees in biochemistry, medicine, genetic engineering and biology. At its peak, Aum had 10,000 members in Japan, with 35,000 in Russia. Aum also had offices in the U.S., Germany and Taiwan.” (GTD, 1) Selecting nations with significant Japanese populations or with direct regional interest in imperial Japanese affairs, Aum would spread its operation to these locations as a property of its cult’s teachings. But more essentially, this would become an effective operational measure against being dismantled fully by a single domestic government such as has been attempted by the Japanese.

The Japanese Red Army also has attempted to spread its operation, but primarily by choosing international targets. Its particular sense of hostility toward imperial alignment and capitalist global unions such as the United Nations would underscore the tendency of the JRA to attempt to make its voice heard in places like the Hague and in Israel. To this latter point and underscoring the degree of interest which it has taken in the affairs of this part of the world, the JRA also was known at the time of its peak of operations to retain headquarters both in Japan and in Lebanon, as reported by the Global Terrorism Database.

As stated above, MCC is an essentially domestic organization. At that, it has tended also to limit its operations to those contexts where it can effectively dominate in regional affairs. Thus, its “current goal is to establish a “Compact Revolutionary Zone,” an area of control that would extend from the Nepalese border to Andhra Pradesh in the south.” (GTD, 1) This ambition is what primarily registers this as a threat to the interests and security of India.

Targets and Methods:

An international terrorist organization, its primary interest has nonetheless been on undermining the Japanese government. Therefore, it has targeted specifically Japanese sites throughout its short history, demonstrating a willingness to inflict harm upon both the Japanese public and specific individuals standing in the way of its success. To this latter point, the 1994 attack would be directed against three judges who sat on a trial in which Asahara was the defendant. Likewise, the 1995 attack would be aimed at police officers who had allegedly obstructed Aum’s activities. In both cases, the use of sarin nerve gas in a public space would reveal the horrifying reality of Aum’s capabilities. Indeed, “after the attack, Japanese police discovered that Aum Shinrikyo had accumulated hundreds of tons of chemicals in order to make enough sarin gas to kill millions of people. The production was conducted at the Satyan 7 facility in the Kamikuishiki complex, outside of Tokyo, near Mt. Fuji.” (GTD, 1)

The chemical attacks perpetrated by Aum Shinrikyo would be a new method of inflicting terror. But in the 1970s, the methods employed by the JRA were among the most terrifying to the Japanese public. Hijackings and hostage-scenarios constituted a real and sustained campaign of terror, with civilian air travels and international diplomats both functioning as major targets.

The methods employed by the Maoist Communist Center have been the occupation of villages in the regions where power-vacuum has allowed for such assumptions. With respect to its methods of terror, the punishments handed out by its court include both brutal execution methods and amputations.

Sources of Funding:

Its status as a cult is one of the unique characteristics that had helped to propel Aum. Its membership was the primary source of its capabilities, which significantly eclipse those of any Japanese terror group prior or since. Indeed, in the aftermath of the attack and the discovery of Aum’s broad capacity for terrorism, “Japanese police concluded the group owned over $1 billion in assets, the majority of which was obtained through membership fees, the sale of its literature, donations, tests, advanced courses and numerous businesses the organization ran.” (GTD, 1) Its use of these materials is particularly characteristic of cult proliferation, and accounts for the organizations success both in terms of its fast membership growth and its resultant financial largesse.

Though it is somewhat vague in detail on the subject, the Global Terrorism Database reports that, by contrast, the Japanese Red Army draws most of its funding from ban robberies. This denotes a willingness to engage in civilian criminal activities in support of terror ambitions.

The MCC is a significant contrast in that it uses its presentation of itself as a force of civil governance in order to collect taxes from the villages where it has achieved occupation. These funds contribute to the undertaking of armed confrontations with Indian military forces whenever territorial disputes are mounted.

Major Attacks:

Though in many ways, Aum’s activities have been limited, especially when compared to such historical threats as the East Asia Anti-Imperial Japanese Armed Front which festered throughout the early 1970s, its most notorious attack accounts for its reputation. (DHS, 1) According to the Global Terrorism Database, “in March 1995, Aum assaulted Tokyo’s subway, in an attempt to stop a police investigation into Aum’s activities. The cultists released sarin nerve gas, killing twelve people and injuring over 5,000 others.” (GTD, 1) This attack would not just inject a panic into the Japanese public over the capabilities and will of such anti-government groups, but it would also reveal to the world the considerable danger reflected in the possibilities of chemical attack.

Aum’s domestic attacks would contrast the tendency of such groups as the JRA to approach international targets with relation to its own political platform. Its objection to the Palestinian situation would drive its most notorious attack, “a 1972 assault on Tel Aviv’s airport, in which three JRA members killed 24 people and wounded 80.” (GTD, 1)

The Global Terrorism Database does not report to any major attacks taken on the behalf of the Maoist Communist Center.

Recent Activities:

As earlier noted, that would be the last of Aum’s attacks. And indeed, under a new leadership and the new name, Aleph, “it has apologized for its past acts of terrorism and paid reparation to the victims of the Tokyo underground sarin attack.” (GTD, 1) However, reports have indicated that many hardline followers of Asahara have begun to intensify their efforts at returning to acts of anti-government violence. The distribution of literature and other cult-driven material continues and has even showed renewed vigor during these last few years of conflict.

Like Aum, the JRA would see its chief members gathered up and imprisoned, including Shigenobu. Today, Shigenobu has taken a decisive position against violence and JRA has abstained from any such activities for more than two decades.

The MCC, contrary to the two organizations described here above, does actually continue to engage in activities designed to unify a region for the assertion of independence, though it does so under the guise of an organizational merger to be discussed hereafter.

Related Organizations:

Among related organizations, it may be said that there are two others. As stated, Aum Shinrikyo is not splintered into two ideologies, with one bearing the name Aleph and the other bearing this original name. Affiliated with the latter in particular is a “splinter group, Hikari no Wa. In December, PSIA filed a request with the Public Security Examination Commission, a Justice Ministry-affiliated decision-making board, to maintain surveillance of Aleph and Hikari no Wa for an additional three years.” (OCC, 2)

Though the Japanese Red Army holds no particular affiliations now, at the points where it was most active, it did maintain an affiliation with the Mid-East-based Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, underscoring its consistent commitment to this particular area of international concern.

As stated above, “in September 2004, the MCC merged with the People’s War Group (another left-wing extremist group) to form the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist).” (GTD, 1) This merger would produce a new group of differing ideological sectors in the Indian communist movement that would nonetheless continue to pursue the same pan-maoist goals of the now disbanded MCC.


A common feature of the groups identified is their shared proclivity toward communist ideology. However, the discussion above does reveal that different political and economic orientations will tend to promote different methods of practice. Indeed, the willingness to use or withhold violence appears to be one of the most salient variables in this breakdown.

Works Cited:

Global Terrorism Database (GTD). (2008). Terrorist Organization Profiles. National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. Online at http://www.start.umd.edu/start

Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism (OCC). (2009). Chapter 2. Country Reports: East Asia and Pacific Overview. U.S. Department of State. Online at http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2008/122413.htm

U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). (2009). Global Terrorism Database. University of Maryland. Online at http://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/

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