The Anti-Semitism of Japan's Aum Shinrikyo: A Dangerous Revival
October 15, 1999
Dr. Ely Karmon
This article will shortly be published in the annual “Anti-Semitism Worldwide: 1998/1999” by The Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University, Nebraska University Press.
In January 1995, two months before the poison gas attack in the Tokyo subway, a blatantly anti-Semitic tract, under the title “Manual of Fear: The Jewish Ambition – Total World Conquest,” was published in the journal Vajrayana Sacca of the apocalyptic religious cult Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth). This tract was described as the culmination of a decade of anti-Semitic propaganda in Japan. Aum Shinrikyo is not only a cult with a skillful propaganda apparatus, it is also the only organization in the world that has perpetrated deadly chemical and biological terrorist attacks, notably the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway on 20 March 1995. Thus, we might ask if this cult represents a threat to the Japanese people, to the world and, in light of its extreme anti-Semitism, to the Jews. In order to understand Aum’s anti-Semitism, one must analyze its religious-political ideology and identify those the cult leader sees as its strategic enemies.
Aum Shinrikyo began operating as a religious organization in July 1987, having been founded as the Aum Shinsen no Kai organization in 1984.The head of the cult was Chizuo Matsumoto, also known as Shoko Asahara, a partially blind, charismatic former acupuncturist and yoga instructor, self-styled as the “one and only person who has acquired supreme truth” and who attributed to himself supernatural powers.
By the time of the Tokyo attack in March 1995, the cult had grown into a large organization of some 10,000 Japanese members, with branches in Russia, Germany, the United States and Sri Lanka. Its wealth came from the savings that new members turned over to the cult, from tax-exempt businesses staffed by cult members, and from fraud and extortion. Aum's assets have been estimated at between 300 million and one billion dollars. The cult succeeded in recruiting highly trained scientists and graduate students in physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and electrical engineering. Its recruiting methods include a wide range of standard brainwashing techniques, such as sleep deprivation and forced isolation.
In August 1989, the cult formed its own political organization, the Shinri Party, which contested the 1990 general election. None of the 25 candidates won seats. The election failure gave rise to a feeling of frustration among members, producing a change in tactics, which included harassment of those outside the cult. Furthermore, it established a quasi-governmental system with its own structures mirroring those of Japan's state administrative machinery. The doctrinal basis for this organizational policy was “the plan to save mankind facing the ultimate chaos of Armageddon.” This hierarchy of “ministries and agencies” was widely seen as being in direct opposition to the Japanese nation.
At the same time, the cult arranged for the mass-production of a thousand Russian K-74 rifles. It also purchased a helicopter (for air delivery of chemical weapons) and made repeated attempts to enter the plant facilities of major private sector enterprises with a view to spying and stealing advanced military technology. It had equipment capable of cultivating bacterial weapons on a large scale and for biochemical testing. The cult also had plans to cultivate the extremely neurotoxic clostridium botulinum for dispersion, using vaporizers .
Aum Shinrikyo plotted to produce and use 70 tons of sarin. For this purpose, a large-scale chemical plant was built and the chemicals required for the synthesis of sarin were purchased. The cult's involvement with chemical warfare also included an assassination attempt with the nerve gas VX (a substance far more lethal than sarin), released in the car of a religious enemy of the cult, and the experimental pilot-plant production of poison gases such as tabun and soman.
On a number of occasions in the early 1990s, Asahara ordered the use of these weapons to strike at enemies and to try to create disasters that would confirm his prophesies. In April 1990 Aum attacked the Japanese parliament with botulinum toxin aerosol, and in June 1993 it targeted the wedding of the crown prince. Later that month, Aum reportedly also attempted to spray anthrax spores from the roof of a building in Tokyo. There were no casualties as a result of these attacks.
For several years, Aum's activities went unpunished, despite substantial press attention and some official investigations. It should be noted that in 1989 Aum had officially been recognized as a religious organization, giving it a significant degree of protection from official interference. It was only in early 1995 that the Tokyo Metropolitan Police began to investigate Aum Shinrikyo seriously.
In response, on 15 March, Aum reportedly made an abortive aerosol botulinum toxin attack in the Tokyo subway. Finally, a small batch of low-grade sarin was made and used in the 20 March subway attack, which left 12 people dead and more than five thousand injured. Planned and executed clumsily and at short notice, this attack was less successful than originally feared, saving thousands of people from death.
After the attack, police raided the cult's facilities nationwide and dismantled the organization. Hundreds of members of the cult were arrested, but Asahara himself was arrested only on 16 May. In the intervening weeks, the cult had carried out further attacks, including the shooting of the Tokyo police commissioner (who survived), and an abortive attack with an improvised cyanide gas generator at a Tokyo train station.
In April 1996 the first hearings in the trial of Shoko Asahara were held at a Tokyo district court. He faces murder and other charges relating to 17 alleged crimes, including the release of the poison gas sarin in Tokyo’s subway, but the trial could last many more years. Some leading members of the cult involved in the killings and terrorist attacks have been sentenced, one of them to death.
Aum’s Religious Tenets and Ideology
From 1984 until 1986 the group under Asahara developed around yoga lessons and “miracle” experiences. In 1987, however, it began to assume an ardently religious character, its doctrine based on early Buddhism.
In his study of Aum, the Japanese specialist in New Religions Shimazono Susumu stresses that while the cult is specifically a problem of Japanese culture, its beliefs bear a relationship to contemporary religio-cultural trends throughout the world. It should be noted that Asahara claimed to be Jesus, which allowed him to add to Aum's Buddhist doctrines the Judeo-Christian concept of the Last Judgment and the final battle of Armageddon. The scheduling of Armageddon enabled the guru to append a fashionable millennial urgency to Buddhism's timeless world view.
Asahara and his followers, certain that the apocalypse was coming, thought at first to ensure survival through religion, but shifted gradually, during the years 1988-89, from preparing for the survival of people outside the group to the survival only of the “chosen,” and finally, in 1994, to “survival through combat.” In order to survive Armageddon they had to become “superhuman.” Thus the group attempted to prove that those engaged in spiritual practice possessed a special resistance to chemical and bacterial agents, should they be attacked by ABC (atomic, biological, chemical) weapons.
Aum introduced new elements into the history of Japanese religions: the demand for complete obedience to the leader, together with implanting this subservience through severe ascetic practice, and the physical infusion of the leader’s power, energy and knowledge into the believer so that he becomes one with the leader, physically and mentally. The form of guru worship that emerged from these beliefs resembles religious cults on the rise in advanced countries throughout the world. However, worship of the leader does not become truly dangerous until he/she possesses unrestricted power,as in the case of Aum.
Enemies and Strategy
In 1992, Asahara claimed that a vast shadowy power, variously identified as Japan, the United States, and a conspiracy of Jews, Freemasons, the British royal family (which, allegedly, has remote Masonic ties) and rival Japanese religions, would launch a third world war. (Japan has 2,512 Freemasons, almost all of them foreigners, and fewer than one thousand Jews).
Asahara thought it likely that Japan would be attacked by the United States, identified with the Beast in the Book of Revelations, because economic motives pitted the United States against Japan. In its rhetoric, it accused the US and the West of spreading rampant materialism and internationalism, which the cult saw as the root of Japan’s problems.
In early I994 Asahara accused the United States of masterminding and carrying out a series of chemical attacks on himself and on Aum facilities in Japan. That year the cult produced a video which claimed to document American poison gas attacks. An Aum spokesman reassured his audience that the sect was not the producer of sarin gas, but its victim. He charged that in the past few years some two hundred and forty Japanese and American aircraft had swooped low over Aum's compound spraying the deadly gas.
The cult's monthly publication, Vajrayana Sacca, contained an article hinting at planned terrorist assassinations of various Japanese officials. A number of prominent Japanese officials are listed as “black-hearted aristocrats who have sold their souls to the devil.” Included is the honorary president of Soka Gakkai International (Aum had previously made an unsuccessful attempt on his life when it tried to use sarin for the first time), a major Japanese religious group that Asahara despised and regarded as his chief religious rival in Japan; the governor of Tokyo; and the head of the New Frontier Party. Asahara believed that in order to save Japan as a whole, he had no choice but to destroy the present government and to set up an Aum dictatorship. Then he had to prepare his chemical and biological arsenal, seeking to bring about Armageddon as the means of his victory.
If America was Aum's first target, the world Jewish community was its second. In the tract “Manual of Fear: The Jewish Ambition -- Total World Conquest,” Aum claimed that the Jews had taken advantage of Japan's devastation after World War II as a step in their conspiracy to achieve total world domination. Aum saw the United States as controlled by Jewish capital, which directed the Freemasons, while the Freemasons allegedly used the UN to achieve universal control. The “Manual of Fear” is actually a “declaration of war” on the Jews. “On behalf of the earth's 5.5 billion people,” the editors wrote, “Vajrayana Sacca hereby formally declares war on the ‘world shadow government’ that murders untold numbers of people and, while hiding behind sonorous phrases and high-sounding principles, plans to brainwash and control the rest. Japanese, awaken! The enemy's plot has long since torn our lives into shreds.”
Jews are accused of everything from the massacres in Bosnia to those in Rwanda and Cambodia. Linking the Jews to its enemies in Japanese society, the “black aristocracy” and the “internationalists,” Aum even published a list of these enemies, including cosmopolitan Japanese, labeled Jewish Japanese.
The Background of Aum Shinrikyo’s Anti-Semitism
A recent study on current Japanese attitudes toward Jews notes that Japan is a special case in modern anti-Semitism since there are few Jews in Japan, and the Japanese do not distinguish between Jews and other non-Japanese. Anti-Semitism is not rooted in Japan, beginning only in the twentieth century and it lacks any religious context of conflict. Judaism has never threatened or clashed with any of the religions practiced in Japan, but this has not prevented several waves of anti-Semitism in this century.
Anti-Semitism in Japan, which may be defined as the belief in a global Jewish conspiracy bent on destroying Japan, has four sources: indigenous xenophobia; the image of the Jew derived from Western literature; certain Christian theologies; and the conspiracy theory of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Protocols seemed particularly plausible to the Japanese because they bore a close resemblance to the domestic theory of an occult religion threatening Japan that had appeared a hundred years before.
In the mid-1980s there was a recrudescence of anti-Semitism in Japan, when dozens of anti-Semitic books were sold in millions of copies. Part of the responsibility for this resurgence lay with the Japanese left, whose anti-Zionist rhetoric tended to de-humanize the Jews and de-legitimize Jewish culture. A few extreme left-wing ideologues even propagated theories of an international Jewish conspiracy that were indistinguishable from those of their rightist counterparts.
One of the most popular and prolific anti-Semitic authors, the fundamentalist Christian minister Uno Masami, published two books in 1986, claiming that the United States was a “Jewish nation” ruled by a clandestine Jewish “shadow government.” In 1992, a new anti-Semitic author, Ota Ryu, traced the Jewish plot to destroy Japan back 1,200 years to the Nara period of Japanese history. In early 1995, two books appeared that even blamed the Jews for the Kobe earthquake in January 1995.
Thus, Aum’s anti-Semitism developed in a favorable cultural climate and expressed ideas and trends already present in Japanese society, albeit on its extreme fringes. The publication of vitriolic material such as Aum’s was possible because the Japanese government had never considered the circulation of anti-Semitic materials as harmful. Their unrestricted availability is accepted by Japanese at all levels because the right of freedom of expression in post-war Japan is absolute.
Although stripped of its legal status and tax privileges as a religious organization, following the poison gas attack in Tokyo, Aum Shinrikyo revived its activities in early 1997. The government, concluding it was no longer a threat, stopped short of using the anti-subversion law to ban it. However, according to the Japanese Public Security Investigation Agency, the cult should remain under close surveillance.
The number of Aum followers is leveling off, not decreasing. Currently, Aum has nearly 2,000 followers, including more than 500 live-in members. The latter live in 15 cult bases across Japan. The cult owns 28 compounds in 18 Japanese prefectures for religious training, missionary work and other operations. Out of some 400 Aum disciples arrested in crackdowns on the cult since 1995, a total of 155 have returned after being released.
For ex-followers there are tips on using false names and diversionary tactics to re-join. Sometimes Aum sells itself as a yoga group or sponsors animation film festivals. Its house band, Perfect Emancipation, performs regularly and its pamphlets appear periodically. Millions of recruitment leaflets, with Asahara's face on the back cover, are again being distributed at train stations, on college campuses and in mail boxes.
Aum has significantly increased its fund-raising activities. Thirteen Aum-associated businesses and five stores earn billions of yen each year. The cult's specialty, as before, is selling cheap computers. In 1997 its computer sales earned it more than 57.5 million dollars. The cult also continues to collect large sums from followers. The police reported that in the final four months of 1998, it earned more than 200,000 dollars from 310 seminars attended by 7,000 people. The Golden Week Intensive Seminar in the spring of 1999 at a campsite near Tokyo drew about 200 followers, who paid 100,000_200,000 yen to join, with some paying half a million yen more for “initiation” rituals, a total of some 500,000 dollars, said investigators. Thus, once again Aum has the financial resources to advance its religious, ideological and political objectives.
With Asahara on trial, the cuis headed by Reika Matsumoto, his teenage daughter, followed in command by Chorobu, a group of senior cultists. One of Asahara's closest and most charismatic disciples, Fumihiro Joyu, who served as the cult's spokesman before his arrest, was freed in November 1998 after serving time for forgery and other minor charges. His return could be a boost to Aum.
Aum now has its own sites on the Internet, available in Japanese, Russian, English and lately also in German. Users can read the latest news on the court trials, hymns and reminiscences of the Master’s’ uncanny brilliance or check up on missions to Russia and elsewhere. The sites have a radio station and are preparing to put a TV station on air. “Evangelion tes Basileias” is the name of the radio program of Russian Aum Shinrikyo.
Aum's website makes no mention of the cult's crimes. The death doctrine has reappeared on the website and in leaflets -- despite Asahara's vow to prohibit its dissemination. His doomsday preachings are also reappearing in the cult's magazines and on its website, where a follower recently wrote: “Devotion to the guru is all that counts.”
Anti-Semitism – A Central Theme in Aum’s Ideology
Aum’s new website is composed of ten chapters, one of which (the seventh) is devoted to Freemasonry, in fact, anti-Semitism. The site in English includes the full text of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; interestingly, the site in Russian contains, in addition to The Protocols, fifty-eight extremely anti-Semitic articles, which do not appear at all in English.
In light of Aum’s past anti-Semitic propaganda and its lethal terrorist attacks, It is important to analyze the content of this material. The chapter on “Freemasonry” contains three parts: an interview with Aum’s leader Asahara; a page which tries to prove, in a rather puerile manner, that Asahara was “prophesized”; and the “Freemasons' conspiracy,” which is, in fact, The Protocols.
In the introduction to this chapter, Aum presents the modern world as divided between “administrative materialism,” that is, communism, which preaches “material equality,” and “free materialism,” that is, liberalism, whose principal is “Let those earn who want to earn.” But, in fact, according to Aum’s ideology, the only difference between East and West, left and right, is whether the materialism is free or administrative.
Given this situation, there are “they” who have the power to influence the modern world. “They” control the media and thus “they” can control the world and the events in it. Even the disintegration of the Soviet Union was the result of the manipulation of these mysterious people, in order to end its role as an adversary of the West.
In the texts, “they” are presented as “X,” and never as the Jews. But to be sure that there is no mistake about their identity, Master Asahara stresses the importance of the Ten Commandments in their religious doctrine. According to him, “The Ten Commandments are exclusively for X ... and they are only thinking how X can be wealthy and happy [sic].”
On the website the Master declares:
I think those world’s manipulators are in considerably high spiritual
stages ... Their spirituality might be equivalent to that of Aum’s Taishis, or
even slightly above … Perhaps, close to Maha-Mudra. People on that level
manipulate the world, slowly over a long period of time. They never do this in
haste, but over several hundred years, or more precisely, over seven or eight
hundred years. I would admire them if only their intrigue were
harmless. Jews also control world finance and banking.
Aum has a special function in this materialistic and corrupt world:
Even in prison Asahara is continuing to update his teachings in connection with the Jews and Israel and transmits them to his worshippers. In discussing the meaning of Armageddon, he answered a question of his lawyer in court: “If I remember correctly, it was in the first week of November in 1995, when the late Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated. Leaders of the world gathered in Israel. I regard this as the end of a prophesied event, kings assembling at Armageddon.”
These citations make it clear that Aum’s anti-Semitism is influenced by and accords with writings and ideas prevailing in contemporary Japanese anti-Semitic circles and literature, including radical right-wing motifs. Interestingly, the Holocaust and Holocaust denial, themes of Western right-wing radicals and their Japanese counterparts, do not appear in Aum’s ideology.
The Protocols (which were introduced by soldiers returning from the Siberian intervention of 1918_23), had a powerful impact in Japan, introducing a new dimension into indigenous Japanese conspiracy theories. With a central role in Aum’s ideology, propaganda and indoctrination, they enable Master Asahara to explain many difficult events and phenomena and convince his followers to unite their ranks and organize for the final, decisive battle against the Devil and its representatives in Japan.
Not surprisingly, the gas attack in the Tokyo subway, which Asahara chose as
the operational method for fighting its enemies (the Japanese government, the
United States, the West in general and the Jews) is “prophesized” in the ninth
chapter of The Protocols:
Asahara’s appreciation of the Jew’s intelligence and skills confirms the findings of Kowner’s research on Japanese attitudes toward Jews, according to which parallel to a rather positive image of Jews (seen as industrious, competen, and strong-minded people) there is a more complex one, which reveals the presence of suspicion and fear of Jews as individuals.
One of the main questions raised by the ideological and propaganda material displayed on Aum’s websites is the absence of attacks on the United States, in contrast to the earlier aggressive anti-Americanism of its publications and public statements. This may reflect its leaders’ caution about direct conflict with the superpower at a sensitive phase in Aum’s new organizational expansion. The American journalist Charles Lee claims that “it is not fashionable to attack America, so Jews become scapegoats.” Neil Sandberg, director of the American Jewish Committee's Pacific Rim Institute, argues that in Japan frustration toward the West has been displaced by anti-Semitism, which may have become “a strand of anti-Americanism.” Jews, as such, are perceived as the “ultimate” or “quintessential” Westerner, the epitome of all that is negative about the West. It is possible that for pragmatic reasons, the new Aum leadership has decided to use this dual image of the Jews in order to advance its larger ideological and strategic goals.
A final remark about the Russian component of Aum’s website. As noted above, in addition to the material presented in English, there is a long list of other anti-Semitic articles and attacks against the Jews. In contrast to the poor language of the English texts, the Russian material is written and probably printed in Russia. It also contains much graphic and photographic material of old anti-Jewish Christian documents.
The themes of these articles are closely related to false accusations against Jews and anti-Semitic traditions in Russian history. The first group, more general articles, “demonstrates” the wickedness of Judaism and the Jews and their relationship with the Freemasons: “Old Sins of the Jews,” “The Sanhedrin and the New Talmud,” “Jesus and the Pharisees,” and so on. The second group is related to the Freemasons’ relations with, and nefarious influence upon, nearly all Russia’s rulers. Other, more modern, motifs also appear, such as “The Jewish Stain on Red Russia” and “Jewish Testimonies on Behalf of the Bolsheviks.”
There are indications that Aum’s Russian branch which, when the cult was outlawed in 1995 numbered some 30,000 members, has been attempting to renew its activity, the large Russian ant-Semitic website being testimony to this. The German edition of Aum’s Internet site could indicate that the cult is seeking new grounds for expansion. Moreover, the cult has a new date for Armageddon, the year 2003, which means that it might not be far from a new wave of extremism.
In spite of the horrendous crimes perpetrated by its leaders and members and the recommendations of the Japanese security authorities, Aum’s resurgence as an active and aggressive cult represents a serious challenge in the near future, which extends beyond the confines of Japan, the Japanese government and people.
Dr. Ely Karmon is Senior Research Scholar and Director of the Internet and Database Project at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzlia, and Lecturer, Department of Political Science, University of Haifa.
1. Anti-Semitism Worldwide 1995/6 (Project for the Study of Anti-Semitism, Tel Aviv University), p. 265-6.
2. This section is based mainly on Aum Shinrikyo: An Alarming Report on the Terrorist Group’s Organization and Activity, SHOTEN (National Police Agency Publication) 252 (1995), pp. 6, 10-11.
3. See Richard Falkenrath, Robert Newman & Bradley Thayer, America’s Achilles’ Heel, (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), pp. 19-26.
4. For the following paragraphs, see ibid..
5. This analysis is based on Shimazono Susumu, “In the Wake of Aum: The Formation and Transformation of a Universe of Belief,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 223/3 (1995), pp. 381_415; see also Manabu Watanabe, “Religion and Violence in Japan Today: A Chronological and Doctrinal Analysis of Aum Shinrikyo,” Terrorism and Political Violence 4 (Winter 1998), pp. 80-100.
6. Susumu, “In the Wake of Aum,” pp. 402-5.
7. See D.W. Brackett, Holy Terror: Armageddon in Tokyo (New York, 1996), p. 106.
9. Cited from Anti-Semitism Worldwide 1995/6, p. 265.
10. See Brackett, Holy Terror, p. 108.
11. See Rotem Kowner, “On Ignorance, Respect and Suspicion: Current Japanese Attitudes toward Jews,” Analysis of Current Trends in Antisemitism (1997), acta no. 11 (Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, Hebrew University of Jerusalem), http://sites.huji.ac.il/www~jcd/.
12. The following paragraphs are based on Anti-Semitism Worldwide 1995/6 and 1997/8.
13. See Anti-Semitism Worldwide 1995/6, p. 263.
14. Anti-Semitism Worldwide 1997/8, p. 282.
15. Japan Times, 19 March 1998.
16. See Murakami Mutsuko, “The Cult That Won’t Die,” Asiaweek, 18 Dec. 1998.
17. Japan Times, 19 March 1998.
18. Associated Press, 14 March 1999.
19. The official Aum site domain is http://aum-internet.org. The even bigger site (http://aum-shinrikyo.com), represents its ideology and interests, although it claims to be a private website unaffiliated to Aum.
20. The German site is still in its initial stage and contains little data.
21. See “Devil's Nature: Matter,” a special interview with Master Asahara, Mahayana 31 (5 July 1990).
22. See the text in http://www.aum-shinrikyo.com/english/index.htm. It seems that many of the texts used in the websites date from the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s.
23. The original text was probably in Japanese and the translations are in quite poor English.
24. Maha Mudra is a Tibetan method of meditation developed from the Tantric source, called also “the yoga of the great liberation.” or “the yoga of the great symbol.”
25. Anti-Semitism Worldwide 1995/6, pp. 262-3.
26. Cited in the 9th Protocol as it appears on Aum’s site. I owe this observation to Garry A Greenwood’s article, “Mahikari and Aum: In the Grip of the Black Hand,” (http://www.rickross.com/reference/aum1.html). Greenwood is an ex-member of another Japanese religious cult, Mahikari, and according to him Aum Shinrikyo was influenced by Mahikari’s anti-Semitism.
27. See Kowner, “On Ignorance, Respect and Suspicion,” p. 18.
28. Ibid., p. 4. Kowner cites from Lee Charles, Newsweek, 16 May 1994.
29. Ibid. Cited from Neil Sandberg, Jewish World, 12-18 May 1989.
30. In his deposition in court, cited in the cult’s Internet site, Asahara tried to prove that he did not consider the date of Armageddon as an absolute truth, but rather an event whose “timing is subject to according to varying social circumstances.”
Religion and History
If using this material on another site, please provide a link back to my site.