The Yomiuri ShimbunWhat was the Aum Supreme Truth cult? All 13 of the Aum members who were sentenced to death for a series of crimes committed by the religious group have been executed, including its founder and former leader Chizuo Matsumoto, also known as Shoko Asahara. Why did followers blindly believe in the group? Is there still a danger that something like that cult could appear again? We spoke with three experts who have continued to analyze the case. The following are excerpts from the interviews.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 27, 2018 )
Brainwashing by cults remains a threat today
In my capacity as a researcher, I met with the major defendants in the Aum Supreme Truth cult trials, to explore what was in their minds. On the whole, they were earnest people who thought deeply about life, and they were part of a generation that went out into the world during Japan’s bubble economy. They were living in a materialistic society, and had doubts about and felt trapped by the worship of money behind the booming economy and the view that happiness meant simply working hard and raising a family. They belonged to a straying generation that could not see the signposts pointing toward the future.
Even believers who were recognized as so-called scientific elites could not find answers about how one should live, no matter how much they scrutinized the question from a scientific perspective. They felt that life was transient and empty.
Amid these painful struggles, they fell for the mind control of the founder of the Aum Supreme Truth cult. The cult spoke of the ideals of life and society. After it showed the path to reach such ideals, it made them follow that path in the form of religious practices. To give this path a sense of reality, the cult planted its world view in followers’ minds, cobbled together from a variety of religious ideas such as concepts of rinne tensho (reincarnation) and Armageddon, as well as a distorted view of history.
Moreover, in order to maintain this mind control, followers were isolated from the realities of society. Information that did not meet with the founder’s approval was rejected outright. The attitude among followers that only people who joined the cult had a promising future — a viewpoint that looked down on other people — became magnified, and the kind of people who would not ordinarily commit a crime came to believe blindly in a doctrine that justified murder.
The threat of this kind of mind control is still with us.
The situation that young people find themselves in, who have no knowledge of Aum, is worsening from a state of uncertainty to one of confusion. We have a shaky economic system characterized by a long recession, among other things.
With the stagnant birthrate and aging population, there is no sense of security about the future. We’re in an age that can’t conceive of a realizable ideal model of anything, from the individual to the nation. We even hear students whose lives appear to be progressing nicely express their unease and concern about not feeling confident that a company will continue to exist, even though they might join a company that is currently in a strong position.
Taking advantage of this confusion, cult groups continue to recruit young people. We need preventative education so they can learn about the reality of such groups and make sure they stay away from them before they find themselves being drawn in, believing in these fictitious worlds. After the Aum incidents, a considerable number of universities introduced educational programs aimed at creating resistance to cult-like entities. But there are still many institutions that show a low level of concern.
The characteristics of destructive cults such as Aum are their absolute prioritization of the group’s activities, their interference in the private lives of their members in areas such as family life, their thorough prohibition of criticism, and their absolute obedience to charismatic leaders. In reality, they are groups that violate human rights.
I want people to learn about the existence of these kinds of groups, which say attractive things on the surface but trample on human rights behind the scenes, together with the danger of being recruited by them. I want the ability to make a judgment based on different kinds of information to be nurtured. The parents of young people also need to have an interest in this issue and be quick to note any change that occurs in youngsters.
■This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Natsuki Komastu.
■Kimiaki Nishida / Professor at Rissho University
Nishida, 58, specializes in social psychology. An expert on mind control who testified at the Aum trials, he is representative director of the Japan Society for Cult Prevention and Recovery.
Isolated power structures pose threat to society
The 1990s, when the Aum Supreme Truth cult carried out its attacks, was an “era of the heart” in which self-examination was extremely popular. People often asked themselves, “What am I?” Some adopted a casual approach to introspection, while others were more serious.
At the time, however, there was no grand narrative or authority that offered answers to this question. It was unfortunate that during this period, Chiuzo Matsumoto surfaced as a uniquely appealing alternative to traditional sources of authority.
Meanwhile, TV stations covered Aum — which had emerged as a new, unusual religion — as something of a joke.
The media thought it safe to approach Aum from a bird’s eye perspective and without a great deal of seriousness. Viewers also believed that people who frequently appeared on TV would never do anything terrible. Television gave rise to this oversimplified belief and camouflaged the group’s true nature.
I believe religion and ideology are the two most dangerous triggers that can prompt people to turn toward violence. However, present-day religions have virtually no features that appeal to young people.
Today’s young people also find it difficult to be drawn into cult groups. Cult-like personalities or statements that emerge on the internet are immediately swamped by criticism. I believe the internet has a number of aspects that prevent cults from seducing young people.
I don’t think present-day conditions allow for crimes like those committed by Aum to easily occur. Rather, the lessons to be learned from the Aum episode involve power structures that operate in isolated, closed-door environments. In incidents involving the United Red Army (Rengo Sekigun) and the confinement-murder cases in Kitakyushu and Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, that have come to light since 2000, power structures that operated behind closed doors enabled brainwashing and violence. This combination of isolation and powerful structures poses a greater threat than cults, as it can occur anywhere, even in this day and age.
The internet and social media on which today’s young people depend are far safer and more peaceful than religion. Users have no choice but to behave peacefully, as they would not be accepted by their cyber-companions if they turned to violence. Dependence on the internet can be said to be the safest form of self-examination.
However, while people may be fine while confined to a state of reliance, they may become dangerous or violent if they are ostracized or isolated in cyberspace — another aspect of the internet. This structure stands in contrast to that of Aum.
In my personal opinion, people who could potentially withdraw from society are unlikely to join cults. This is because of their strong sense of pride, even though they may lack confidence in other regards. In rare cases, however, they do commit lone-wolf crimes such as suicide bombings and random attacks. Such incidents have occurred before.
To prevent such crimes, I believe society must think of ways to include young people who feel socially alienated. For example, it’s important to give them better help to find jobs that make good use of their abilities.
■This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Hiroya Yamaguchi.
■Tamaki Saito / Professor at the University of Tsukuba
Saito, 56, is a psychiatrist who specializes in the psychopathology of adolescence and early adulthood. He’s an expert on reclusiveness and school absenteeism among people from younger generations, and has written books on a wide variety of topics.
Product of an age with a low regard for language
Earthquakes and floods occur — even if we work hard in our everyday life, we sometimes face things that can break our hearts. On such occasions, human beings want to cling to something. Some people use social media to seek connections, while others escape from reality by getting addicted to games or gambling.
The young people who joined the Aum Supreme Truth cult were also ordinary people with these kinds of worries. The 1980s — when many of them joined the cult — cast doubt on the modern-day conviction that the world would advance according to reason, which can be best represented by language. Instead, an era of pleasure focused on consumption had begun.
Young people who felt alienated from this kind of society joined Aum in their search for “truth.” Fear-based control dominated this group, which was shut off from information from the outside world, eventually prompting it to commit gruesome terrorism.
What caused such things to occur?
Twenty-three years have passed since the leader of the cult was arrested. The crimes committed by that leader have faded without his testifying much during trials, and the death penalty was carried out. There are even some media outlets that consider Aum — which is best characterized by the levitation that was supposedly performed by its leader — to be nothing more than a dramatic story.
However, if the cult’s mysteries and secret ceremonies constitute such a dramatic story, then the supernatural phenomenon experienced by ancient Buddhist monk Kukai — in which a bright star entered his body through the mouth during his practices on Murotomisaki cape in current Kochi Prefecture in his younger years — is also a dramatic story.
Some consider Aum to be just an antisocial criminal group, but Buddhism, a faith in which people relinquish their family and property to become monks, also has an antisocial aspect. If we examine the history of religious wars, we find that religions also involve dangerous elements.
Despite the fact that Aum is most definitely a religion, contemporary society has abandoned sincere efforts to discuss its problems through language. The indifference toward humans’ spiritual world is inseparable from the indifference to reason and philosophy, and it reflects today’s consumer society.
Aum was also a by-product of an age that holds language in low regard. Young people and others had rejected the roundabout dogma of traditional Buddhism and ended up joining the family-like cult group through quick fixes of yoga. It was a time when academic fields such as philosophy and literature became less popular at universities. Aum believers simply abandoned language and ran into a spiritual world of supernatural powers and paranormal phenomena.
Taking a look at this contemporary age, we can see that more emphasis is placed on videos, as exemplified by YouTube. Verbal exchanges have become increasingly brief, and some young people say even manga has too many words for them to read.
Furthermore, with the development of virtual reality technology, we are starting to enter an age in which anyone can have mysterious experiences very simply, thus making it easier for people to cling to the idea of an easy “salvation,” without having to think too hard. Even now, we are living in an Aum-type era with a contempt for language.
Once we’ve gotten accustomed to simplified thinking, it may not be possible for us to ever return. At a minimum, nonetheless, it’s important for us to be aware that there is definitely no correct or safe road in this world. I believe living a life involves thinking through language while being perplexed and not being sure of what things are. The series of crimes committed by Aum show how dangerous it is not to have this kind of doubt and wandering in our minds.
■This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Tetsuo Ukai.
■Kaoru Takamura / Novelist
Takamura, 65, is the winner of the Naoki Prize for her novel “Marks no Yama” (Marks’ mountain), as well as The Yomiuri Literature Prize in 2010 for “Taiyo o Hiku Uma” (A horse that drags the sun), a novel whose characters include a former Aum member. She also authored “Kukai,” a travelogue that follows the footsteps of a Buddist monk.Speech