The Tokyo Sarin Gas Attack 25 years on

Reviewing Me and the cult leader- a modern report on the banality of evil, and examining its place in Japanese history

Atsushi Sakahara and Hiroshi Araki

Killing thirteen and injuring up to 6000 more, the 1995 Tokyo sarin gas attack is still the largest domestic terror attack ever committed in Japan. Targeting three subway lines with an intersection at Kasumigaseki Station, five orchestrated attacks were carried out at the height of the morning rush hour. Aum Shinrikyo - now renamed Aleph- is a doomsday cult founded by Asahara Shōko, a half-blind former yoga instructor, in the predictably dystopian year of 1984, and by 1995 had gained around 9000 Japanese members and a further 40,000 worldwide. The cult follows teachings of esoteric Christianity and Vajrayana Buddhism but holds a strong premonition of an impending Armageddon.

Premiering at Sheffield’s International Documentary Festival and produced by one of the attack’s survivors, this documentary follows the lives of current Aum executive, Hiroshi Araki and the producer, Atsushi Sakahara. The two men led extraordinarily similar lives -both attended Kyoto University before moving to Tokyo- but their stories are on opposite sides of history. Together, they traverse Japan as they visit their respective home towns and Sakahara encourages Araki to question his involvement with the cult, resulting in long silences filling the tense space between them with the distressing realisation that one of these men plays a vital role in creating the trauma and pain of the other.

Sakahara still suffers from PTSD, chronic fatigue and respiratory issues as a result of the sarin gas, which was originally invented to be used as a Nazi weapon but has since been weaponised by the USA’s military and terrorist groups. Simply seeking to understand the human behind the brutality, Sakahara’s torment often manifests itself in profound questions that are rarely answered to his satisfaction. In one pivotal scene, stood prophet-like atop one of Kyoto’s surrounding mountains, Araki reveals the cause of his emotional turmoil during his youth and admits that his anxieties during childhood and university led him to re-examine his secular life. Aum members are recognised as being elite students attending top universities, claiming their curiosity and intelligence leads them to renounce their families. There is a well-known gag that in order to be respected within Aum one has to be a beautiful woman or a graduate from Tokyo University. Japanese author Haruki Murakami began writing Underground, a collection of interviews with the attack’s victims and some members of Aum, soon after the event. In this, he likens Aum to pre-WWII Manchuria. The Japanese puppet state became a coveted workplace for elite technocrats and scholars who believed they could create a different kind of society, full of possibilities that could never be achieved in such a conservative country. Producing sarin gas for Aum was itself the act of former MA organic chemistry student, Masami Tsuchiya, who began producing sarin in 1992. After the assassination of an attorney working on behalf of victims of the group, Aum orchestrated their first mass sarin attack in Matsumoto, killing eight approximately a year prior to the Tokyo attack.

Emergency workers at Kasumigaseki Station

Translated as divine truth, Aum Shinrikyo encourages its followers to live frugally, study texts and worship their ‘guru’, Shōko. It is clear that Araki does not lack humility as he speaks fondly of his family and shares moments of almost-friendship with Sakahara as they skip stones and share earphones on a long train ride, but his indoctrination impedes his ability to apologise for the attack, and admits that all followers still believe Shōko to be a guru. At times he speaks so painfully slowly that Sakahara’s impatience and anger is palpable in the way he frames his questions: ‘who should I blame for what happened to me?’ Sakahara himself was described as having ‘perfect Aum mentality’ as he criticises Japan’s village mindset and lives as a kind of native outsider, which he claims was his inspiration for producing a documentary where he spends time with someone who is, ultimately, his terrorist.

The location of the attack, Kasumigaseki Station is in proximity to a high concentration of government offices such as the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This was no coincidence, as attacking the constant flow of Japanese civil service workers acted as the perfect symbol against Japanese societal advancement and served as a warning to the elite from an eclectic group of mainly intelligent but troubled young people, some even part of the so-called elite. Aum itself was organised as a mimic-state, with their Ministry of Science and Technology being responsible for the production of sarin gas and other weapons. Targeting the Underground station was the primary goal of Aum. To damage Japan’s best technological endeavour, its innovative subway system, was a powerful metaphor against the stability that the Japanese had come to expect. During the attack, passengers noticing that a station attendant had fallen, foaming at the mouth after putting a plastic bag in the bin (the bag itself was filled with sarin gas and had been perforated by Aum) did not let this disturb their commute. Murakami argues that interrupting the tight routines of these commuters was a perfect chance for the cult to illustrate their doomsday prophecies. It was as if they were telling Japan’s establishment that no matter how stable you are, the simplest disturbance can topple a whole society. The attack was not only on the Japanese people, but the Japanese psyche, and was a pivotal piece of Aum’s propaganda which they knew would garner mass worldwide attention.

Unprepared for an emergency of this calibre, Tokyo’s emergency services lacked a city-wide response and efficient communication between hospitals and subway stations. This led to the mistreatment of injuries as commuters had already spread across the city as they carried on to work, believing that their symptoms were nothing more than hay fever. The desire to get to work as quickly as possible and not inconvenience their companies is indicative of the Japanese psyche and above else, the disbelief that a terrorist attack could happen in such a safe country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Subway attendants were some of the first fatalities and suffered the most serious injuries; this event seems to have impacted these workers more than those in other professions. Tokyo’s subway system prides itself on efficiency, and this attack serves as probably the only instance when the attendants were unable to fulfil their duty. An attendant featured in Underground talks more of his hurt pride than his injuries- most of the victims returned to work in under a month, despite the mental and physical trauma they may have faced.

Responders at the scene

Filming for the documentary began in 2015 and so includes a devastating encounter with Araki and the Japanese press when Araki visited the memorial inside Kasumigaseki station. Standing beside Sakahara who is also filming, Araki answers questions from the press with slow and introspective explanations. When asked why he still follows Shōko’s dogma after witnessing the pain caused, Araki replies ‘I am holding onto the last straw of hope.’ Paying the victims 1 billion yen (£7 million) in 2019 following the execution of Shōko a year prior, Aum is strictly surveyed by the Japanese police and are required to release quarterly lists of its members. Sakahara is an energetic man and determined filmmaker aiming to understand the root of his traumas, and he also achieves this through his podcast, Before/after Aum. Me and the cult leader is a journey to atonement, it provides intimate insight into the members behind a feared cult without glorifying and humanising their actions. However, this documentary gives Araki a platform to explain his own past depression and in his own way, apologise to the victims of the attack as he eventually acknowledges his part in the terror, stating ‘I will live my life with this debt’.

Life after Aum, and the struggle to return to secular life as well as the prejudices and hostility that ex-members face validates their feelings of exclusion that first led many to join. Joining as young people, the purity and purpose offered by Aum seemed like many to be a saviour in the time of post-bubble Japan as well as the rising popularity of Nostradamus. Conformity and social cohesion leave little space for the individual to thrive in Japan- as the adage goes, ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’. The sarin attack and Sakahara’s documentary go a long way to explain the impacts of the societal influences of conformity. Both the attraction to an experimental cult and the victim’s burdens of returning to work and recovering quickly are indicative of the pressure to go unnoticed in a coercive society.

Me and the Cult Leader proves that cult members are not misfits, they are not eccentric hyper-intellectuals but they are simply people looking for a way to become individuals and have the harmless motive of improving their wellbeing. The sarin attack was not the work of a whole cult of terrorists, but a result of one man’s successful manipulation of vulnerable and impressionable people. Sakahara and Araki may be on opposite sides of the same event, but throughout this documentary it seems conceivable that in another life they may have even been friends.

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