Today, Japan executed the former leader of a doomsday cult and six other members of the group that carried out a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 13 people and shattering the country’s myth of public safety.
The Aum Shinrikyo, or Aum Supreme Truth cult, which mixed Buddhist and Hindu meditation with apocalyptic teachings, staged a series of crimes including simultaneous sarin gas attacks on subway trains during rush hour in March 1995. Sarin, a nerve gas, was originally developed by the Nazis.
The images of bodies, many in business suits, sprawled across platforms stunned Japan and triggered public safety steps such as the removal of non-transparent rubbish bins that remain in force to this day. As well as killing the 13, the attack injured at least 5,800 people, some permanently.
Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa read out the names of the seven at a news conference and said what they had done was “extremely atrocious”. “These crimes … plunged people not only in Japan but in other countries as well into deadly fear and shook society to its core,” Kamikawa said. Chizuo Matsumoto, the cult’s leader who went by the name Shoko Asahara, was the first to be hanged, media said as it broke into regular programming to report the news. Announcements of the other hangings followed through the morning.
Family members of attack victims expressed relief. “I think it’s right that he was executed,” said Shizue Takahashi, whose husband was a subway worker who died after removing a package of sarin from a train. “My husband’s parents and my parents are already dead,” the silver-haired Takahashi added. “I think they would find it regrettable that they could not have heard the news of this execution.”
Executions are rare in Japan but surveys show most people support the death sentence.
What was the Tokyo attack?
On 20 March 1995, cult members released the Sarin on the subway in the Japanese capital. They left punctured bags filled with liquid nerve agent on train lines going through Tokyo’s political district.
Witnesses described noticing the leaking packages and soon afterwards feeling stinging fumes hitting their eyes.
The toxin struck victims down in a matter of seconds, leaving them choking and vomiting, some blinded and paralysed. Thirteen people died.
Aum Shinrikyo, often shortened to Aum, believed that the end of the world was coming and that those outside the cult would go to hell – unless they were killed by cult members.
Cult leader Asahara styled the attack as a “holy attempt to elevate the doomed souls of this world to a higher spiritual stage”, the Japan Times reports.
In the months after, members of the cult made several failed attempts to release hydrogen cyanide in various stations.