The ghosts of Aum shinrikyô

The ghosts of Aum shinrikyô

Shôko Asahara (whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto), guru of the Aum shinrikyô sect, and twelve of his followers, were executed in July 2018 by the Japanese authorities. The rejection of the last appeals by former members of the sect sentenced to death, coupled with the desire to end this case before the abdication of the emperor and the end of the Heisei era, were probably the decisive factors behind this decision.


Founded in 1984 as a tantric yoga group, the sect took the name Aum shinrikyô (Aum Supreme Truth) in 1987. There, Asahara revealed himself as a charismatic guru who seduced his first followers with his mastery of yoga techniques, then recruited new believers attracted by spirituality or the prospect of supernatural powers which he did not hesitate to stage for New Age magazines. Advocating a "return to original Buddhism" emphasizing rigorous practices of asceticism, he seduced many young people attracted by the perspective of personal development following a method that, because of its difficulty, seemed more convincing than the "softer" practices that were popular in most of the new religious movements at the time. Asahara developed a personal theology based on Buddhist concepts, but gradually moved toward a form of messianic millenarianism whereby members of the sect, beginning with their guru, must prevent impending apocalypse. His teachings, emphasizing individual spiritual development, promoting the abandonment of material attachments, hit the mark in Japan in the 1980s, with its speculative economy and over-consumption, while the great apocalyptic narrative constructed by the cult was also in tune with the diffuse sensation of "the end of an era" that seized Japan then on the brink of the "lost decade" that would conclude the century.

But, at the time of the dramatic failure of its campaign in the 1990 parliamentary elections, the cult began to drift towards utter paranoia. Asahara multiplied conspiracy theories and launched an all-out recruiting operation, encouraging followers to "give up the world" to live in the sect’s facilities after bequeathing it their properties. He resorted more and more often to violence and did not hesitate to eliminate his opponents, including within the movement. And as most followers continued their "spiritual development" while being unaware of these trends, some executives indulged in their fantasies and impending apocalyptic visions, with the guru’s blessing. Thus, experiments on chemical and bacteriological weapons began in 1989. The compounds were "tested" in a targeted way on some opponents, or even neighboring populations considered hostile to the sect, as in Matsumoto in June 1994. The escalation culminated with the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway, designed as a desperate attempt to confuse and delay ongoing police investigations. In spite of the amateurism of its perpetrators, the attacks carried out in the morning of March 20, 1995 left 13 dead and more than 6000 injured. Asahara was arrested on May 16; his trial began the following year and ended in 2004 with his death sentence. The Aum sect has since continued its activities under the name Aleph, under active surveillance from the authorities).


The deafening media noise generated by the "Aum affair" paradoxically demonstrates the powerlessness to explain it effectively according to the frames of reference of the time. The interpretations were innumerable, the analyzes sometimes convincing, but none made it possible to answer all the questions raised definitively. Thus, as sociologist Shinji Miyadai regrets, the execution of Asahara and the leading members of the sect who helped to turn his "teachings" into reality, could be a fatal blow to the necessary search for the truth, and for the lessons that could still be learned from this particular case of an emerging extremist religious movement.

One of the most popular approaches to the Aum phenomenon has focused on the evolution of the relationship between reality and fiction in the Japanese individual’s perception of his or her environment of signifiers in the context of  the transition toward postmodernity (see S. Miyadai, Masachi Ôsawa, Eiji Ôtsuka, Hiroki Azuma, etc.). This issue of the relation to fiction is of particular interest to me as a researcher in literature, as the Aum phenomenon seems to have had a considerable impact on many creators of contemporary Japanese fiction, to the point of shifting the trajectory taken by their work after the events mentioned above. As an example, I would like to briefly mention the case of three fiction writers from three different generations.


In March 1995, Kenzaburô Ôe (1935-) ended his career as a novelist with the last volume of his trilogy The Flaming Green Tree (Moeagari midori no ki, untranslated). He had announced his retirement to the press the year before, shortly before being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. A pure product of "post-war democracy," a staunch defender of the 1947 constitution, Ôe is a voice that, since the late 1950s, has spoken for the periphery, the margins and the marginalized, against the centrality of power. His work as a novelist and essayist is a testimony to his long struggle to defend an ideal of society based on the democratic values ​​"imported" into Japan by Americans in the aftermath of the war, and the contradictions inherent to this “transplant”. While the fiercest political struggles around the issue ended in the early 1970s and were gradually replaced by more individual issues, Ôe’s novels follow the same path, beginning a search for meaning that gradually takes on the shape of a spiritual meditation, and even a mystical turn in the 1980s. As if the writer, trained in a context of frontal opposition between “grand narratives”, disconcerted by the face offered by Japan during the high-growth era followed by the “economic bubble” period of the 1980s, sought to reach further, for the ultimate "grand narrative" of faith. Hence the characters’ thirst for religious meaning in his trilogy, as founders of a religious sect which, while certainly less eccentric and demanding for its disciples than Aum, nonetheless presents its doctrine under the same appearance of an intertextual palimpsest, and also ends in violence.

Oe had justified his decision to stop writing novels because he considered his creative work to have come to an end and refused to repeat himself, henceforth preferring to make room for his disabled son’s musical career. But in 1996, following the death of his friend, composer Tôru Takemitsu, he declared that he would resume novelistic writing, and published Somersault in 1999, a variation on his previous trilogy in which the leaders of the sect decide to undermine it, infuriating their followers, to prevent it from "ending like Aum". The religious temptation manifested itself in Ôe as a desire to regain a form of transcendence while the ideological paradigms that over-determined Japanese society hitherto were gradually being exhausted, beginning with that of the Cold War whose unravelling had left him, as he later acknowledged, "totally helpless". The novel allowed Ôe to model a religious doctrine conceived (like that of Aum) as an assemblage of heterogeneous fragments, drawn here from the encyclopedic culture of its author, but this modeling is somehow restrained: brother Gii, the messianic figure in Ôe’s trilogy, does not believe, and is constantly overwhelmed by the eagerness of his disciples to turn him into a "guru". The Aum affair helped Ôe to escape from what he would later call his "mystical drift", and after the mea culpa of Somersault, his novelistic work refocuses on a reflection on the figure of the novelist and the issue of the value of his contribution to the community.


Kenzaburô Ôe (2015)
Kenzaburô Ôe (2015)


Haruki Murakami (1949-) is often presented as an anti-Ôe. The latter has often criticized the inconsistency of his work before acknowledging him in the face of his international success. The first writings by Murakami are of a typically postmodernist style: the narrative is a game, History a pile of rubble from which one draws from time to time, just what is needed to color a plot, with no more value than the quote from a pop song or a perfume brand. A bittersweet game however, since if Murakami does not demonstrate political convictions nor supply an alternative social vision, his characters, young and single, are still cautious towards the “one size (middle class) fits all” Japanese society in which they take part. In short, the pool of signifiers may entertain, but one drowns in there all the same.

For Murakami who then resided abroad and discovered Aum shinrikyô via news and during short stays in Japan, the phenomenon is typically postmodern: it could be understood, as in Ôe, as an example of a drive for a “grand narrative” which attracted followers, but Murakami was specially shocked by the form taken by the movement’s doctrine.  The "junk-hack" of de-hierarchized signifiers assembled by Asahara challenged him all the more as it seemed to follow the same modus operandi as his own fictional works. These reflections led Murakami to publish, back in Japan, a collection of interviews with victims and then cult members, and to question the proliferation and the content of the narratives that permeate Japanese society, and the type of narrative that could "restructure" it and give meaning to individual existence, to counter Aum’s "childish story". As Murakami did not have at his disposal the socio-political framework on which Ôe’s value system had been able to develop, he proposed as a response to Aum a model that some might call "populist": the idealization of the closest interpersonal link, disconnected from any political or social perspective. Present intermittently from Murakami’s earliest novels, then systematic from The Wind-up bird chronicle, this search for some kind of individual “link” goes on to structure narratives that are otherwise still conceived as aggregates of de-hierarchized signifiers, in which the ghost of Asahara sometimes shows his head (as in 1Q84), but the author seems to consider that the anchoring of the cellular family unit as the ultimate ideal should be enough to exorcise it.


Younger than Murakami, Hideaki Anno (1960-) is a prominent member of the "first-generation otaku", fed on manga, animation and special effects flicks. He made a name for himself at the beginning of the 1980s by producing amateur animated short films for sci-fi conventions. He went on to work as an animator on Hayao Miyazaki and Hisao Takahata’s works among others, his name being in the credits of some of the most revered productions of the otaku culture that the media discovered, half fearful and half mocking, during the 1980s. Relentless consumers of fictional signifiers to the detriment, according to the media, of a reality they were not able to fully contend with, young otaku were comparatively numerous within Aum shinrikyô, whose discourse was flattering to the works and genres they liked: according to Asahara, authors of manga and animated films would be the "prophets of our time”, and he did not hesitate to borrow concepts and vocabulary from their work. In 1993, while Aum had already made the headlines several times for its political and legal antics, Anno began the preparation of his animated series Neon Genesis Evangelion. Airing from September 1995, its scenario, still vague at the beginning of the project, seemed to incorporate throughout its production the revelations on the sect and its doctrine that oversaturated the media in the aftermath of the March attacks. Suffused with the attracting elements beloved by the otaku audience (giant robots, young girls, scientific jargon...), the series shifted over the course of its broadcast towards a form of psychoanalytical introspection as Anno realized what the sect had in common with himself and his audience: the propensity to privilege seductive semiotic constructions to a reality thus evaded. Obviously, Anno denied that he was referring to Aum, stating that the numerous parallels between his work and the cult were simply the coincidence of "simultaneous terrorist attacks" (sic). But he then moved away from animation for some time, directing several live-action films, and ended up delivering in 2016 his conclusion on the question of the relationship between fiction and reality by drawing on the most visually "fake" genre, the “big monster” movie with lo-fi special effects (tokusatsu), to comment acutely on the reality of post-Fukushima Japan in his feature-length movie Shin Godzilla (Godzilla: resurgence).


These Japanese artists, producers of fiction like Aum, in the same place and at the same time as the cult, felt an uncomfortable affinity toward it that pushed them to confront the deforming mirror that it held out to them. In the context of our postmodern societies, which are accelerating towards a state of absolute equivalence in the perceived value of information (whatever its origin or status), the cult took advantage of the continued weakening of traditional instances of legitimization, and sought to impose its fiction on reality, to fulfill "the desire called utopia" (F. Jameson), however aberrant the form it has chosen to do this might appear to us. But to the extent that this context is more than ever ours today - and the aforementioned artists did not miss this point, as Murakami clearly showed when he claimed to have been drawn to Aum "first and foremost as a novelist" - it is the responsibility of all producers of narratives that is now constantly being tested: novelists, filmmakers, journalists, religious or political leaders.


Antonin Bechler

Department of Japanese Studies / Oriental Studies Group (EA1340)

Strasbourg University


Keywords : Aum shinrikyô, religions, fiction, literature, animation, Kenzaburô Ôé, Haruki Murakami, Hideaki Anno.


Bibliography :


Bechler Antonin, Ôé Kenzaburô, Une économie de la violence, Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 2016.

Murakami Haruki, Underground, Belfond, 2013.

Ôé Kenzaburô, Œuvres, Gallimard, collection Quarto, 2016.

Reader Ian, Religious violence in contemporary Japan : the case of Aum Shinrikyô, University of Hawaï Press, 2000.

Suvilay Bounthavy, “Neon Genesis Evangelion ou la déconstruction du robot anime”, in ReS Futurae n°9, 2017.

Tokyo Shibuya subway lines