The Apocalypse has been postponed

The Aum sect, charged with the sarin gas attack on Tokyo's subway, is no collection of hippy misfits. Some of Japan's best and brightest are members, says Richard Lloyd Parry

With almost comic symmetry, the hunt for the most wanted man in Japan was set to end last night almost exactly where it began. Seven weeks ago, hundreds of police in riot gear, chemical weapons suits, and carrying caged canaries, descended on Kamiku Isshiki, a village beneath Mt Fuji, in pursuit of the man suspected of masterminding the sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway two days before: Shoko Asahara, the levitating, pyjama- wearing guru of Aum Shinri Kyo, an apocalyptic religious sect.

Today, after 200 arrests, the confiscation of tons of poisonous chemicals in almost daily raids on Aum offices, and the biggest police operation in Japan's peace-time history, they seem to have found him - in exactly the same place.

The sarin case is one of those running sensations so absorbing that it is hard to imagine what Japan - certainly Japanese journalists - will talk about when it is over. Theories about the gas, the sect and its guru have become to Japan what the OJ Simpson trial is to America: a source of dismay and irritation, but an inexhaustible subject for gossip and amateur detective work. "It's a terrible thing about this gas," said a friend's mother who is house-bound and a great watcher of television. "But when it's over, my life will feel so empty."

One report told of a wanted cult follower who underwent plastic surgery, donned women's clothes and had the flesh of his fingertips sliced off to avoid identification. The chief Aum spokesman, a handsome young man named Fumihiro Joyu, became an overnight heart throb with his own following of young women. Shoko Asahara, who disappeared at the time of the attack, was variously said to be in a hotel in Tokyo, a cottage in the Japan Alps, and in Moscow, Colombo or Taipei. The wildest account, narrated by a respected Japanese journalist who has been watching Aum for almost a year, had the guru on a tropical Japanese island in the South China Sea, waiting for a Russian submarine to whisk him off to North Korea.

Japanese have given up wondering whether Aum Shinri Kyo was involved in the sarin attack, but many questions remain. What is Aum Shinri Kyo? By killing 12 people, what did it hope to achieve?

Even by the most extreme standards - Jim Jones, whose followers killed themselves in Jonestown, Guyana; or David Koresh's Branch Davidian sect - Aum Shinri Kyo is an extremely unusual cult. The initial picture of hippy misfits led by a roly-poly Buddha in pyjamas has turned out to be misleading. In structure, the sect is more feudal than communal, with a congregation of ordinary followers led by an lite of "priests".

Certainly it is an organisation of outsiders. The cult claims a Japanese membership of 10,000 and the majority, almost certainly oblivious to the goings-on in the cult's gas-making laboratories, are young, goofy and vulnerable, the kind of students who often suffer horrible bullying in Japanese schools. The sect also has its share of older followers - many of them women - whose "donations" seem to have provided Aum with its immense funds. Japan has hundreds of "new religions" which bring spiritual solace to this emotional underclass. Much of Aum's teaching is no more sinister than that of the Salvation Army: a fusion of Buddhism and Hinduism, stressing meditation, and the promise of salvation based on single-minded reverence of Master Asahara. The cult sells its members "brain-wave" head-gear, made of wires and bandages, which links the teachers' thoughts to their own.

The brilliance of Asahara is the way he appealed to a quite different type of Japanese, equally frustrated in its own way. For all its teachings about meditation and inner ecstasy, Aum seems to have held no appeal to the traditional adherents of Buddhist religion - artists, writers and musicians. The Aum "priests" who have been arrested over the past few weeks, the ringleaders who designed the laboratories, bought the chemicals and, almost certainly, made the sarin, have been young scientists, professionals and technicians, graduates of the finest universities. Joyu, the adored chief spokesman, used to work for Japan's space agency. Another member was one of the country's leading lawyers. One of the key participants in the subway attack was a serving sergeant in the Self-Defence Forces, Japan's army.

To these, the cult delivered a different message: not simply that they would be saved from the imminent apocalypse, but that afterwards they would enjoy power. It is no mere childishness that the cult is organised into a series of "ministries", based on those of the Japanese government. After the predicted global war in 1997, Asahara claimed, it would be the sect's responsibility not only to spread enlightenment but also to take power. For this they would need survivors and tools: chemicals for fertiliser and insecticide, and also, it now seems certain, for defence against the government, which inevitably would try to thwart them.

For these men, all with bright futures at the heart of the Japanese establishment, Aum Shinri Kyo offered not an escape from isolation but an alternative, far more exciting, to a life of conventional achievement. After 15 years of high flying, an employee in a typical Japanese company might become a divisional chief, so long as those higher on the ladder retired or disgraced themselves at the right time. Aum Shinri Kyo organised itself, not as a company, but as a government, with "ministries" of finance, science and defence. Yoshihiro Inoue, who was arrrested yesterday with explosives, drugs and chemicals in his car, was "chief of covert operations" at the age of 25.

It is this cocktail of hard science, tight organisation and, above all, arrogant ambition that make the sect unique. If there is a foreign parallel, it is not with the Branch Davidians but the Michigan Militia. Aum, if anything, commanded even more professional expertise: more than 50 present or former members of the Self Defence Forces, including helicopter and tank specialists, are said to have been members of the cult. They formed a special unit dedicated, according to police, to military overthrow of the Japanese state.

Yesterday's arrests are just the beginning of a long unravelling. The apocalypse may have to be postponed, but no one need worry about the Aum Shinri Kyo roadshow coming to an end for a long time yet.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

    Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

    Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

    £30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

    UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

    £45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape