ADMITTEDLY IT TOOK TIME FOR Shoko Asahara, the founder and guiding spirit of Japan's apocalyptic Aum Shinrikyo ("Supreme Truth") cult, to find his wings as a guru. "My antigravity experiments have kept me aloft for no more than 3 seconds so far," he conceded a decade ago in the Japanese publication Twilight Zone. "But within a year, my body should be able to fly at will."

Apparently his optimism wasn't misplaced. By 1989, an advertisement for Asahara's book Secrets of Developing Your Supernatural Powers offered readers not only his formula for sustained levitation but also these other secrets of the Venerable Master: "Seeing the future, reading people's minds, making your wishes come true, X-ray vision, trips on the fourth dimension, hearing the voice of God, etc." Within two years, Asahara announced, in another book, "I hereby declare-myself to be the Christ."

Gethsemane for the bearded, nearly blind messiah manqué and Hitler admirer was a coffinlike steel chamber hidden inside a warehouse at the Aum compound in Kamikuishiki, a bucolic village in the shadow of Mount Fuji, some 60 miles west of Tokyo. There, on the morning of May 16, after negotiating a maze of secret tunnels and bunkers, Japanese police in full riot gear found Asahara, 40, clad as usual in fuchsia silk pajamas, either cowering or meditating—reports conflict—alone but for a cassette player, some books and $117,000 in cash. He was charged with ordering the March 20 sarin nerve-gas attack that killed 12 people and injured 5,500 in the Tokyo subway.

"Could a blind man like me possibly do such a thing?" Asahara asked when apprehended. Absolutely, the police maintain, based on an investigation that led to the arrest of more than 200 Aum cultists, some of whom confessed to preparing and planting the sarin—used by the Nazis during World War II—on five subway cars, where it turned the morning rush hour into a nightmare.

The investigation into the subway attack has opened a window on Asahara's cult, which is one of 180,000 minor religions active in Japan. The cult claims to have 10,000 Japanese members and up to 30,000 more in Russia, where the group benefited from political and social instability and an advertising blitz. Believers say their sect is Buddhist, but it is actually an idiosyncratic hybrid of Hinduism, yoga, Eastern mysticism, the occult and, of course, Asahara. One of the more bizarre Aum rites involves drinking or cooking with "Miracle Pond"—Asahara's used bathwater—which is sold to believers for about $300 an ounce. Another consists of donning "Hats of Happiness"—electrode-laden headsets, seemingly pinched from the Flash Gordon propmaster, which Aumists rented out for $11,500 a month to believers convinced they reproduce Asahara's brain waves. Hallucinogenic drugs, celibacy, little sleep and a self-starvation diet are also de rigueur, and members have been required to surrender all their assets to Asahara.

At the crux of Aum philosophy is Asahara's prophesy that a nuclear war against Japan, begun by the U.S. military sometime in 1997, will leave just 10 percent of the population—plus his followers—alive. What seems most remarkable about the cult is that the people buying into its apocalyptic cant are among Japan's best and brightest: scientists, computer experts, lawyers and other highly trained professionals. But according to cult expert Margaret Singer of the University of California at Berkeley, those demographics aren't so unusual. "Cults actively weed out the stupid and the psychiatric cases and look for people who are lonely, sad, between jobs or jilted," she says. Many observers also suggest that inventive minds turn to Aum as an extreme reaction against the corporate-centered Japanese society, in which devotion to one's job is valued over individual expression and spiritual growth.

Born blind in one eye with limited sight in the other, Chizuo Matsumoto—Asahara's given name—was the sixth child of a maker of straw mats who lived on the island of Kyushu in the south of Japan. Packed off to a boarding school for the blind, where he lived from age 6 through his teens, Chizuo, partially sighted, enjoyed an edge over most of his classmates, affording him some status as a leader. Obsessed with political power, the young Asahara often expressed a resolve to become Japan's prime minister. After high school, Asahara studied acupuncture, reportedly hoping to improve his eyesight, and moved to Tokyo at 21. In 1978 he married Tomoko Ishii, now 36, with whom he has two sons and four daughters.

It was at about the time of his marriage that Asahara met with what must have been a maddening rejection: he was refused admission by Tokyo University, where he had planned to study law. Eventually he spurned higher education entirely, choosing to peddle Chinese herbal medicines, and in 1982 he was fined $800 for selling quack concoctions.

Then in 1986, after a trip to the Himalayas, Asahara announced he had achieved Nirvana, the ultimate Buddhist state of grace. Gradually he built up his following, formally establishing Aum as a religious order in 1989, gaining a tax break among other benefits. But in 1990, Asahara, the wannabe world leader, suffered a cataclysmic rejection: he and 24 other cult members ran and were trounced in Japanese parliamentary elections. This humiliation, it is believed, fueled Asahara's paranoia, and he accused the Japanese government of rigging the voting. Although no motive has been established for his alleged role in the nerve-gas attack, some observers suggest it may be revenge: all the subway cars struck by the sarin converged at a station beneath a cluster of government offices.

In this climate, all Japan is tensing for retribution for the arrest of Asahara—who, given the notoriously slow Japanese court system—could wait years to come to trial and, if convicted, faces a life sentence or the death penalty. "Just because Asahara is gone doesn't mean it's over," says Seiichi Takeuchi, 67, a Kamikuishiki dairy farmer and leader of a fervent anti-Aum faction in the village. Adds one of his neighbors: "The Japanese people have to think about what allowed Aum to flourish in the first place and fix it, or the same thing will happen again."

RICHARD JEROME
PAMELA BURTON in Tokyo and bureau reports

  • Contributors:
  • Pamela Burton.