Asahara Shoko Sarin Gas Attack Tokyo

July 14, 2016

Professor Stuart D. B. Picken looks at the mentality of Japanese terrorism and violence, and where its roots lie, in Part 18 of “Death in the Japanese Tradition”.

The Emotional Roots of the Modern Japanese Terrorist

We may look now with better perspective at the topic of terrorism in Japan, which, as already suggested, until the Taliban and ISIS unleashed their anger at the west, seemed more radical and unpredictable than terrorism originating elsewhere. However, as the cases examined demonstrate, Japanese terrorism seems less to rest on a rational or ideological basis than to arise from a deeply felt affirmation about death, rather than arising from a clearly thought out purposeful cause. The same emotional lack of logic probably also underlies the violence prevalent among younger people, which takes the form of self-directed violence, often suicide, or outwardly directed violence, sometimes towards parents but more usually towards school teachers or fellow pupils. While the same phenomena can be noted in most urbanized civilizations, the mechanism which determines such violent actions may be equally understood, in the case of Japan they may be seen also as expressions of much older values, particularly those relating to the affirmation in death of love for a person or ideal. It is the deep desire ‘to affirm depth by death’ that makes any terrorist effective and that can make the Japanese terrorist singularly lethal.

The Terrorist Mentality

The uniqueness of the Japanese mentality in this respect requires careful analysis. The Japanese terrorist mind, while sharing some similar characteristics, exercises them in different ways.

Readiness to Die

Firstly, he is more than willing to die for the cause and is therefore almost impossible to subdue. When the Red Army hijacked a Japan Airlines plane in Heijo in South Korea, the Japanese government knew it had little choice but to pay the requested $6 million to save the lives of those on board. The West German government, in mounting a well-timed operation against a similar hijack, in which the terrorists were killed, must have counted on a split-second hesitation by the terrorists who might have wished to live rather than resist to the end. For Japanese terrorists there would probably have been no such moment. They are also capable of suicide if failure looms. Indeed, the act of dying itself has significance.

Romanticized Image Of Death

A glorious death in itself is as much a cause as is that for which he is prepared to die. Indeed, the link between the death and the cause is a common factor in Japanese terrorism that matters more than ideology. At least one of the leading terrorists involved in the events in Israel, at Lod Airport in Tel Aviv, came from a family of pre-war rightists, although she herself belonged to the modern left. Okamoto Kozo, a university student, with two friends, killed twenty-six and injured seventy-five innocent people. His friends died by hand grenades but he survived to explain simply that he wished to die a beautiful death for a great cause.

A similar kind of confusion was seen during the student struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s when terrorist attacks among left wing factions themselves made daily news. Even after the fight against the authorities had subsided, the internal battle continued with lynching and beatings.

Perverted Nationalism

A third interesting feature that at the heart of all Japanese terrorism is a kind of perverted nationalism. In the case of the right wing groups it is quite explicit. In the case of the left, it is implicit. The struggle is not over right wing versus left-wing ideologies, nor even in internal struggles over the correct form of that ideology. Deep down, their fundamental concern is what is best for Japan. They are battling over differences of perspective rather than objective. This adds a further complexity to the Japanese terrorists, the seeming unpredictability resulting from the distinctive perspective they have on the world around him. The reasons for this will in each case almost always remain a mystery. Much in the way that the suicide may make an extrovert protest against society, the Japanese terrorist’s behavior may be an expression of protest against the type of society that Japan has become, a society whose goals are different from those of the terrorists themselves. Because of this, Japanese terrorists do not readily fit the psychosocial models of terrorist groups of other nations. The quieting down in Japan of the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s has led into the more apathetic 1980s and thereafter with students less concerned about ideology than their future material prosperity. That of course should not be taken as a sign that the old traditions are dead or that they are incapable of revival. It should not be forgotten that the great outburst of suicides prior to World War II came in the wake of the great depression. Were the Japanese economy to face a sudden new crisis, reactions again might become unpredictable since the burning question, ‘What is best for Japan?’ would give rise to a multitude of competing views and groups, all claiming Messianic status.

Modern Reactions to Terrorism

Equally enigmatic is the account that appeared in the Mainichi Shimbun following the 1972 incident involving the Red Army or Sekigun, which was undergoing an internal dispute. As a result of this, several members were tortured to death by their comrades for lack of loyalty, a familiar excuse in Japan for crucifying people. A mountain siege ensued involving 1,500 riot police, the outcome of which was the surrender of the survivors. The English language edition of March 2, 1972 (quoted incidentally, by Ian Buruma A Japanese Mirror Heroes and Villains in Japanese Culture, London: Penguin Books, pp. 159-160) makes astonishing reading:

“Differing from other extremist groups, their creed is ‘direct resort to arms.’ It was believed that after exhausting their ammunition, they would either take their own lives or die fighting hand-to-hand with the riot police. But this belief was utterly betrayed. When the police rushed in, the youths offered almost no resistance… Such an attitude brings out their ‘pampered spirit’. The students boasted of fighting to the finish. But they were not that high-spirited when the end came. Why? It all boils down to their pampered way of thinking.”

Buruma’s comment is also worth quoting:

“This was not written in 1703 or 1944. The most serious charge against the students was not that they had brutally murdered eleven of their friends and a policeman…They lacked sincerity, their hearts were not pure.”

The Aum Shinrikyo Sarin Gas Attack

At a station close to where I lived in Shinjuku, Tokyo, during an election campaign, people, campaigning for Asahara Shoko, wore massive paper mache heads painted in his image as they handed out leaflets. I remember asking myself about what kind of people they were. The answer came soon enough. Ostensibly, they were a religious group, but with no connection to the sect Shinto denomination Shinrei-kyo. The Aum added a weird pseudo Indian dimension that left me puzzled as to how these groups could be related. Some texts listed Aum Shinrikyo as a sect of Shinto. That was based on a total misunderstanding.

The Monterey Institute of International Studies WMD Terrorism Database compiled an excellent chronology of the CBW attacks made in Japan by the group. On March 29, 1995, five members who had boarded the Tokyo subway system released the chemical nerve gas. Twelve people died and over 2,000 were exposed to the agent, with over 1,000 sustaining critical injury, 37 severely injured but with less intensity, and a further 984 showing minor results of exposure. However, this was the culmination of other incidents that went back to 1990. A total of 17 attacks are recorded that resulted in assassination and mass murder. Ten of these used chemical weapons, four of which were with sarin, four with VX, one with phosgene, and one with hydrogen cyanide. Seven other attacks were attempted, four with anthrax and three with botulinum toxin. Aum is also accused of killing 20 of its recalcitrant members with VX. It has also been linked with a further 19 attacks, although evidence was tenuous.

Those captured were sentenced and imprisoned. The leader, Asahara Shoko was sentenced to death, but remained on death row for 20 years, awaiting execution.

So much for the facts. The questions remain as to purpose and motivation. There seems none of romanticism associated with other groups. Aum seemed bent solely on mass murder. IT may have started as a kind of apocalyptic/doomsday cult that got out of control and became simply a murder machine. (Kaplan, David E and Andrew Marshal, The Cult at the End of the World New York: Crown Publishers, 1996; D W Bracke Holy Terror: Armageddon in Tokyo New York: New York: Weatherhill, 1996). The only vague image of the past would be in the Buddhist death cults, although those that had positive goals seem a world away from Aum.

Violence in Schools

A milder version of terrorism, but equally disturbing, is the violence in Japanese schools referred to as ‘classroom breakdown’. Some instances that occurred in the years 1982-1983 resulted in the deaths of several students.

Ijime – Victimization

Typical cases of ijime, translated usually as ‘bullying” include the following. I prefer the term ‘victimization’ which I think better captures the intimidating way in which some aspects of Japanese social mechanisms work. Tadao Junior High School in Machida City on the western outskirts of Tokyo reached a peak of notoriety in February 1983 after a series of incidents. On 15 February, a 38-year-old teacher of English was molested by a student who threw a doormat at him as he was leaving the school. The teacher thereupon drew a knife and stabbed the student. Earlier, on 13 January, the same teacher had been the victim of a violent attack by a student, and was quite badly beaten. His fellow teachers declared that they had been unable to go to his aid during the attack and that the student was subsequently blacklisted by the school.

This incident was, however, interpreted by the press as symptomatic of deeper problems. The same school erupted once again on 11 March when four second-year boys dragged a first-year boy to a place near the school and beat him about the face. On 15 March, several third-year girls attacked a second-year girl. The reasons given on each occasion were that the younger children were impolite or were behaving in a manner disapproved of by their seniors. In the latter case, it turned out that the older girls were jealous of the second-year pupil because she had received a present from a male student at the school.

Much more repellent, however, was the case concerning two male High School students in Osaka who were forced by a senior (sempai) to perform an indecent act in front of other students using an adult toy. He also beat them up at karate practices and on other occasions. In reprisal, the boys waylaid him on the way home from school and tore out his eyes with a claw hammer. His head was crushed and his body was dumped in a nearby canal. Another incident involved a high school student who committed suicide after being beaten by a teacher for taking along his hair dryer on an official school trip. This underlines the nature of many of the meaningless bureaucratic rules in Japanese schools. But perhaps the most horrifying case, that would sadden any reader, involved an unpopular boy for whom the class conducted a funeral ceremony, with the teacher present and consenting to the ritual death procedure. The boy later committed suicide and the case made national headlines for several days thereafter.

Policing of Graduation Ceremonies

Because of these and similar incidents, in March 1983, 1,225 out of the country’s 10,758 junior high schools had peace keeping police on duty at their graduation ceremonies. This represented an increase of 169 over the 1982 figure, indicating that the problem was a growing one. Police were also called to a further 587 schools to ensure safety of the premises. The total of police-patrolled schools was thus 1,812, representing one in every six schools throughout Japan. Of 5,284 high schools, 122 had incidents that induced the principals to call in the police, with 15 students taken into police custody after graduation ceremonies, mostly on charges of damaging property.

Outside of the school context, again in March of the same year, ten boys in the Yokohama area were detained by police for assaults on local vagrants, resulting in the death of one. Osaka Prefecture reported 29 cases of classroom violence during February 1984, a record number for that area. The Japanese school year ends on 31 March and consequently, revenge incidents tend to escalate during February of each year. From 1979 onwards, there was a growing trend in victimization of fellow students. These publicized cases are said to be only the tip of the iceberg. From my own conversations with teachers, I tend to believe this. That the National Police Agency was requested to mount police patrols at junior high school graduation ceremonies indicates how seriously the problem is taken.

Japanese Discussions of School Violence

But what explanations have been given for the violence. The police and ‘education experts’ have held long discussions and their findings have included numerous suggested explanations. At a special Diet Panel held on 3 March to discuss the matter, Professor Okihara Yutaka of Hiroshima University reported that research on school violence in eighty-seven countries showed that it was commonest in advanced ‘permissive’ societies. Communist and Roman Catholic countries showed little sign of the problem. Both Mrs Tsukamoto Chieko, a Parent-Teacher official, and later, Prime Minister Nakasone, referred to parents overindulging their children as an over-reaction to pre-war privations. A journalist from Japan’s state-owned radio and TV service, NHK, blamed the psychological pressure of the examination system. He also made reference to broken homes.

Mr Manabe Chikariro, a Tokyo teacher, indicated that the size of schools may be a factor. Where there are more than six classes in each grade, lack of corporate identity may result in violence. He also pointed out that the classes were too large and that forty students should be the maximum number in any class. Many classes have over fifty pupils. Mr Nozu Shinsaku, another teacher, pointed to the weak relationship between schools and their communities as an important factor.

“It was only after the Japanese government began interfering that the problems arose.”

Other suggested causes for the violence have been low grades on the one hand and the government, on the other. The Educational Board of Miyagi Prefecture produced a study at the end of March 1983 citing as factors, impatience and emotional instability, and stating that students with these difficulties had consistently low grades. Mr Oguchi Sadao claimed that his study showed not examination pressures in themselves to be the triggers for violence but the grading system and the failure of students to achieve what they felt they were capable of achieving. This study probably highlighted problems in the organization and administration of education. The head of the Teachers’ Union, President Makieda Motofumi, declared that the educational policy being pursued by the government was responsible for violence in schools. The merit system, the fierce competition and the government’s intervention in teachers’ work, in textbooks and in other ways, he claimed, was responsible for the deterioration of the school atmosphere. This declaration was made in response to what can only be called the desperate remarks by Education Minister Setoyama Mitsuo who put the blame on the American Occupation! Makieda pointed out that the liberal philosophy of those days promoted a good atmosphere and that no violence existed then. It was only after the Japanese government began interfering that the problems arose.

Lingering Feudalism in Japan

While sympathetic to the union leader’s remarks, I am certain that the problem cannot be discussed effectively or exhaustively in any of these terms. I believe some of the reasons for the violence lie in completely different directions. There is no connection whatsoever between the radical students’ violence of the 1970s and the high and junior high school violence. There is no political element in the violence of the younger group who are, if anything, anti-ideological. Rather, I see the cause of the problem as almost the same as those for suicide among the young. In the earlier discussion, I made no reference to trends in these areas. Briefly, the statistical evidence from the government suggests a decrease in the suicide rate for young people of some age groups, but an increase among others. (See tables after Appendix II).

“The fact that the suicide rate is increasing among younger age groups suggests that the competitive element comes to them earlier”

The fact that the suicide rate is increasing among younger age groups suggests that the competitive element comes to them earlier and is repeated for those who face the university entrance struggle. But for those who do not ‘compete’ there are two possibilities. One is to adjust and accept what is possible. Many, indeed the majority, do this. The alternative is to ‘drop out’, and many others from Junior High onwards do so. But the dropouts do not always become violent. Those who become violent seem to be the victims of two opposing trends. One is the atmosphere of postwar liberalism that is reflected in the abundance of American images, from Pepsi-Cola to blue jeans and baseball caps. While these images might be regarded simply as the price of intercourse with the outside world, they have probably acquired special meaning for the young in Japan because of their association with the nation that liberated Japan from its military dictatorship. I suspect that this is what the Minister of Education, Setoyama Mitsuo, meant when he blamed the problem of school violence on the American Occupation. The liberal view of life and society that the Americans brought could hardly have been congenial to his generation, meaning as it did, their loss of power and influence (although they have tried hard to win back as much ground as possible). He spoke truer than he knew, but only half the truth.

“The remainder of the explanation, I believe, lies in the reverse current represented by people such as himself, who have used the Ministry of Education not to educate, but as far as possible to control the minds of the young”

The remainder of the explanation, I believe, lies in the reverse current represented by people such as himself, who have used the Ministry of Education not to educate, but as far as possible to control the minds of the young. From the censoring of textbooks to the fixing of a national curriculum, he and others have tried to suppress as much liberal opinion as possible (in the name of Japan’s good), and of course the student is affected. He believes himself to be in a free society but in reality he faces the residue of lingering feudalism and a conservative government agency that is dedicated not to his personal development through education but to making him a unit of Japanese society. Prime Minister Nakasone’s reference in 1983 to ‘character building’ implies the view that the young need greater discipline and control.

We need not consider here the rights and wrongs of these trends. It is the conflict of trends that affects the students. Some commit suicide. Others, unable to relate the cause of their frustration to such an abstract entity as the Ministry of Education, hit out at those closest, namely parents and teachers. Who else is there? In my separate studies of suicide among the young, published in Japanese in 1979, I suggested that if life began to take precedence over death, violence would decrease, particularly anti-social violence. It has indeed done so and I believe the causes are set out above. Does this mean that the young are moving away from older images of death? I think it is perhaps safe to say that these images are exerting less of an influence than before. That does not mean that they could not be revived. They may be dormant, but they are still a potential force.

Japan is not a one-pattern society, but one based on a complex value system. It is capable of forming new values and adjusting to them quickly in the face of a changing world. However, as we saw earlier, these do not replace the old, but represent rather an additional layer. And in a country where those possessed of above average vitality and charisma may still, during their lifetimes, be accorded the reverence due to the dead it might only take a leadership showing these qualities and favoring a more traditional ideology, to bring about a reversion. Nevertheless, the rising generation does seem more concerned with life than death and more with the ‘here and now’ than the ‘there and then’. How long this attitude will last is hard to predict but it makes an interesting counterbalance to all that has preceded it, at least in the twentieth century.

Image | Shoko Asahara, founder of the religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo


This is Part 18 of Professor Stuart D. B. Picken’s serialised monograph, “Death in the Japanese Tradition: A Study in Cultural Evolution and Transformation”, to be published every Thursday.

The next instalment, The Death and Burial of Emperor Showa, will be published next Thursday on July 21, 2016.

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About Stuart D. B. Picken

The late Reverend Professor Stuart D. B. Picken began his distinguished career in academia as a Rotary Scholar on a research trip to Japan. A native of Scotland who had dedicated himself to religious studies, he immediately became fascinated by Japanese culture and the practice of Shinto. He was particularly drawn to the parallels and differences he saw in Western pedagogy compared to that of the East and began a lifelong mission to bridge the communication and knowledge gap between the two worlds. Picken was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the International Christian University (ICU) in 1972. Here he turned his Western theological and philosophical training to comparative religious and cultural studies of Japan, at a time when the country was emerging from the shadows of the Second World War. His groundbreaking and controversial work on suicide in Japan made his name within the country, but it was his subsequent work on Shinto that influenced the rehabilitation of the religion at a time when it was dismissed in the West as pagan and primitive, or unjustly caricatured for its wartime associations. Whether in his research or teaching, Picken devoted much of his life to increasing understanding between his adopted country of Japan and the West, and in 2007 he was recognised with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, an imperial decoration for his pioneering research and outstanding contribution to the promotion of friendship and mutual understanding between Japan and the United Kingdom. He also served as the International Adviser to the High Priest of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, one of Japan’s largest and oldest shrines. From 2009 he was the founding Chairman of The International Academic Forum (IAFOR), where he was highly active in helping nurture and mentor a new generation of academics, and facilitating better intercultural and international awareness and understanding.


Asia, Cultural & Area Studies, Death in the Japanese Tradition, Featured, IAFOR Japan Research Institute, Psychology & the Behavioral Sciences, Subject Area, World


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