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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

THE CULT THAT WON'T DIE

Nearly four years after the infamous sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway, Aum Shinrikyo is rising again

Part 3: WHY ARE WE HERE?


TAKAHASHI HIDETOSHI HAS AGREED to explain why he abandoned a promising career in astronomy to join Aum Shinrikyo - and why he dropped out. Watching him sip a cappuccino in his three-piece black suit and lavender tie, it is hard to believe that just three years ago Takahashi was wearing the white cottons of Aum. Now 31, he explains that he had been on a search for spiritual values. He jumped through the first door opened to him.

A supposedly well-adjusted son of a middle-class family, Takahashi was studying geology at Shinshu University, one of Japan's most prestigious, when he began asking the hoary question: Why are we here? He began reading the works of such philosophers as Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, the man who famously declared God dead, and various New Age tracts. Before long a deep melancholy settled on Takahashi, and he isolated himself. The death of a close pal drove him to depression and thoughts of suicide. A psychiatrist prescribed pills but did nothing to address the underlying pain.

It was around then that Takahashi encountered Aum Shinrikyo. Curious to see what a real-life guru had to say about ancient Buddhism in the modern world, he took a seat in the front row of an Aum lecture during an annual student festival. It was the fall of 1991; Takahashi was 24. When the sermon was over, he raised a hand to ask if his academic quest would help him to reach the Truth. "Mr. Takahashi," guru Asahara intoned, "You cannot get what you want by pursuing science."

That night, Takahashi received a visit from Asahara's top young disciples. As one of them talked, Takahashi grew curious about the cult's yoga practices and "mystic experiences." The training helped rid oneself of the ego, he recalls being told, and fill the vacuum with the "will of the guru." Spiritual salvation in exchange for blind obedience.

Not ready to become a full-timer, Takahashi volunteered at first, driving and distributing leaflets. He was happy to meet other young people who shared his spiritual longings. They had enthusiasm of a kind he had never seen.

Three years later, ignoring the fierce opposition of his family and professor, Takahashi deserted his astronomy studies and joined Aum as a full-time devotee. By then, the cult had grown aggressive about the looming Armageddon and was fund-raising fast and furious. Even as the cult was building stocks of deadly chemicals, the guru was accusing the government of trying to murder him with sarin gas.

Takahashi was sent to the Kamikuishiki headquarters where the sarin was later produced, and assigned to the cult's Science and Technology Ministry after "initiation" rituals, that included wearing the electric headcap and meditating. Contacts with the outside world were forbidden. Takahashi's boss was Murai Hideo, Asahara's right-hand man. Murai put Takahashi to work on a series of bizarre projects. Among other things, Takahashi worked on a control program for laser light shows. The directives seemed whimsical, the management chaotic.

As he climbed Aum's devotional ladder, Takahashi endured various rituals sufficiently severe to kill someone. During "Hot Temperature Training," he soaked in scalding water. Another initiation meant taking "Christ's bone powder," likely LSD, that prompted hours of hallucination and a gut-wrenching comedown. Then there was the three-hour harassment session in a cramped cubicle.

Takahashi wasn't having fun anymore. He grew suspicious of Aum's theories. He began asking questions and openly criticizing aspects of the cult. He was demoted to driving for another devotee who worked on Aum's arms production. Meanwhile, Aum turned up the volume of its death doctrine, justifying the killing of others to save their souls. "Armageddon is nearing. I will be a part of the sacred military to kill bad souls, which is the upmost virtue," the followers chanted in a hypnotic drone - up to 300 times in a row.

When police raided the Kamikuishiki headquarters on March 22, l995, most devotees expressed shock to hear about the gassing two days before. While gas-masked detectives wandered the cult's compound with canaries in cages, Takahashi sneaked past the television cameras to a prefabricated house where a computer was linked online. Soon Takahashi knew the details of the subway attack. He knew Aum leaders were calling it a frame-up. Takahashi did not know what to think. Was this possible?

He saw his chance to escape two weeks later, after driving his boss to Tokyo headquarters. In the capital, Takahashi read newspapers and stared at television reports. He wanted to go public and, one month after the attack, he appeared on TV Asahi. He told his story, asked Aum leaders to explain themselves, bid them good-bye. An Aum spokesman also appeared on the program, spewing sermons of indoctrination.

"I went in the door of a religious organization and came out the exit of an insane terrorist group," Takahashi says. He feels a need to confront Asahara - to try to figure out why the cult attracted him and so many other young Japanese. Takahashi still occasionally feels Aum's tug. "It is not easy to deny what you once chose for a supreme goal," he says.

Takahashi tells me that when he embraced Aum he had a "spiritual thirst for any liquid, not knowing whether it was pure water, liquor, tears or poison." Now he waits part-time at a restaurant, hoping for a denouement in the Aum play. "The judicial procedures are making progress," he says, "but unless we can offer a breakthrough in comprehending the Aum phenomenon, we won't be able to prevent the comeback of this cult or another." Hoping Aum will go away, he says, is not the solution.

Part 1: The Courtroom | Part 2: Malicious Desires Deleted | Part 3: Why Are We Here? | Part 4: Analysis Paralysis


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