Shoko Asahara was born half blind in 1955, to a poor Japanese family. He discovered his own religious enlightenment and formed the religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo, in 1987. By the 1990s, the group had recruited nearly 10,000 followers, and Asahara had dreams of being emperor of Japan. In 2004, he was convicted of masterminding a Sarin gas attack by Aum members that killed 13 and injured thousands.
Convicted shaman/terrorist Shoko Asahara was born as Chizuo Matsumoto on March 2, 1955 in Yashushiro, Japan. One of seven children, his poor family made a meager living weaving tatami mats used as flooring material in traditional Japanese homes. Asahara contracted infantile glaucoma at birth, leading to blindness in his left eye at an early age. He has only partial sight in his right eye.
After attending a school for the blind, Asahara graduated in 1977, but failed to gain entry into a university. In 1978, he began studying traditional Chinese medicine and married Tomoko Matsumoto. He soon turned his ambitions to peddling herbal medicines. In 1981, he was convicted of practicing pharmacy without a license, and was fined. It was at this time that Asahara began his religious quest, studying Chinese astrology and Taoism.
In 1987, Shoko Asahara experienced a spiritual awakening and founded Aum Shinrikyo (roughly, "religion of truth"), a religion that blends Hindu and Buddhist spirituality with the teachings of the Bible's Revelations, as well as the writings of the 16th century Christian monk Nostradamus. Aum Shinrikyo teaches that the world is destined for destruction, and that Shoko Asahara is the savior who will lead the spiritually pure to salvation. At its peak in the 1990s, Aum Shinrikyo was estimated to have 10,000 members in Japan and thousands more in other countries, particularly Russia.
In the early 1990s, Asahara attempted to have Aum Shinrikyo members elected to Japanese public office, but failed in several elections. After that, the organization began forming political organizations to influence the Japanese government. Around this time, reports began to surface that the group had attempted to buy and manufacture materials for chemical weapons.
In March 1995, members of Aum Shinrikyo attacked the Tokyo Subway System with the nerve gas Sarin. Thirteen people died and thousands suffered from the after-effects. After an intense investigation, evidence indicated that Shoko Asahara was the mastermind behind the attack. Dozens of the Aum Shinrikyo's disciples were arrested, and the organization's facilities were raided. Authorities arrested Asahara and his wife.
During Asahara's trial, which began in 1996, the prosecution argued that Asahara gave the orders to attack the Tokyo Subway in order to overthrow the government and install himself as emperor of Japan. The prosecution also accused Asahara of masterminding the 1994 attack in Matsumoto, where members of Aum Shinrikyo carried out a poisonous gas attack that killed seven people.
During the trial, the remaining members of Aum Shinrikyo distanced themselves from Asahara and denounced terrorism. The trial lasted eight years due to a scandal with one of the defense attorneys who was accused, but later acquitted, of obstruction. Asahara also refused to cooperate with his later court-appointed attorneys, claiming insanity. He was finally convicted of 13 separate crimes in 2004, and was sentenced to death. His final appeal was dismissed in 2006. Today, Asahara is reportedly confined to a wheelchair and unable to respond to anyone coherently.
The Aum Shinrikyo organization was renamed Aleph in 2002, and its members have distanced themselves from the criminal acts of the 1990s. However, they continue to use Shoko Asahara's teachings.
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