Reconsidering Japanese Religious History: The Aum Incident and Blind Culture in Modern JapanSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Asahara Shoko is the founder of Aum Shinrikyo, the radical religious group that was accused of carrying out sarin gas attacks in Matsumoto in 1994, and in Tokyo in 1995. Asahara‘s trial is still in progress, delayed by his eccentric behavior. Many scholars and journalists both in Japan and in the West have treated Aum as a cult or a terrorist group. In this essay, however, I will analyze Asahara Shoko‘s life history, discussing who he is and why he committed indiscriminate killing. In doing so, I shall pursue two main questions.
First, the group emphasized “Shinri” or “Supreme Truth,” as one of its teachings, but what is the meaning of “Shinri” for Asahara? Second, when Asahara was arrested in May 1995, his alibi was, “could a blind person like me possibly do such a thing? I am not a criminal.” Asahara was born with impaired vision in 1955 and lost the greater part of his eyesight in the 1990s. Is there any relationship between Asahara‘s blindness and the meaning of “Supreme Truth” for him? Is blindness a mere obstacle for him or is it more than that? With these questions as both my starting point and my goal, I will examine the implication of concepts of “blindness” and “disabled” in Japanese religious history.
Asahara‘s personal history attracted much attention from the media. Born in Yatsushiro, a rural area of Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyushu, he was one of five children and was originally named Chizuo Matsumoto. His father was a tatami mat maker. The Matsumotos lived in poverty, and the family had a hereditary eye disease. Chizuo entered the Kumamoto School for the Blind in 1961, and for the next 14 years lived in the dormitory and studied at this special, but isolated school far from his home. Some commentators have suggested that Aum‘s way of renouncing the world had its origin in this isolated environment. While statements like these are gross oversimplifications, it is true that schools for the handicapped have been linked with discrimination since the Meiji Era (1868-1912).
In 1872, the Meiji Government established an educational system that provided compulsory education for the Japanese. The Japanese, however, did not include the handicapped, who were referred to as “worthless, useless people.” This stigma severely limited educational opportunities for handicapped students. Formal education for these students could only be found in private schools started by charity organizations and religious philanthropists. The Kumamoto School for the Blind was one of these. Most graduates of this school earned their living as acupuncturists or specialists in Chinese medicine. Asian medicine has been the most important subject of study in modern education for the blind, a tradition dating back to the middle of the Edo Period (1600-1867). Finally after World War II, special education was authorized under the Fundamental Law of Education. Yet even today, vocational choices other than acupuncturist are still limited for blind people in Japan.
Chizuo dreamed of breaking out of this pattern and ran for office in many student associations again and again to advance himself, but lost all elections. He experienced another setback when he failed the entrance examination for Kumamoto University because his school did not teach the subjects covered on the exam. Upon graduating from the school for the blind, he took a part-time job as an acupuncturist in Kumamoto City. However, in 1977 he went to Tokyo, hoping to enter Tokyo University with the goal of becoming a statesman. In the Tokyo metropolitan area, he experienced several setbacks and eventually resigned himself to working as an acupuncturist and making herbal remedies. One of these remedies was a fake cure-all medicine, which led to his arrest under the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law.
During this time, Chizuo also participated in some new religious groups. After his arrest, he was devoted to Agonshu, one of the largest of the so-called “new new” religions (Shin-shin-shukyo) in postwar Japan. Agonshu was founded by Kiriyama Seiyu and became popular in the 1970s and 80s.
Agonshu emphasized deliverance from earthly bondage, advocated transmigration of souls, and recommended practicing mental and physical asceticism to attain nirvana. Chizuo was one of many young people attracted to this training program. It is common for the founders of Japanese new religions to have started their religious careers because of difficulties they faced in their everyday lives. It appears that Chizuo followed this pattern and that his failures in Kumamoto and Tokyo led him to prove his superiority in the spiritual world. Through yoga practice, he made an effort to obtain supernatural powers. With several followers, he started a small yoga center called Aum Shinrikyo in 1984. According to his writings, he changed his name to Asahara Shoko after experiencing a spiritual awakening in the Himalayas.
From his participation in Agonshu, Asahara acquired the know-how to organize a religious association. Building on the group‘s teachings, Asahara explained to his pupils how they could attain both nirvana and ESP. Soon Aum Shinrikyo had enough members to be granted legal status as a religious corporation. A great number of Aum believers followed Asahara‘s teachings, hoping to be the chosen people or spiritually pure survivors.
What was Asahara‘s appeal for so many young people? In recent years Japanese youth have been searching for meaning in life, especially after the experience of “examination hell,” which has gotten much publicity lately. Sometimes their situation is called “freedom without independence.” Asahara gave his young adherents both an enemy and a dream. His doctrine was a mixture of Buddhism, Hinduism and apocalyptic Christianity and he often cited the prophetic writings of Nostradamus. Asahara predicted doom and the destruction of this world, with himself in the central role as savior and subsequent leader of the new paradise. While his stories were naive and far fetched, they were also unambiguous and provided both bugbears and ideals for his young followers.
Despite a large following, in the late 80s forcible propagation of Shinri and a lot of compulsory donations caused serious problems. It was reported that a lawyer who opposed Aum was abducted by some of its adherents. In 1990, Aum tried unsuccessfully to have candidates elected to the House of Representative and Asahara declared in public that he would become the prime minister. After Aum‘s complete defeat in the general election, illegal acts in the group increased rapidly. New initiations were introduced to help Asahara‘s pupils experience supernatural phenomena through the use of psychedelic drugs. Lay followers were compelled to make as many offerings as they could and to become priests in Aum.
Eventually Aum began to lose popularity in Japan, and Asahara dispatched a mission to Russia, taking advantage of its disorder after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some believers returned with Russian-made rifles, and others experimented with chemical weapons. All believers were required to obey Asahara‘s orders without question. In his own way, Asahara was making an effort to assert his reason for existence.
Asahara‘s struggle, I believe, grew out of his hatred of society. The school from which he graduated was isolated from so-called “normal” people. In a society where the blind were often considered to be “worthless, useless people,” they tried hard to fit in and be normalized in the general public world. In the process of Japanese modernization, the disabled were shunned and were obliged to demonstrate their worth and usefulness. Asahara‘s effort to find a reason for existence in society eventually resulted in a violent attack on Japanese society itself.
In March 1995, Asahara gave a command to his men that materialized his prophecy. Poison gas was dispersed in Metropolitan Tokyo subway trains. Many innocent commuters and station employees were poisoned. Some of them were killed, and others are still suffering from the effects of sarin poisoning. Asahara referred to this act as “salvation.” Through it, he gave shape to his final war for the destruction of this world.
Asahara has said repeatedly that he was a savior and a leader of the new paradise that embodied Supreme Truth. To accomplish his purpose, Asahara tried every possible means including indiscriminate murder. His purpose was revenge upon “normal” people for his ill treatment as a blind person.
Needless to say, I have no intention of speaking in defense of Asahara. However, I feel that Asahara was bred to be a criminal by a society of “normal” people. Many factors molded Asahara‘s character. Certainly the school for the blind had an influence on him. Nevertheless, he was not a typical student at the Kumamoto School for the Blind.
In Aum‘s initiations, Asahara said that he was genetically superior to others. He forced Aum believers to act like his slaves. He called them his clones. For instance, Asahara asked them to drink his blood. He thus symbolizes an aspect of Japanese modernization, which has sacrificed minorities, or “worthless, useless people.”
When I visited Kumamoto in February 2002 to interview people about Asahara, all those currently in the Kumamoto School for the Blind refused to answer my questions. Many “normal” people looked unsympathetically on the school because of the biased media coverage of it and Asahara. There is a tacit rule that the blind who receive special education should not do anything that will be a nuisance to “normal” people. Asahara violated this rule drastically.
In Kumamoto, I met a retired teacher who had been in charge of Chizuo (Asahara) in his elementary school days. She said, “Chizuo was a lovely boy. He was born too early.”
Her comments are correct in a certain sense. If Asahara had been born in the 70s or the 80s, he might have entered Kumamoto University or Tokyo University. Things are not what they used to be, and the manner in which Japanese society views handicapped people has changed. They are no longer viewed as “worthless, useless people.” I am totally blind and thanks to these changes I was admitted to a university and have the opportunity to be a visiting scholar abroad. I graduated from a school for the blind, but due to these changes, my situation is completely different from Asahara‘s.
Though it seems Asahara was born too early, paradoxically, one can also say that he was born too late. The fact that the blind in Japan are often engaged in acupuncture and massage goes back to pre-modern times. Long before schools for the blind were established, Japan had a blind guild called Todoza. In the 14th century, Todoza was formed by biwa-hoshi (lute players or minstrels) all of whom were blind and had a long tradition dating from the ancient times. In the Kyushu area where Asahara was born, one could see many biwa-hoshi until quite recently. They were blind priests who offered prayers to earth deities.
In the history of Japanese music and performing arts, blind people have long played important roles, unlike the lowly positions held by blind people in more modern times. Historically, blind priests performed religious rituals as well as folk entertainment. According to historical documents from at least the 10th century, the blind traveled throughout the country to give biwa performances, and because of their information networks, feudal lords used them as secret messengers. Moreover, biwa-hoshi prayed for the souls of fallen soldiers and it was believed that they could communicate with the spirits of the dead.
Because there was no way for blind men to make a living other than as biwa-hoshi in medieval times, they formed a guild to support their interests. The original rituals, mythology, and customs of the Todoza guild have been handed down from teacher to pupil for many years. Their secret techniques of story telling were religious and artistic. In the Edo Period, Todoza was supported by the Tokugawa shogunate and its own hierarchy system was established. Besides the biwa, blind people acquired other musical instruments, including koto and shamisen, as well as the technical skills of massage and acupuncture as new occupations. Some members of Todoza earned their living by lending money.
Similar situations existed for blind women in various parts of Japan. In the Tohoku district in the northeastern part of Japan, blind psychic mediums are thought to speak in the voice of dead people and communicate with them and the spiritual world. Today, the festival of Mt. Osore, which is held every July, is famous for the spiritualism performed by itako, as these mediums are called.
Like the biwa-hoshi, the itako also founded a guild. The crop in Tohoku frequently suffered serious damage because of the cold weather, and they prayed for a good harvest and held a memorial service for ancestors. They served as counselors, healers and entertainers for village communities. They felt a sense of mission in their work. A practical philosophy of mutual aid or interdependence characterized the relationship between itako and villagers.
Nagata Hojun, the last biwa-hoshi, told me the following about his philosophy of life: “I want to stay at the halfway point in the climb to the top of a mountain. From there, you can hear many voices of people from both the bottom and the top.” These are, I think, the words of a person who has attained a kind of enlightenment.
Nagata also said, “I want to continue playing biwa as long as I live.” This statement comes from his conviction that no one else can do his work. In fact, as a blind priest he has been gaining support among a variety of people from the bottom to the top. Nagata is literally doing his one and only duty.
Another itako said to me, “Through severe training, we can make contact with the world which is invisible to the naked eye. We are doing what sighted people cannot do.”
As time passes, biwa-hoshi and itako will vanish from our memories. We cannot but follow the current of the times. Even so, the idea that blind people can do what sighted people cannot is applicable to the present-day life.
In 1871, Todoza was abolished by the Meiji Government. The dissolution of a blind guild did not mean that the blind were given a free hand to choose their occupations. There is, I think, a big difference in the nuance of the word “special” in Modern and Pre-modern Japan. In pre-modern times, the blind could not use written characters, but they did not need them. They depended on their memories. The spiritualism of biwa-hoshi and itako were the fruits of their special abilities. They were living in another world. In other words, the blind and the sighted had two different worlds. Blind people were abler than the sighted in some cases and their unique, or special world was highly regarded.
Then, along with Japanese modernization came a shift from pluralistic outlooks on the world to unitary criteria. Minorities began to feel alienated from the majority. A value judgment on the disabled, or the special world changed radically. Itako and biwa-hoshi were considered to be superstitious and were made light of in Modern Japan. The groups “of” the blind, such as Todoza, lost their power, and the groups “for” the blind, including special schools, were founded. Every school for the blind has put a great deal of effort into vocational training, but it has never reflected on the meaning of another, or the special world.
In closing, let me repeat the two statements that I discussed in this article:
“Could a blind person like me possibly do such a thing?”
“We are doing what sighted people cannot do.”
From these, we can learn something about Japanese religious history, which has given rise to and has suppressed blind culture, or the special world.
On behalf of many victims of the Aum incident and on behalf of biwa-hoshi and itako, I would like to conclude by asking once again: Who is Asahara Shoko?
Kojiro Hirose is a visiting fellow at Princeton University. After receiving his Ph.D. in Japanese history from Kyoto University in 2001 he became a research fellow at the National Museum of Ethnology (in Osaka). His publications (in Japanese) include A Religious Folkloric Study of the Handicapped (1997) and A Welfare Theory for the Emancipation of Humankind: Deguchi Onisaburo and Modern Japan (2001). The following article is adapted from a CJS noon lecture he presented on April 3, 2003.