Japanese Guru--A Youthful Bully's Quest for Power

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Trouble began early in life for Shoko Asahara, the leader of the secretive religious cult suspected of making the kind of deadly nerve gas used in last week's terror attack in Tokyo's subways.

His school years are said to have been marked by fights, bullying and the casual making of murder threats. As a young man, he went into the health-tonic business, only to be jailed and fined for selling fake medication. Finally, by founding Aum Supreme Truth, he began to reach his lifetime goals of wealth and power.

Now Asahara, 40, is on the run, wanted by police for questioning about why his sect accumulated huge stores of chemicals that can be used to make sarin, the deadly nerve gas used to kill 10 and injure more than 5,000 in the subway attack.

Until going into hiding early last week, the bearded, long-haired guru was master of a closed society of Aum followers in the rural village of Kamikuishiki--a "training center" for hundreds of believers that in its extreme isolation from normal life echoed the narrow confines of the school for the blind he attended as a child.

Placed in that school mainly because of his family's poverty, Asahara--whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto--grew up in a world of the blind where a partially sighted boy like himself could be king.

Born blind in one eye, and with about 30% sight in the other, Asahara was a troublemaker who lorded it over the other students at the boarding school, according to a 1991 book, "Ambition of the Savior," by free-lance journalist Shoko Egawa.

Asahara seemed to delight in tormenting the other boys by issuing conflicting orders to them, a classmate quoted in Egawa's book recalled.

"His roommates said it was hell," the classmate said. "He was always using people. One time, after there was a burglary near the school, Chizuo ordered other boys to stay awake and guard the room while he was sleeping. Also, he would keep changing what he said. He'd tell someone not to do a certain thing and then right away turn around and order him to do it. Because people were afraid, they would obey, and then he'd get angry, saying, 'Why did you do something I told you not to do?' "

The dormitories had a lights-out rule at night, but Asahara would order his roommates to ignore it, Egawa wrote. This happened so often that the dorm mother tried to stop it, but Asahara shouted back, "I'll set this dorm on fire!"

A teacher, quoted anonymously in the book, recalled what happened next:

"When a guidance counselor tried to do something about it, Asahara said: 'All I did was say I would set a fire. It was just words. There's nothing for you to get all upset about.' And you know what else he'd say? 'I'll shoot you to death!' After saying that, he'd say: 'As long as I don't really shoot you, it's not against the law. I can say whatever I like.' When he'd talk that way, the teachers were surprised and would say: 'It's scary. What will happen in the future?' I remember well that there was talk like this."

But the teacher said Asahara also had another side, an ability to reach out and lend an ear to unpopular boys rejected by their classmates. The teacher added that Asahara repeatedly ran unsuccessfully for student council president, both in elementary and junior high school.

"In high school, he begged tearfully to be made student council president, but he lost again," the teacher said. "When he lost, he got terribly depressed and said to his classmates, 'Why do I lose?' One of the girls said, 'You show concern for people sometimes, but everybody's afraid of you.' "

Born March 2, 1955, Asahara was one of seven children of a poverty-stricken maker of straw tatami mats, used as flooring in traditional Japanese homes. An older brother was completely blind, and because of this the family knew that government funding was available for children to live and study at the school for the blind, Egawa wrote. While the school, located in Kumamoto city on Japan's southern island of Kyushu, was intended for children who were completely blind, Asahara was admitted under a rule allowing attendance by children who might lose their sight in the future.

"He was always saying, 'I've got to get rich,' " a teacher was quoted as saying in Egawa's book. "Actually, he was saving his money as much as he could. . . . His eyesight was poor, and if he'd gone to a regular school, he would have been picked on. But in a blind school, because he could see to some degree, he was very special.

"The completely blind children desperately wanted to be guided by a child who could see. . . . Especially when they got into high school everyone wanted to go out into the city, drink at coffee shops, eat delicious things in restaurants, but they couldn't go by themselves. For that reason, they said (to Asahara): 'I'll pay for the coffee. I'll pay for the meal. So take me.' That's how it was."

Asahara studied acupuncture and herbal medicine at the school for the blind, according to a recent article in the Weekly Yomiuri magazine. After graduating in 1975, he moved to the Tokyo area, where he ran an acupuncture clinic, opened a health-tonic store specializing in Chinese herbal medicines and got married.

In 1982 he was arrested and fined for selling fake medicine, an experience that left Asahara and his wife, Tomoko Ishii, embittered with both the police and the media, according to an article she later wrote for an Aum publication that complained about how they had been treated.

Two years later, according to the Weekly Yomiuri, Asahara set up an organization he called the Society of Celestial Beings, and his luck began to change. He started teaching yoga and gradually assumed the trappings of a religious teacher.

In 1985, his claimed ability to levitate was written about in the occult magazine Twilight Zone.

"Now, the length of time I can levitate is about three seconds, but this period of time is gradually lengthening," the article quoted Asahara as saying. "In about a year, I should be able to fly freely through the sky."

In 1986, according to materials published by his sect, he visited the Himalayas and achieved "ultimate salvation," and the next year he claimed to have received secret teachings of Tibetan Buddhism directly from the Dalai Lama. Sect publications said he not only had the power to levitate but also could see through objects and meditate underwater for up to six hours.

Asahara changed the name of his organization to Aum Supreme Truth in 1987, and two years later, overcoming considerable resistance from bureaucrats in the Tokyo city government, he won Aum official registration as a religious organization.

By the early 1990s, Asahara had many bitter critics, including those who suspected the sect of involvement in the disappearance of Tsutsumi Sakamoto, a lawyer who had been helping parents who wanted to free their children from the cult. After Sakamoto vanished with his wife and baby, an Aum badge was found at their home.

But Asahara was sometimes treated as a legitimate religious figure even by those outside the cult. He was interviewed sympathetically, for example, for an article on new religions published in the well-respected magazine Brutus in 1991.

In the interview, Asahara said that the collapse of the Soviet Union had ended the struggle between conflicting forms of materialism--the controlled economy versus the free-market economy--and had set the stage for a new struggle: "the final conflict between materialism and spiritualism."

"Now is the time for people to go beyond the level of ordinary morality and achieve contact with a higher world than that of human beings," Asahara said in the Brutus interview. "People must work to become the living organisms of a higher world."

Asahara's speeches and writings have grown increasingly paranoid in the past few years, warning of impending doom and claiming that he was the target of poison gas attacks.

In his most recent book, titled "The Land of the Rising Sun Is Headed Toward a Bitter Fate," Asahara predicted a U.S. nuclear attack on Japan between 1996 and 1998.

But his followers, he wrote, will survive.

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