Bearded and sleepy-eyed, Chizuo Matsumoto, 39, claims that he went off to the Himalayas, and, via an ascetic experience, underwent a miraculous transformation. He said he found enlightenment.
He began to call himself “Shoko Asahara,” to gather followers for his ostensibly Buddhist religion, which also promotes Tibetan-style mysticism, with elements of Hinduism, such as use of the image of the god Shiva and the practice of yoga exercises.
From its launch in 1987, his group, “Aum Shinri Kyo” - or Aum Sublime Truth - has grown into a sprawling organization, claiming 10,000 members in Japan and 30,000 in Russia.
It has amassed huge sums. Asahara and 24 of his followers have run unsuccessfully for Parliament.
Sublime Truth has become the subject of media scrutiny in Japan with reports about its allegedly bizarre rites.
And, in keeping with the tenor of its leader’s sometimes apocalyptic ramblings, the group suddenly has found itself the focus of speculation that its members may have played a role in a nerve gas attack Monday in Tokyo’s subways that killed 10 and afflicted 4,700 commuters.
By the time about 2,500 police raided two dozen Sublime Truth facilities on Wednesday, the group already had achieved more than a whiff of notoriety throughout Japan.
“I won’t get close to the people in white robes because they’ll pull me in,” Yutaka Aoki, a junior high student who passed by one of the raided Tokyo facilities, said Wednesday, referring to the garb worn by some Sublime Truth members and the group’s alleged high-pressure recruiting tactics.
In 1990, in sweeps similar to those carried out Wednesday, 1,000 police raided 14 Sublime Truth chapters.
Although police said the earlier raids were prompted by allegations of shady land deals and the manufacture of bogus license plates, Japanese media reported that the searches were triggered by accusations that Sublime Truth members had held people captive and staged bizarre initiation rites.