In the year following the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult’s sarin nerve gas attack on Tokyo’s subway system in 1995, Japanese philosopher Masahiro Morioka confessed that he might have joined the group.

“I shudder at the possibility that I could have made the mistake of joining Aum Shinrikyo,” he wrote in his book.

Morioka said he had felt excited when he found a book at a bookstore that included a picture that claimed to show the cult’s founder, Chizuo Matsumoto, a.k.a. Shoko Asahara, performing “levitation” in a Zen meditation posture.

The line between him and the cult’s followers was that he stopped short of buying the book while the followers actually bought and carefully read it, the author wrote.

He asked himself how different he was from the people who had committed hideous crimes as members of the sect.

The two-decades-long legal saga involving many criminal trials over crimes committed by the cult is now coming to its denouement.

Many indicted former Aum Shinrikyo followers have cited various reasons for joining the cult.

“I lost faith in the unlimited progress of science,” one said. “I wanted to experience supernatural phenomena,” explained another. Others cited “solitude” and “a sense of inferiority.”

The cult made itself accessible by operating its facilities as yoga centers.

Remarks made by prosecuted former cult members in the courtroom revealed various psychological factors that turned them into a criminal organization.

Ikuo Hayashi, who was involved in perpetrating the deadly sarin attack and is now serving a life sentence, said he had hesitated when he saw women and children on subway platforms. But he carried out the attack by goading himself with guru Asahara’s declaration saying, “This is a battle.”

Kazuaki Okasaki, who is on death row, said, “Feeling pity (for victims) means weak faith.”

There are ideas and arguments that look completely unreasonable and outrageous to outsiders but make perfect sense to the members of a closed group.

Such thoughts sometimes cause disasters. This is a dangerous trap into which closed groups that don’t tolerate dissenting voices among their members, not necessarily religious ones, often fall.

We heard Aum Shinrikyo followers utter many odd-sounding words, such as “guru” and “poa or phowa,” which was used to mean killing.

There is no doubt that it was a terrorist group and a religious cult.

If, however, we use these descriptions simply to characterize the group as an evil element completely different from the rest of our society, we fail to glean some important lessons from their crimes.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 21

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.