This article examines the experiences of female Aum Shinrikyō members who left the group after the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo, but who are unable to reject Aum and the lives they had lived inside it completely. Based on interviews and material published by Aum, the article discusses what it meant for these women to “live Aum” while they were members, and why many of them have been unable to move on. It focuses on the extreme ascetic practices that were central to their Aum lives and status in the group, and the entanglement of love and fear in the emotional connections they formed while inside the group and with its leader Asahara Shōkō. I argue that these interrelated elements form the basis of a “feeling community” of former members who have continued to feel different from, and out of sync with, the emotional regime and temporal rhythms of Japanese mainstream society, but who are also aware that the past they are somehow stuck in cannot exist in the present, nor can its recreation be imagined for the future.

It’s like time has stopped, he said, which I supposed was a way of saying that he could no longer identify or even imagine a future.

Rachel Cusk, Transit

When members of the religious organization Aum Shinrikyō (usually translated in English as Aum Supreme Truth, hereafter referred to as Aum) carried out a sarin gas attack on riders on the Tokyo subway on 20 March 1995, which killed fourteen people and sickened thousands, the extent of the now notorious criminal and violent activities of the group was uncovered. Aum was established as a small yoga group in 1984 by Asahara Shōkō (born Matsumoto Chizuo, 1955-2018),1 who claimed to have obtained “ultimate liberation” (saishū gedatsu), a state of absolute freedom and happiness that extinguishes all suffering and transcends life and death. Asahara as enlightened guru was the focus of Aum’s teachings and practice and the source of inspiration for its members. Aum’s teachings and spiritual practices were inspired by Buddhism, in particular Vajrayāna Buddhism as practiced in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, yoga, and other bodily and mind-training practices such as meditation, combined with catastrophic end-of-the-world thought.2

Investigations of the subway attack resulted in the arrests of Asahara and other (mostly senior) members of the group. Several other crimes committed by the group were also unveiled, including the kidnapping and killing of Sakamoto Tsutsumi (1956-1989), a lawyer supporting families of Aum members, and his wife and child, attempted murders of opponents, and production of biological weapons for mass destruction.

At the time of the sarin gas attack in Tokyo, Aum claimed around ten thousand members, of which about 1,100 were shukkesha—renunciates who had given up their jobs and cut connections with their families to live a communal life, focused on ascetic practices, in Aum’s centers.3 In October 1995, Aum was stripped of its status as a religious organization, and its headquarters in Kamikuishiki village (Yamanashi prefecture), where the lethal gas had been produced, was subsequently dismantled. When the group was placed under strict police surveillance, its centers raided, and its assets frozen, the shukkesha took different paths. Some remained in Aum (renamed Aleph in January 2000), or later joined the splinter group named Hikari no Wa (Circle of Rainbow Light) formed in 2007.4 Some became apostates and joined the anticult movement, utterly rejecting their former allegiance to Aum and its guru.5 However, there were others who felt unable to remain in the organization or to join a splinter group, but at the same time were unable to reject Aum and the lives they had lived inside it completely.

This article focuses on female former members of Aum who remain in a liminal state between adherence and rejection. As a consequence of their personal decisions to become shukkesha, these women had an unusual—what many of them still consider to be extraordinary—experience in Aum (often in their late teens or early twenties), with which they have spent decades coming to terms. By deciding to be critical of Aum’s actions but not entirely rejecting its teachings and practices, they lost their Aum community, but they were also unable to join the community of Aum apostates. They tend to be openly critical of the violent acts perpetrated by some Aum members as well as of the splinter groups, but they also disagree with the Aum apostates’ unnuanced condemnation of Aum and its practices, as well as with the idea that its members had been subjected to “mind control.” They returned to secular life in Japan, but they have continued to feel different, and feel differently, than “ordinary” people in mainstream society. I argue that these dynamics have bound them in an Aum “feeling community” despite their attempts to put Aum behind them. Feeling communities are groups in which people feel certain common emotions toward an object/person/idea. It is this feeling that constitutes them as a group.

The concept “feeling community” takes into account how shared experiences, interpretations, and practices bring and hold such communities of people together, in addition to the “glue” of norms. As such, the feeling community develops, but it is distinct from historian Barbara Rosenwein’s well-known definition of emotional communities as groups and social communities in which “people adhere to the same norms of emotional expression and value—or devalue—the same or related emotions.”6 A feeling community comes together by both feeling something together and feeling as together. For these former members, Aum has continued to be an important emotional center of their lives, therefore becoming the necessary component of the feeling community they have co-created.

By analyzing my interviews conducted in 2016 and 2019 with some of these women who had become renunciates in Aum,7 as well as books and blogs written by former members and material published by Aum, this article takes seriously the experiences of female Aum members, considering what it meant to them to “live Aum” and why many of them have been unable to move beyond it. It focuses on the extreme bodily practices that attracted many women to the organization and were central to their lives, status, and authority as shukkesha, as well as the entanglement of love and fear in the emotional connections these women formed inside the group. I argue that these interrelated elements are crucial to understanding members’ affective relationships within the group and their commitment to it. Analysis of women former members’ affective relations uncovers the mechanics of dismantling adherence, and shows how and why these former members’ attempts to detach themselves from Aum remain incomplete.8 The ascetic practices and emotional bonds of Aum life could not be reproduced outside Aum. For the former members, memories of life in Aum represent something that was lost after 1995. At the same time, these memories form the basis of a feeling community the former members created after 1995—one that, paradoxically, required them to dismantle Aum and made it impossible to rebuild the organization.

In his analysis of the relationship between emotional processes and power, the historian William Reddy defines emotional regimes as “the set of normative emotions and official rituals, practices and emotives that express and inculcate them.…”9 While this definition is often used in analyzing political regimes, it can also be applied to smaller groups and organizations that create regimes that “require individuals to express normative emotions and to avoid deviant emotions.”10

Women in the post-Aum community discussed in this article share an emotional grammar, a way of feeling in and about Aum and its practices, that distinguishes them from people who have not shared their experiences. It is a community whose participants are brought together by feeling “out of sync” with the emotional regime and temporal rhythms of the mainstream society into which members were catapulted in 1995—a society they had rejected in order to join Aum—but also by the fact that the Aum community does not, and cannot, exist in the present. As such, it is a community characterized not by the presence of its members, but by the persistence of an absence that is both spatial and temporal. It is an absence created by the lack of physical meeting places and contact with former senior members, who are either dead or still in prison, or have severed their contact with Aum groups. It is also an absence created by temporal irreversibility and the impossibility of replicating the past life inside Aum in the present or imagining it as being created in the future.11

While previous works have touched on the role of female members in Aum,12 or discussed publications by Asahara Shōkō’s daughters,13 most narratives about Aum members have focused on male members’ experiences. This is partly because most media, and some academic, attention has focused on the organization’s criminal activities, such as the manufacture of chemical weapons and commission of violent crimes, activities in which male members tended to have a predominant role. Furthermore, most publications that include Aum members’ voices have been written by male members,14 with the exception of a few recent publications.15 The lack of analysis of and material about women’s experiences in Aum is reflected in reductive accounts of the roles of female members in Aum-related narratives, especially in the media. Aum women members are commonly represented as manipulated servants of the leader, or as a sexualized “beauty army” (bijo gundan), as one magazine described them.16 This lack of women’s voices in narratives about Aum is glaring, given that three out of Aum’s five highest-ranked members (known within the group as seitaishi, or “sacred grand teachers”) were female. These included Asahara’s wife Tomoko, their daughter Rika, and Ishii Hisako, who was considered to be Asahara’s first disciple.17 Moreover, women played important roles in the running of the organization and training of its members, especially during the group’s early development.

I begin by relating the story of one of the women who joined the organization in its early years and how she describes her life in and out of Aum.

In the late 1980s, Ueda Naoko was in her twenties and worked as an office lady for a company in the Kanto region.18 In her free time, she enjoyed reading popular magazines such as and Twilight Zone (Towaraito Zōn) that reported on supernatural phenomena and mystic spiritual experiences. Her first encounter with Aum followed a pattern that is described in published accounts by former members, many of whom had read about Aum activities and teachings in books and magazines, including those published by the organization.19 In an issue of , a monthly magazine devoted to supernatural phenomena and occult, Ueda read an article about Aum’s leader (Asahara) and his practices. Intrigued by testimonies that recounted how the lives of ordinary young men and women had been changed by their encounter with Aum and Asahara, she decided to visit one of Aum’s centers and started practicing yoga. Ueda soon became convinced that in order to obtain fulfillment (jōju) she needed to become a shukkesha, a process that involved renouncing one’s family, job, and education, and joining a communal life with other members. “In Aum, being a lay member didn’t make sense,” she said, explaining that according to Asahara one needed to renounce their previous life in order to achieve the higher level of training.20 Seven months after she joined the group in 1989, Ueda became a renunciate.

Life as a shukkesha included both work (wāku) comprising labor activities carried out for the group, such as working in one of the businesses run by Aum, including computer assembly and sales, supermarkets, and restaurants, as well as “extreme training” (kyogen shugyō). The latter involved a variety of practices, such as limiting sleep to only three hours each night for several weeks and significantly reducing the intake of food. In the midst of her extreme training, Ueda had mystical experiences and developed the ability to manipulate her energy (ki) in order to control her bodily fluids. For example, she became able to stop her menstruation. Members’ mystical experiences in Aum, she claimed, were not a matter of belief. By performing austerities, they had experiences and visions that were not possible in ordinary life. As was also the case for other members, these mystical experiences, the desire to experience them, and anticipation of the pleasure she would derive through feeling them played an important part in Ueda’s decision to join the organization and in particular to become a shukkesha.

Ueda described communal life in Aum as living within a very close-knit family, where the connections between members was stronger than connections with blood relatives. She felt it was a pity that descriptions of everyday life inside Aum in members’ published accounts were so sparse. She explained that members had described their daily lives in Aum in these publications, but not the sensory details and emotions of living a communal life.

But I lived in Aum, I had a life in Aum. What was actually inside Aum—the atmosphere, what we ate, how it tasted, what we thought (and felt) eating it every day—that is what Aum was for us. There are no books that describe the experience of training there, the rhythm of life, what we experienced as joy, or anything like that. Obviously, these are not in books by outsiders, but also the books by insiders are about conceptual things and there haven’t been any books written about the atmosphere.21

After the sarin gas attack in 1995, Ueda felt that the group was falling apart. When the veil was lifted on the atrocities some of her fellow members had committed, she realized that Aum was not what she had previously thought it was. She discovered that Aum was, in the words of another ex-member, an “illusion” (gen’ei). How could she come to terms with this? How could she change her mind (and body) to reconcile herself with it? Attempting to explain her feelings at the time, she said, “Whatever happened, happened, but now I had no choice other than to keep living. How was I to accept this?”

Ueda initially stayed in Aleph, but after a few years she decided that she needed to leave the organization. Like other members, she tried other practices such as New Age healing, meditation, and Tibetan Buddhism, but she felt that something was missing. At the same time, going back to Aum (now Aleph), or joining Hikari no Wa, was not an option for her because she did not like the new direction the group was taking and, as she put it, “It was different from Aum.” She was struggling to find closure, or at least come to some kind of compromise with her experiences, but she did not think that Aum could continue after 1995. Although she left Aleph and stopped practicing austerities, she became obsessed with what had happened. For many months, from the moment she woke until the time she went to bed, she kept asking herself, “What was Aum?” (Oumu to wa nan datta no ka?)

Ueda is now self-employed and lives alone, having decided not to have a family. Twenty years after the sarin gas attack, she was still struggling to find closure with her Aum experience. Then her mother died, and a year after that, she claimed, she was able to put Aum in the past. She said, I “no longer live Aum” (mō watashi wa Oumu o ikiteinai). However, with the exception of a few family members with whom she had reconnected, Ueda’s social connections were still mainly with former Aum members. She communicated with them via social media or blogs and, occasionally, met them in person. It was to this community of former members that she turned in July 2018 to mourn the execution of Asahara Shōkō and twelve other Aum members.22 Ueda and other former members exchanged lengthy text messages to express their sadness and communicated their feelings online in blog posts and comments. They voiced their shock at hearing the news, but they also shared their memories of the time they had spent together in Aum when life was, in her words, “without responsibilities” (musekinin). Ueda explained that she could not talk to “externals” (non-former members) about her feelings, or her experiences in Aum, because “they would not be able to understand.”

I ended my first interview with Ueda, which lasted several hours, by asking whether she thought it had been a good decision to leave Aum/Aleph. No, she replied, her life as a shukkesha had been better. She did not want to go back, but at the same time she did not think it had been a good thing to leave. “If I was to go back twenty years,” she said, “I think that I would do it all again.”

Ueda’s story and her reflections on the Aum chapter of her life encapsulate many of the themes running through the narratives of other female former members. In particular, they highlight the centrality of ascetic bodily practices and extraordinary experiences in attracting women to Aum and, as I will discuss in more detail, in creating a community inside the Aum organization characterized by a specific emotional regime and temporal rhythms. Through these intense experiences members forged bonds with each other that continue between some of them, but the former members feel an ambivalence between their criticism of Aum’s violence and their emotional attachment to practices and a path they could not completely fulfill. It is to these ascetic practices that we now turn.

The use of austerities and bodily techniques to transform oneself and acquire spiritual and supernatural powers is well documented in religious traditions across the globe,23 and the use of violence and self-mortification as intrinsic to the path toward enlightenment appears also in Buddhist traditions.24 In Japan, a wide variety of practices that can be defined as “ascetic” are identified with the term shugyō (“practice,” “training,” but also “learning”).25 Terms used to describe more extreme practices include kugyō (“painful practice”) and aragyō (“harsh practice”), indicating that pain, hardship, and discomfort are often associated with shugyō in Japan.26 Recent studies on ascetic practices in the Japanese context have advocated for the inclusion of women’s voices in discussions about asceticism.27 Narratives about female ascetics and their experiences played an important role in Aum where harsh practice, some of them inspired by Vajrayāna practices in Tibetan Buddhism,28 was one of the main attractions for new members, as pointed out by Watanabe Eriko, who joined Aum as a teenager:

From that point [after I became a shukkesha], it was unbelievable. [I started] the extreme practice called kyokugen shugyō. During a twenty-four-hour training session, we could only nap for about three hours, while sitting. This was for about six months.29

The “ascetic figure” (shugyōsha) is a central theme in representations of Aum’s female members, in both media and members’ accounts. The image of young, good-looking Aum members performing yoga exercises or other ascetic practices was familiar in Japan before 1995, appearing in magazines and on television shows in which Asahara was interviewed about his practices. Images of the beautiful young women who followed their guru were also used by Aum in internal publications to persuade new members of the benefits of training. Members narrated their experiences in keeping with media presentations, framing them in terms of how austerities were described in magazines and of the model of sanctity created by these public presentations, a pattern that corresponded with the ways that literature has informed the pilgrimage experiences of Japanese Buddhist clergy.30 In Aum, sanctity was inextricably tied to patterns of power and self-inflicted violence, including extremely dangerous practices (described below) that asserted a high level of spiritual accomplishment.

Members were usually introduced to shugyō as soon as they joined the organization. The leader himself would decide what kind of individual training they should undergo, while group austerities were led by one of Aum’s instructors—a member recognized for spiritual achievements and abilities in performing shugyō. Commonly, initial training would include intensive and prolonged meditation sessions while seated in the lotus position (the cross-legged yoga posture). Holding the lotus position for many hours and not sleeping were considered compulsory elements of extreme shugyō, and sleep was described in Aum publications as being “afflictive desire.”31 A member’s account reported in the May 1993 edition of Truth, a monthly English-language magazine published by Aum, described the practice of sitting cross-legged for twelve to thirteen hours, with a record sitting of ninety-two hours non-stop.32

In Aum magazines and books, narratives about austerities focused on the importance of both physical pain and mental suffering as a way to purify the “karma of hell” and achieve fulfillment (jōju) and, eventually, the final stage of gedatsu (liberation or emancipation), described as “absolute freedom and absolute happiness.”33 Members’ accounts vividly described these feelings:

My energy got clogged at my Anahata Chakra during Vayaviya Kumbhaka Pranayama. Then I had pain all the way up to my ears. The pain was so severe that when I walked with my back arched only slightly an excruciating pain ran through my body. I knew that I was going through purification but it was so hard that I almost gave up my attainment.…When we go through a hard time with the practice, our mind becomes stronger and we are able to bear difficulties. Practice is really wonderful in that sense.34

Members’ testimonies in Aum publications before 1995 repeatedly stressed extreme performances. These included isolated training (dokubō shugyō), where members were confined alone in dark spaces for days on end, and the dangerous “underground samādhi,” a practice consisting of being buried in a small underground chamber for a few days for meditation.

During our interview, Tanaka Harumi, an ex-Aum member who joined in 1989 at age twenty and left in 2007, described her first yoga training in which she started learning hatha yoga body postures (āsanas) and techniques to suspend normal breathing patterns (prānāyāma). When she became able to suspend her breathing for over three minutes, changes happened in her body and she started seeing beautiful colors in her mind. Although very painful, she regarded intense austerities as a way to push herself to the extreme limit; austerities, in her opinion, were a way to control one’s body and not be controlled by it.

However, according to Higashi Noriko, another ex-member, the main aim of shugyō was not merely to control the body but to eradicate “evil passions” (bonnō)—in Buddhist terms, desires that are the root of suffering. According to Aum’s teachings, seeking to eliminate bonnō provoked the body to expel pollutants, such as pus and other secretions, representing bad karma. These bodily discharges were often described by my interviewees as signs of purification and the transformation of the impure non-ascetic body into what Japanese religions scholar Tullio Federico Lobetti refers to as the “powerful body” of the shukkesha.35 By cutting away carnal desires through austerities, Aum members believed they would acquire a way to overcome death, and their fear of it, and avoid damnation in hell. Higashi described in this way the moment when she was able to overcome the physical pain and therefore the limitations of her body:

At first my legs hurt and I couldn’t stay in the lotus position at all. I continued doing it and one day, suddenly that was it—I knew! You go through it and it’s not painful anymore. And you continue repeating similar experiences.…It was possible to transcend the limits of the physical body.36

Austerities allowed members to experience visions, the raising of internal energies, and other mystical experiences. They claimed that they gained extraordinary power over their bodies, and even learned to control their fear of death. As they honed their spiritual power, they acquired authority inside Aum. Shugyō was a competitive endeavor essential to achieving higher status inside Aum. As religious studies scholar Ian Reader notes, the hierarchy in Aum was not ordered by age, gender, or seniority in terms of length of membership. Instead, mastery of austerities was what determined and reinforced authority.37 For example, an article published in Mahayana magazine on 25 July 1987 titled, “The Birth of Keima Taishi,” announced that Ishii Hisako (Keima Taishi was her holy name), one of Asahara’s top disciples, had achieved final liberation (gedatsu) on 18 July. Her achievement was widely reported in Aum publications, and she was also the first disciple to complete successfully the dangerous underground samādhi. In May 1988, Ishii Hisako was recognized as having achieved the stage of mahāmudrā (“great seal”), understood in schools of Tibetan Buddhism as the highest accomplishment in mind training. Asahara praised her as “a model, a paragon for all disciples.”38

In Aum, austerities and bodily practices were highly individualized, but they were performed in communal spaces. Members tended to do their “own training” (jibun no shugyō), but they kept an eye on each other, and it was through shugyō that their roles in the organization were recognized. Ranks were determined by their performance, and holy names were bestowed on members deemed to have advanced through spiritual levels. In their analysis of the “Clear” level of attainment in the Church of Scientology, sociologists William S. Bainbridge and Rodney Stark argue that Clear is essentially “a social status conferring honor within the cult’s status system and demanding certain kinds of behavior from the person labelled clear.”39 Similarly, a certain type of exemplary behavior was expected of Aum members at the top of its hierarchical structure. Unlike the Church of Scientology, however, titles in Aum were not just a social status, but also evidence of an individual’s personal development through austerities. Ascetic abilities justified social standing and hierarchy, but recognition of talent by the leader created a competitive environment for his attention and desire for higher status in the group. Austerities were therefore vehicles for both individual transformation and the negotiation of power. They were also used as a way to overcome gender divisions and roles.

Women had full access to ascetic training. Yamamoto Nozomi proudly told me how shugyō had enabled her to go from her sense of being an outsider, someone who never felt completely integrated into society, to a highly ranked teacher recognized in Aum as a respected authority figure. When former members, men and women, described to me their first encounters with Aum, they often mentioned high-ranking female members. Some even described them as “deities” or “gods” (kamisama) and role models. These women were often the first members a visitor would have met when visiting an Aum center. Tanaka, for example, remembers Ishii Hisako as “beautiful like a goddess,” and she recalls Iida Eriko, another top-ranked female member, as stylish, kind, and very welcoming. At the same time, my interviewees admired these women for their seriousness about ascetic practice and their devotion to the leader. Members were motivated to continue their practice by listening to and reading about mystical and supernatural experiences acquired through arduous austerities. The images of highly spiritual ascetic bodies reiterated in Aum’s magazines created an idealized notion of the ascetic woman that reinforced the importance of training and the possibility of women achieving equal or higher ascetic status than men. Higashi, for example, described how she was able to perform the “standing invocations” (ritsuireihai) practice, a term used in Aum to indicate prostrations similar to those practiced in Tibetan Buddhism, for such a long period of time that she, in her own words, “looked like a robot.” Even male members could not compete with her on this, she proudly stated.

In addition to being described by former members as a way to purify their bodies from attachments and to be in control, shugyō gave women status and power inside Aum. As hinted at in Yamamoto’s self-declared transformation from an outsider to an authority figure, it was also a way for women to break free from the dissatisfaction of their previous lives. The next section will discuss this break and subsequent habituation to a life that set these women apart from the external world, and an emotional regime in Aum in which extreme commitment and pain endurance were valorized.

Austerities are aimed at controlling the body, but they also involve a disconnection from the body and a rejection of pleasure. Like the Indian ascetics studied by religious studies scholar Carl Olson, female ascetics in Aum challenged the “gender assumptions pertaining to sexual control,40 giving women agency by simultaneously mortifying and glorifying the body of the female ascetic. Several interviewees explained their ability to overcome fear of death and damnation through total control over their bodies, and their empowerment via ascetic practice, for example, through their ability to stop the menstrual cycle when performing severe austerities.41 Control of the body was also instrumental in acquiring “some degree of control and power in their lives”42 by breaking from a life path—such as becoming an office employee, and/or a wife and mother, which was common for many women in Japan in the 1990s—that did not suit them. Ueda, for example, alluded to this when recounting an episode that had occurred a few years prior. During a social event, she spoke with a woman of her age, whom she described as high-class and married. Listening to this new acquaintance talk about her life as a spouse and mother, Ueda realized that she did not want to be like that woman and would never have wanted that “ordinary” life.

A recurrent statement in female former members’ accounts is that proper austerities were incompatible with a lay lifestyle. Aum members felt that they had to make the decision to become shukkesha and renounce their families. For those who were married, this included cutting ties with their spouses. This is clearly illustrated by Hirano’s account. She was married when she first joined Aum, and she worked in her husband’s family business, although her dream was to become a teacher. When she started making progress with her Aum practice, she found increasing tension between the demanding shugyō and her family duties. At first, she tried to find a compromise between her job and her Aum practice by working during the day and practicing at night. For a while, she remained split between the demands of her private life and shugyō, but eventually she left her husband and became a shukkesha. In her opinion, full immersion in shugyō was incompatible with daily activities such as working. Hirano does not regret her decision. At the same time, she expressed full awareness of the pain she had caused to her husband, and I detected a hint of melancholy in her voice and eyes when she talked about him. “He hasn’t remarried,” she said. Laughing nervously, she recalled the last time she spoke to him a few years earlier, when “it looked like he was still waiting for me to come back.” But for her it was very clear from the beginning that Aum created a sense of time that was incommensurable with quotidian rhythms of family and work life. The temporal dimensions of ascetic practices created boundaries between “Aum time” and the rhythms of external society.

The glorification of the ascetic body and its heroic performance in the narratives of women former Aum members created a collective memory about the Aum experience. Narratives of ascetic excellence also modeled training regimens and set out patterns of behavior that established identities for members of the Aum feeling community that emerged after the dissolution of the religious organization. Aum members learned the language of shugyō and described their mystical experiences using a shared vocabulary as they pushed their bodies to the limit with strenuous ascetic practices. They felt shugyō in a similar way and they felt a community through it, a community that set them apart from the external world. Ascetic practices also created definite rhythms in individuals’ everyday lives by both restricting and prolonging time—for example, by reducing sleep while performing demanding physical practices, such as sitting in the lotus position for long hours. These rhythms were incompatible with those of life outside Aum, where time was structured by work schedules, school timetables, and family life.

Yamamoto described Aum as being like a “bullet train”—once you got on, you could not get off mid-way. In other words, Aum demanded total engagement. Failure in performing austerities or resisting temptations of carnal desires was condemned and associated with fearful images of damnation in hell. Extreme ascetic practices—such as hanging upside down (sakasazuri), meditating for long periods in a dark room, or violently striking one’s body with a bamboo stick while sitting in the lotus position—were painful and onerous. A few members lost their lives as they practiced austerities.43 However brutal these practices, Higashi described them as an opportunity for introspection and necessary to cut away evil attachments. The pain, she said, was part of the process, but it would eventually subside, demonstrating that the guru’s energy had been properly transmitted to the disciple. Yet when Hirano spoke to me about her ascetic practices, she, like some other former members, described them as violence done to her own body; she admitted that she had not necessarily liked them, especially the painful long hours in meditation seated in the lotus position. It is extremely unlikely that she would have been open about such feelings while she was in Aum. Some interviewees explicitly mentioned that it became difficult for members to express their feelings of uneasiness during austerities, or to admit that the pain was unbearable.

Aum practices and rituals thus created and reproduced an emotional regime where enduring pain during shugyō became central. This resulted in a culture of acceptance of extreme and violent practices including self-mortification, and also the actions of Aum’s leader(s).44 Yet extreme ascetic practices simultaneously represented an “emotional refuge” for members like Hirano and Ueda, who utilized the Aum community as a space where they could become what they wanted to be, circumventing the emotional regime of mainstream society.45

As explained by Hirano, one of Aum’s central teachings was that the student’s karmic bond (en) with the guru Asahara was stronger than the bond with one’s family members, while Ueda felt that the relationship with other Aum members was stronger than that of blood. Cutting these ties by leaving the group in 1995 accrued significant emotional costs, a key factor in many female former members remaining bound in a post-Aum feeling community. Former Aum members seemed unable to sever their bond with Asahara because they lacked the emotional tools to do so. The emotional regime in Aum was alternative to that of mainstream Japanese society and centered on the bond with the guru, a bond produced by an entanglement of fear and love. There was no script within Aum for the handling or expression of emotions related to Asahara’s loss in their lives.

Female former Aum members emphasized the particular quality of the bond that women had with the Asahara. Several interviewees mentioned that women possessed a special ability to connect emotionally with Asahara and to create a bond with him. They were therefore able to receive direct empowerment and energy from him. Hirano referred to this emotional connection as love, delineated in different forms. For some women he was a father, for others a husband, for some a lover, and for others a guru. In her opinion, this meant that devotion (kie) and attachment through love (aichaku) were entangled in some women’s relationships with him.46 Aum magazines also emphasized love, but flowing from the guru to his disciples. For example, they recounted how Asahara sometimes collapsed during seminars “for the sake of love,” exhausted by the amount of energy he had used during the performance of an initiation ritual or empowerment (shaktipat).47

Direct physical contact with the leader stopped abruptly in 1995, when Asahara was arrested for mass murder. For Aum members, Asahara’s physical presence was not strictly necessary, because the bond was with his consciousness (ishiki). According to some accounts, this had already left his body before his execution, meaning that devotees’ bond with him could extend even beyond the death of his body. Former members talked about how their bond with the guru continued after 1995, often in the form of dreams in which they felt possessed by Asahara’s consciousness. Their accounts described their inability to control being possessed by their guru when they were asleep, but also the guilt they felt about attempting to sever the bond.

Watanabe joined Aum at age seventeen, eloped with another member in 1995, rejoined Aum after a few months, and then left in 1999. She described her feelings of disorientation, fear, and guilt when she left the organization: “I felt guilty about eating out, I felt guilty about having a relationship with a man. At the beginning, I couldn’t accept myself.” Looking for a job in society, eating out, starting a relationship with a man, she said, were all unacceptable actions that would wound her bond with the Asahara. The consequence of such actions, she believed, was spiritual damnation in hell. For many months she could not accept herself doing these things and she did not know how to sever the bond with Asahara.

Watanabe’s experience highlights the centrality of fear in the Aum emotional regime. Former members correlated the loss of the connection with the guru with fear of death. This fear is what attracted some to the organization and its ascetic practices in the first place. Fear of death and falling into hell for severing the bond with their teacher kept members in Aum before 1995, even when they were uneasy about what was happening in the organization. When they left, these fears made it difficult for them to sever their bonds with the group and reject the life of a renunciate.

Former members also referred to fear to explain what made them different from other people. In 2012, Kikuchi Naoko, an Aum member who spent seventeen years on the run from law enforcement authorities, was arrested. In 2015, the Tokyo High Court acquitted her, accepting her argument that she was unaware that the material she transported to an Aum facility in Yamanashi in 1995 was used to manufacture an explosive that injured an official at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters. While discussing this story, Ueda mentioned that people did not understand why someone who was innocent had spent so many years hiding. According to Ueda, Kikuchi’s explanation was that she did it because of fear of death. Only people who had experienced Aum would understand what kind of fear she was talking about, Ueda claimed, without further elaboration.

My interviewees actively delineated the boundaries of a feeling community by constantly differentiating themselves from “others,” who could not totally understand them, and a society that did not want them and that they did not want to join. Fear of Aum erupted in Japan after the crimes of some of its members were discovered. Aum’s stigma stuck to all of its members, regardless of their involvement (or lack of involvement) in the violence; it was a stigma so powerful that it affected members of other new religious groups in Japan also, and even “religion” in general.48 Aum members felt rejected by a society that had never understood them. Some felt that the hate toward them was unfair, since they had not personally been involved in the crimes. These former Aum renunciates have therefore been in constant negotiation between who they should be and how they should feel as laypeople according to society, and who they feel they are, that is individuals who are different from ordinary people and have achieved a high spiritual level and shared extraordinary experiences.

The feelings of fear and love that Aum members experienced and could understand, as well as the feeling of having been elite spiritual practitioners, have made it difficult for many former members to let Aum go and to adjust to a non-Aum environment. While the bond of love with the guru could be cut by some former members, for others the fear of damnation and hell seem to have persisted, even after Asahara’s execution. In this respect, the Aum emotional regime has persisted despite the dismantling of its community. Fear might also be what has made former Aum members unable to give utterance to their feelings. They not only believe that they will not be understood, they also do not know how they should feel about Aum, or are aware that they feel differently from others.49 Their feelings are considered “wrong” in the context of the mainstream emotional regime within which they now find themselves—one that regards Aum’s goals and practices as anathema. Two former members (whom I interviewed separately) said that it was only after the death of their mothers that they finally felt able to cut their respective emotional bonds with Asahara; it was then that the dreams of Asahara and possessions by him while they slept suddenly stopped. In both cases, these women cared for their mothers until they died. Their engagement in the non-Aum emotional regime, performed through care for their elderly relatives, the natural severance of the strong emotional bond with their own mothers, and the distress that this caused, seemed to allow them to reassert their agency and process their Aum experiences—although they still felt the need to turn to other former members to deal with the shock of Asahara’s execution in 2018.

As Ueda describes, the rhythmic rituals of life as a shukkesha, characterized by endurance oriented toward a future goal of liberation, was suddenly confronted with the absolute irrevocability of the Tokyo sarin gas attack in March 1995. For Aum members, austerities created specific rhythms and feelings of time, but they no longer made sense after the sarin gas attack. This was not because members were prohibited from continuing to practice or because they had lost interest—many declared that they were still attracted to shugyō for several years after they had left the organization. It was because their austerity practices, and the conditions for engaging in them, had become less socially acceptable, and their sense of time, as it existed inside Aum, had been suddenly disrupted.

The dissonance felt by former members, a feeling of being out of sync with the wider society that continues to bind them together, is temporal as well as emotional. For Aum members, time did not stop after the sarin gas attack. To the contrary, it accelerated and its pulse became erratic and out of control. Time in Aum was slow, intense, painful, and dictated by the rhythms of extreme shugyō: long meditation hours, months-long training, and days in confined spaces. Through this slow and expanded time, the body and mind became constrained, purified, trained, controlled, strong, and able to overcome its limits. In March 1995, time may have felt suspended or seemed to have stopped; it was “no longer a line with a direction of purpose.”50 However, it actually accelerated as members were catapulted into the rhythms of mainstream society. They could no longer follow their own time sequences; instead, they had to adapt to standardized temporal patterns entailing “fairly rigid rhythmicity,” such as work time, family time, and institutional time.51 Having been in sync with Aum time, members felt out of sync with the rest of society.

Maintaining a connection with other former Aum members has allowed former members to maintain their (past) feeling community as an emotional refuge from mainstream society. But in order for this feeling community to persist, the karmic bond with Aum and in particular with Asahara must be maintained somehow. Comparing the relationship with Asahara to that of a child and her father, Watanabe tried to explain to me why, in her opinion, the karmic connection cannot be broken even without the organization. “If a father commits even the most horrible actions, she said, you must not justify it, but you still love him.” One not only loves one’s father, one feels obliged to love him.

Personal responsibility and guilt are not always explicitly addressed in former members’ accounts, but they underlie them. By largely limiting their social circle to other former members, they do not have to explain themselves or deal with questions about their responsibility for Aum’s violence. Their struggles with guilt and their decision to turn a blind eye to the group’s criminal activities were also implicit in interviewees’ accounts of sudden memory loss. For example, Higashi claimed that the last thing she remembered after the sarin gas attack was the police entering the facilities. She did not know how many days of memory she lost, but it took about a month for her to recover fully. She explained her memory loss in Buddhist terms as having been a way to eliminate negative emotions and fear, and to get rid of (unspecified) hindrances. She recalled that before losing her memory she was writing a letter to herself. “I don’t remember exactly the details of the letter, but what I wrote was all about remorse.” By losing her memory she perhaps erased the most painful aspects of her Aum time and kept living by nurturing her memories of the positive aspects of her experience.

By leaving the life of the shukkesha, former members lost a community of like-minded people and their communal space of practice. Even more crucially, the leader Asahara, who had been arrested, refused to communicate with members or provide an explanation for Aum’s violent actions. His absence also meant that no holy names could be bestowed on disciples by the guru, which contributed to the disappearance of the hierarchical system in Aum.52 The loss of meaning in the practice of austerities thus also meant the loss of members’ status and sacred ranking system, which had been based on their shugyō abilities. As well as losing their spaces of practice, former members, especially those who had been highly ranked, lost the authority and recognition they had gained inside Aum. When they returned to lay society and renounced their holy names, their status as ascetics and their rank and roles as adepts and teachers were no longer recognized. Moreover, the austerities they had practiced in Aum were seen by members of society as dangerous practices that resulted in violent acts. An experience that they considered positive and extraordinary, and that had made them special, suddenly became something shameful and horrific. Most of the interviewed former members gave up shugyō, or continued to perform a much less intense form of shugyō. Some of them explained these changes partly in terms of their loss of physical power; their powerful young bodies had been able to endure extreme austerities, but now they were older and no longer able to sustain prolonged and demanding practices.

For female members who had been unable to find meaning in the social statuses valued for women in mainstream Japanese society, such as being a mother (e.g., Ueda), or who felt they could not find a place in society (e.g., Yamamoto), Aum had offered the possibility of advancement, status, and the feeling of achieving something extraordinary through shugyō. Watanabe did not think that she made a mistake by joining Aum. She told me that she still felt thankful for the experience, the extraordinary occurrences, and the teachings she received about the possibility of altering her state of consciousness. “I have learned a lot,” she said, but felt she could not talk to anybody about her positive experiences inside Aum. “This was not allowed, [since] there are victims,” she said. Higashi, who left in 1995, said that the years in Aum were the best of her life, although an external observer would see them as the worst.53 After 1995, they had to learn to survive (or “keep living” in Ueda’s words) in a society with which they disagreed, that did not accord them any social standing, and that rejected them as both (older) women and ex-Aum members. In other words, members were ejected from the Aum emotional regime and rhythms into those of mainstream society. Instead of feeling proud and empowered by their ascetic practices, they were to be ridiculed and feel ashamed. Instead of being expected to accept violence as part of the spiritual path, they were pressured to express horror and reject it. This placed former members like Ueda in a state of emotional dissonance. In other words, they felt out of sync with the society they had to go back to. They condemned the crimes that some Aum members had committed, but still had positive feelings toward Asahara and their experiences.

Blogs written by former members, for example, recognize members’ hierarchical status and call them by their holy names. These virtual arenas also offer spaces where members can freely talk about their experiences and feelings without being misunderstood. In these online spaces the “Aum language” is still spoken, with specific references to practices, terminology, mystical experiences, and texts that were used during Aum training. And these virtual spaces offer a safe place for former members to remember their friends who were executed. In an emotional, lengthy blog post titled, “Goodbye, dharma friends” (sayonara hōyū), a former member recalls the moment when they were told the shocking news about the executions, but also the good moments spent together in Aum:

Therefore I will not forget it

That time

The time when everybody loved the guru (sonshi)

Your smile

Your voice.





Pursuers of the Truth.

Remembering their smiles and calling dharma friends the people who were accused of having committed violent crimes clearly clashed with the Japanese public’s perception of those persons as cold, heartless executors of Asahara’s orders. Members of the former Aum feeling community are aware that their warm feelings toward these fellow members will not and cannot be accepted by the larger society.

In 2015 Matsumoto Rika, Asahara’s third daughter, who was known in the group by her holy name Achārī, published a memoir titled Tomatta tokei (The Stopped Clock).54 Rika had received an unusual education and upbringing inside Aum, where she had spent all of her time with group members and was homeschooled. She had a privileged status as Asahara’s daughter and was an object of members’ admiration. In 1995 her “clock” stopped and she was suddenly confronted, at eleven years of age, with being rejected by society due to her family connections. This rejection has continued through her life; for example, she was refused entry to several schools and universities.55 As an entire way of life collapsed for her and other Aum members, the communal life and adoration to which she was accustomed suddenly ceased.

The experience of Asahara’s children is different from that of the other former members such as Ueda, Higashi, Hirano, Tanaka, and Yamamoto, who had voluntarily chosen to join the organization. Yet all of them narrate the loss of a way of life and of a way of being in similar ways. Unsurprisingly, this is often linked to a feeling of disorientation in the wake of the March 1995 events, when members were confronted with the violence committed by other members of the group. “Everything was falling apart,” as Ueda put it. When a way of life collapses, rituals and practices that made sense in that specific way of life are also transformed.

While they were in Aum, members created a feeling community based on an emotional regime grounded in extraordinary experiences produced by embodied ascetic practices (shugyō) that conferred status and authority. A quarter century later, they perpetuate a feeling community, despite the absence of physical Aum centers and the dismantling of Aum. Theirs is a community characterized by a double, irreversible absence. The absence is spatial, since these former renunciates no longer live together or share a practice space. It is also temporal, because the past is both irreversible and irredeemable. In spite of the past being beyond their reach, some former members still find it difficult to move on. Their narratives suggest that the older they get, the more the Aum feeling community becomes their emotional refuge. As a consequence, they feel somehow stuck in Aum. Aum’s emotional regime and temporal rhythms clash with those of mainstream Japanese society. The women I interviewed feel differently about Aum than members who did not cultivate austerities within the religion. Even after the execution of some Aum members as criminals, and their distance from a life of Aum austerities, the former shukkesha continue to feel stuck in Aum time.

To dismantle Aum in their lives, former members have to renounce both austerities and their Aum community. These have been the most difficult bonds for former members to sever, because they were what gave individuals status, an identity as members of a like-minded community, an escape from lives in Japanese society that they did not want, and a possibility to access extraordinary experiences. Aum also provided them with a meaningful worldview and an ultimate concern that they were striving for in their practice. Some members decided to leave the organization completely, but in doing so they were confronted with significant loss, both in terms of the austerities that had empowered them and their communal links with fellow renunciates. Some, like Hirano, described this loss in positive terms as a painful but necessary process, while others, such as Ueda, said they would have continued their life in the organization if the violence had not occurred.

Although Ueda and other former members are somehow stuck in the past, they are nevertheless aware that the past is unrecoverable, not simply because of the irreversibility of time, but also because of the irreversibility of the violent actions and deaths that have made it impossible to imagine a future in Aum. The past is still palpably present in their lives, in the language they use when communicating with former members and in their ruminations about the directions their lives might have taken had they not joined Aum. However, the past cannot be redeemed or reproduced. The future, for these former members, is not just unexpected, but simply unimaginable. This may be another reason why, for some of them, the attachment to Aum and its promise of enlightenment and spiritual elevation is still so intense, and why many continue to be unable to stop “living Aum.”

This article benefited greatly from the comments and feedback from members of the research group on “The Demise of Religions” at the Centre for Advanced Study (Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, Oslo, 2019) and participants at the workshops on “The Aesthetics of Religious Belonging: Asian Perspectives” (University of Copenhagen, 2018, and The University of Manchester, 2019). I am also thankful to Jane Caple, Helge Jordheim, Ian Reader, and Frederik Schröer for reading and commenting on earlier drafts; to Jonathan Bunt for checking the translations; and to the anonymous reviewers of the paper for their comments and criticisms. Fieldwork in Japan was supported by the Japan Foundation Endowment Committee, The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, and Ochanomizu University Institute for Gender Studies.


Throughout this article, family name precedes given name, following Japanese convention.


For a detailed history of Aum Shinrikyō and its teachings, see Shimazono Susumu, Gendai shūkyō no kanōsei: Ōmu Shinrikyō to bōryoku [Possibilities of Contemporary Religions: Aum Shinrikyō and Violence] (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1997); Ian Reader, Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyō (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2000); Inoue Nobutaka and Shūkyō Jōhō Risāchi Sentā, eds., Jōhō jidai no Ōmu Shinrikyō [Aum Shinrikyō in the Information Age] (Tokyo: Shunjūsha, 2011). On the impact of the sarin gas attack see Erica Baffelli and Ian Reader, “Impact and Ramifications: The Aftermath of the Aum Affair in the Japanese Religious Context,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 39, no. 1 (2012): 1–28, and the other articles in this special issue on “Aftermath: The Impact and Ramifications of the Aum Affair.”


The dual membership system separating shukkesha and lay members in Aum was established in 1986. See Reader, Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan, 63.


Hikari no Wa was formed by members who broke away from Aleph, led by former Aum spokesperson Jōyū Fumihiro. For a detailed discussion of Aum splinter groups see Maekawa Michiko, “When Prophecy Fails: The Response of Aum Members to the Crisis,” in Religion and Social Crisis in Japan: Understanding Japanese Society through the Aum Affair, ed. Robert J. Kisala and Mark R. Mullins (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 179–210; Erica Baffelli, “Hikari no Wa: A New Religion Recovering from Disaster,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 39, no. 1 (2012): 29–49; Erica Baffelli, “Aum Shinrikyō,” in Handbook of East Asian New Religious Movements, ed. Lukas Pokorny and Franz Winter (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 193–210. On the “end of Aum” see Erica Baffelli, “Did Aum Shinrikyō Really End?” in The Demise of Religion: How Religions End, Die, or Dissipate, ed. Michael Stausberg, Stuart A. Wright, and Carole M. Cusack (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 49–66.


The most well-known organization of ex-Aum members is the Canary Society (Kanariya no kai), a mutual support group established in June 1995. Members of the group have completely rejected Aum doctrines as evil and false and adhere to the anticult narrative, which represents members as having been subjected to mind control and manipulation by the leader. See Takimoto Tarō and Nagaoka Tatsuya, eds., Maindo kontorōru kara nogarete: Oumu Shinrikyō dakkaishatachi no taiken [Escaping from Mind Control: The Experience of Ex-Aum Members] (Tokyo: Kōyū Shuppan, 1995); Kanariya no Kai, ed., Oumu o yameta watashi tachi [We, Who Have Quit Aum] (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2000).


Barbara H. Rosenwein, Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), 2. On the feeling community as a concept, see Margrit Pernau, “Feeling Communities: Introduction,” Indian Economic and Social History Review 54, no. 1 (2017): 1–20; Frederik Schröer, “Resistance and Suffering: Shared Emotions in the Early Tibetan Diaspora in India,” The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies, forthcoming.


Informal meetings and interviews were conducted by the author between September and December 2016 and in August 2019 with around thirty former members, both renunciates and lay members. The material included in this article is based on six interviews with renunciates who entered the group between 1984-1993 and left Aum/Aleph between 1995 and the early 2010s. Their ages when they joined Aum ranged from seventeen to thirty-eight. At the time of interview, the youngest was in her mid-forties and the oldest was in her late sixties (exact age is not provided to protect anonymity). Interviewees, asked to tell their stories, included their spiritual experiences, ascetic training (shugyō), sexuality, bodies, and daily life as Aum members, as well as the definition of violence and Buddhist teachings. Interviews lasted between two and five hours and were conducted in several locations around Japan chosen by the interviewees.


For a discussion on the demise and active dismantling of religions, see Joel Robbins, “How Do Religions End? Theorizing Religious Traditions from the Point of View of How they Disappear,” Cambridge Anthropology 32, no. 2 (2014): 2–15. For a discussion on the demise of religions see Michael Stausberg, Stuart A. Wright, and Carole M. Cusack eds., The Demise of Religion: How Religions End, Die, or Dissipate (London: Bloomsbury, 2020).


William M. Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 129.


Reddy, Navigation of Feeling, 125.


On the idea of double absence and “communities of absence” see Erica Baffelli and Frederik Schröer, “Communities of Absence: Emotions, Time, and Buddhism in the Creation of Belonging,” Numen 68, nos 5–6 (2021): 436–62; Erica Baffelli and Frederik Schröer, “Spatio-Temporal Translations: Practices of Intimacy under Absence,” Anthropology in Action: The Journal for Applied Anthropology in Policy and Practice 28, no 1 (2021): 57–62.


See for example Reader, Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan.


Ushiyama Rin, “Memory Struggles: Narrating and Commemorating the Aum Affair in Contemporary Japan, 1994-2015,” PhD diss., University of Cambridge, 2016.


Such publications include members’ confessions. For example, see Hayashi Ikuo, Oumu to watashi [Aum and Me] (Tokyo: Bungei Shunjū, 1998); Hayakawa Kiyohide and Kawamura Kunimitsu, Watashi ni totte Oumu to wa nandatta no ka [What Was Aum for Me?] (Tokyo: Popurasha, 2005). Such publications also include high-profile members’ memoirs, such as JŌyŪ Fumihiro, Oumu jiken 17-nenme no kokuhaku [The Aum Affair: Confessions after 17 Years] (Tokyo: Fusōsha, 2012).


The two books by Asahara’s daughters are Matsumoto Satoka, Watashi wa naze Asahara Shōkō no musume ni umareteshimatta noka: Chikatestsu sarin jiken 15 nenme no kokuhaku [Why Was I Born as Asahara Shōkō’s Daughter? Confessions 15 Years after the Subway Sarin Gas Attack] (Tokyo: Tokuma, 2010); Matsumoto Rika, Tomatta tokei: Asahara Shōkō no sanjo, Ācharī no shuki [The Stopped Clock: Memoirs of Asahara Shōkō’s Third Daughter, Ācharī] (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2015). Another recent book by a female member, now a member of Hikari no Wa, is Munakata Makiko, 20 sai kara no 20 nenkan: “Oumu no seishun” to iu makyō o koete [20 Years from the Age of Twenty: Overcoming the Abyss of “Aum Adolescence”] (Tokyo: Sangokan, 2010).


This expression appeared for example in the title of an article, “‘Oumu bijo gundan’ no sugao” [The True Face of “Aum Beauty Army”], Flash, 29 May 1995, 32–39.


The other two seitaishi were Jōyū Fumihiro (b. 1962) and Murai Hideo (1958-1995). Murai Hideo, the head of Aum’s science and technology section, was stabbed to death a month after the sarin gas attack by an anti-Aum protester outside one of the group’s facilities. Jōyū Fumihiro, currently leader of the splinter group Hikari no Wa, was an Aum spokesperson.


To protect interviewees’ anonymity, I have used pseudonyms and have limited the use of direct quotes to avoid specific individuals being easily identifiable. For the same reason, I have not provided details of interviewees’ blogs, even though these are available on the internet.


For an example of an ex-member’s published account, see Jōyū, Oumu jiken 17-nenme. For further discussion on members’ testimonies, see Reader, Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan; and Takahashi Norihito, “Hikikaesenai michinori” [Road of No Return] in Inoue and Shūkyō Jōhō Risāchi Sentā, eds., Jōhō jidai no Ōmu, 69–116.


On the concept of salavation in Aum see Shimazono Susumu, “In the Wake of Aum: The Formation and Transformation of a Universe of Belief,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 22, nos. 3–4 (1995): 393–94.


Interview with Ueda Naoko, western Tokyo, November 2016.


On 6 July 2018, Asahara Shōkō and six members—Hayakawa Kiyohide, Inoue Yoshihiro, Niimi Tomomitsu, Tsuchiya Masami, Nakagawa Tomomasa, and Endo Seiichi—were executed by hanging. The remaining members on death row—Miyamae (Okazaki) Kazuaki, Yokoyama Masato, Hashimoto Satoru, Koike (Hayashi) Yasuo, Toyoda Toru and Hirose Ken’ichi—were executed on 26 July 2018. For a discussion on the timing of the first set of executions, see Erica Baffelli and Ian Reader, “The Aum Shinrikyō Executions: Why Now?” Fair Observer, 13 July 2018,


See, for example, Carmen Blacker, The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan (London: Allen and Unwin, 1975); Vincent L. Wimbush and Richard Valantasis, eds., Asceticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: University of Columbia Press, 2008); Jimmy Yu, Sanctity and Self-Inflicted Violence in Chinese Religions, 1500–1700 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).


See, for example, Ian Reader, “Bodily Punishments and the Spiritually Transcendent Dimensions of Violence: A Zen Buddhist Example,” in Dying for Faith: Religiously Motivated Violence in the Contemporary World, ed. Madawi Al-Rasheed and Marat Shterin (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009), 139–51; and Yu, Sanctity and Self-Inflicted Violence.


On ascetic practices in Japan, see Carmen Blacker, The Catalpa Bow; Tullio Federico Lobetti, Ascetic Practices in Japanese Religion (London: Routledge, 2013).


For further discussion on pain associated with ascetic practices in Japan, see John Shultz, “The Way to Gyō: Priestly Asceticism on the Shikoku Henro,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 43, no. 2 (2016): 275–305.


Notably Kobayashi Naoko, “Sacred Mountains and Women in Japan: Fighting a Romanticized Image of Female Ascetic Practitioners,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 44, no. 1 (2017): 103–22.


On training and meditative practices in Tibetan Buddhism see John Powers, Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1995).


Interview with Watanabe Eriko, Tokyo, November 2016.


Shultz, “The Way to Gyō,” 298.


See, for example, the testimony of a member in Punna Mantaniputta “Extreme Practitioners Are in Struggle Now,” Truth 5 (1993): 21.


Punna Mantaniputta, “Extreme Practitioners,” 17–18.


On the concepts of satori and gedatsu in Aum see Shimazono, “In the Wake of Aum.”


Kida Yukiko, “After the Severe Purification and Making Effort to My Limit, ” Truth 10 (1992): 22. The testimonies reported in this magazine article refer to a ten-day intensive training program called “Intensive Training for the Mad” (which is a literally translation of the Japanese kyōki no shūchū shugyō).


Lobetti, Ascetic Practices in Japanese Religion, 119.


Interview with Higashi Noriko, Tokyo, November 2016.


Reader, Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan, 98.


Quoted in Shimazono, “In the Wake of Aum’, 393–94.


William Sims Bainbridge and Rodney Stark, “Scientology: To Be Perfectly Clear,” Sociological Analysis 41, no. 2 (1980): 128.


Carl Olson, Indian Asceticism: Power, Violence, and Play (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 46.


According to former members’ accounts, stopping menstruation allowed them to perform austerities easily, but it also eliminated one of the reasons women’s bodies are associated with pollution—menstrual blood. On ritual impurity and exclusion of women from sacred areas (nyonin kekkai), see Kobayashi Naoko, “Gendering the Study of Shugendo: Reconsidering Female Shugenja and the Exclusion of Women from Sacred Mountains,” Japanese Review of Cultural Anthropology 12 (2011): 51–66; Murayama Yumi and Erica Baffelli, “Religion and Gender in Japan,” in The Routledge Companion to Gender and Japanese Culture, ed. Jennifer Coates, Lucy Fraser, and Mark Pendleton (New York: Routledge, 2020), 146–54; Miyata Noboru, Kegare no Minzokushi: Sabetsu no bunkateki yoin [Ethnography of Pollution: Cultural Bases of Discrimination] (Kyoto: Chikuma Gakujutsu Bunko, 2010); Suzuki Masataka, Nyonin kinsei [The Exclusion of Women] (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 2002).


Reader, Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan, 100.


Notably, Ochi Naoki is believed to have died in 1993 after being ordered to undergo an extreme form of “karma cleansing” through the ascetic practice of inverted suspension. See Reader, Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan, 16.


Reader, Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan.


On “emotional refuge” as a concept, see Reddy, Navigation of Feeling, 129.


Interview with Hirano Akiko, Tokyo, November 2016.


Descriptions of these events were reported in internally circulated publications such as Mahayana News Letter (1989): 50.


On the impact of the Aum affair on other groups, see Levi McLaughlin, “Did Aum Change Everything? What Soka Gakkai Before, During, and After the Aum Shinrikyō Affair Tells Us About the Persistent ‘Otherness’ of New Religions in Japan,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 39, no. 1 (2012): 51–75.


On feeling differently, see Benno Gammerl, Jan Simon Hutta, and Monique Scheer, “Feeling Differently: Approaches and Their Politics,” Emotion, Space and Society 25 (November 2017): 87–94.


Lisa Baraitser, Enduring Time (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), 1.


Eviatar Zerubavel, Hidden Rhythms: Schedules and Calendars in Social Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 9.


Members living in Aum’s commune were divided into ten ranks, from the first stage of samana, indicating ordinary shukkesha, to higher stages including shi (teacher), seigoshi (sacred awakened teacher), and seitaishi (sacred grand teacher). For details, see Reader, Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan, 85–86. Lay members were ranked below samana. Members interviewed for this article ranked between samana and seigoshi.


Similar affirmations were made by some Aum members during their trials, such as Niimi Tomomitsu (1964–2018).


Asahara had six children (four daughters and two sons) with his wife Tomoko. He also fathered between six and nine children (sources disagree) with other members.


Matsumoto, Tomatta Tokei, 186.