Terrorists Use Sarin Gas in Tokyo Subway Attack Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When the religious movement Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas on three major Tokyo subway lines in 1995, killing twelve and injuring thousands, the event led nations around the world to examine the possibility that marginal religious groups with beliefs rooted in apocalyptic thought might bring real destruction to the larger world.

Summary of Event

In early 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo religious movement had fewer than ten thousand members in Japan, thirty thousand members in Russia, and a scattering of followers in the United States. Aum Shinrikyo was established primarily on peaceful Buddhist principles, but it also drew heavily from Hinduism, the apocalyptic ideas in the book of Revelation in the Christian Bible, the ideas of Adolf Hitler, and the writings of sixteenth century Christian monk Nostradamus, and the group held strong beliefs in a nearing Armageddon, or cosmic war. Fanatical Aum Shinrikyo leader Chizuo Matsumoto, known to his followers and the world by the holy name of Shoko Asahara, forecast that this Armageddon would come very soon, and as he and his followers saw increasing evil in the world, they began to pursue the notion that their group would be instrumental in forcing this Armageddon into being. Terrorist acts Sarin gas attack (Tokyo) Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack Religious groups;Aum Shinrikyo [kw]Terrorists Use Sarin Gas in Tokyo Subway Attack (Mar. 20, 1995) [kw]Sarin Gas in Tokyo Subway Attack, Terrorists Use (Mar. 20, 1995) [kw]Gas in Tokyo Subway Attack, Terrorists Use Sarin (Mar. 20, 1995) [kw]Tokyo Subway Attack, Terrorists Use Sarin Gas in (Mar. 20, 1995) [kw]Subway Attack, Terrorists Use Sarin Gas in Tokyo (Mar. 20, 1995) [kw]Attack, Terrorists Use Sarin Gas in Tokyo Subway (Mar. 20, 1995) Terrorist acts Sarin gas attack (Tokyo) Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack Religious groups;Aum Shinrikyo [g]East Asia;Mar. 20, 1995: Terrorists Use Sarin Gas in Tokyo Subway Attack[09160] [g]Japan;Mar. 20, 1995: Terrorists Use Sarin Gas in Tokyo Subway Attack[09160] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Mar. 20, 1995: Terrorists Use Sarin Gas in Tokyo Subway Attack[09160] Asahara, Shoko Tsuchiya, Masami Hayashi, Ikuo

On March 20, 1995, Aum Shinrikyo believers attempted to set in motion the early steps of this Armageddon. During the morning rush hour, they attacked three major subway lines that intersected at Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki station, located near the city’s center for top governmental offices and police. The terrorists quietly boarded subway trains wearing protective gas masks and carrying six-inch bags concealed by newspapers. The bags contained sarin, a destructive nerve gas originally developed by the Nazis for use in World War II. Weapons;chemical Chemical weapons The Aum Shinrikyo members released the gas from their bags at a predetermined time and then quickly exited the trains. Once the nerve gas was fully released into the air, the subway passengers exposed to it suffered from severe coughing and choking attacks, vomiting, violent convulsions, foaming at the mouth, and fainting. Twelve people died as a result of their exposure to the gas.

Shoko Asahara (left) with one of his disciples.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

During the investigation that took place in the days following the Tokyo subway attack, Aum Shinrikyo denied any responsibility for or connection to the incident. In reality, the group had perpetrated the attack in large part in reaction to rumors that police were planning to stage raids on the Aum Shinrikyo headquarters; it then used the event to portray Aum Shinrikyo members as victims of social and political injustice. The group had publicized reports in the months prior to the attack asserting that members had become ill from exposure to sarin gas (most likely leaked from their own supplies) and blaming this exposure on attacks by American and Japanese aircraft. Asahara also aired several messages on radio and television after the attack in which he proclaimed his innocence. Aum Shinrikyo had struggled to be accepted as an official Japanese religion since its founding in 1987, and group members claimed they were being persecuted and framed for the subway attack in an act of religious discrimination.

Before the Tokyo subway attack, Aum Shinrikyo members had been suspected, but never convicted, of several dubious activities, including the 1989 murder of Tsutsumi Sakamoto, a lawyer who had been acting on behalf of a missing person connected to Aum Shinrikyo, and the disappearance of his wife and daughter. In addition, the group had been suspected in a small release of sarin nerve gas aimed at judges who opposed Aum Shinrikyo activities in the village of Matsumoto and the testing of sarin gas on Australian sheep. The ambiguous nature of the crimes and their circumstances often made it difficult for police to pinpoint Aum Shinrikyo members as the culprits.

During the investigation of the subway attack, Tokyo metropolitan police officers raided twenty-five Aum Shinrikyo centers on March 22, 1995, under the official guise of investigating the group’s involvement in the disappearance of a sixty-eight-year-old notary public. The police discovered significant amounts of cash and other valuables, massive amounts of dangerous chemicals and medications, and several Aum Shinrikyo members in a state of debilitation. Following these discoveries, several doctors who were members of the group were arrested, Asahara was officially summoned for questioning, and an official investigation was launched into the organization. Among other crimes, members were suspected of attempting to assassinate Japanese police chief Takaji Kunimatsu and of perpetrating a second attempt at biological terrorism with cyanide at the Shinjuku subway station. Aum Shinrikyo members were also suspected of sending a parcel bomb to the Tokyo city hall on May 16, 1995, in an attempt to kill the city’s governor.

Asahara was captured on May 16, 1995, after authorities followed up on the murder of Hideo Murai, a top Aum Shinrikyo scientist. A confession was solicited from Masami Tsuchiya, another scientist with the group, who admitted to having produced sarin nerve gas several days prior to the Tokyo subway attack. Ikuo Hayashi, Aum Shinrikyo’s top medical official, then admitted to police that he was among the ten members of the group who had carried the sarin gas onto the subway trains; he stated that he had done so under Asahara’s command, thus directly implicating Asahara in the incident.

The purposes of Aum Shinrikyo’s Tokyo subway attack and other destructive activities were primarily twofold: to get rid of journalists, politicians, and legal professionals who appeared to be against Aum Shinrikyo and to ignite the start of a global Armageddon that would eliminate the human race. Members believed that humankind had become so drenched in political and religious bad karma that worldwide destruction was inevitable and that promoting such destruction was a social responsibility. In the days leading up to the Tokyo subway attack, Aum Shinrikyo was also facing the possibility of its own death as a result of mounting legal charges, complaints from parents of members, and the fears of Aum Shinrikyo members. Asahara thus viewed the subway attack as both an act of destruction and an act of survival.


The sarin attack on the Tokyo subway had ramifications that echoed throughout Japan and the world. The attack marked the first time a marginal religious group whose members believed in the inevitable nearness of the end times had the means to carry out a version of the apocalypse, using chemical weapons that were relatively easy to obtain. Asahara’s dependence on and passion for biologically destructive materials allowed Aum Shinrikyo to make the transition between apocalyptic thought and apocalyptic action, and for the first time the world saw the power of religious apocalyptic thought carried out in a destructive physical manner.

Aum Shinrikyo had kept a low profile for much of its existence, and the subway attack on March 20, 1995, prompted many to question why the group had not been stopped prior to the attacks, given the warning signs of questionable activities at its headquarters. The attack thus heightened awareness of new religious groups around the world, especially those that encourage or support theories of an apocalypse in the near future and have possible access to biological or chemical weapons.

The Tokyo subway attack had an especially great impact on Japan. Following the attack, many Japanese suffered anxiety related to the sudden onset of disorder in their society, which had long prided itself on its lack of chaos. Terrorist acts Sarin gas attack (Tokyo) Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack Religious groups;Aum Shinrikyo

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lifton, Robert Jay. Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. Investigates the rise of Shoko Asahara, his psychological background and intellectual makeup, and the roots of the Aum Shinrikyo belief systems. Compares the Tokyo subway incident with other incidents of religious terrorism and mass suicide in the United States and investigates the connection between the Tokyo subway attacks and the larger Japanese culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robbins, Thomas, and Susan J. Palmer, eds. Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements. New York: Routledge, 1997. Collection of thought-provoking essays discusses in detail relatively recent religious movements that use the fear of a nearing apocalypse as a keystone to their dogma. Essays explore the relationship between such movements and apocalyptic thought. Chapter 16 deals specifically with Aum Shinrikyo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tharp, Mike. “Death in the Subway.” U.S. News & World Report, April 3, 1995. Newsmagazine report describes the Tokyo subway attacks immediately after they occurred.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Biema, David. “Prophet of Poison.” Time, April 3, 1995. Investigates the aftermath of the subway attack. Includes photographs and quotations from interviews with people who were involved.

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