Japanese society and a religious cult -- the case of the poison gas attack in Tokyo subways

1. Introduction

This paper tries to analyze the case of recent poison gas attack in Japan using two classical sociological theorists, Durkheim and Weber. Several aspects of this case raise really interesting questions about the relationship between modern society and religion. Both Durkheim and Weber are deeply concerned with the problems in modern society and the role played by religions in society, but mainly dealt with Western society. This case from Japanese society will be a good touchstone to test the universality and the explanatory power of their theories.

2. Outline of the case(note1)

On March 20th, 1995, several subway lines in Tokyo are suddenly attacked by strong poison gas called "sarin." Because of this gas, twelve people were killed and more than 5000 people were wounded. Soon after the attack, the police started investigating a religious cult called "Aum Sinri-Kyo" (hereafter, Aum). Aum is a kind of Buddhist cult founded by Shoko Asahara about 10 years ago. The basic tenet of Aum is that we can transcend this world and acquire supernatural powers by trainings, like meditation. Aum had about 17,000 followers at the time of the poison gas attack. The police found a chemical plant and chemicals necessary for making sarin in one of the buildings owned by Aum. This and other overwhelming evidence suggest that Aum is responsible for the attack (and several murders and other crimes), and the police arrested almost 200 members of the cult including the leader himself and all executives. The trials are now on going, but in this paper I assume that they are really responsible for the poison gas attack.

There are several interesting aspects of this case. I pick up three of them. First of all, many of the followers were highly educated people, and especially most executives of this cult were educated in graduate schools in some natural science or engineering field (this background enabled them to produce the poison gas). This is especially strange in Japan because average Japanese are indifferent to religion. Usually scientific knowledge and religious belief are supposed to be incompatible. So we need the explanation why these highly educated people are attracted to the cult while average people are not. Second question is why they are motivated to commit such serious and extraordinary crimes. It is said that the followers are mind-controlled and did not have normal capacity of judgment. It is also said that the leader of the cult (Shoko Asahara) predicted that the end of the world is close and that they tried to create the end of the world by themselves. This explanation may be a good psychological explanation of thier mental state, but it is not enough as a sociological one, because it does not specify social factors behind the mind control and execution of the prediction. Third question I would like to ask is on the reaction of the society to the affair. The police regarded this case as a really urgent case (because of the possibility of repetition of poison gas attacks), and used many illegal investigations to find evidence. Such illegal investigations were reported through TV and newspapers, but almost nobody (except for the people from Aum) protested such violations of legal procedures. Now the government is considering to prohibit all activities of the cult (including daily trainings and meetings), and this is apparently the violation of the freedom of religion assured in the constitution, but again the majority of the society does not protest. Actually people even strongly support such policies. How can we explain such peculiar reactions of the society to this case?

The next two sections (section 3 and section 4) deal with the answers to these questions from Durkheimean position and Weberian position, respectively. In section 5, I compare the two answers.

3. A Durkheimean analysis

The most important key concept of Durkheim is "anomie." In this section I analyze the case using this concept.

Durkheim distinguishes two types of society -- mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity (CST, p. 187). Mechanical solidarity is defined as a solidarity without division of labor (ibid.). Because of the increase of dynamic density (defined as increase of number of people and increase of interactions among them; CST p.190), people in mechanical solidarity start to specialize into some narrow field. This society with division of labor is called organic solidarity (CST, p. 187). In mechanical solidarity people share strong common morality (this shared value in society is called "collective conscience"; CST p.193). In organic solidarity, because of division of labor, we no longer have such a strong common morality, except for "moral individualism," which emphasizes the "dignity and worth of the human individual" (ED p.7). This lack of common morality causes "anomie," especially when there are " major inequality in the distribution of opportunities for occupational attainment" (ED p.11). Anomie is a situation in which people are "not faced with sufficient moral constraint" (CST p.192). On the other hand, because of human nature, if people's passions are unrestrained, "they multiply to the point where the individual is enslaved by them" (CST p.207). This is highly undesirable situation, so people try to get out of anomie -- sometimes even commit suicide because of anomie (which is called "anomic suicide"; CST p.198). Lack of shared value also causes low integration of individuals in the society, and thus causes "egoism" (CST p.197).

With this basic structure of Durkheim's theory in mind, let us start the analysis of our case. First question was why such highly educated people were attracted to the religious cult. According to Durkheim, a religion is defined as follows: "A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden -- beliefs and practices which unite into a single moral community, called a 'church', all those who adhere to them" (ED p.224). This definition is applicable to Aum, where the sacred thing is the founder Shoko Asahara himself, who is said to have u ltimately transcended this world and therefore to have several supernatural powers. Aum's emphasis on religious trainings also squares with Durkheim's emphasis on practice in a religion. Now, as the definition suggests, the major function of a religion in a society is to provide a moral community. In fact, in a traditional society, we can equate a religion with the collective conscience (CST p. 201). But in the modern society, religion cannot play such a central role any more. This is true especially in Japanese society, where traditional religions, Shintoism and Buddhism, have long lost spiritual appeals to the people, and instead many small religious groups including Aum are founded(note2) . How was the situation of those who got involved in Aum, then? As I mentioned above, many of them are highly educated in natural science and engineering. Those people are expected to choose scientist or engineer as their profession to pay off the cost of their education (often paid by their parents, and indeed by the society). These are the fields of extreme division of labor, and they have narrow choice of field. This situation yields a "forced division of labor" (ED p. 11), which Durkheim pointed out as a major cause of anomie. So we have a reason to believe that those people are suffered by anomie much more than ordinary people. When people are in anomie, there are several ways people can choose to manage anomie, including anomic suicide. To commit to a religion is among them. As pointed out above, a religion have the function to provide moral community. And indeed religious cults like Aum usually provides strong regulation to the followers through practices. So this is a major reason that Aum attracted those people. Another aspect of Aum which attract ed those people are its emphasis on the acquisition of supernatural powers. As we saw above, egoism is another characteristic of modern society. Usually religions emphasize altruism, but Aum also met egoistic needs, and here is one reason it became popular. To sum up, our analysis is that those who are attracted to Aum were suffered anomie more than others, and Aum's egoistic aspect helped their conversion.

Our second question is why Aum committed such crimes. We already have several clues to answer this question. The followers of Aum got strong shared values through their practices, but they are still anomic in the sense that this is not shared morality in the society. Absolute solution of their anomie resides only in the conversion of the society it self to Aum. But this is impossible, because a modern society would deny any kind of strong morality other than "moral individualism" (see above). In fact, there were many conflicts between Aum and community around it before the poison gas attack. Several communities tried to kick out Aum's chapters from their town. Relatives of the followers tried to convert them from Aum. The leader and executives of the cult recognized this situation as a "war" between Aum and the society. The leader started predicting another world war and the end of the world, and warning the followers to prepare for the war. He even claimed that Aum is attacked by the government using poison gas (it turned out that this "poison gas attack" was really a result of leak of their own poison gas). Basically this recognition of the conflict as a war is the direct cause of the poison gas attack in the subway. They aimed at subways around governmental offices, and this supports the interpretation that Aum recognized this as a war between them and society represented by the government. Another related factor should be mentioned here. The shared morality in Aum was really peculiar, and there was nothing to prohibit murder in it. Again, the anomic situation in the society can explain the existence of such peculiar morality. Because of the lack of shared morality in the society, those in the cult could feel free interpreting morality. And just they went so far as to discard the remaining strongest morality, prohibition of murder. In a traditional society such a free interpretation would be impossible. Therefore, to sum up, we can analyze the poison gas attack as a result of the conflict between anomic society and its by product, a religious cult with peculiar morality.

The answer to the sec ond question also gives us a simple answer to the third question on the extraordinary reaction of the society. The answer is this: this is a war between the society and the cult, so the society reacted with war-time morality, which suspends ordinary legal and moral codes. I think that this is an acceptable explanation, but Durkheim's theory allow us more detailed analysis. Durkheim distinguishes two kinds of law -- repressive law and restitutive law (CST p. 191, ED p.9). Repressive law is characteristic in mechanical solidarity, and because of the strong common morality, a violation of law is met by strong emotion and severe punishment. Restitutive law is characteristic in organic solidarity, and because there is no common morality behind the law, people does not react emotionally to the breach of it. Now, the people's reaction to the poison gas attack shows this contrast clearly. Poison gas attack was a serious breach of one of remaining repressive laws in modern society, prohibition of murder. This explains people's emotional overreaction to Aum. On the other hand, the laws regulating investigation procedures of the police and the freedom of religion are typical restitutive laws. This is why people do not care much about them in the face of the serious violation of a repressive law. But this is not yet an sufficient explanation -- otherwise people would admit violation of human rights in all murder cases. Another key word useful to understand this situation is "collective effervescence" (CST pp.202-203) . Collective effervescence is a kind of enthusiasm which leads to a creation of a new collective conscience. It seems to me that the whole reaction to Aum leads to a new consensus in the society which moved people from indifference to negative critical vi ew on religion. Actually several laws on religious groups are amended in the direction of stronger regulation. We can understand the society's reaction as a part of the deeper change in the society.

Therefore, my conclusions from Durkheimean analysis are: anomic society made the cult popular and caused conflicts between the society and the cult. The peculiar morality of the cult and remaining restitutive law in the society are other factors affected the case. We can also understand the reaction of the society as a collective effervescence.

4. A Webarian analysis

I think that two of key concepts of Weber are helpful in analyzing the case --"rationalization" and "authority." This part provides analysis mainly using these two concepts.

For Weber, the most important aspect which characterize Western modern society is "rationalization" (CST p.243). He used the word "rationality" in several different meanings, but the most important one is so called "formal rationality" (CST p.244), because this type of rationality "arose only in the West with the coming of industrialization" (CST p.245, emphasis original). Ritzer characterized Weber's notion of formal rationality in six terms -- calculability, efficiency, predictability, replacing hu man technology with nonhuman technology, control, and irrational consequences (CST p.246). In short, formal rationality pursues the rationality of means, by establishing the system which enable us to calculate and to predict the outcome precisely. But it also tends to pursue the rationality of means at the expense of rationality of ends (this is called "substantive rationality" (CST p.244). Because of these aspects of formal rationality, rationalized world "tends to become less enchanted, less magical and ultimately less meaningful to people" (CST p.246).

These conceptions of rationality and rationalization are deeply related to Weber's analysis of authority. Authority is defined as "legitimate forms of domination" (CST p.236), and domination is defined as "probability that certain specific commands (or all commands) will be obeyed by a given group of persons" (ibid.). Authority is classified into three types by the source of legitimization. First type is called "traditional authority," and legitimized by the "belief in the everyday routine as an inviolable norm of conduct" (FMW p.296). Patriarcharism and feudalism are two typical cases of traditional authority (CST p.240). Second type is a "charismatic authority," and legitimized by the charisma of the leader (CST p.236). Charisma is "an extraordinary quality of a person, regardless of whether this quality is actual alleged or presumed" (FMW p.295, emphasis original). So charismatic authority is dependent upon a particular person. The last type, legal authority is an authority legitimized by legal system, and bureaucracy is a typical legal authority. According to Weber, bureaucracy is an administration by officials in which 1. the activities of officials are fixed by certain rules; 2. the authority is distributed to officials in a stable way and strictly limited; 3. to become an official one needs some qualification (FMW p.196). As these descriptions of bureaucracy shows, bureaucracy is intended to be a form of formal rationality, in which the actions of administration is calculable and predictable. These three types of authorities often conflict with each other, but, in Western society, legal authority and bureaucracy tend to win after all (CST p.243). Similarly, capitalism, which represents the formal rationality in economy, tends to dominate the Western economy (CST pp.247-249). These tendencies to rationality is called "rationalization," and Weber described the inevitability of rationalization in Western society as the "iron cage" (CST p.243). As you see, Weber's analyses of rationalization are mainly confined to Western society(note3) , but we will see that these are applicable to the Westernized society in Japan.

Now we are prepared to start analyzing our case. First question was the attractiveness of Aum to highly educated people. First of all, the fields those people are educated -- natural science and engineering -- are the most rationalized field in the society. Their works are evaluated strictly in terms of calculability and predictability. In other words, they were in the midst of the "iron cage." As Ritzer point out, the only hope to escape from the "iron cage" lies "with isolated charismatic individuals who manage somehow to avoid the coercive power of society" (CST p.243). The founder of Aum, Shoko Asahara, was exactly that kind of charismatic figure. The followers believed that he has several supernatural powers. He talked about supernatural stuffs beyond the limit of scientific rationality. So the primary reason people are attracted him was the expectation that his charisma can subvert the rational order of society.

If this answer to the first question is right, the answer to the second question --the reason the cult committed the crime-- is obvious. The poison gas attack was the result of struggle over the domination of society between two authorities, i.e. governmental bureaucracy and charismatic authority of Aum. But this is an oversimplification of the situation. For we should not overlook the fact that Aum was also a highly bureaucratic group. They had several "departments" like "Department of Science and Technology" (this department is said to have made sarin and other kinds of poison gas) imitating the organization of the government. Aum also ran several restaurants and a computer company, in which the followers worked as a part of their religious trainings. So Aum adopted both of the two major aspects of rationalization, i.e. bureaucracy and capitalism. Of course this does not mean that Aum was a legal authority. This bureaucratic system was subordinated to the charisma of the leader, and the leader could order anything at his will ignoring existing moral codes or any other legal system. This shows the revolutionary characteristic of charismatic authority (CST p.241). The "ministers" of the departments may be chosen by their skill, but they are also supposed to share some supernatural power with the leader, and this is also a characteristic of charismatic authority (ibid.). This mixture of charismatic authority and bureaucracy gives us a clue to understand why they could plan and execute the poison gas attack. One peculiar thing with this poison gas attack is that it was in a sense rational as a means to their immediate purpose -- even though it was irrational for their long term purposes. Their immediate purpose was to threat the society to get the power dominating over people. A poison gas attack was a rather cheap and easy way to harm many people at a time. They also had enough knowledge to compose necessary chemicals. So this was one of the most rational, efficient means for their purpose. But, on the other hand, the poison gas attack caused so strong reaction of society that the cult has almost collapsed. This curious mixture of short-sightedness and effectiveness reflects Aum's curious structure of charismatic authority and bureaucracy. So the answer to the second question is that the attack was a result of the struggle of two authorities, and the character of the attack reflects the peculiar structure of authority in Aum.

We do not have much to talk about the third question. People basically agree with the counter attack of governmental authority because they did not like the revolutionary character of Aum. But here remains a question. How can a bureaucracy ignore legal procedures and constitutional freedom of religion? To answer this question, we need a close analysis of Japanese bureaucracy. My impression is that there are still elements of traditional authority remaining in the authority of the government. For just fifty years ago the authority came from the traditional-charismatic authority of the emperor. It is natural we still have some legacy of the tradition. But this analysis goes beyond the scope of this paper.

Therefore, the conclusion of this section is: Aum was attractive because of its revolutionary power of charisma. The character of the attack and the reaction of the society reflects the struggle between two authorities, charismatic-bureaucratic authority of Aum and bureaucratic (and perhaps traditional) authority of the government.

5. Comparison of the two analyses

It seems to me that both of the analyses can answer the questions rather effectively. Both of them give us interesting insights on several aspects of the case. But still we can ask the question which theory can explain the case more effectively.

In several points, the difference of two analyses are just a matter of expression. For example, what I meant by the "forced division of labor" and by the "iron cage" are not very different in this case. The base line of the answers to my third question is also almost the same, i.e. it was a counter attack of the society in the struggle (or war).

Some other differences are matter of empirical research. For example, my Durkheimean analysis says that the followers wanted order and regulation, while my Weberian analysis says that they wanted disorder and revolution. Detailed analysis of the followers' action, statements etc. will settle the matter. Durkheimean analysis also suggests that the poison gas attack is a reaction of Aum to the conflicts between Aum and the community around it, while my Weberian analysis suggests that Aum had revolutionary motivation from the outset. This difference is subtle, but still some empirical research can support one of the interpretations.

Along with these differences, there is an important difference between them in the usefulness of the theory as an analytic tool. One of the problem with Durkheim's theory is that it focuses on the society as a whole, and thus it is not very useful for analyzing small substructure of society -- like a religious cult, in this case. In this point, Weber's analysis of authority is applicable to any level of organization, and it allowed me detailed analysis of the authority structure of the cult. On the other hand, Weber's theory is so complicated that it is not easy to get a unified overview of the whole story. I could put together all aspects of the case into a unified anomie theory using Durkheim, but the overview I got from Weber is a somewhat chimerical picture made up by different kinds of authorities and rationalities (though this may just mean that the society itself is chimerical).

Finally, I noticed that I had to modify some aspects of their theory to fit them with the case. First, the assumption that "the society is anomic" and the assumption that "the society (as a whole) reacts to something strongly" are inconsistent in Durkheim's theory, but I had to use both assumptions to explain different aspects of the story. Perhaps there are several independent variables other than anomie acting on each aspect. Secondly, I am not satisfied with my analysis on the relation between the "iron cage" and the attractiveness of Aum. I assumed that highly educated people become discontent with the rationalization and motivated to revolution. This is one of the key factors in explaining why Aum struggled with the society, but I cannot find anything in Weber's theory which supports this assumption (even though apparently Weber himself was discontent with rationalization). For, in general, Weber's theory does not have any general account of the influence of social facts on individual psy chological state. My explanation implicitly imported this factor from Durkheim, and I believe this is a necessary modification for an enough explanation of the relevant aspect of the case.

To summarize my analysis in this section, both Durkheim's holism (i.e. study of society as a whole) and Weber's individualism (i.e. study of society as an ensemble of individuals) have their own strength and weakness, and to explain the several aspects of the poison gas attack case, we need both of them.

6. Conclusion

My conclusion in the previous section suggests that two perspectives are complementary. But still I can have a preference between these two theories. At the time being, I prefer Weber to Durkheim. One reason of this preference is that the difficulties of Durkheimean analysis pointed out in the last section are more serious than those of Weberian analysis. For example, the problem of inconsistent assumptions seems to call for some radical reconsideration of the structure of anomie theory. On the other hand, the problems of Weberian analysis is easily solvable by introducing some Durkheimean elements, and Weber's theory has the flexibility to allow that. I think that this makes an enough reason to prefer Weber.


1.My descriptions of the case are mainly dependent on the next two books: Joho-Chishiki Imidas 1996 ("Information-Knowledge 'Imidas' 1996") and Gendai Yogono Kiso Chisiki 1996 ("Basic Knowledge of Present-day Vocabulary 1996"). These are convenient resource books on current affairs in Japan in all fields (if you read Japanese, of course).

2.Actually the religious situation in Japan is much more complex. Even though people are not religious, there is a strong morality remaining in several aspects of Japanese society. This morality consists in some mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism and Shintoism, but now it is hard to tell which part of the morality came from where. this is another interesting topic, but not our main business in this paper.

3.He thought that Eastern religions prevent the rationalization, and he had enough reason to assume so at his time (CST pp.259-262).


Gerth, H. H. and Mills, C. W. (eds.), 1946. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press. (abbreviation: FMW)

Giddens, A. (ed.), 1972. Emile Durkheim: Selected Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (abbreviation: ED)

Ritzer, G., 1996. Classical Sociological Theory, second edition. New York: McGraw-Hill. (abbreviation: CST)

Gendai Yogono Kiso Chisiki 1996 (Japanese: "Basic Knowledge of Present-day Vocabulary 1996"). Tokyo: Jiyu Kokumin Sha.

Joho-Chishiki Imidas 1996 (Japanese: "Information-Knowledge 'Imidas' 1996"). Tokyo: Shueisha.