Friday February 27, 2004 7:46 AM
By GARY SCHAEFER
Associated Press Writer
TOKYO (AP) - Once he talked about graduating from Japan's most elite university and becoming prime minister. Later, Shoko Asahara swapped his dreams of rising in society for a vision of its destruction.
A self-proclaimed messiah whose cult claimed tens of thousands of members at its peak, Asahara was convicted and sentenced to death Friday for ordering his followers to release nerve gas on the Tokyo subway in March 1995 to thwart planned police raids against him.
The subway attack is remembered as the most horrific act of urban terrorism in Japanese history and was the deadliest of the 13 crimes for which the 48-year-old bearded guru was convicted. It was not immediately clear if he would appeal.
Asahara's apocalyptic bent was only one facet of a powerful personality cult he built on a mishmash of established religion fortified by supernatural claims he could levitate and pass through walls.
The son of an impoverished straw-mat maker in the provincial city of Kumamoto, Asahara was born blind in one eye and raised in special government-run boarding schools for the visually impaired. He reportedly took advantage of his limited eyesight to bully students who were completely blind.
He left for Tokyo soon after graduating from high school and spent years studying to enter Tokyo University, a virtual prerequisite for Japan's ruling elite. He told friends he wanted to join the nation's governing conservative party and perhaps one day become prime minister.
But Asahara failed and ended up returning to his hometown to work in a massage parlor.
At the age of 23 he went back to the capital, married a 19-year-old college student and opened an acupuncture clinic.
Soon after he had his first run-in with the law - for peddling fake remedies. He was fined for selling a concoction brewed from orange peels that he claimed was a traditional Chinese herbal cure named ``Almighty Medicine.''
He had better luck pushing yoga classes and became interested in the idea of spiritual enlightenment - with himself as its source. He claimed to have achieved visionary powers after making a religious retreat to India in 1986.
That experience was the turning point in his life. His yoga school got a new name - Aum Shinrikyo, or Supreme Truth - and a new faith based on an eclectic New Age blend of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity.
The cult grew into the 1990s, boasting 10,000 members in Japan and 30,000 in other countries including Russia.
But disturbing reports started to emerge from its secluded compound at the foot of Mount Fuji. Former members told of forced training that included hard labor and near-starvation.
In 1990, Asahara and other cult members made a surprise run in parliamentary elections but were badly defeated. Afterward he started predicting his followers would be the only ones to survive the coming Armageddon.
The group carried out the subway attack just before a planned police raid on its compound. Subsequent investigations showed members were racing to build arsenals of chemical and biological weapons to be used in a war with the government.
Asahara was discovered by police hiding in a crawlspace at the compound in a raid on May 16, 1995, two months after the gassing.