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SHOKO ASAHARA, THE FOUNDER OF AUM SHINRIKYO (AUM Supreme Truth), may be the man of whom all Japan is terrified right now, but not so many years ago he was simply a failed purveyor of health tonics. Bushy-bearded and usually pictured wearing satiny pajamas, Asahara, 40, admires Hitler, boasts that he can levitate and offers to bestow superhuman powers on his disciples. Yet a look at his life reveals a rather pathetic figure at war with the world because he could not find an easy place in it.

Most of what is known about Asahara was uncovered by Shoko Egawa, a widely respected journalist whose book on Asahara and his movement came out in 1991. According to Egawa, Asahara was born Chizuo Matsumoto in 1955 on Kyushu, one of Japan's main islands, just south of Honshu. At birth he was sightless in one eye and purblind in the other, so his father, a craftsman who made tatamis (straw mats), sent him at age six to the city of Kumamoto, where he could attend a subsidized school for the blind. There a child with any sight at all had a great advantage. A former teacher said, "Being able to see even a little is prestigious because blind children want to go out and have coffee in a tearoom but can't go by themselves. They would say to Chizuo, 'I will buy you dinner. Why don't you take me out?' "

The position of power seems to have bred some abuse. Although he often served as a champion of social outcasts at the school, in Egawa's account he was also a bully. An ex-teacher recalled that, when chastised, he threatened to burn down the dormitory, then quibbled that he could not be punished for just saying something. One classmate is said to have suffered a broken eardrum at his hands, and another reportedly told him in high school, after he had repeatedly failed to win any class office, "You are good to take care of people, but we are still scared of you." His fortunes at the school ballot box offered little encouragement to a boy who talked about becoming Prime Minister someday.

Following graduation, he set up shop as an acupuncturist-first in Kumamoto, then Tokyo and finally in a rented room in Funabashi. He married a college student, Tomoko Ishii, in 1978, then opened an apothecary specializing in traditional Chinese medicaments. A turning point in his life appears to have occurred in 1982, when he was arrested for selling fake cures. Authorities detained him for 20 days and fined him 200,000 yen--about $800 at that time. The business went bankrupt, and Asahara was reputedly shattered by the incident. Out of shame at what neighbors thought, for some time afterward he and his wife only left their home to buy essentials.

By 1984, though, the future "savior'' began to find his niche. He set up a yoga school that proved to be quite successful. Even if a former student recalls that in those days "we were not followers but members," the time was ripe for gurus. Japan's galloping economic miracle in the 1970s and '80s also spawned a boom in "new religions" offering spiritual refuge to Japanese alienated by materialism. Asahara's messianic self-image expanded to help fill this void. After a visit to a Himalayan retreat, he boasted of having achieved satori, the Japanese term for nirvana or enlightenment. At this point he also claimed his first success at self-levitation.

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