A cult's revival has Japanese worried


Boston Globe, August 5, 1999
By Sharon Moshavi

TAWARA, Japan - This is not your typical neighborhood watch.

Twenty-four hours a day, residents of this farming town stand guard under a tin-roof shack, along a narrow road flanked by rice fields. Eyes, some peering through binoculars and cameras, are fixed on a high metal gate.

They're spying on the neighbors.

''We must watch all the time,'' said Tadashi Akutsu, a carpenter.

''Otherwise, we don't know what they might do.''

Like what, for instance? ''Sarin! Sarin gas!'' Akutsu cried.

That summed up residents' fear of the new folks in town: members of Aum Supreme Truth, or Aum Shinrikyo in Japanese, the cult behind the massive 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system, which killed 12 and injured 5,000.

More than four years later, the sect has not only survived, but it is also growing. Even with the enigmatic leader Shoko Asahara in jail, the group that terrified Japan is gaining new members, running flourishing businesses, and fanning out across the country, moving into towns such as Otawara.

Aum members arrived before dawn on June 25, in a 10-car convoy. They swathed the property, surrounding an old inn they had bought, with white and blue tarp about two stories high.

Within hours, town leaders suspected Aum's presence. That was confirmed that evening, when they knocked on the metal gate. Two people emerged, and business cards were exchanged. The new neighbors' card told the story, in small Japanese print and in large English letters: A-U-M.

Under law, Japan could not ban Aum Shinrikyo outright. And passing legislation has been difficult, partly because many legislators are backed by powerful religious groups that balk at any law that might be used against them one day.

Instead, Japan arrested hundreds of Aum members and confiscated the group's assets to pay compensation to victims of the attacks. Aum went bankrupt, and its membership plummeted from 10,000 to a few hundred. In 1997, a government panel decided the group was no longer a threat.

But membership in the cult, which still regards Asahara as its guru, has rebounded to about 2,000 and continues to grow, attracting mostly younger people. Aum is spreading its word though millions of leaflets, a sophisticated Web site, and even its own pop band, Absolute Liberation.

''Some people who are insecure or dissatisfied with adults or with society ... empathize with Aum because it is also at odds with mainstream society,'' said Shoko Egawa, who has written extensively about Aum. In 1994, the group sprayed gas into the mail slot of her front door. She was briefly hospitalized.

Today, says Egawa, there is no evidence the group poses an immediate danger, but she suspects they might in the future. ''That's why we cannot take our eyes off them,'' she said.

Aum is vague about whether its leaders ordered the sarin gas attacks, and maintains its members simply want to live a peaceful, meditative life. ''We are not dangerous,'' said Hiroshi Araki, the group's spokesman. ''We are not trying to hoard property or weapons, but God's wisdom.''

The group still follows Asahara's doctrines, a mix of yoga, Buddhism, and apocalyptic vision that predicts most of the world's destruction by the end of the millennium.

Now, the sect is thought to have amassed $50 million through publishing, yoga seminars, and computer stores.

Japanese who monitor the group say it might be about to enter a more aggressive phase. One of its leaders, Fumihiro Joyu - a charismatic former spokesman with a degree in artificial intelligence - is to be released from jail this year, having served time for perjury. With Joyu's release, some speculate that the group - run by a six-member council - will become more focused and better organized.

Residents of Otawara are worried. Most of the town's 800 families take their turn on guard duty, attempting to figure out what is going on behind the metal gate. Trying to peer behind it, all they can see is a painted mural of sky and balloons, castles and rainbows.

Through the tarp come the sounds of construction, hammers, and electric saws, mixed with a loudspeaker carrying an Aum song over and over: ''I want to spread the message. This is love, this is truth, this is God's message.''

Occasionally, there are confrontations, such as on a recent afternoon, when the gates are pulled back by half a dozen young Aum men in T-shirts and shorts. A station wagon with black tinted windows emerges, as a few dozen Otawara residents surge forward and push against the impassive Aum members. One woman yells, ''Ask them if they're human beings!''

Like numerous other towns, Otawara has refused to grant residency permits to the estimated 20 Aum people living there. That means no health insurance, no passport, no waste removal. A problem since the group doesn't have flush toilets.

Given the construction, officials fear many more Aum members will move here. In response to the group's work, the government in recent weeks has stormed dozens of Aum properties and businesses, searching for forged documents, suspect land deeds - anything that could force Aum out of villages and towns.

Meanwhile, public pressure is mounting for legislation to ban Aum. But Taro Takimoto, a lawyer who himself was attacked by Aum four times for helping cult members leave the group, does not think that is the answer.

''We need a law to confiscate their property now. This is the best way to break them,'' Takimoto said. ''Banning them will only make them feel like victims, and that is dangerous.''

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