Japanese buy up land to keep feared sect out

New York Times, September 12, 1999
By Calvin Sims

TOKYO -- Underscoring the fear that the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect invokes in Japan, a growing number of cities across the country are driving out its followers by using public money to buy up property owned by the doomsday cult.

A recent survey conducted by Kyodo, Japan's leading news service, found that four municipalities spent a total of about $1.4 million in recent months to buy property and facilities linked to the group.

The group, which distorts tenets from Hinduism and Buddhism into an apocalyptic mix, gained infamy in 1995 when some of its members released nerve gas into the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and injuring 6,000 others.

On Tuesday, without offering specifics, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi told prefecture governors that his administration plans to push legislation that would restrict the group's activities.

In the meantime, buying up property is among the tactics being used in a nationwide effort to restrain the group, which has increased its membership and visibility in the past year. The Kyodo news survey found that other cities are also considering using tax money to persuade followers of the group to move elsewhere.

Already many cities will not allow the group's members to register as residents, in effect denying them access to social services. Some businesses will not sell goods to the group's followers.

But it is unclear whether these efforts have been effective. Some say the money used to buy property has served only to fuel the group's activities. Other people with close ties to the group suggest it is simply taking advantage of the opportunity to sell marginal real estate at elevated prices.

Lawyers representing victims of the nerve-gas attacks and their families said the real estate sales shed light on the group's vast resources, which they believe should be confiscated and used to pay claims brought by their clients.

"I think it's a very dangerous thing to pay Aum money for its property," said Kenji Utsunomiya, the leader of a group of lawyers representing victims of the subway attack. "They are using this money and money from their computer businesses to buy other real estate and increase their activities."

In May, the town of Takane paid the group $139,000 to give up rights acquired at an auction to buy land and a hotel. Last month, the town of Sanwa paid $162,000 to buy a printing plant that the group was leasing.

Anxiety over the group has risen since a 19-year-old woman said she was chloroformed and abducted near her home in Narashino for 12 hours last month. She said the assailants told her she would be killed if her family did not drop a lawsuit seeking damages from the group for the death of her brother, who was killed in another nerve-gas attack linked to it in 1994 in Matsumoto.

A spokesman for Aum Shinrikyo, Hiroshi Araki, denied his group was involved in the kidnapping, and police have offered no evidence implicating the group.

After the subway attack, the government stripped the group of its status as a religious organization, and last year its assets were liquidated by the courts. It reorganized without official religious status. While law-enforcement officials said the group has about 5,000 members, its officials put the number at 1,500.

Victims who had sued the cult were awarded nearly $8 million for crimes attributed to the group. The police have said the group earns about $65 million a year through the sales of computers.

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