Online afterlife for doom sect

Sydney Morning Herald, October 2, 1999
By Michael Millet

When Armageddon looms, you need "a strong mind immovable to any external interference".

That is what Aum Supreme Truth, the doomsday cult that earned international notoriety after its 1995 murderous nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, preaches to its members through its Web site.

But it seems even spiritual stoicism has its limits. This week, the Tokyo-based sect startled many Japanese by declaring it would halt its external activities, including recruiting and buying property, and suspend the use of its name.

The retreat came 10 hours before a court delivered the organisation another serious blow: the death sentence for Masato Yokoyama, one of the five-man Aum death squad which unleashed the deadly sarin gas during the subway rush-hour in March 1995, killing 12 and injuring up to 5,000.

In separate court proceedings last week, the Aum founder and "master", Shoko Asahara, made his first reference to a link between the sect and the gas attack. His former intelligence chief, Yoshihiro Inoue, had raised the idea with another member of the cult's inner circle, he said.

So what does all this mean for Aum's future?

A conventional reading would have the sect on the road to oblivion, pursued by a hostile public and the courts. Internationally, doomsday cults often have a short life, combusting in the most grisly circumstances. But Aum has always defied rational analysis, and Japan's legion of Aum watchers believe the sect has retreated to ensure its long-term survival. Teruo Maruyama, a journalist who follows Aum's activities, said: "Basically, Aum is a corporation pretending to be a religious group and profiting from the cheap labour of its followers. It would be extremely difficult for them to give up the benefits."

While the Government has successfully stripped Aum of its religious status, confiscating its assets and denying it lucrative tax breaks, it has not been outlawed.

This is because the independent Public Security Commission ruled in 1997 that the organisation had not fallen foul of the Anti-Subversive Law. The verdict was on the grounds that Aum no longer posed a threat to society as it had been declared bankrupt and followers wanted by police had been arrested.

Sustained by its computer shops and other business ventures, the recast Aum - a separate legal entity from its predecessor - has been quietly expanding its operations, setting up new bases outside Tokyo. Membership, which fell after the subway murders, has rebounded, aided by aggressive recruiting.

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