TOKYO, Dec 28, 1999 (Reuters) - Four years after Japan suffered a deadly Tokyo subway gassing by a doomsday cult, fears persist that membership in such anti-social religious groups is growing.
Authorities on Monday began steps under a new law to put Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth Sect), accused of the 1995 Tokyo subway attack which killed 12 and injured more than 5,000, under police surveillance in preparation for the release from jail of its charismatic spokesman Fumihiro Joyu.
Joyu, sent to prison in 1997 for perjury, is set to be released on Wednesday. Investigators worry that the cult may be trying to stage a comeback, despite having apologised for the subway gassing and promising to stop recruiting new members.
Police have also launched investigations into religious groups accused of fraud and other anti-social activities in line with rising public sentiment in favour of crackdowns on such cults.
But experts say that they see few signs that fringe religious groups -- some with an anti-social tinge -- are on the decline.
Bizarre cults have been grabbing headlines of late.
Earlier this month, police raided offices of a cult suspected of swindling three women in the largest action taken against a religious cult since the Aum case broke.
The cult, "Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo" -- which translates roughly as Flower of Law and Three Law Practice -- is suspected of telling members they would die young or suffer from cancer if they failed to heed the group's advice.
It is also alleged to have charged huge fees to diagnose ailments by examining the soles of their feet.
In the past three years, more than 1,000 people have sued the cult, claiming they were swindled by it.
In a separate case last month, police found the mummified body of a 66-year-old sect follower whose family claimed the man was alive and receiving treatment for a brain haemorrhage by getting pats on his head from the cult guru.
Police who later raided facilities belonging to the cult, called "Life Space," found children crammed into an apartment, apparently kept away from school and fed only once a day.
Precise figures on cult membership are impossible to come by given the legal difficulties of labelling any particular group as problematic. But experts say the numbers appear to be growing.
Kenji Kawashima, a professor of religious studies at Keisen University in Tokyo, said he launched an Internet homepage on cult activities in 1997 after he saw an increasing number of students being recruited into what he saw as questionable groups.
Readership of his homepage has grown drastically in recent months following the official crackdowns on fringe groups.
Police have been unable to launch extensive investigations into such groups despite complaints from former followers out of fear of violating the constitutional right to religious freedom.
But the Aum case has boosted public approval of police action against such groups, said Kimiaki Nishida, a professor of social psychology at Shizuoka Prefectural University.
Nishida warned that there are many potential groups which may develop into destructive cults.
"You'll see them emerging one after another, and they could transform (into destructive cults) any time," he said.
Cult experts say the prevalence of such cults in Japan reflects a modern society robbed of the robust economic growth of the 1970s and 1980s and instead facing uncertainty about the future due to a prolonged slump and drastic social restructuring.
Young people driven to pursue the goal of entering a good university are at a loss when that objective is achieved and seek comfort in groups which control their lives, Kawashima said.
"This is an era in which individual freedom is being put to test," he said. "There are so many options in life that people feel comfort in being freed from complex relationships by participating in cults."
Some analysts, however, pointed to the lengthy history of anti-mainstream religious groups in Japan and said worries about a new wave of anti-social cults were overdone. "Such groups are really nothing new," said one Japanese economist.
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