Japan Sect's Name Change Brings Confusion and Fear


New York Times, January 24, 2000
By Calvin Sims

TOKYO, Jan. 23 -- By changing its name and denouncing its spiritual leader last week, the religious sect that killed 12 people in a nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subways in 1995 tried to convince Japanese society that it was no longer a threat.

But the name change from Aum Shinrikyo to Aleph, which is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and signifies renewal for many Japanese, appears to have raised more fears than it calmed.

In fact, since Aum announced the name shift on Tuesday, Japanese businesses and organizations that use the name Aleph have been flooded with telephone calls from people concerned that they were associated with the sect. Many Internet sites of businesses and groups that use the name Aleph have received so many hits in recent days that they have been forced to shut down or post messages on their home pages disclaiming any affiliation with Aum. Some companies are considering abandoning the name Aleph altogether. At an Osaka-based cram school called Aleph, which prepares students for medical school exams, the phones have been ringing off the hook. Anxious students and their parents have expressed fears that attending a preparatory school with the same name as the sect will hurt their chances for admission. "People are hysterical because we are right in the middle of exam period, and they have already submitted applications to university medical faculties that have the name of Aleph as their prep school," said Takeshisa Ueda, the school's director.

When the school opened in 1990, officials chose the name Aleph because they thought it would distinguish the school from others, Mr. Ueda said. But now officials are worried that they will have trouble attracting new students. Such widespread concern over being linked to the sect, if only by name, underscores the deep-seated fear of Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, despite strict new laws and growing vigilantism that have crippled the sect's activities. Law enforcement officials said that assumptions by Japanese that businesses and groups with the name Aleph were linked to the sect were not unjustified because Aum Shinrikyo operates publishing, computer and electronic equipment businesses under names that few recognize.

Indeed, since 1996, Aleph has been the name of an Aum Shinrikyo company that manages the group's donations and seminars and conducts business in computer parts, delivery services, warehousing and travel.

No one knows exactly how many businesses and groups in Japan use the name Aleph, but advertising and marketing executives estimated the number to be in the hundreds. Aleph Choir, a musical group based in Kyoto, has a site on the Internet.

Yuji Fukuda, senior research director for Dentsu Institute for Human Studies, the research division of Dentsu Advertising, said more and more Japanese companies were adopting names that are foreign words, which are fashionable in Japanese society and useful in conducting international business.

"The name Aleph is appealing because it has a mystical connotation, which is also good for religious purposes," Mr. Fukuda said. "Words starting with an A are also advantageous in business because it's the first letter of the Japanese alphabets and English."

But Aleph Zero Company Ltd., a graphics design firm, has found little benefit in having a name associated with Aum Shinrikyo and has decided temporarily to stop placing its name in publications where its work appears. "It's unfortunate, and gives us a negative image," said Saiichiro Suzuki, Aleph Zero's chairman. "But we can't sue Aum to stop them from using the name because we are in totally different industries."

Aleph Inc., which operates several restaurant chains on Hokkaido, said it had to shut down its Web site shortly after Aum announced the name change it because it could not handle the tremendous number of hits it received. "We are deeply troubled by this misunderstanding, but we want everyone to know that we are not linked to Aum Shinrikyo or engaged in any type of religious activity," said Makoto Matsuo, an Aleph Inc. spokesman.

"We haven't ruled out changing our parent company name."

Aoyama, a chain of men's clothing stores, faced a similar problem shortly after the subway gas attack in 1995 when the public began to associate the retailer with Aum's lawyer, Yoshinobu Aoyama. The lawyer became a household name after appearing regularly on television to deny his clients' involvement in the attack.

The clothing store chain received scores of telephone calls and letters from people who criticized it for being "associated" with Aum. Sales at Aoyama stores plummeted along with its stock price, which dropped to 1,100 yen a share from 4,000 yen in a few weeks.

Fearing they might be solicited to join the cult, some customers refused to come to the clothing stores to pick up their suits, even though they had already paid for them.

In response, the company's president, Goro Aoyama, held a news conference, issued a written disclaimer to investors and posted signs in store windows saying that the chain was not Aum-related. The company also ran advertisements in the major daily newspapers denying any link to Mr. Aoyama, the group's lawyer.

"We never dreamed this could happen to us," said Hiroaki Okito, a spokesman.

"The truth does not spread immediately, so companies in the same situation should take measures to counter these rumors as soon as possible."


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