Aum Three Years Later: Cult seen on steady path to rebirth

Japan Times/March 19, 1998
By Toshi Maeda and Tomoko Otake

A groupie of teen idols seven years ago, Yoshie (not her real name) is now blindly in love with imprisoned Aum Shinrikyo spokesman Fumihiro Joyu.

"If Joyu-san tells me to release the (nerve) gas, I'll be glad to do it," she said. "I might regret it if I get arrested, but I'll do whatever he wants me to."

Since she first saw Joyu appear on television following the Tokyo subway nerve gas attack in March 1995, the 21-year-old waitress has been determined to follow him.

In December, Yoshie joined Aum. She goes once a week to one of the cult's compounds in the Kanto region, and is saving money to participate in Joyu's future lectures.

In February, the Tokyo High Court upheld Joyu's lower court-imposed three-year prison term for perjury and forgery. He has appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

Regardless of whether the top court upholds the sentence, Joyu is expected to be a free man as early as next year because his time in detention will probably be counted as part of his prison term.

The doomsday cult, which seemed on the verge of collapse following the massive police raids and arrests of key members in the wake of the Tokyo sarin attack, is now steadily regaining its footing.

A total of 427 cult members were arrested after the subway gassing. So far, 380 have been released, of whom some 200 have returned to the cult,

National Police Agency Chief Yuko Sekiguchi said March 19 in a news conference.

Currently, Aum has nearly 1,500 followers, including more than 500 live-in members, according to the Public Security Investigation Agency, an affiliate of the Justice Ministry. The cult owns 28 compounds in 18 prefectures for religious training, missionary work and other operations, the security agency said. During its heyday, Aum's membership in Japan peaked at 12,500.

Five of Aum founder Shoko Asahara's children live in the village of Asahi, Ibaraki Prefecture, while his teenage daughter, Rika, who was reportedly the guru's favorite, lives in an elaborate mansion in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. The cult is now headed by Rika, followed in command by Chorobu, a group of senior cultists, including Tatsuko Muraoka.

Muraoka served as Aum's acting representative while the independent Public Security Commission considered whether the Anti-Subversive Activities Law should be invoked to outlaw the cult. The commission dismissed the security agency's request to outlaw Aum in January 1997. But the agency warns that the cult maintains "dangerous teachings" that justify homicide, and that it is masking its activities by going high-tech.

Aum publicizes itself, as well as markets cult-related goods ranging from Joyu photographs and monks' uniforms to mugs and Satyam cookies, on the Internet. The cult also organizes seminars more than 60 times a year, according to the NPA. At the seminars, a variety of its goods are on sale, such as necklaces bearing photographs of Asahara and his two sons as well as the notorious telepathy headgear "PSI" (perfect salvation initiative), said to tune the wearer into the guru's brain waves, sources said.

Revenues from the sale of such goods, however, do not compare with what investigators claim is Aum's main source of income -- the computer business.

The agency has confirmed that Aum operates five computer stores in Tokyo, including three retailers in the Akihabara electronics district, one in Shinjuku and a parts wholesaler in Adachi Ward.

Reporter dogs cultists' trials

For more than eight years, freelance journalist Shoko Egawa has devoted her time and energy to reporting on Aum Shinrikyo, driven by regret that she could not keep her friend, lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, and his family from being murdered.

Egawa, a 39-year-old former newspaper reporter who has gained fame through her dogged reporting on the doomsday cult, says she is nowhere near being satisfied.

On the contrary, she feels frustrated by some cultists who in court show no remorse for the consequences of the crimes for which they stand accused. "It disgusted me when I saw (Yoshinobu) Aoyama speaking in (cult founder Shoko) Asahara's trial the other day," Egawa said during a recent interview while taking in a quick lunch at the Tokyo District Court before heading off to cover the trial of another cultist accused of releasing sarin in a Tokyo subway train. "Aoyama acts as if he has nothing to do with the slaying of Sakamoto. He might not have criminal responsibility for his death per se, but I felt, 'Can't you agonize a little bit over what kind of influence your report (on the meeting with Sakamoto) to Asahara had?'"

Aoyama, the cult's lawyer at the time, allegedly had a confrontational meeting with Sakamoto a few days before the lawyer and his family vanished from their Yokohama condominium one night in November 1989. Egawa attends court sessions of the accused cultists day after day, looking for clues as to why Aum members -- many with elite academic backgrounds, a desire to achieve religious salvation and no criminal history -- became numb to the loss of human life, including the death of the Sakamotos.

Egawa is one of the few journalists who started digging into the cult long before the terrorist attacks it allegedly carried out, including the March 1995 subway gassing and the June 1994 sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. She exposed Asahara's shady activities in her pioneering book on the cult in 1991.

Egawa says her motive for covering the cult originated with the disappearance of Sakamoto, his wife, Satoko, and their 1-year-old son, Tatsuhiko.

Egawa started investigating the cult out of a sense of guilt that she might have contributed to the family's disappearance, a feeling that hasn't changed, she says. Before Sakamoto vanished, Egawa introduced the mother of an Aum follower to the lawyer, leading to his confrontation with the cult.

Because of Egawa's motive, which she concedes is not purely journalistic, she admits to not being 100 percent objective in covering the Aum saga. "I knew a year after Sakamoto's disappearance that it would be very difficult to find him alive," she said. "But if I had said such a thing, it would have devastated his family very much. So it was inevitable for me to try to find information that would give us hope. That's what I mean when I say I haven't been objective."

The "objective" media, however, cannot seem to match her persistence. Egawa argues that journalists should pay closer attention to signs of other "destructive cults" emerging here. "What is most scary is that Aum Shinrikyo is not the only group that practices so-called mind control," she said. "But (the media) seem to be shying away from exposing these groups, because police haven't done anything about them, just like police didn't do anything about Aum for so long."

Egawa says she is determined to follow the Aum trials, despite predictions that Asahara's trial will probably drag on for 10 or 20 years. "It's been almost nine years, and I am tired of it, frankly," she said. "Aum trials are unpleasant to watch. But I can't quit halfway through."

Matsumoto families settle for 510 million yen

Families affected by the Matsumoto sarin attack, allegedly perpetrated by Aum Shinrikyo in June 1994, have decided to accept 510 million yen in damages in their civil suit against the cult, informed sources said March 19.

After signing the compromise, the plaintiffs are expected to soon drop the case, the sources said. The compromise was reached between the plaintiffs and Aum's bankruptcy administrator. The cult was declared bankrupt in March 1996.

In the gassing, seven people were killed and several hundred others were injured. The damages suit, seeking a total of 545 million yen, was filed by eight family members of the dead in August 1995.

The bankruptcy administrator has reached a compromise in two similar cases involving relatives of victims of the Tokyo subway attack and involving the Yokohama lawyer's family.


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