TOKYO - Two-and-a-half years after the worst act of terrorism in Japanese history - a poison-gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 12 and injured more than 5,500 - the religious cult charged with carrying out the attack is still active and is rebuilding its following.
At least 1,000 people, and perhaps twice that many, belong to Aum Supreme Truth and continue their devotion to self-proclaimed guru Shoko Asahara, who is in jail and on trial for mass murder in the subway attack. The half-blind, bearded guru, who claims to be Jesus Christ, is also charged in a series of other gas attacks and murders that police say constitute modern Japan's worst crime spree.
Even with Asahara behind bars and facing a near-certain death sentence, his followers worship him. They live in dormitories decorated with his photos, meditate to recordings of his voice and study videotapes and books of his speeches.
Authorities say that of the 427 Aum members arrested after the gas attack, 138 have rejoined the cult, many after serving prison terms. Aum is recruiting new members, through Internet home pages in Japanese and Russian, through sidewalk solicitations of strangers and, in at least one case, by passing out leaflets in a train station.
The Japanese government last year revoked Aum's status as a religious corporation and forced it into bankruptcy, seizing its assets, once valued at $300 million. But the cult is once again operating profitable businesses selling computers, bread and other items. The cult is probably the most-hated group in Japan, so it keeps its activities quiet.
Massive public pressure, prosecutions and defections have cut the cult's membership from its height of around 10,000 people. And police say they are watching the cult members' every move.
But the fact that the doomsday cult accused of mass murder has survived despite the police crackdown has caused deep embarrassment and frustration in Japan.
"It's really unbelievable for us," said Akio Kanazawa, a top official of the Public Security Investigation Agency, a government body that monitors Aum's activities.
Several cult members interviewed recently professed their unyielding devotion to Asahara. The cult members were met at an Aum apartment in suburban Yokohama, south of Tokyo, in a room partially lined with metal foil to "keep out electromagnetic waves."
The cultists said hundreds of Aum "monks" and "nuns" still spend several hours a day wearing the Perfect Salvation cap, a headpiece made of leather straps and electrodes attached to a six-volt battery. One cultist had two severe burns on his forehead caused by the jolts from his cap. But he said he and others wear the device to receive and understand Asahara's brain waves.
"Our believers are sharing a quiet, decent life," said Hiroshi Araki, 29, the cult's chief spokesman.
Asahara, who claims to be able to levitate and once was arrested for selling bogus health tonics, is still the spiritual leader of Aum members, although his sons, ages 5 and 3, are the cult's official gurus while he is in jail. A group of five senior members are running the cult's day-to-day operations.
Asahara's teachings, laid out in his books, including "Declaring Myself the Christ," emphasize meditation to achieve enlightenment.
Asahara, who has praised Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as a great man, also preached that Armageddon is imminent, that the Japanese and U.S. governments were planning to attack Aum and that mass murders were necessary not simply to thwart the government but to save the souls of those killed. His followers denied that Asahara preached such things, despite the overwhelming evidence that he did.
Araki said the cult no longer adheres to the teaching that includes the notion of killing someone to enhance his or her status in the next world. However, that doctrine is still clearly highlighted on the Aum Internet home page.
The Aum members insisted that they pose no threat to anyone. But neither did they express remorse or sorrow or apologize for Aum's past actions. They refused to acknowledge that any Aum member committed crimes, despite the criminal convictions of 121 Aum members.
"I think the real truth has not yet been made clear," Araki said.
In addition to the sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway in March 1995, which left scores of people blind or permanently disabled, five cult members have been convicted in a sarin attack in the city of Matsumoto in June 1994 that killed seven people. Cult members have testified in court that, on Asahara's orders, they murdered an anti-cult lawyer, his wife and their 1-year-old son.
More than 40 cult members are missing, and many of them are presumed to have been killed in Aum cult rituals.