TOKYO, (June 10) IPS - Its leader is in police custody and many of its former members marginalized, but the religious cult behind the deadly nerve gas attack on a Tokyo subway three years ago is attracting fresh recruits and revitalizing itself.
"Aum is growing again and this resurgence illustrates a disturbing apathy in Japanese society and points to the total alienation felt by many young people here," says lawyer Taro Takimoto who heads the Canary Association, a group of lawyers and counselors helping victims of the cult.
Police say membership in the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult is expanding rapidly, causing anxiety especially among its victims, some of whom are still trying to overcome the trauma.
The sarin gas attack in March 1995 killed 12 people, sent thousands of people to hospitals and shattered Japan's image of a country relatively free from terrorism.
Six people, including its blind leader Shoko Asahara, were put on trial for the crime. Late last month, a life sentence was handed down to Ikuo Hayashi, one of those identified as having had direct involvement in the subway attack.
According to the police, members have reached about 5,500 or close to the original 10,000 followers in Japan. They have about 15 offices and 100 places where meditation and other activities are carried out.
They say the group's fortunes, which dwindled after the arrest of Asahara, are swelling once again.
Six Aum shops selling computers at discounted rates report flourishing sales. Last year sales exceeded four billion yen (around $29 million) and proceeds from seminars and lectures added 24 million yen ($176,000) to the cult's coffers.
In featuring the case of Hayashi and the cult last month, Japanese television showed pictures of fresh recruits during a recent seminar on a mountain. The hazy pictures showed the young men in crew cuts, wearing white robes and meditating.
Reports say members, who were required to pay 150,000 yen (over 1,000 dollars) each for the training, pledged their devotion to the doomsday teachings of guru Asahara.
The cult has also been reaching out to new members through the Aum home page on Internet. Virtual schools are conducted on the Internet for Aum children. Intensive recruitment is also carried out by Aum members in prestigious universities throughout Japan.
While the reports send shivers of anxiety through Tokyo's population, police think the cult will probably shun any involvement in sinister plots similar to the subway attack.
But their devotion to Asahara is clear, says Takimoto, who says most members are in their twenties and thirties.
"Young people in Japan have no sense of reality or obligation.
They have no scruples which explains why the cult, despite the revelations of murder and extortion, manages to thrive," he complains bitterly.
He reveals how angry he feels when he sees Japanese shopping at Aum-run shops in utter disregard of the cult's criminal links. "They have no consciousness of the fact that they are financing a cult that once wanted to kill them," he explains.
Most of the cult's members abandoned the movement after the subway attack but later returned because they had nowhere else to go, illustrating another side of Japanese society that does not have a support system for the marginalized.
Interviewed by the Japanese media, the cult followers said they live largely on the periphery, after having been rejected by their families and employers upon discovering their links with Aum.
"Our lives are full of shame and unhappiness but I dare not tell anyone," said a 32-year jobless man who still bears on his forehead the scars of a headband with special electrodes he was forced to buy for one million yen when he joined the cult five years ago.
He wore the headband everyday for three years in the hope that the electronic currents that passed through the band and jolted his head would help him to get closer to Asahara.
He is now on medication to help him come to terms with the realization that the cult was involved in developing weapons and toxic chemicals for use in crime.
Such stories are familiar among ex-Aum followers. In a documentary on the cult now playing to packed houses in a major cinema is downtown Tokyo, followers are depicted not as murderers but earnest young men and women in search of spiritual learning.
Tatsuya Mori, a veteran documentarian created a film featuring a soft-spoken and shy 28-year-old who's portrayed as being sincere and spiritual.
The film gives the impression that the cult was the victim, says Yoshifu Arita, a journalist who followed Aum's activities. "But you have to remember that the naive innocence of the followers actually helped the cult to do that awful thing."
The film, according to critics, portrays Aum as a mirror of Japanese society. The cult offers young Japanese a sense of spiritual mission and fulfillment, qualities that are lacking in modern life.