TOKYO, Oct 26 (Reuters) - Residents in the Honcho area of Toshima-ku, a quiet north Tokyo suburb, did not think there was anything wrong with their new neighbours at first.
Then they started to notice things.
Although only five people were registered as legal residents of a first floor of a condominium in the area, some 20 to 30 people gathered every evening, entering and leaving in the middle of the night.
When some were seen wearing colourful, high-necked clothing similar to pyjamas, the neighbourhood realised that they were a branch of Aum Shinri Kyo, the cult behind the 1995 Tokyo subway nerve gas attack that killed 12 people and made 6,000 ill.
Since then, says community leader Yoshiharu Natori, there have been complaints of noise late at night and a scuffle between cult members and other building residents that sent one man to hospital briefly.
"When you think what they've done before, this is very frightening,'' Natori said. ``Because we have no idea what they could do in the future.''
Similar fears are on the rise around Japan. The cult, which seemed to have been pushed firmly into retreat only a short time ago with the arrest of its major leaders, appears to be making a comeback.
Noting that the group remains without remorse, the Public Security Investigation Agency, the intelligence branch of Japan's Justice Ministry, said in its most recent report: ``There has been no change in its dangerous nature.''
"Strict surveillance is essential.''
This remains the case even though the cult's 43-year-old guru Shoko Asahara and other major leaders are in jail, on trial for murder and kidnapping, officials said.
A Tokyo court on Friday handed down the first death sentence for a member of Aum Shinri Kyo.
The sentence passed on Kazuaki Okazaki, 38, was not connected to the subway attack but to the 1989 murders of anti-cult lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife and one-year-old son.
The prosecution in the case said Sakamoto was working for parents trying to rescue their children from the cult at the time of his murder.
BEYOND JAPANESE LAW
The cult undertakes energetic recruitment efforts, including Internet pages that get as many as 1,000 hits a day. But while those efforts are a concern, security officials said they were most worried about its acquisition of real estate.
"This is a commune-based cult, and once they're in their own space they aren't ruled by Japanese laws, but Asahara's laws. And they see no reason to obey Japanese laws,'' one official said.
Since February, Aum has acquired at least five substantial properties, most of them either in or within reach of Tokyo.
One of these, a former factory building in the rural town of Sanwa, some 40 km (25 miles) north of Tokyo, is nearly as large as some buildings at Aum's former compound near Mount Fuji, where the cult carried out experiments and made sarin.
Although the building is officially a printing plant, locals reported seeing bags of rice and around 100 straw mats carried into the building during renovations this summer.
Public Security Agency officials said they believed the cult had 33 facilities and as many as 100 dormitories throughout the country, with active membership somewhere around 2,000.
Media estimates range as high as 6,000 -- still far from the 12,000 members within Japan at its height. The group was stripped of most of its assets in 1996 when it was liquidated by court order, but it remains deft at turning a profit, running a chain of computer stores that generates some 4 billion yen ($34 million) a year.
A spring seminar alone brought in 65 million yen.
Japan's difficult economic conditions also help. Several of the cult's recent acquisitions were purchased cheaply through auctions after previous owners went bankrupt.
And since the cult often acquires the properties through dummy corporations or other agents -- as in Toshima -- nobody knows who is moving in until it is already too late.
Officials say their hands are tied.
"Anybody has the right to live here as long as they don't do anything wrong. We can't refuse them -- even if we know they're Aum,'' said Noboru Nakamura, Sanwa deputy mayor.
The Public Security Agency's request last year that the government disband the cult under a 1952 anti-subversion law was turned down on the basis the cult was no longer sufficiently threatening.
Security officials say that while 24-hour surveillance of the group means little it does is unknown, they remain troubled by a number of factors.
These include the scheduled release from prison in 2000 of the cult's charismatic former spokesman, Fumihiro Joyu, who briefly assumed de facto leadership after Asahara's arrest in 1995.
Letters from him have been carried in cult publications, and he remains a key figure in the cult's Internet pages.
"He must be watched very carefully,'' an official said.