Japanese villagers hold a cult-owned house under siege


Miami Herald/February 1, 1999
By Kevin Sullivan

KITAMIMAKI, Japan -- Eighty village sentries stood around three huge bonfires as spotlights illuminated the vacant house they have held under siege for a month, after they discovered it was owned by the Aum Supreme Truth doomsday cult.

First they dug a ditch, eight feet deep and wide enough to drive a car through, all around the house. Then they strung twin barbed-wire fences, installed around-the-clock video surveillance cameras and high-pressure fire hoses to blast away any cultists who might try to claim the place.

They rigged up an elaborate system of pulleys they can use to raise a web of ropes over the property to thwart cultists in helicopters from landing in the yard. Then they set up a command center with phones, faxes and radios in an empty factory next door, moved 10 families out of village-owned housing across the lane and padlocked the neighborhood preschool, pinned yellow ribbons on their down parkas and established themselves as what is surely Japan's first anti-terrorist posse of citizen vigilantes.

"Without this kind of cooperation and direct action by everybody, it would be impossible to stop them," said Masanori Kobayashi, 57, sitting next to a crackling bonfire.

"They are very scary, and if they try to come here, we will form a human blockade and we will not let them in," said Kobayashi, an office worker who, like most of his neighbors, farms rice and potatoes on the weekends.

Aum has been probably the most hated group in Japan since 1995, when its guru, Shoko Asahara, allegedly ordered a poison-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed a dozen people and injured more than 5,500 more. The cult is also accused of several other poison-gas attacks, murders, disappearances and other mayhem that together constitute modern Japan's most notorious crime spree.

Almost four years later, police say the cult has at least 1,000 members and continues to recruit followers and amass wealth through various businesses. The cult remains on terrorist watch lists in Tokyo and Washington. Experts in chemical and biological weapons say the sect, which once claimed 10,000 members and a fortune of $300 million or more, represents a terrifying new breed of terrorist.

But the anti-Aum uprising by villagers in this hamlet of 5,500 in the mountains almost 100 miles west of Tokyo is unprecedented in Japan, where most people shun direct confrontation. Many people here say a key reason that Aum succeeded for so long -- and was able to kill and maim so many people -- is that Japanese police, who knew about its activities, lacked the will to confront it, perhaps because of its status as a religion.

But the farmers and salaried workers of Kitamimaki have been boldly decisive. Upwards of 10,000 people from this and surrounding towns have taken part in the siege -- lending heavy equipment to dig the ditches, wood for the bonfires, food and sake for the 24-hour guards and futons and kerosene heaters for the makeshift barracks inside the empty electronics factory that serves as headquarters.

"We even surprised ourselves," said Akiko Yoda, who joined 10 other women in the command center factory, serving hot tea, pickles, peanuts and oranges to the siege forces.

In addition to keeping the cultists out of the building, Yoda said the siege has had an unexpected result. It has brought villagers closer together in an age when rural life is disappearing and traditional community ties are increasingly giving way to urban anonymity.

"Even in these rural areas, people's lives are so individualized and separated," she said. "This has united us. We wanted to be more friendly, and Aum has ignited that desire in us."

Residents of Kitamimaki took note of the big house in the middle of town in mid-November, when the new owners erected a 10-foot-high aluminum wall on the edge of their property. Suspicious town authorities hired a private investigator to check it out.

They discovered that the law firm listed as owning the property had close ties to Aum. Village officials confronted the owners, who, apparently hoping to avoid a confrontation, agreed to sell the property back to the previous owner, who agreed to sell it to the village.

Then in early January, town officials discovered that the property had been transferred to the names of two Aum cult members. The property's previous owner sued for breach of contract. Aum counter-sued. A hearing is scheduled, and villagers say they will continue their blockade of the property until Aum relents.


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