TOKYO - Four mornings a month, a bearded, half-blind yoga master is led into Criminal Court Room 104 in the Tokyo district court building. His handcuffs are removed, a rope around his waist is untied and he takes his seat.
And then, another chilling installment in the story of Aum Shinri Kyo, Japan's terror-sowing doomsday cult, unfolds.
For nearly three years, Aum's shocking secrets have been coming to light here at the trial of Shoko Asahara, the group's founder and spiritual guru: deadly attacks with nerve gas and biological agents; lynchings; abductions and more routine acts of murder and mayhem - all inspired by Mr. Asahara's twisted Buddhist beliefs and his scheme to sow terror, topple the Japanese government and rule the world, according to prosecutors, police and current and former Aum followers.
Japanese authorities say the trials of Mr. Asahara and other Aum leaders should salve a national psyche scarred by the cult's crimes, if not for one unsettling fact: Aum is making a comeback.
Just two years after Japan's Public Security Commission refused to ban the cult because it was supposedly too weak to pose a danger to society, more than 1,500 Aum followers are recruiting new members and rebuilding the business network that financed the cult's terror campaign earlier this decade, authorities say.
In part, the Aum faithful and the cult's new followers are being spurred by Mr. Asahara's call for believers to prepare for Armageddon in September - an apocalypse that cult members believe only they will survive, authorities say.
Mr. Asahara, 43, has pleaded not guilty to 17 charges, including masterminding the cult's most sensational crimes: the March 20, 1995, sarin gas attack in Tokyo's subway system, which killed 12 people and made at least 6,000 others sick; and a 1994 sarin attack that killed seven people and injured 150 in the city of Matsumoto. Money source
Aum's comeback is being bankrolled by the proceeds of public lectures and concerts, Internet sales of audiocassettes, wine glasses, coffee mugs, T-shirts and other official cult paraphernalia, and shops that sell everything from computers to cakes. Six discount computer shops run by the cult in Tokyo and Nagoya generated sales of about 7 billion yen, or more than $61 million, last year - a 75 percent increase over 1997 sales, Japan's Public Security Investigation Agency said in a report released Friday.
Worried Japanese authorities note that the cult has never apologized or renounced "its dangerous doctrine that justifies murder to achieve its ends." There is even concern that Aum members may attempt to free Mr. Asahara: The Tokyo jail where the guru is being held has been deemed a "sacred training place where God has given blessings," and about 170 believers have moved nearby and make pilgrimages to the jail, authorities say. Concern over the cult isn't limited to Japan: The U.S. State Department lists Aum on its roster of terrorist organizations. The cult planned - but never carried out - several nerve gas attacks in the United States. And it succeeded in spraying the American Embassy in Tokyo with deadly botulin bacteria, without any reported casualties, according to court testimony by Aum members. 'No danger'
An Aum spokesman insists that the cult "poses no danger" and called on the Public Security Investigation Agency to "stop its illegal interference, which hinders our religious activities."
Those activities - legal or otherwise - are going on at 34 known Aum facilities around Japan.
One of those is a brown-brick, three-story building in the Yanaka district in far northeast Tokyo, a quiet neighborhood of neatly tended flower beds, lush vegetable gardens, traditional Japanese houses and low-rise office and apartment buildings.
A sign identifies the building as the offices of Sato Engineering. In reality, it houses the cult's public relations and legal departments, a training center and living quarters for more than a dozen members, said Hiroshi Araki, the soft-spoken graduate school dropout who is Aum's spokesman.
"We are always being watched," said Mr. Araki, a skinny man who wears Aum's pajama-like white suit and sits cross-legged in a swivel chair. "It's difficult to live like this."
In addition to surveillance and police patrols, authorities have raided the building several times in recent months, carting away computers and floppy disks, he said.
"The police need to appear to the Japanese people like they're doing something against Aum," he said. Next to his computer is a large framed photograph of Shoko Asahara, the man who Mr. Araki says "replaced all my other interests."
Mr. Asahara founded the cult with 15 members in 1984 and called it Aum Shinsen no Kai. In August 1989, he changed the name to Aum Shinri Kyo: Aum refers to the Buddhist chant, Om, and Shinri Kyo means "Supreme Truth."
Under Mr. Asahara's charismatic - and dictatorial - rule, the cult grew rapidly. Members were required to cut off most contacts with the outside world and turn over their personal resources to Aum.
But in 1995, Aum became synonymous with terror in Japan after the arrests of 428 followers for alleged involvement in the Tokyo subway attack and dozens of other crimes.
Mr. Asahara has steadfastly claimed that his disciples acted on their own. Loss of followers
Thousands of Aum followers deserted the cult after the subway attack and the allegations against Mr. Asahara and other members became public. But Mr. Araki and many other Aum faithful haven't forsaken their guru.
"Whether he is innocent or not, Shoko Asahara is my master and I believe in him," said Mr. Araki, who was in his second year of graduate studies at Kyoto University in 1992 when he heard Mr. Asahara speak and decided to turn over his life to Aum.
Aum practitioners like Mr. Araki say they achieve peace and spiritual enlightenment by practicing yoga, singing Aum songs and performing Aum dances. Sometimes they wear electric headsets that are supposed to tune their minds to Mr. Asahara's brain waves.
Mr. Araki says the government is exaggerating Aum's current efforts to recruit new members and rebuild its financial network. He says that Aum has about 1,000 followers, down from nearly 12,000 before the 1995 gas attack.
"A lot of people are interested [in joining] but stay outside Aum and don't really become followers," he said. "If you say 'I'm Aum,' you have to deal with so many difficulties. You may be fired from your job or lose friends."
Mr. Araki says that Aum's financial condition is hand-to-mouth. But he refuses to discuss its business interests, other than to say that the cult doesn't actually own any companies.
Japanese security authorities dispute that claim. A typical Aum company, they say, is Trisal Computer, a discount computer shop in Tokyo's Electric Town district. Despite its widespread reputation as an Aum-owned business, a steady stream of customers make their way up three flights of stairs to the tiny shop. They are drawn by its low prices, Web site advertisements and fliers passed out by reputed Aum members.
Two sales clerks at the shop laughed off questions about Aum ownership.
"A lot of people say that," said one clerk. "But that's just a rumor." More arrests
Meanwhile, as the Aum faithful prepare for Armageddon, authorities continue to arrest cult followers on old and new charges. A number of frightened Japanese communities have recently staged protests to drive out cult members who have bought property or quietly established "Aum centers" in their midst.
The trials of Mr. Asahara and 20 other Aum members in Tokyo District Court continue to be a focal point for the cult. All but Mr. Asahara's trial are expected to end by next year. But the guru's day in court could drag on another 20 years, legal experts say.
Trials in Japan typically are conducted intermittently, not on consecutive days. In Mr. Asahara's case, the trial convenes four days a month. As a result, complex trials can last for years.
Aum will survive it all, says Mr. Araki.
"People who believe in Aum and other Japanese people are looking for spiritual fulfillment," he said. "Aum is one place to meet that demand. As long as that hunger exists, Aum will survive."