Tokyo -- Aum Shinrikyo cult founder Shoko Asahara, who is charged with murder for ordering the 1995 Tokyo subway gas attack and other crimes, still holds sway over many followers even eight years after his arrest. Even though the cult renamed itself Aleph in 2000, Japanese still have deep misgivings about the group and have sometimes sought court orders to block followers from moving into their neighborhoods.
But Aleph claims it will not commit the kind of indiscriminate mass killing carried out Aum Shinrikyo, and stresses it is independent of Asahara.
Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, was arrested in May 1995 on charges of murder for ordering the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack and other crimes committed by his followers. On April 24 this year, public prosecutors called for the death penalty for the guru.
Earlier in April, Aleph leader Fumihiro Joyu and some of his aides left Narita airport for Moscow, ostensibly for "sightseeing and meeting old Aum followers."
But public security authorities believe that Joyu's visit to Russia was part of efforts "to call on Russian followers, who still revere Asahara, to exercise restraint ahead of the closing argument by public prosecutors."
Russian followers once plotted a terrorist attack to rescue Asahara from a Tokyo prison. In fact, four Russian followers were arrested by Russian public security authorities in July 2000 for assembling machine guns and hand grenades and making a preliminary inspection of the national Diet building and Kosuge prison in Tokyo.
Joyu admits that Asahara still wields influence over followers and stressed the need for Aleph to follow an independent path.
"We have to face up to the hard fact that parents will die one day," said Joyu. "We cannot gain the public's understanding unless we become independent."
He made the remarks at a press conference in January this year, when the Public Security Examination Commission decided to continue to keep the cult under surveillance by the Justice Ministry's Public Security Investigation Agency.
Joyu, who was former Aum spokesman, officially assumed leadership of the group in January last year and has gradually strengthened his power within the cult since then.
From around last summer, Joyu began conferring holy names on followers and holding the ritual of "Shakti Pat" or "divine touch" in which he touches a worshiper's forehead to produce "supernatural effects."
A senior official of the Pubic Security Investigation Agency said, "Joyu has no other choice but to stress that Aleph is independent of Asahara." This is because the cult group "will remain under the surveillance by public security authorities as long as the influence of Asahara remains in the group," he said.
The decision by the Public Security Examination Commission to continue the surveillance of the cult was made on the grounds that there are some members who still worship Asahara.
In fact, some old members of the group make no secret of their devotion to the Aum founder. They are dissatisfied with Joyu's leadership, complaining that the new leader often downplays Asahara.
Meanwhile, the local governments and residents of certain neighborhoods in which Aum facilities are located have tried to force the cultists out of their communities to no avail.
In February this year, Aleph gave notice to the Public Security Investigation Agency that it has opened an assembly hall by laying tatami mattresses in an old plant building in the Saitama Prefecture city of Yashio.
So far, the group has held four meetings at the at hall, with about 500 people, mostly live-in followers, attending. It is the Aleph's third facility in Yashio.
The Yashio municipal government and the cult group are fighting court battles over the city government's refusal to allow cult members to register as city residents because of local residents' fears about the group.
The municipal government lost in the first case and has appealed the ruling to a higher court.
With courts ruling against municipal governments in similar lawsuits in many other parts of the country, local governments are finding themselves unable to do anything about local residents' anxiety about the group.
"We have sent a letter to Aleph to discuss what to do with the problem but received no response," said Tsuneaki Minegishi, a section chief of the Yashio city government.
A condominium in Karasuyama, Tokyo, where Aleph has its headquarters, is haunted by cult followers wearing headgear to "infuse Asahara's brain wave." There, a tape recorder of Asahara chanting a mantra is played back repeatedly as thick smell of curry hangs over the place.
"Neighbors are feeling pressured day in and day out," said Kazuyuki Furuma, leader of a residents' group seeking to oust the cult group from the condominium.
According to the agency, Aleph has about 1,600 followers in Japan.