A fallout shelter built by Aum Supreme Truth cult members to protect themselves from an anticipated Armageddon still stands in the snowy mountains of Kawakamimura, Nagano Prefecture. The concrete basement lies below a prefabricated warehouse, both of which were completed at the end of 1998 on a 17-hectare plot of forest land purchased by a company affiliated with the cult in June 1996.
The purchase was made more than a year after the arrest of Aum founder Chizuo Matsumoto, 48, also known as Shoko Asahara.
Among the items taken into the facility by cult members were rubber boots and underwear for dozens of people. Members also brought in more than 500 cans of cooking oil and soy sauce and radiological monitors.
A local villager who saw the interior of the facility said it was hard to believe Aum members tried to live in such a place.
Expectations that the world was about to end seem to have lived on in the cult even without its "guru."
In January 2000, when authorities were considering whether to invoke the Antisubversive Activities Law to outlaw Aum, Matsumoto reportedly refused to receive a letter notifying him of a hearing on the matter, waving away the employee of Tokyo Detention House who tried to deliver it.
"This has nothing to do with me. You don't need to give me the letter," Matsumoto was quoted as saying.
About two years later, photos of Matsumoto and books written by him gradually were removed from Aum facilities.
Using books he authored himself, Fumihiro Joyu, 41, the new leader of the cult and former top Aum spokesman, reportedly began reforming the group in an attempt to break away from Matsumoto's teachings.
But he failed to carry out reforms and stepped down from center stage sometime after October that year. Aum members reportedly have returned to worshiping Matsumoto in increasing numbers.
"Joyu tried to break away from Matsumoto's teachings in hope of preventing the period the cult was placed under surveillance from being extended. Since he failed to prevent the surveillance from being extended, he met with increasing opposition from senior Asahara followers," a public safety official said.
Footage from a cult video shows a blurred image of Matsumoto. Sitting in the lotus position in a light blue-colored space, the "guru" says the secret ritual he is about to perform should not be revealed to others without his permission. He then chants for nearly 1-1/2 hours. After that, viewers are told to imagine they have become one with Matsumoto, now depicted in the video as Buddha.
The cult is believed to have used the video until November 2002 to instruct followers in the correct way to meditate.
The video, submitted by the Public Security Investigation Agency as evidence, is believed to have been one of the reasons the Public Security Examination Commission decided in January last year to keep the cult under surveillance for three more years.
The commission reportedly concluded Matsumoto was still the supreme leader for Aum members.
One man in his 20s rejoined Aum after leaving the cult in the wake of the March 1995 gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. Saying Matsumoto was more a symbol than a real person, the man was unable to abandon Matsumoto's preachings since he said they were "the only ones based on real principles."
Another man in his 40s, who joined the cult after the sarin gas attack, said Aum cannot sever its relations with its leader since receiving energy from Matsumoto by believing in him is the core of the cult's teachings.
A former member of the public security commission, who was party to the January 1997 decision not to apply the Antisubversive Law to the cult, said he was shocked a year later when he read "Aum to Watashi (Aum and I)," the memoirs of Ikuo Hayashi, 57, former head of the cult's "medical treatment ministry."
"Having read the book, I realized I had not been aware of the full horror of a cult that could change an intelligent doctor into a fanatic," the official said. "I'd only been concerned with the absurdity of its dogma during the commission's deliberations ahead of the January 1997 decision."
The official now wonders whether the decision made seven years ago was appropriate.
"Aum cases involve serial crimes committed by followers who became Matsumoto's hands and feet and believed they were doing good things," said lawyer Taro Takimoto, 47, who has talked with current and former Aum followers despite himself being the victim of a gas attack by the cult.
"Some current followers still believe Aum did the right thing. The government and society have no choice but to keep a close eye on the group's activities," he said.