A doomsday cult lives

Aum is recruiting, rebuilding, and being raided by the police-again

US News and World Report/May 31, 1999

Aum Supreme Truth is back. Last week, Japanese police raided four sites connected with the cult. Inside one, they found a Geiger counter and a partially constructed concrete bunker with two stories underground. Was it a bomb shelter for nuclear Armaggedon, which the cult is awaiting this year? Or a nuclear laboratory in the making? Police refused to speculate, but many nervous Japanese could not help wondering whether the site was meant to take over for the labyrinthine complex of buildings near Mount Fuji, where the cult once produced poison gas and biological agents and tortured, killed, and incinerated errant members.

Just a few years ago, Aum appeared to be wiped out. After the cult masterminded a 1995 nerve gas attack that killed 12 people in Tokyo's subway, the Japanese authorities arrested 428 of its members. Thousands of others quit. Founder and guru Chizuo Matsumoto was thrown in jail pending the outcome of a trial that could drag on for years. Aum was also stripped of its tax-exempt status, and the government declared it bankrupt in 1996. So discredited, decapitated, and deadbeat was the cult that the authorities did not think it was necessary to take the final, draconian step of formally disbanding it under Japan's Antisubversive Activities Law.

Resurgence. That could prove to be a big mistake. After a period of dormancy, the cult is growing bolder and expanding again. Police estimate that its affiliated computer equipment business had sales of $57 million last year and that its membership has stabilized at roughly 2,000. During holidays this month, Aum staged street parties in Tokyo for the first time in four years in an effort to recruit new members from its core constituency: alienated but technology-savvy young people. It has acquired properties throughout the country, despite the sometimes fierce resistance of local residents. In the village of Kitamimaki , residents man barricades in four shifts, 24 hours a day, to prevent Aum members from moving into a vacant house.

In Tokyo, the cult has declared the detention center holding Matsumoto a "holy site," and 140 cult members have taken up residence in 20 buildings ringing the jail. In December, Fumihiro Joyu, the cult's charismatic former spokesman, is expected to be released and to assume day-to-day leadership of Aum.

Many cult members expect a worldwide disaster before the end of the year, supposedly in accordance with the predictions of the astrologer Nostradamus. But Aum's Web site says the human race will not perish yet. Phew.

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