Aum grows again, guru still revered

Pariah cult's disciples keep heaping praise on Asahara's teachings

The Japan Times/August 8, 2002
By Hiroshi Matsubara

Several of its senior members have been convicted of heinous crimes, including two deadly nerve gas attacks. It has been placed under tight surveillance and wherever its members try to settle, local residents and municipalities turn out to keep them away.

Still, Aum Shinrikyo claims more than 1,000 followers seven years after founder Shoko Asahara was arrested as the alleged mastermind of the cult's major crimes, and membership has recently been picking up.

For many of the cultists, the reason is simple; they say Asahara's teachings remain the best path to religious enlightenment and they believe the teachings themselves had nothing to do with what their accused predecessors did under the guru's orders.

When dusk falls, about 20 people knock on the door of an Aum "training facility," on the second floor of a three-story house whose main floor houses an "izakaya" pub.

Visitors include men clad in suits on their way home from work, and a housewife with son in tow. As they enter the living room, the visitors bow three times to an altar decorated with paintings of Buddhist deities, and then engage in their favorite religious practices, including yoga, meditation and reading sutras.

"This is an important place for me," said a 35-year housewife who usually visits the facility with her 8-year-old son. "My husband and both his and my parents oppose my faith, but it does not feel right to me to abandon my religious faith because of opposition from others," said the woman, who joined the cult in 1990.

The facility has 11 live-in communal followers and 70 who frequent the premises.

Under legislation enacted following a raft of crimes blamed on cult members, Aum Shinrikyo's activities are closely monitored by police and the Public Security Investigation Agency, which has raided 53 cult facilities nationwide on more than 30 occasions since January 2000.

The agency's three-year mandate to monitor the cult ends in January, but officials want it extended. The surveillance was launched because of the perceived threat society faces from Aum, whose key figures have been accused and convicted of heinous crimes, including indiscriminate mass murder.

According to the latest mandatory report submitted by Aum to the security agency in May, the cult has 521 live-in communal members at its facilities, while 666 others support its activities while living elsewhere.

At its peak in 1994, Aum was estimated to have had 1,000 followers living together at various sites across the country, and about 10,000 more participating in its activities.

After the arrest of its senior members, including Asahara, in the wake of the sarin attack on Tokyo subways in 1995, the cult's membership sharply declined until it hit bottom sometime before its current leader, Fumihiro Joyu, was released from prison in December 1999 after a three-year sentence for forgery and perjury, according to the agency.

The agency estimates that Aum's membership has slowly but gradually risen to around 650 live-in members and some 1,000 other followers living on the outside.

"Mr. Joyu's return to our group gave us spiritual leadership and improved management," said Ken Takeda, 31, head of Aum's Yokohama base.

"Because of the impact of the group's past crimes, we can't expect an immediate jump in members, but we now have great motivation and an environment for each member's spiritual development," he said.

Some followers claim they have become stronger and more devout by experiencing widespread criticism, media scrutiny and ostracism from society.

Whenever Aum members leading a communal life have tried to open new sites, they've faced massive pressure from the local community to stay out.

Many local governments have rejected Aum members' residency applications, resulting in some 150 followers still without social benefits such as health insurance.

In addition, the cult is obliged under an out-of-court agreement to pay 960 million yen by 2005 to people victimized by its crimes, including relatives of those slain.

In its attempt to win social recognition, Aum renamed itself Aleph and its leaders have tried to distance the cult from Asahara's legacy.

The cult now claims Asahara and and his cohorts in crime have been expelled. It has urged its followers to stop attending court sessions in the marathon trial of Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto.

But for many of Aum's die-hard ranks, the reason for staying in the cult is clear; they find the doctrine initiated by Asahara the "most effective way to enlightenment."

Books authored by Asahara and videotapes of his speeches are kept on the bookshelves of Aum branches.

Members say Aum's religious activities are based on Asahara's interpretation of traditional Buddhism. They claim they try to learn the mechanism of greed and other undesirable human desires, and free themselves from them by studying Buddhist documents and Asahara's speeches, along with practicing yoga and meditation.

Kenichi Hirosue, a 31-year-old cultist who lives at Aum's headquarters in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, with 60 others, said he had experienced a "strong physical catharsis" from yoga training under Asahara's guidance.

"And the Aum belief system developed by Asahara still fascinates me most out of other existing beliefs," he said.

"What he did may never be forgiven by the Japanese people, but I truly believe that what he taught will one day be recognized as the great legacy of human civilization," Hirosue said.

Court testimony by Aum figures accused of heinous crimes suggests that it was Asahara's teachings that prompted the offenses, including the murders. Asahara is said to have taught his followers that those who are in an advanced "religious stage" are responsible for "salvaging the rest of the world by all means," including murder.

But Aum claims such elements of Asahara's teachings have been purged from the cult's current doctrine. Videos of the guru's speeches now shown to members have had problematic references edited out, according to the cult.

Some current members are at a loss when asked if they would have committed similar crimes if they had been ordered by Asahara and his senior henchmen back then.

"Now, after all those crimes have happened, I can say I would never do anything like that," one male follower said. "But I am not sure I could have rejected Asahara's orders had I been under the same circumstances (as the cultists accused of carrying out Aum's crimes).

"After all, he was a fatherly figure to all the followers at that time."

A spokesman for the Public Security Investigation Agency said Aum "is no less dangerous than it was seven years ago, in the sense that all of its members are under mind-control to worship Asahara."

As many as 650 followers leading a communal life together "is sufficient (for the cult) to engage in terrorism on a grand scale," he said.

Although the agency has found no information or evidence to suggest that Aum is plotting further serious crimes, he said the government should keep close tabs on its members, given that it did not take long for the cult, once a publicly authorized religious corporation, to develop into a "dangerous, antisocial force."

Agency officials say surveillance must continue after the current three-year monitoring period expires in January.

A 47-year-old male computer software developer who visits Aum's Yokohama branch every night dismisses this assumption.

"Through years of internal struggle, I concluded that Aum's doctrine and the majority of its followers really had nothing to do with (the cult's) crimes," he said.

"I have done a lot (of training) in Aum and I judged that I did not need to give it up."

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