Doomsday may soon be a self-fulfilling prophecy for Japan's infamous cult.
Nine years after Aum Shinrikyo carried out its second, and last, sarin attack, and its founder and guru Shoko Asahara was arrested, the cult is teetering on the financial brink, unable to attract new members and apparently reeling from an internal power struggle.
And many of its existing flock appear to be having second thoughts about the cult's religious significance.
In December, the Public Security Investigation Agency said Fumihiro Joyu handed over the reins of the cult, which now calls itself Aleph, to five lieutenants in midmonth amid what it suspects was internal strife over Aum's future.
The five "choro-bu," or group of elders, rank lower than Joyu in terms of religious "level." They first assumed supervisory positions after Asahara's arrest in 1995 but installed Joyu as their leader when he was released from prison in December 1999.
"Joyu must have been forced to step down given mounting frustration among other senior members over his policy of severing the cult's ties with Asahara, at least on the surface," one agency investigator said. While he still holds the title of cult representative, the 41-year-old Joyu has not taken part in decision-making, lectured at Aum seminars or performed the "initiation" ritual that is believed to pass on his supreme power to followers.
"We believe he was made to pay for the cult's failure to attract new members and for its current financial difficulties," the investigator said.
In 1995, Aum had about 1,000 followers leading communal lives at its facilities, along with some 10,000 lay followers who financially supported the commune residents, according to the Public Security Investigation Agency.
But according to Aum's latest report to the agency, it had 735 lay followers and 578 people living at its facilities across Japan as of the end of January. The number of commune residents had fallen by 28 from a year earlier, while that of the lay followers had increased by six.
While Aum has acknowledged that Joyu relinquished his responsibilities as leader, it denied the move was due to internal strife and claimed it was only temporary.
Cult spokesman Hiroshi Araki told a news conference Feb. 5 that Joyu's physical condition had deteriorated as a result of excessive "initiation" rituals to raise donations, and he was now training to regain his health at the cult's headquarters in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo.
But whatever the reason for his departure from center stage, one thing is clear -- the cult is in dire financial straits.
According to the Public Security Investigation Agency, a five-minute "initiation" session costs 1.5 million yen, and last summer the cult collected some 150 million yen through this process alone. But Joyu is said to be the only cultist allowed to perform the ritual.
Araki also said the cult tried throughout last year to raise donations by creating new branches to increase its lay followers.
But in the face of persistent campaigns against Aum's presence by people living near their dwellings, these efforts have proved fruitless, and have only served to further worsen the cult's financial state, he said.
Aum's financial woes have made it increasingly difficult for the cult to keep paying its promised redress to survivors of its crimes.
Earlier this month, lawyer Saburo Abe, the court-appointed administrator in charge of liquidating Aum's assets, said Aleph had paid 465 million yen into a fund for victim compensation by the end of 2003, but not once last year was it able to meet its monthly target. It was the first time this has happened since the redress plan was hammered out.
In a letter to Abe in October, Aum apologized for failing to pay the required amounts, and explained that it could not collect sufficient donations from lay followers amid the protracted economic slump.
The cult said neighborhood campaigns to oust its members have increased the financial burden. It had to relocate its Osaka headquarters twice and pay higher rent for the new site as well as other locations.
The financial woes have taken their toll on followers.
One member at Aum's Setagaya Ward headquarters said he entered an intensive religious training course last summer that usually involves several months of complete isolation. However, the course was halted within two months due to financial problems.
The follower said he now has a part-time job in line with Aleph's policy shift last autumn to encourage commune residents to work and support the cult. He said many of his colleagues are also holding part-time jobs, mainly at construction sites and restaurants.
But the void left by Asahara's absence, more than anything else, is probably the biggest factor undermining Aum's foundations.
Everything tied to Aum, including its religious goals, doctrines, training programs and organizational structure, had been based on Asahara being the leader.
A glance at the bookshelves of any Aum facility illustrates this. Although texts written by Joyu and videotapes of his lectures have been added, the majority of the items are Asahara's.
Many followers are also apparently pondering whether the cult has any religious relevance now.
The decline in religious fervor may have something to do with the drop in new recruits, which has effectively boosted the average age of the cultists from the mid-20s range to the late 30s.
One example of the dwindling religious enthusiasm was seen last February, when it was revealed that one of the cult's most respected leaders had been having a secret affair with a female cultist.
In December, the cultist, who at the time had been a choro-bu member and held the second-highest rank in the cult, was demoted to the lowest rank as punishment.
"We no longer have the financial means to support the lives of hundreds of communal residents," one cultist admitted in summing up Aum's dilemma. "But we also may no longer have the strong religious bond to keep us together if we live separately (as was the case in the years following Asahara's arrest)."