When Aum Shinrikyo officially acknowledged for the first time in December 1999 that it was behind a spate of heinous crimes and apologized to the survivors, Hiroyuki Miyaguchi said he was relieved that suspicions he and other rank-and-file cultists harbored for years had finally been cleared up.
Miyaguchi, 38, even thought the apology would be a social turning point for Aum, which had not been forced to disband despite the arrests years earlier of its founder, Shoko Asahara, and many other top disciples on charges of committing the cult's murderous mayhem.
But he continued to wonder whether the heirs to Aum's helm were truly being sincere in their apology, because of the cult's mind-set of justifying everything its members did in the name of religion.
"Every Aum follower always has an excuse ready. This prevented the cult from promptly owning up to its crimes and would probably prevent the group from ever being truly apologetic," Miyaguchi, who left the cult in May 2000, told The Japan Times in a recent interview.
"I finally became critical of Aum, and this in turn helped me become critical of myself. Like many in the group, I indulged myself for too long in wishful thoughts that Aum was innocent," he said.
Miyaguchi recently coauthored "Aum Dictionary," a book indexing and explaining 1,090 Aum-related words.
A native of Shizuoka Prefecture, Miyaguchi had his first encounter with Aum in 1986 when he picked up a book on yoga, authored by Asahara, at a bookstore shortly after he failed to graduate from a Yokohama college because he was shy a couple of credits.
The failure to graduate prevented him from pursuing a systems engineer career, prompting him to live a free life and follow his desires. But not long afterward, he felt the need to devote himself to some cause.
He worked at record shops and attended computer graphics design schools for the next five years. But his anxiety over the future only increased, leaving him dissatisfied with himself and feeling isolated from society.
Around this time he turned to Aum, and its doctrine and yoga practice based on the roughly 80 books by Asahara that he purchased.
"I was desperate for something absolute in the area of relative and objective thinking, and Asahara's unusual confidence in his teachings, which there was no way to scientifically prove (correct) anyway, gradually captured my heart," Miyaguchi said.
He joined Aum as a lay follower in 1991, and two years later entered an Aum commune in Kamikuishiki, Yamanashi Prefecture, at the foot of Mount Fuji, abandoning most of his worldly possessions as a farewell to the secular world.
He soon found communal life much more exciting and soothing than the reclusive life he had spent in Tokyo. Many of the people around him shared the same values, and the cult's everyday discipline and programs made him feel he was on the right track.
"It was more than a permanent vacation, in the sense that we had full aspirations for a common goal (of enlightenment) and were actually trying hard to achieve that goal," Miyaguchi recalled. "Every day was like an all-night preparation for a campus festival."
Assigned to the cult's publishing section, Miyaguchi had occasion to see Asahara, when the guru gave speeches to followers and handed out their monthly allowance.
But in mid-1994, the guru started to appear less frequently before followers. The cult explained to rank-and-file members like Miyaguchi that Asahara was ill because of repeated poison gas attacks perpetrated by unidentified foes. That summer had actually seen a deadly sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, apparently targeting judges hearing an Aum-linked land dispute.
Then, he said, came a sudden wakeup call. On March 20, 1995, he was in the publishing section when a cultist came in shouting about the sarin attack on Tokyo's subway system. The follower was holding a newspaper's extra edition.
The cultist claimed Aum was being framed for the deadly attack. Miyaguchi said this made sense because he had believed the cult was above such crimes.
Following subsequent police raids on Aum sites that eventually led to the May 16, 1995, arrest of Asahara, who was found hiding in a secret chamber in the Kamikuishiki compound, many cultists left the commune or quit Aum altogether.
Miyaguchi stayed in the village until the remaining members were ordered by the cult's subsequent leaders to relocate to urban areas and live in small groups, financially supporting Aum by taking on outside jobs.
Miyaguchi moved from apartment to apartment with fellow cultists in and around Tokyo, working various jobs based on his skills as a graphics designer that he acquired in Kamikuishiki.
Before Aum's leaders finally acknowledged in 1999 that the cult was behind the sarin attacks in Tokyo and Matsumoto and other deadly crimes, it had been taboo for members to follow the trials of Asahara and other senior disciples, or probe the cult's past to confirm their suspicions, Miyaguchi said.
"But despite the leaders' denials and my own hopes that Aum was not involved in the crimes, I could no longer believe in the cult's innocence," he said.
Five months after Aum apologized, Miyaguchi walked out of an Aum dorm in the village of Sanwa, Ibaraki Prefecture, one early morning in May 2000 and boarded a train for Tokyo, where the former cultist now lives in an apartment.
Miyaguchi said he has no regrets about joining Aum, because it offered him the precious experience of believing in something for the first time and a chance to work with other people toward an ideal.
"But since I left Aum, I realized that many of us tended to always seek the easiest way to the best results," he said. "Now I think it is more important to face and accept reality, and to find my place in society."
Miyaguchi said he has paid almost no attention to the Aum trials and thinks it only "natural" that Asahara be sentenced to death when the Tokyo District Court hands down its ruling Friday.