A group that split from a doomsday cult that carried out deadly nerve gas attacks on Tokyo's subways was raided by Japanese police Thursday -- demonstrating the fear the cult still inspires more than a decade after its last attack.
Intelligence agents swarmed the offices of the new "Ring of Light" religious group to scrutinize its activities, authorities said. The group on Wednesday announced its split from a successor to the deadly AUM Shinrikyo cult of the 1990s.
AUM, under the leadership of apocalyptic guru Shoko Asahara, launched a nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subways in 1995, killing 12 people and causing thousands to be hospitalized. Asahara is now on death row after his 2004 conviction in a total of 27 killings.
Former Asahara lieutenant Fumihiro Joyu, 44, leads the new group, and declared on Wednesday that its 160 members sought spiritual healing, wanted to contribute to society -- and had nothing to do with Asahara's teachings.
"We'll start again from scratch," said Joyu, who avoided prosecution for AUM's deadly attacks but served a three-year prison term for a lesser, unrelated crime. He vowed to "eradicate" Asahara's influence from the group.
Investigators on Thursday entered the Tokyo headquarters of Joyu's new group and a dozen other training centers nationwide, an agency official said on condition of anonymity, citing protocol.
The raid, part of continuing surveillance of a cult designated by law as a terrorist group since the subway attack, was aimed at inspecting teaching materials and interviewing members for traces of apocalyptic teachings.
The government launched an all-out crackdown on AUM after the subway gassing, convicting and jailing the leadership, breaking up its compound at the foot of Mount Fuji and decimating its network of 10,000 members in Japan and 30,000 in Russia at the time.
Still, many Japanese remain fearful of anyone with links to AUM.
"How can people who were involved with AUM for 20 years abandon Asahara's teachings just like that? That would be impossible," said Kazuyuki Furuma, the head of a neighborhood association in Tokyo protesting the group.
Furuma, who was invited to a tour inside Joyu's group headquarters with 30 other residents last month, said he noticed that the place had become cleaner and that Buddhist decorations had a greater presence than before.
"Even though they've changed their presentation and say they've abandoned Asahara's influence, they still look like the same dangerous AUM to me," he said.
AUM at its height was a serious threat. The group stockpiled weapons such as the Nazi-era nerve gas sarin, numbed its adherents with brainwashing and drugs, and killed and incinerated opponents and dissident members.
The group fell into disarray after the crackdown, and renamed itself Aleph in 2000. Joyu, one of Asahara's most-trusted disciples and a spokesman, returned as leader in 2002.
The "Ring of Light" group split away from Aleph after a row with a rival faction that remains close to Asahara's family.
Authorities say total membership has shrunk to about 1,650 in Japan and 300 in Russia.
Joyu said his new group has banned the former guru's teachings, his image and music in textbooks and videos, adding: "We don't believe in them." Key members attended the news conference in business suits rather than AUM's trademark baggy yoga wear.
Apparently to erase its past image as a fanatic religious cult, Joyu's new group is now stressing more influence from animism and Shintoism, and is marketing programs for relaxation and healing.
But watchers say Joyu's breakaway merely reflects infighting rather than a loss of devotion.