Japan: A deadly whodunit of high-tech terrorism has mesmerized the nation and created flocks of fans.
It’s 11 a.m. Friday and already the fans are gathering in droves at the hottest sightseeing spot in Japan’s capital: the headquarters of Aum Supreme Truth, the doomsday cult suspected in the poison gas attack on Tokyo subways last month.
“This is where he was killed, right?” asked Hideo Mizutani, a retired businessman, as his son snapped a picture of him posing in front of the sect’s gray, five-story building where Hideo Murai, Supreme Truth’s science chief, was fatally stabbed Sunday.
Mizutani traveled two hours by bullet train from Nagoya to visit the scene.
On another street corner, three junior high students in plaid skirts and brown loafers clutch disposable cameras. They are waiting for a glimpse of Fumihiro Joyu, the baby-faced sect spokesman, and Yoshinobu Aoyama, the group’s attorney. The pair’s ubiquitous television appearances ever since the March 20 attack have spawned legions of fans. They shower them with flowers and shriek at every sighting as if the two men were rock stars.
Miki Saijo, 13, says her infatuation with Aoyama began when she heard him speak English on TV. Her friend is a devout Joyu fan because he, like Aoyama, speaks English well and can “answer any question that’s thrown at him.”
The gawkers gathered Friday included girls in pigtails and backpacks, an elderly man with a cane, school kids on a lark, homemakers and businessmen.
They all reflected a fixation on the Supreme Truth case by this nation, which has been mesmerized by the deadly whodunit of high-tech terrorism, a secretive religious cult and a clash between brilliant young anarchists and the fearsome Tokyo police force.
TV ratings are sky-high for any sect-related news show or special program, prompting a heated media race to cover any and all angles. Kazuo Sugizaki, a producer with the Tokyo Broadcasting Station, said ratings for Supreme Truth shows are running at 20% or more–twice as high as any he has ever produced.
He said the story is rife with riveting angles: a brigade of intellectual elites from Japan’s top universities who chose to drop out of the mainstream and take on the Establishment. The hideous weapon of nerve gas. A blind and bearded guru, Shoko Asahara, who exhorts his followers to drink his bathwater and perform other bizarre rituals. A cult whose members cut their ties with family and friends to live in simple communes, yet have mastered modern electronics, including computer networking.
“Until Asahara is arrested, public interest will probably remain high,” he said.
Indeed, six TV stations had scheduled no less than 26 specials Friday on the cult–not including the regular news programs–mostly focusing on what the media here have tagged “X-Day,” or what police hope will be the eventual but for now elusive day of Asahara’s arrest.
The public fascination with the Supreme Truth case, which rivals the American obsession with the O .J. Simpson murder trial, appears to cross all age and gender lines.
Mizutani, 82, watches four to five hours of sect coverage a day, while Aya Fukunaga, 17, is glued to the TV from the time she wakes up at 6:30 to the time she leaves for school at 8:20, then from 8 p.m. until her bedtime at midnight.
Architecture student Toshio Kubota, 19, used to study when he got home; now he flips on the tube to monitor cult coverage.
“We don’t know when the next thing will happen, so we have to watch TV,” he said as he camped out with four other friends at the sect’s headquarters.
Joyu, Supreme Truth’s public face, has become a national celebrity, in a manner akin to what has happened to O. J. Simpson witness Kato Kaelin. With his bedroom eyes and pouty lips, Joyu has also become a sex symbol of sorts–and the media bombard him with queries about his carnal appetites, along with questions about chemicals and criminal intents.
A specialist in artificial intelligence from the elite Waseda University, Joyu answers all questions with aplomb, telling reporters: He hasn’t had sex in nine years because of his religious practices; he channels his sexual energies into meditative bliss; he has no intimate relationship with the beautiful driver of his white Mercedes-Benz.
Focus Magazine featured a fortuneteller who was called upon to divine Joyu’s character. She pronounced him a “dangerous baby” whose eyes reflected a lack of human warmth and whose protruding lower lip tipped off a desire to be indulged by mother figures. The Women’s Weekly magazine scored a major coup with an exclusive interview with Joyu’s ex-fiancee, who disclosed that she knitted him a sweater and was given a piece of jewelry in return.
He draws male as well as female fans. One 20-something man, with camera, said he braved a 90-minute train ride and visited the headquarters about 9 a.m. after seeing Joyu in yet another televised news conference. He will camp out as late as he must until he gets a picture of his hero.
“He has a pretty face,” the man said, hastily adding: “I’m not into strange hobbies.”
Like the Kobe earthquake, the Supreme Truth case seems to have given the Japanese a unifying experience.
Makiko Inoue, for example, said she chats with her fellow homemakers over tea about how the rigid Japanese educational system is at fault for producing smart kids saddled with emotional dysfunctions–prime candidates for Supreme Truth and other cults, they say.
In front of the cult’s headquarters, Mizutani blasted sloppy police work, while Kubota and his friends debated whether the Supreme Truth sect is guilty of the poison gas attacks or is a front for a larger, unseen force.
The case has also given rise to parodies and jokes. As one man entered an elevator Friday at the Yomiuri Shimbun building, he noted that all of the riders were carrying plastic bags and cracked: “It looks like we’re all carrying poison gas packages!”
Magazines carry satirical spreads on the new fashion for Tokyo subway riders–gas masks and caged canaries. The latest rice dish–the names of which commonly end in the Japanese word don– is Armageddon. Toy gas masks are said to have become the hottest accessory in Tokyo’s trendy Harajuku district, while security firms report major corporations buying real ones for up to $500 a pop.
Even comic books have taken up the cult, with strips satirizing Joyu’s speech patterns and Asahara’s rumored powers of levitation.
And sightseers are flocking to the group’s Mt. Fuji headquarters on day outings, with special photo stops in front of the No. 7 Satian building, which is said to have contained the group’s chemical fortress.
“It’s no nuisance at all. It’s a very good chance to get new guests,” said Masahiro Sano, an official with the village of Kamikuishiki, hitherto known mainly for its cows.
Megumi Shimizu of The Times Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.