TOKYO, March 14–(Kyodo) Ten years after the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, relatives of the 12 people who died and the more than 5,500 others who survived are still trying to come to terms with what happened on March 20, 1995.
But some members of AUM Shinrikyo — the religious sect which gained notoriety for the sarin attack and other crimes — claim they too have their own scars to bear.
“We are not recognized for our teachings. The view of our group is all based on the sarin gas attack — that is how we are seen from the general viewpoint,” a longtime member of AUM said.
AUM has vowed to reform in an effort to distance from its criminal image but people still regard it with fear and loathing.
The member, who has been with the group since 1990 at age 21 and asked not to be identified, argued that the AUM members involved in the gassing incident constituted barely 1 percent of the sect and that only a handful believed in its controversial “poa” doctrine condoning murder.
“No matter how much we explain or tell the public, they will always link us to the sarin gassing, and not see us as a group whose foundation lies in the tenets of ancient Buddhism and yoga,” he said.
Even so, he added, the group has accepted the incident as “something that happened” and has discarded the part of the doctrine that condones murder.
“At the same time, we believe we have to protect AUM’s teachings since we think they are good, as they encourage us to lift ourselves to a higher level by freeing ourselves from worldly desires,” he said in explaining why he has chosen to remain a member of AUM, now renamed Aleph, despite public disfavor.
In September 1999, the group declared it was becoming inactive, but in January 2000 it renamed itself Aleph and apologized for the gas attack. But victims and critics dismissed the move as the group retained its teachings, including the “poa” doctrine.
Shizue Takahashi, whose husband, a subway official, died in the sarin attack, said Aleph is no different from AUM and that the disbandment of AUM is the key to resolving outstanding issues.
“It is wrong that such a criminal organization still exists. Even if they have changed their name, the very root of their teachings has been retained,” she said.
Takahashi said she does not think the current followers really want to clean up their act because “if they are truly remorseful, they would not stay with the group.”
Rika Kayama, a psychiatrist as well as professor at Tezukayama Gakuin University, however, warned that AUM-related issues will never be truly solved as long as society continues to reject them.
“In relation to Aleph and other entities, Japan today exercises excessive caution against anything that has even the slightest relation to the dangers of crime or a situation in which security might worsen, thus creating an atmosphere in which they (such dangerous elements) should be eliminated,” she said.
In light of this environment, Kayama said, “No matter how hard Aleph tries to claim that it is now an ordinary religious group, today’s society is not inclined to accept Aleph.”
On AUM followers, she said, “They could not find a niche in society or a purpose in themselves and felt a sense of emptiness. The group makes them feel needed and provides them with a place in life, such as by the roles they assume within the group and by having a ‘holy’ name.”
According to the agency, there are 1,650 followers — either lay members who can stay in the secular world or monks and nuns who live communally — in Japan and another 300 in Russia.
Yoshiyuki Kono, a victim of another sarin gas incident perpetrated by AUM members in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in June 1994, said, “By law, AUM has ceased to exist, and as such does not require Aleph members to compensate (for its crimes).”
“It is like making people who worked at a bankrupt company pay compensation on behalf of that company,” Kono said. In the 1994 gassing, he was falsely branded as the key suspect and was subjected to fierce police questioning, excessive and inaccurate media coverage and public condemnation.
Kono, who is now serving as a member of the Nagano Prefectural Public Safety Commission and speaks on a wide range of issues, especially human rights, also underscores the importance of AUM’s existence in relation to compensation.
“The only monetary assistance victims have now comes from Aleph. If efforts by Aleph to earn money are obstructed, it also means obstructing assistance for the victims,” he said.
But the odds are low that the victims, the general public and the authorities will ever accept the group back into society.
“We look at the 1995 incident and our religion as two separate things…We see Asahara Shoko as our guru and his teachings as good, but there is also the other side which is the Asahara Shoko who perpetrated that attack,” the AUM member said, “and that is difficult for some people to understand.”