Japan’s notorious Aum Shinri Kyo sect, which fatally gassed 12 Tokyo subway commuters and sickened thousands five years ago, has changed its name and dumped its jailed leader.
In a bid to avoid the Government’s tough new legislation, expected to curtail its activities from next month, Aum elders have given their organisation a pre-emptive overhaul.
In response, Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki said yesterday the Government would keep a close watch on the cult. “We have proper grounds for suspecting their announcement is only aimed at evading legal regulations,” Mr Aoki said.
He said procedures for the Public Security Examination Commission to judge whether Aum should be monitored would be kept intact.
The renaming of Aum to Aleph was signalled last year when the sect publicly confessed to its part in the 1995 sarin gas attack.
Aleph is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet but more significantly was also used by one of the sect’s trading companies.
Chizuo Matsumoto, 44, former Aum leader and founder, has been officially sacked despite his effective removal from cult activities when he was held for trial on murder and 17 other charges.
His deputy, Tatsuko Muraoka, 49, yesterday was appointed the new head.
She said the cult acknowledged its former leader had been implicated in the sarin attack, the first time the group has publicly admitted his guilt.
Last year Aum admitted to the gassing and said it would compensate the 2,100 victims.
Significantly, the new head of Aleph did not denounce her former leader, instead referring to him as a “genius meditator”.
While his more dangerous preachings would be abandoned, she said members would carry on his yoga and meditation methods, as well as his Buddhist teachings.
The revamp plan was devised in part by Fumihiro Joyu, 37, who was freed from prison last month after serving three years for perjury.
Cult watchers feared his return to the fold would spark a reorganisation of the group, which saw its membership plummet in the wake of the sarin attack.
The cult has been trying to regain public confidence for its cause over the past year, but with little success. The Japanese public is still deeply distrustful of the group.
The first tentative steps towards helping victims came earlier this week when the cult handed over five properties that housed followers across the country.
The properties had been bought for 171 million yen (HK$12.65 million), but cash raised from their sale would be insufficient for the 2,100 victims who have demanded compensation for being poisoned or for losing a relative.
Since that morning in March 1995 when commuters heading to work were overcome by sarin fumes, the maximum paid to any one person has been 750,000 yen.
The average payment for the thousands of victims has been only 10,000 yen.
“The compensation paid has been very small,” said Saburo Abe, a lawyer administering Aum’s bankruptcy.
“It was insufficient in helping ease the suffering of victims.”
He set up a fund through which the sale of seized Aum assets would be divided among all the victims.
So far, these have covered only a quarter of the money demanded.
Mr Abe said he hoped some of the deficit would be made up through litigation and donations.
Authorities believe Aum’s offer of the properties is just a token gesture.
They believe the cult may simply change its name in an effort to keep on going as before.
Cult membership has dwindled from its peak of 10,000 to 2,000, but authorities fear the group is actively recruiting and raising cash through pop concerts and two successful computer businesses it still owns.
The Government is intent on destroying the sect.
Tough legislation was passed in November which is expected to allow police surveillance of the cult from next month, as well as searches without warrants.
Aum would have to give three-monthly reports on membership and activities.
The legislation also paves the way for authorities to seize remaining properties and assets, suggesting that Aum could soon be bled dry of funds by the law and also by its own desire to compensate victims.
While time is running out, many in Japan hope Aum’s revenues will keep flowing long enough to accomplish the latter goal.
Jan. 19, 2000
Sally Fisher in Tokyo