TOKYO, Jan. 18 — The religious group responsible for a deadly nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 said for the first time today that its founder and leader had probably been involved in the attack and that he would no longer serve as the group’s leader.
Distancing itself from the leader, Shoko Asahara, who is on trial on charges of masterminding the sarin gas attack that killed 12 people and injured 5,000 others, the group, Aum Shinrikyo, said he was probably involved in other crimes as well.
But it also said members would continue to follow his spiritual teachings.
“Although we cannot say for sure, since the trial is still going on, we have come to a consensus that Asahara was likely involved in the series of crimes he is charged with,” the group’s senior members said in a statement. “Asahara is a genius in yoga and Buddhist meditation methods, and we will continue to practice those methods inherited from him.”
The members avoided addressing the extent of their own complicity in any crimes. Although prosecutors have not implicated any of the senior members, critics of the group have said it is unlikely that the subway attack took place without their knowledge.
Many ordinary Japanese regarded the reorganization announced by the group today as largely cosmetic and expressed skepticism that the group would be any less dangerous. It was widely seen as trying to evade new legislation that would allow the government to curb its activities.
In addition to the subway attack, the trial of Mr. Asahara, 44, includes 16 other crimes, among which are murder, attempted murder, a separate nerve gas attack and production of weaponry.
The group said today that it was making “drastic reforms,” including changing its name from Aum to Aleph, which is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and purging itself of doctrine that condoned murder for the benefit of the group.
Aleph, which members said signifies renewal, is also the name of a company affiliated with the group, which is believed to have about 2,100 followers.
Fumihiro Joyu, the group’s charismatic former spokesman who is now its second-highest official, extended his apologies to victims of crimes linked to Aum and said it would compensate them through sales of real estate and other assets.
“I’d like to give a deep apology to the victims and bereaved, and say that I feel personally responsible as one who belonged to the same religious group,” said Mr. Joyu, 37, who returned to the group last month after serving a three-year jail term for perjury in a case unrelated to the subway attack.
While Mr. Joyu is widely seen as the de facto leader, the religious group said today that its acting head, Tatsuko Muraoka, 49, would immediately assume the leadership mantle.
Ms. Muraoka said in a statement today that the group considered Mr. Asahara “a spiritual being” but that he no longer had the authority to give directions to members. She said that all followers had been instructed to abandon any dogma considered dangerous and that the group’s main focus of worship would be Buddhist deities. Ms. Muraoka said the new group would pose “no threat to society.”
By dismissing Mr. Asahara as its leader and undertaking a restructuring, the group appears to hoping to stave off a move by the Government to restrict its activities and finances.
In November, Parliament passed legislation that gives security forces broad powers to monitor and curtail the activities of organizations that have committed “indiscriminate mass murder” and those whose leaders hold strong influence over its members.
The laws allow security forces and the police to inspect such a group’s sites at any time and makes it easier for victims of crimes committed by the group to gain compensation.
While the legislation did not mention Aum by name, lawmakers said it was targeted at the group.
“Aum knows that it cannot escape the introduction of the new law, and this is their way of trying to avoid it,” said Shoko Egawa, a freelance journalist who is known for her coverage of Aum. “Externally, they may have changed their name, but internally everything is the same. They are meditating to Asahara.”
A friend of Ms. Egawa, a lawyer who sought to persuade followers to leave the group, was murdered by Aum members.
In an interview with reporters, Justice Minister Hideo Usui said the government should “carefully watch” the group’s activities to determine whether the reforms were intended to evade the new laws.
The legislation came in response to growing public concerns in Japan over Aum’s increasing membership and commercial activities in the last year. As the group acquired new buildings to house followers and operations in cities across Japan, local residents and municipal governments held protests and refused to allow members to register as city residents.
On television news programs tonight, citizen protest groups camping outside Aum sites in cities across Japan said they still believed that the group was dangerous and vowed to continue their protests.
“Nothing has changed except for the name,” said a woman in Otawara, a farming village 80 miles north of Tokyo, where residents have staged huge protests outside an Aum residence there.
Jan. 19, 2000