New Zealand Herald, July 31, 2002
By RICHARD LLOYD PARRY
TOKYO – On paper, at least, the life of Hiroshi Araki looks like something out of Franz Kafka.
Whenever he steps outside his flat, at any time of the day or night, men with clipboards note the time he leaves, who he is with and which way he goes.
They are there, rain or shine, 24 hours a day, never fewer than three and sometimes a dozen.
Some are elderly retired people, volunteers with time on their hands. Some wear uniforms, others are in plainclothes with policemen’s eyes.
Once a month they raid Araki’s flat and those of his friends, confiscating files and computer disks.
The skinny, earnest young man with a liking for yoga has committed no crime. So why are the forces of justice in Japan treating him like an active member of a terrorist cell?
The answer lies with the yoga group of which he is a member.
Today it calls itself Aleph, and its teachings and practices are indistinguishable from the harmless mumbo-jumbo purveyed by any number of neo-hippie groups all over the world.
But until two years ago it was known by a different name: Aum Shinri Kyo – apocalyptic religious cult, perpetrator of mass murder, and the least desirable neighbours in Japan.
Founded in the 1980s by a half-blind guru known as Shoko Asahara, the cult embarked on a series of bizarre crimes that culminated in the world’s first terrorist use of chemical weapons.
On March 20, 1995, in an apparent attempt to hurry along the Armageddon predicted by their guru, Asahara’s followers released home-made sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway.
Twelve people died, and more than 5000 were blinded, choked and nauseated.
A series of arrests followed, and so far a number of Aum members have received death sentences for their part in the killings (the trial of the guru continues).
The cult was declared bankrupt and, having been so devastatingly unmasked, it was assumed that it would quietly disband. But to the irritation of police and the alarm of many Japanese, it survives.
Araki, who acts as spokesman, says it has 520 resident “monks” and 600 non-resident “laymen” – far fewer than the 11,000 who once followed Asahara.
Officials insist that Aleph remains “dangerous”. Even the United States State Department includes it on its list of international terrorist groups.
But despite the monthly search warrants, constant surveillance and a fervent desire to catch Aleph doing something, no one can explain what the danger is.
Aleph, both in person and on its website (http://english.aleph.to) has repeatedly apologised for the horrors of 1995.
It has promised to pay 4 billion yen ($71 million) compensation to the victims and their families. So far 300 million yen has been paid.
Akira Fukuda, a law professor and one of the few to express disquiet about official treatment of the group, has written: “Mobilising every possible criminal legal code and interpreting these laws as liberally as possible, they tried to criminalise many petty offences on an unprecedented scale.”
The truth is that the notion of a potentially resurgent Aum justifies police budgets and staff levels that would otherwise be unacceptable.