Unguided?:Aum alone: Most cultists say they have moved on. But have they really done so?
`It (the cult) is still under the influence of Chizuo Matsumoto and will be capable of carrying out more indiscriminate murders in the future.” STATEMENT From the Public Security Examination Commission
Today, Chizuo Matsumoto, founder of the Aum Shinrikyo cult and described by prosecutors as the “most vicious criminal in Japanese history,” will learn his fate when the Tokyo District Court rules on his deadly reign of terror.
The crimes perpetrated by Aum date back to 1989. He stands accused of causing the deaths of 27 people.
Prosecutors have sought the death sentence.
Even though the cult has apologized for its crimes and changed its name, it is still regarded as a threat and its activities are strictly monitored by the Public Security Examination Commission. In January last year, the commission decided to extend government surveillance of Aum Shinrikyo for another three years, concluding, “It (the cult) is still under the influence of Chizuo Matsumoto and will be capable of carrying out more indiscriminate murders in the future.”
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The cult now calls itself Aleph and is headed by Fumihiro Joyu, who, as spokesman for Aum under Matsumoto, was Aum’s public face. He assumed leadership in January 2002, after being released from a three-year prison term for perjury and forgery.
Joyu was bitterly disappointed that surveillance on the cult was extended as he had been at pains to distance the group from the half-blind former guru.
“(Matsumoto) is a relic from the past-almost considered gone,” Joyu said at the time. “We do not see him as the object of our absolute devotion.”
Joyu’s policy of alienating Matsumoto was aimed more at avoiding surveillance rather than trying to recruit more members, analysts say.
But that policy backfired. With continued surveillance, Joyu eventually was forced to change strategy.
In its heyday, Aum Shinrikyo had 1,400 followers living in its compounds, and 14,000 believers nationwide as well as branches in Russia. Since then, the group has shrunk to 520 live-in believers with 730 disciples nationwide.
The drop in the numbers resulted in serious cash flow problems, causing the group to falter on compensation payments to victims of Aum crimes.
In February 2003, just after the decision was made to continue surveillance, the group rented an abandoned factory in Yashio, Saitama Prefecture. Believers arrived in droves, 500 at least. They said they had embarked on an “expansion” policy. For Aleph to continue, it needs to recruit more followers willing to make donations.
The floundering group has tried branching out by building new facilities and using the Internet to lure followers-all in vain.
The biggest hurdle in the recruitment drive ironically was the very existence of their infamous bloated guru, who once upon a time looked down from photographs with scraggly, shoulder-length hair and a ragged beard to match. Would-be aspirants shied away the moment they saw the photographs and remnants of Matsumoto’s teachings on display at the group’s sacred dojo.
The paraphernalia scared many people, but hard-core followers couldn’t change their stripes. By August, the expansion project was a forgotten dream.
Live-in followers were sent out to seek jobs and earn hard cash. Even so, the group’s finances have not improved.
Joyu, meantime, dropped out of sight last October.
He is said to have cocooned himself inside his room, at a facility condominium in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. There have been reports of Joyu walking around with unkempt hair and dark stubble. However, the Aleph faithful say Joyu is recuperating after performing numerous initiation rites on members. They adamantly deny rumors of an “ousting.”
The cult is temporarily led by a group of five senior officials-much to the consternation of the Public Security Investigation Agency. Officials are on the alert as “they are preaching devotion to Matsumoto’s doctrine.”
While the group surely realizes it must change, adherents continue having a hard time finding places to live because public hatred of Aum runs so deep.
The Supreme Court ruled last June against two municipalities, Tokyo’s Suginami Ward and Nagoya, that refused to accept residence applications by Aleph members who wanted to move there.
Persistently viewing group members as dangerous, even murderous, and isolating them from the rest of society will likely not fundamentally resolve the problem, say some experts.