AP, Sep. 11, 2002
By MARI YAMAGUCHI
September 11, 2002, 2:30 AM EDT
TOKYO — A policeman in body armor stands watch just a short walk past a shopping arcade. Farther down the narrow road, the watch intensifies — more uniformed police, joined by city officials and neighbors.
They are watching Aum Shinri Kyo, or what is left of it. And though the doomsday cult that shocked the world with its nerve gas attack on Tokyo’s subways is much diminished, no one expects the round-the-clock vigil to end soon.
Seven years ago Aum unleashed sarin nerve gas on Tokyo commuters, killing 12 people and sickening thousands in one of the worst acts of urban terrorism until the Sept. 11 attacks.
Now renamed Aleph, the cult no longer has a sprawling compound in the foothills of Mount Fuji, and its membership has fallen from more than 10,000 at its peak to about 1,650.
Founder Shoko Asahara’s trial for murder, begun more than six years ago, still drags on, but many of the cult’s other leaders have already been convicted and imprisoned.
The cult has renounced Asahara, acknowledged Aum’s past crimes and paid 330 million yen ($2.8 million) in compensation to the victims.
But public distrust has been heightened by inspections of the cult’s offices and living areas that found materials suggesting it still reveres Asahara.
Its very visible presence here and other enclaves scattered around the country suggests the cult is alive and well.
“We live in constant fear, it’s like living with terrorists,” said Noriko Chiba, who lives near the five-story brick apartments and two smaller adjacent buildings that the cult now uses. “Aum committed all these crimes in the past — how can you be sure they won’t do it again?”
Experts are divided on that question.
Masaki Kito, a lawyer who has taken on several cults in Japan, believes the threat is strong and goes beyond Japan.
“Aum is not just a domestic problem,” he said, alluding to revelations that in the 1990s the cult had an extensive network of followers in Russia and developed biological weapons in Australia. “If the authorities cannot contain it, Aum can spread sarin again, perhaps overseas next time.”
Aum’s membership includes 650 hard-core followers who have cut family and social ties and live at cult facilities. More than half of all Aum members are believed to have joined after the subway attack. The cult continues to run a profitable computer business and gets substantial donations.
Police, however, say the group does not pose an immediate threat to society.
Even so, officials warn against a false sense of security.
A five-year period during which police are allowed to keep close watch the group expires in January, and an investigator who spoke on condition of anonymity said it is keeping a low profile in hopes that the surveillance will not be renewed.
Fumihiro Joyu, one of the few Aum leaders at the time of the gassing who did not face serious charges, is now the cult’s leader. “Our current group has undergone reforms and abandoned the use of any type of violence,” he said in a statement published on his Web site. “We are not a terrorist group.”
But the neighborhood association’s fears have not been allayed since the cult moved in nearly three years ago.
It has collected 30,000 signatures demanding the surveillance be extended. Its representatives keep watch on Aum from a tiny booth as cult members in baggy yoga pants come and go, occasionally stopped for brief questioning by uniformed police.
The neighborhood has campaigned to keep the cult members from finding jobs nearby. To keep cult children out of local schools, the town office refused to register them until the Tokyo District Court called that unconstitutional.