October 12 2002
The Age (Australia), Oct. 8, 2002
Followers of a notorious doomsday cult have set up shop in a quiet Tokyo suburb – and the neighbours are not happy. Shane Green reports.
Until two years ago, Karasuyama offered a quiet slice of Tokyo suburban life. It was the kind of place middle-class Japanese families would raise their children; a small, safe community, a haven in the crowded metropolis.
That comforting ordinariness disappeared suddenly and without warning in December, 2000, when the local ward office received an application to register 13 new residents. The 13 also happened to be members of Aleph, the new name for what was (Article continues below this ad)
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In front of a scruffy apartment block and a collection of smaller buildings stands a stern-faced officer in the sharp blue uniform of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. Then there are the two plain clothes officers from Japan’s Public Security Investigation Agency, two officials from the ward office, and 69-year-old Kunio Koyama, on surveillance duty for the anti-Aum group.
“They have a terrible past,” he says, jotting down who enters and leaves the buildings, which house what appears to be the Tokyo headquarters of the group. “I’m very anxious about their presence here.”
So are the Japanese authorities. This week, it was revealed that the Public Safety Investigation Agency will ask the government to extend surveillance of the cult, due to expire in March, for another three years.
Apart from the centre at Karasuyama, officials are watching the cult at 84 other locations across Japan.
On the surface, it appears that the Japanese legal system has those responsible for the sarin gas attack well contained. Aum’s founder, Shoko Asahara, is being tried for murder and other crimes, including kidnapping and drug trafficking, the case already running six years.
Many others have been convicted, some sentenced to hang. On Friday, the latest Aum member to be sentenced to death was Seiichi Endo, who manufactured the sarin gas used in the 1995 attack.
But there are other signs that the cult, which has adopted the name Aleph, is gathering momentum. Membership is reported to be close to 1000. While well short of the 10,000 it boasted at the time it inflicted what was the world’s first chemical attack by terrorists, the cult is finding new followers.
Then there are the cult’s healthy finances, mainly generated by the computer companies it runs. Journalist Yoshifu Arita, an expert on Aum, says police estimate profits from the computer businesses run to between 200 and 300 million yen a year.
The group has also reportedly been making millions of yen from shakti pat, a practice used by Aum to raise money before the gas attack. Followers pay to be touched on the head for five minutes by the new leader of the cult, Fumihiro Joyu, one of Aum’s leaders at the time of the attack who has escaped prosecution.
One of the most pressing concerns is that, even behind bars, Asahara – the half-blind guru who created Aum from a strange mix of Eastern mystic traditions – continues to exercise a remarkable influence. This is one of the main reasons the public safety agency wants to keep the group under surveillance for another three years.
Arita says the cult remains a threat because it still worships only one guru – Asahara. “Indeed, Aleph members observe Asahara’s trials to listen to what he says. Later on, they exchange information with each other on Asahara’s remarks,” Arita says.
The lengthy trial of Asahara has not received much attention because the Japanese media do not routinely report the progress of cases before the courts. But recently, the Japanese were given a reminder of Asahara when a weekly magazine published a blurry photograph of him in court taken with a hidden camera. It showed a much thinner man, his trademark long hair cut.
For many Japanese, it was a distressing reminder of the 1995 subway gassing. In an apparent attempt to materialise Asahara’s prophecies of Armageddon, predicted to occur in 1997, five Aum members placed 11 bags of deadly, home-made sarin gas on five subway lines heading to Kasumigaseki, the centre of Japan’s government bureaucracy.
But Aleph maintains it is not the same organisation that committed this horrific crime, and argues it is not a terrorist group. The group has “deeply apologised” to the victims, many of whom continue to suffer the effects of the attack, and has paid out more than 300 million yen in compensation.
Yet Asahara has not been disowned. “We could say that former Aum Shinrikyo founder Asahara was a kind of genius in meditation, but at the same time we cannot approve of the incidents his organisation caused,” new leader Joyu said in a statement posted on the cult’s website two years ago, which outlined “drastic reform” of the group.
Approaches to Aleph this week went unanswered. When we pressed the intercom at the door of the Aleph centre in Karasuyama, a quietly spoken woman in her late 20s emerged to tell us she did not have the authority to answer questions.
Outside, the waiting continues. The community group is also doing more than just taking notes. Huge banners have been erected on the apartment block, saying: “Get out of here, Aum!” and “Return our quiet lives!”
The anti-Aum group distributes a newsletter to all residents, holds public meetings and once tried a form of harassment that was almost comical. Knowing the cult members were vegetarian, they held a barbecue on the third floor of the apartment block. The watchers and the watched even ended up having a jokey chat.
But for the rest of the time, the presence of Aleph remains deadly serious for the people of Karasuyama. Anti-Aum group leader Kazuyuki Furuma feels some comfort while the cult remains under official surveillance. But without it, “no one knows what they will do then. That’s our deepest concern.”