OKOHAMA, Japan, Feb. 26 — Outside the local office of the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect here, dozens of riot police officers have been permanently stationed to control angry Japanese mobs that gather to denounce the sect, which killed 12 people five years ago when it released deadly nerve gas in the Tokyo subways.
Inside, Fumihiro Joyu, the boyish 37-year-old former spokesman for the group who became its de facto leader after being released from prison late last year, insists that the sect no longer represents a threat to Japanese society. The sect no longer espouses the same ideology, he said, though he insisted that followers had no reason to give up their reverence for the former leader who had led them to carry out the attack.
”Japanese society has nothing to fear from us,” Mr. Joyu said. ”I think that the most important factor in resolving this conflict is time. We need time to adapt ourselves to the real world without losing our basic beliefs, and Japanese society needs time to get used to our different kind of philosophy and values.”
In a rare interview, Mr. Joyu, lean, clean-cut, dressed in gray slacks and a white Yves Saint Laurent sweat shirt, candidly discussed the difficulties that Aum is facing amid a government and grass-roots crackdown. He outlined a series of reforms intended to resuscitate the sect, which critics say is heading for collapse.
He also apologized for lying to the Japanese people five years ago when at televised news conferences he adamantly denied that Aum had any connection to the subway attack.
”I did so substantially in order to protect our organization as the spokesman,” Mr. Joyu said. ”I have to admit that and apologize to the Japanese people for it.”
Some people have suggested that Mr. Joyu, by virtue of his position in the organization, must have known that the attack was being planned. Responding to those concerns, he said that he used to head the sect’s office in Moscow and was in Russia at the time. His three years in prison were for a perjury conviction unrelated to the subway attack.
Mr. Joyu graduated from one of Japan’s top schools, Waseda University, with a master’s degree in engineering. He is fluent in English and was a college debating champion. His release from prison was highly anticipated in Japan, and there was much speculation that he would play a major leadership role in the sect.
Under his direction now, the sect has already taken several major steps toward transforming itself, he said. It has changed its name from Aum to Aleph, which signifies new beginning, and distanced itself from its founder, Shoko Asahara, who is on trial for masterminding the gas attack and other crimes.
But many Japanese are troubled that Aum still considers Mr. Asahara a ”spiritual being.”
”Just like you wouldn’t stop your connection with physical fathers and mothers who commit a crime, we will not sever our connection with our spiritual father,” Mr. Joyu said. ”The master Asahara introduced us to the world of spiritualism. He gave us our second self and we cannot deny that.”
At the time of the attack, Mr. Joyu said Aum members regarded Mr. Asahara as a deity, were anticipating Armageddon and obeyed the group’s leadership without question. Today, he said, the sect no longer has a dominating personality and has become more democratic in its management and ideology.
”We are undertaking a kind of organizational reform and spiritual revolution,” Mr. Joyu said. ”We are trying to conserve the benefits of the teachings of Master Asahara and at the same time exclude the dangerous elements that went with it.”
The sect has also vowed to use profits from its computer companies and other ventures to compensate victims of crimes committed by former sect members. And sect members are being re-educated to become more integrated into society.
Whether or not Mr. Joyu will succeed in remaking Aum is unclear.
Shoko Egawa, a free-lance journalist who is considered an expert on the sect, said Mr. Joyu has given Aum followers a new sense of purpose. ”Joyu has revitalized the followers by giving them a new goal — to work hard to compensate the victims of Aum crimes as a way of spreading their ‘Supreme Truth,’ ” she said.
Ms. Egawa said that as long as Mr. Joyu remains the driving force behind Aum, she doubted that the group would pose a danger to Japan. ”He’s a very calculating person, a realist and he knows that such crimes provide no benefit to him or the organization,” she said.
Still, Ms. Egawa said she was worried that Aum would continue to use its longtime recruitment and conversion tactics, in which followers are stripped of their ability to think for themselves and blindly follow what they are told.
But Japanese antipathy for Aum runs so deep that many people believe that the religious sect will never be accepted into society no matter how many changes it makes.
Since his release, Mr. Joyu has been a virtual prisoner inside the cramped, second-floor office, which is dominated by a large Buddhist altar and new-age meditation music. The police have advised him not to leave because they cannot guarantee his safety.
Aum’s every move is being monitored by authorities under a new law passed last year that allows the police and Justice Ministry officials to enter sect facilities at will to conduct inspections. The law also allows authorities to restrict sect activities deemed dangerous to society.
Mr. Joyu said at least 70 Aum members are continuing to suffer because municipal governments across the country are refusing to allow them to register as city residents. Such registration is necessary to enter public school, receive health benefits, obtain a driver’s license, passport, or library card, and in some cases to apply for employment or rent an apartment.
”The biggest problem is with medical care,” Mr. Joyu said. ”Some of our members are hesitating to go to the doctor when they are ill because it’s so expensive.”
But Mr. Joyu said he was encouraged by the Japanese government’s recent decision to advise local municipalities to allow children of Aum residents to register for school. In the past, the government tacitly approved of the discriminatory tactics saying that it understood local residents’ fear of Aum.
Such difficult circumstances demanded that Mr. Joyu assume his place as the current leader, he said, though he added that it was a role he had not sought out. ”It is my firm belief that the head of a religious organization is something that you should not try to be if you like to be happy,” he said. ”Such position or status is not a joy but only duty.”