TOKYO (Nov 2, 2006): The Japanese doomsday cult charged with a deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on the subway system here continues to pose a grave threat to the public and could repeat its atrocities, a top Japanese intelligence official said today.
Takashi Ohizumi, director-general of the Public Security Intelligence Agency, told Reuters in an interview that the cult formerly known as Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth Sect) remained dangerous more than 10 years after the rush hour gas attack that killed 12 and injured thousands.
After a trial lasting nearly a decade, former cult guru Shoko Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, was sentenced to death by hanging for masterminding the subway attack.
“There are still many followers who have been with the group since the times even before the sarin incident and keep a strong reverence for Asahara,” Ohizumi said.
Ohizumi, 60, heads the agency tasked with gathering information related to possible subversive action against Japan.
The cult in 1999 admitted involvement in the attack. The following year it changed its name to Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Its leaders insist the cult is now benign.
But Ohizumi said: “The group still adheres to Asahara’s teachings which condone murder. Therefore, we consider that they are still dangerous.”
He said live-in cult members number around 650 and about another 1,000 are lay members in Japan, and there are about 300 members in Russia. That compares to about 11,400 members in Japan and about 40,000 in Russia in 1995.
Ohizumi said the cult was running yoga schools and other businesses to fund their activities and sign up new recruits.
He said the group in Japan had kept contact with its fellow cultists in Russia.
“The group in Russia tried to take Asahara back in 2000. But of course, they failed to do so,” he said without elaborating.
The death sentence for Asahara, 51, was confirmed in September when the Supreme Court rejected his appeal.
“The followers were shocked by the news that the death sentence for Asahara was confirmed,” Ohizumi said.
“There were some followers who thought about trying to free Asahara to get him back because he is the absolute figure they think they should follow.”
The gassing, with its images of bodies lying across platforms and soldiers in gas masks sealing off Tokyo subway stations, stunned the Japanese public and shattered the country’s self-image as a haven of public safety.
Fumihiro Joyu, 43, a former spokesman for the cult, became a de facto leader of the group.
But Ohizumi said the group preserved and continued to respect Asahara’s teachings. “For the followers, Asahara is the absolute figure,” he said. “And Joyu’s teachings are no different from what Asahara advocated.”
Under Asahara, who had predicted that the United States would attack Japan and turn it into a nuclear wasteland, followers submitted to an ascetic communal life and performed rites such as swallowing water and then vomiting it up to “purify” them.
The son of a poor maker of “tatami” straw mats, the chubby, nearly blind Asahara set up the cult in 1987, mixing Buddhist and Hindu meditation with apocalyptic teachings.