The Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult may be gone, but it certainly is not forgotten.
Now, Aum’s charismatic former spokesman is in the final stages of creating a new religious group based on his own teachings.
Fumihiro Joyu says he hopes to set up his new cult by June. But only a limited number of disciples from the renamed Aleph cult will likely follow him because of a resurgence in loyalty to Chizuo Matsumoto, the Aum founder who orchestrated numerous crimes in defense of his cult as it aimed to foment revolution.
Unless members cut their emotional attachment to Matsumoto, Joyu said the cult system to which he has devoted his life will collapse.
“We need to create a new group right now so that we (Aleph) don’t go under when Matsumoto is executed,” Joyu said.
Many still revere Matsumoto but are prohibited from meeting with the former guru at the Tokyo Detention House as visitors to each death-row inmate are limited to the individual’s lawyers and immediate family members.
Still, members routinely gather in front of the facility in Tokyo’s Kosuge district to offer prayers to the man who masterminded the March 20, 1995, sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system that left 12 dead and thousands sickened.
Dozens of followers have been encouraged by former Aum leaders to remain faithful to Matsumoto’s doctrine, according to a pro-Matsumoto member.
Given that Matsumoto, 51, could be executed at any time–his death sentence was finalized with the Supreme Court’s rejection of his special appeal on Sept. 15 last year–loyal followers likely will react very emotionally when the inevitable happens, observers say.
Without Matsumoto as a living representation of Aum’s teachings, die-hard followers may look to his children for inspiration even though they are not involved in Aleph’s daily activities at this stage, according to the Aum member and another expert on the cult.
In a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Joyu, 44, said despite the resurgence of faith in Aum’s bearded founder, it is unlikely those members would seek to retaliate against society after he is hanged.
Joyu said that is because most of them are drained physically and mentally by the upheaval in their lives since Matsumoto was arrested. He also noted they are getting older.
Aleph says that about 400 members still engage in communal life at roughly 30 facilities across Japan and that fewer than 700 lay followers support their activities through donations.
Joyu said he initially expected that around 100 Aleph members will join his as-yet unnamed cult.
“But now it looks like less than 60 will become my followers,” he said.
A key reason for this, Joyu added, is the state of mind of members who are dreading the day they learn that Matsumoto’s execution has been carried out.
“When it happens, their emotions will become very unsettled,” he said. “I fear for their mental health.”
Several pro-Matsumoto members said recently that Joyu’s departure will make it easier for them to concentrate on Matsumoto’s teachings and publicly state their faith in him.
A key factor for the resurgence of goodwill toward Matsumoto likely lies in the fact that members have been allowed to meet with other former Aum leaders at the Tokyo Detention House who are appealing their death sentences.
One such follower said he had been visiting the facility in Katsushika Ward several times each week since February last year to meet with them and offer prayers to Matsumoto. The man, who is in his 30s, said he regularly meets with Kiyohide Hayakawa, Tomomasa Nakagawa, Tomomitsu Niimi and three other former leaders for “religious advice.”
The three he named were all sentenced to death. Until a few years ago, the authorities would not allow such visits, the man said.
“While some of them began expressing their doubts about Aum and their belief in Matsumoto (in court testimony), they have apparently overcome this period of self-doubt,” the man said. “It is encouraging for me to talk to them as it strengthens my faith in Aum.”
He said many disciples cling to the hope that Matsumoto’s children will take the reins of Aleph once public anger toward the guru dies down.
Until then, the man said the members are determined to maintain religious faith and practice Matsumoto’s teachings in reclusive communes.
“Increasingly, they will want one of his children to be the new guru,” said Hiromi Shimada, researcher of religious studies at the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology. “But I very much doubt that society will let them officially worship a member of the Matsumoto family any time soon.
“In fact, just as Joyu is in a predicament, so, too, is the pro-Matsumoto faction. Essentially, they are both in gridlock,” Shimada said.
Joyu was sentenced to a three-year prison term for perjury and released in 1999. Since then, as head of Aleph, he has publicly tried to distance himself from Matsumoto. Joyu said his efforts to rebuild the group meant that he and his followers had to get out from under the guru’s influence.
Joyu represented Aum Shinrikyo’s interests in Russia until the years leading up to the 1995 sarin attack that was carried out on the instructions of Matsumoto.
However, he is among a handful of former top Aum leaders who were not charged in murder cases.
As a step to forge a new identity with a distinctive name and doctrine, the pro-Joyu group will abandon all books, icons and other items that it inherited from Aum.
Once this is done, no later than the end of February, Joyu will set up an “Internet training hall” to make his own teachings available to a wider audience.
Joyu said the deification of Matsumoto was one of Aum’s fundamental problems as it caused followers to blindly carry out his orders, even when “heinous terrorism” was involved. He said his new religion will ban any form of deification of individuals so that members can focus on the “sacredness in all human beings and nature.”
Traditional Buddhist statues will replace Matsumoto’s pictures, and instruction books written by Joyu will take the place of those used by the former guru.
Members will also do yoga along lines developed by Aum to “experience supernatural phenomenon and ultimately attain enlightenment,” Joyu said.
“The problem was that Matsumoto tried to become another Christ,” he said. “Other than that, there still are innovative aspects in Aum discipline which can help people to experience supernatural power. It will be a carrot to attract new followers.”
Unless the groups attract new followers, neither faction of Aleph will survive, said Joyu, citing the advanced years of members and growing cases of illness.
“Aleph now is much more like a welfare home in which those who can work support the weaker members through donations,” Joyu said. “But this structure needs to change for a new group to survive.”