Aum flailing amid vacuum left by Asahara

Members confused by leadership paradox
The Japan Times, Apr. 23, 2003

In early February, a 37-year-old former member of Aum Shinrikyo launched a Web site featuring transcripts of past lectures by the cult’s founder, Shoko Asahara.

Within two months, the Web site, titled Aum Text Archive, attracted about 30,000 hits, nearly 30 percent of which were by current Aum members, according to the former cultist.

He later deleted the transcripts at the behest of the cult.

Having been implicated in a series of crimes, including the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, Aum has since renamed itself Aleph and is publicly trying to distance itself from Asahara, stating that it now advocates a new doctrine.

“(But) the access from the Aum followers suggests that they are now starving for direct messages from Asahara,” said the former Aum member, who left the group in 2000.

“After all, Aum is a group whose disciplines and structure was formed on the premise of Asahara’s presence at the top. Given that, it is amazing that the group still maintains hundreds of members years after Asahara’s arrest (in 1995).”

Nearly eight years after he was placed under arrest, Asahara’s marathon trial is finally inching toward a denouement.

On Thursday, prosecutors are expected to demand the death penalty for Asahara, who stands accused of masterminding the Aum crimes. The Tokyo District Court is expected to hand down a ruling early next year.

While the cult still boasts hundreds of followers, Asahara’s long absence has apparently left even die-hard members wondering whether there is any point in preserving the group, whose doctrines and structures are largely based on those that he established.

In 1995, Aum had about 1,000 followers leading communal lives at its facilities, along with 10,000 other members who worked in mainstream society and provided financial support in the form of donations, according to the Public Security Investigation Agency.

Today, the cult boasts 522 communal followers, along with 672 other members who regularly visit the group’s 21 facilities to engage in religious practices or seminars and to donate their income, according to an Aum report submitted to the agency in February.

Since 2000, the agency, operating under special legislation, has placed the cult’s activities under 24-hour surveillance.

Meanwhile, the local governments and residents of certain neighborhoods in which Aum facilities are located have tried to force the cultists out of their communities.

With few youngsters now looking to join the cult, the average age of current members reportedly tops 35.

Asahara’s refusal to speak about his alleged crimes — or even enter an official plea — during his trial has also disenchanted many followers, prompting them to abandon the cult, according to several Aum members.

“It is natural that the general public is still afraid of Aum unless Asahara, who is the only person who can address all the questions on the past crimes, fully explains why Aum committed the crimes,” said one senior cultist.

“We have struggled amid public distrust, as well as with our own agony over why our senior members committed such crimes. I myself was disappointed with him.”

Another cultist stated that everything tied to Aum, including its religious goals, doctrines, training programs and organizational structures, is based on Asahara’s presence as leader, suggesting that the cult may be losing its relevance among followers.

He claimed that the number of followers who have reached the first stage of enlightenment and have managed to emancipate themselves from secular greed through their yoga training has declined sharply from the days when the followers were under the direct guidance of Asahara.

While no cult members appear to worship Asahara unconditionally today, many still view him as a superior yoga master, a great lecturer, or even an individual who harbors a “tremendous religious power.”

“With the absence of Mr. Asahara, Aum has been losing its religious power and it will naturally vanish if it continues to do so,” the follower said. “Probably, Aum should have either disbanded or started with a new discipline and a new system when he was arrested.”

In January 2002, former Aum spokesman Fumihiro Joyu officially assumed leadership of the group, having completed a three-year prison term in 1999 for perjury and falsification of public documents.

But several Aum members admit that Joyu lacks the Asahara charisma that previously forged a bond between followers.

Hiromi Shimada, an expert on religious studies and a former professor at Japan Women’s University in Tokyo, has written a book and articles on Aum.

He views the cult as one of a number of new religious groups and new-age movements that mushroomed during the bubble economy of the late 1980s and early 1990s and have since lost their significance.

Shimada described this scenario as a kind of antidote to Japan’s mainstream culture of the time.

“In the bubble era, the mainstream culture was strong and looked overly materialistic, giving a clear identity to the counterculture, which usually emphasized spirituality,” he said.

“The protracted economic slump has undermined the myth of progress toward a single goal and brought an era of more diverse values in which it is unlikely for such extreme groups as Aum to attract so many young people.”

The Public Security Investigation Agency claims that Aum still poses a danger to society, thereby justifying its 24-hour surveillance strategy. Shimada, on the other hand, doubts that the cult has the ability or financial resources to pose an immediate public threat.

He added, nevertheless, that the surveillance policy should be maintained as long as the public fears and distrusts the group. Aum has repeatedly called for the suspension of surveillance activities through legal maneuvers and petitions submitted to the government.

“Like Asahara in his trial, Aum has never tried to respond to such public sentiments by fully addressing the question of why its members committed the heinous crimes and later attempted to cover up its involvement in them,” Shimada said.

“This still gives me the impression that they may do anything to protect the group and it is reasonable that people are still fearful of the group.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday April 22, 2003.
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