Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, stands accused of masterminding the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995 as well as a series of other heinous crimes, including a deadly gas attack a year earlier in Nagano Prefecture.
Although it is widely expected that Asahara will be sentenced to death, those familiar with the cult are divided on how much influence he still has over Aum, which now calls itself Aleph, and what the rise and fall of the cult meant for Japanese society.
Kohei Ikeda, who head’s Aleph’s Osaka branch, recently told The Japan Times that he condemns the sarin subway attack.
“The sarin gas attack and the other crimes were wrong, and should not have happened,” maintained Ikeda, who said he joined the cult in 1992 but never met Asahara. “So yes, I do feel sorry for what happened, and that maybe I bear some responsibility as well.”
But Ikeda brushed aside criticism that the cult’s founder still holds great sway among followers, claiming, “Asahara might still be personally important to some members, but he is more important as a symbol of Aum.”
However, independent film director Tatsuya Mori, who has made two documentaries on Aum — “A” and “A2” — and was also present at the interview, said his experiences made him believe that many members still feel Asahara is of supreme importance.
“Asahara is still a prominent figure within Aleph itself,” Mori observed.
Both Ikeda and Mori did agree that, because of the suspected ties to Asahara and general prejudice, it has become extremely difficult for Aum to recruit new members.
“Our recruitment efforts have been conducted via the Internet and through the sale of books by members,” Ikeda said. “But we are still under government observation, and we have to submit the names of any new followers to the authorities when they join.”
It is after new members join that the problems begin. Ikeda said there have been cases where, after receiving the list, police will visit the homes or workplaces of the entrants.
“This is a violation of their rights, and because of this, some have been unable to continue working,” Ikeda said.
Is Aum still a threat?
Mori said that while many Japanese certainly believe so, the greater danger is that public ignorance and media stereotyping of all Aum members as psychotic killers will lead to increased paranoia.
“There is a belief among many people that the sarin incidents occurred because all Aum members were bloodthirsty murderers, but that is not true,” the director said. “You have to look at individual members, and society has to think rationally about who they are, what their motivations for joining Aum were, and what social conditions allowed them to condone murder.”
Yet, according to Mori, this did not happen. Instead, he argued, what resulted after the Tokyo subway attack was hatred and mass hysteria toward the entire cult. Fear spread like wildfire, resulting in further hate, and, in turn, increased paranoia and a strong desire for public safety.
“The fear and hysteria toward Aum has brought Japan to where it is today — a nation that is afraid and seeks safety in the passage of laws designed to beef up police powers,” Mori maintained. “On a larger scale, it has led to (Japan’s) supporting the war on Iraq, which was linked to the war against terrorism by the United States.”