Aum filled void in followers’ empty lives

Any group maintaining ties with Matsumoto must be kept under close surveillance

Aum Supreme Truth founder Chizuo Matsumoto was sentenced to death Friday by the Tokyo District Court for his role in 13 crimes that the presiding judge described as “merciless, cruel and inhumane.” So why does any cult created by this man still exist?

The court held Aum responsible for a series of crimes, which resulted in the deaths of 27 people, and ruled that the former cult leader “fantasized about becoming a king governing Japan.”

During most of the trial, the mastermind, however, was silent.

The cult’s religious doctrine aside, a look at crimes related to Aum tells us that they are nothing but crimes committed by an organization that was led by a man who had abnormal ambition.

The crimes began with the cult secretly incinerating the body of one of its followers, who died in an accident at its compound. The group apparently believed that a death at its facilities could undermine its reputation.

Shuji Taguchi knew about the act and asked Aum to allow him to leave the cult.

But the cult killed him in February 1989 out offear that the accidental death could be brought to light.

Aum then targeted people outside the cult, murdering anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his wife and infant son in November 1989. The cult escalated its commitment in a series of crimes to try to eliminate people it saw as obstacles.

Apparently sensing that the series of Aum-related crimes might be uncovered, the cult resorted to terrorism–the lethal sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995.

The organization that carried out those attacks still exists, although it renamed itself Aleph in January 2000, with Aum’s executives during the 1995 sarin attack serving in senior posts in the new group.

According to public security authorities, Aleph appears to be under the influence of Matsumoto, also known as Shoko Asahara. The group instructed its followers “to hope for the return of the guru.”

Aleph has about 650 resident and 1,000 lay followers as well as about 250 new members who joined after the 1995 sarin attack.

Of the about 450 original Aum followers who have finished serving their prison terms, about 130 have returned to the new group, according to public security authorities.

“The doctrine taught by Aum was created by Matsumoto, who borrowed from Tibet esoteric Buddhism. But young people who can’t find fulfillment in the real world easily embrace the leader’s messages,” said Katsusuke Miyauchi, a writer who wrote a book featuring discussions with former Aum followers.

“These young people are mentally pure in a sense, but they are saddled by a sense of emptiness and have nowhere to go. For them, the group is a comfortable place that gives them a sense of being part of a religious elite,” he added.

Meanwhile, Miyauchi said, “The senior members of the new group maintain the organization simply because they want to retain authority.”

From an economic viewpoint, the group is a very successful fund-raising organization. Aleph collects funds from its followers that are believed to total about 500 million yen to 600 million yen a year.

But most resident followers live austere lives. The group agreed with lawyer Saburo Abe, a court-appointed administrator of the cult’s court-authorized bankruptcy procedures, to bear the debt accrued from compensation it must pay to its victims. Over the past four years, Aleph has paid about 465 million yen, including 60 million yen paid last year.

The debt redemption apparently creates some rationale for the renamed group’s existence.

But the group is simply allocating a portion of funds taken from its followers in the form of donations to repay the debt.

The group’s outstanding debt is about 3 billion yen.

“The group should be disbanded as soon as possible,” Abe said.

“But as long as it functions as an organization, the group bears significant responsibility to victims and bereaved families. Aum’s bankruptcy administration is scheduled to end in two to three years, but the remaining debt should be taken over by a mutual fund for victims of the sarin attack and other Aum-related crimes through which the group should be responsible for the victims as long as it exists.”

The existing group, which often causes friction with neighbors, is currently under surveillance by the Justice Ministry’s Public Security Investigation Agency in accordance with the anti-cult law that is intended to clamp down on Aum.

Is the group likely to become a threat again?

Hiromi Shimada, a religion scholar who spoke with Matsumoto on four occasions, said the former cult leader will continue to influence his followers.

Feeling responsible for having appeared to endorse the cult, Shimada said, “Aum grew up during the bubble economy by attracting young people who were ambivalent and had a sense of anomie due to the affluence of the age.”

“Aum could collect massive funds in the final phase of the economic bubble. It poured that money into a plot to produce sarin gas. Because of the severe economic conditions, however, it probably will be difficult for the group to survive financially. The group needs Matsumoto, who will continue to have spiritual influence over his followers even after he was given the death sentence,” Shimada said.

We may need to consider how the group will react if Matsumoto’s death sentence is finalized and if the group exists when the sentence is executed. The public security authorities have confirmed the existence of another group comprised of diehard followers of Matsumoto.

Any group that still maintains its ties to a mastermind who committed many atrocious crimes must be placed under careful surveillance.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan
Feb. 29, 2004
Ryoji Kanno

Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday February 29, 2004.
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