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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

THE CULT THAT WON'T DIE

Nearly four years after the infamous sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway, Aum Shinrikyo is rising again
Part 1

By Murakami Mutsuko


I AM IN A queue forming outside the Tokyo District Court. It is a crisp, fall morning. Ahead of me three women in their late 20s are whispering among themselves. You can see right away that they are adherents of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo. They wear no make-up, modest cotton pants and stained, worn jackets. They wear looks of pure devotion, like nuns or nurses at war. An hour later, two of the girls, myself and 47 other citizens pass through an elaborate security check. At 10 sharp, we are seated in Criminal Court Room 104; the ceilings are high, the air is cool and tense. Owing to popular demand, the tickets to these proceedings were auctioned off by computer lottery. We are the lucky winners.

The defendant emerges unannounced, sandwiched between two guards. They remove the handcuffs and rope around his waist. He sits in the dock. It is hard to detect any stirrings of the ominous charisma Matsumoto Chizuo wielded to keep in thrall thousands of followers, a man his devotees call Rev. Asahara Shokou. Asahara told his flock that the end of the world was nigh - though conveniently he never named an exact date. He twisted Buddhism to devise his "death doctrine" - teaching his followers that killing people would propel the victims' spirits to a higher plain. He is on trial for ordering the fatal 1995 sarin gas attack in the subways of Tokyo. And other murders.

Now, the police say Asahara's cult is on a comeback, that Aum Shinrikyo (full name:The Truth Of Creation, Sustainment and Destruction of the Universe) is rebuilding, regrouping, recruiting. They say Asahara wields power despite his incarceration; some devotees still proclaim his innocence. Moreover, because his trial may well slog on for 30 years, his cult could continue to sign up alienated youth well into the next century.

The search for meaning is not limited to Japan, of course. As the millennium draws near, people all over the world are joining cults selling Armageddon insurance. In March, for example, a Taiwan-based group called "God Saves the Earth Flying Saucer Foundation" emerged in suburban Texas, declaring that the almighty would provide spaceships to rescue followers from a nuclear holocaust. When God failed to appear, the cult leader made excuses and left town. Apart from scaring the neighbors, the group was deemed harmless. The same cannot be said for Aum Shinrikyo. At its height in 1995, the cult had 17,000 members in Japan, plus another 20,000 in Russia. It established branches in the U.S., Russia and Germany. It planned to overthrow the Japanese government, take over the world. All at the behest of one magnetic personality, Asahara Shokou.

The guru is charged with 17 crimes. Dozens of his disciples also face trial. Twelve people died in the gas attack, another 5,500 were injured. Devotees trying to flee the cult were killed, as were Aum opponents. Bodies were reduced to ashes in cult furnaces. Asahara has pleaded not guilty to all charges, saying his followers committed the crimes voluntarily. In mid-October, the court sentenced Okazaki Kazuaki, 38, to die for killing an anti-Aum lawyer, his wife and their infant son, as well as a fellow cult member. It is the first death verdict in the trials.

Since he was charged, Asahara has lost some moral authority. Scores of devotees have quit and renounced him; some senior leaders wonder why they listened to their half-blind leader's half-baked notions of the coming apocalypse, international conspiracies, geological omens. Nonetheless, Aum is very alive.

At its heart is Asahara. Who is this man? What is the secret of his success? One story has it that young Chizuo, who suffered partial blindness as a child, attended a school where everyone else was sightless. The future guru had a sensory advantage. Before long, so the tale goes, other kids were paying him to escort them places. Later Chizuo went to the Himalayas in search of enlightenment. He returned to Japan and started what was to become Aum Shinrikyo. In 1989, it was recognized as a religious corporation and accorded tax breaks. Asahara had arrived.

The 43-year-old man in the worn-out navy jersey looks lifeless today - pale, round face, unkempt beard and mustache, eyes closed. The thick hair - not so long as before - hangs over a narrow forehead, almost touching the shoulders at the back. His neck is strikingly white. On some level, he seems not to be here at all. Then a witness describes how Asahara ordered and watched a man strangled. Now the defendant stirs. He scratches his beard, finger-combs his hair. His head lolls back. He mutters barely decipherable words, in what seems like broken English. "Be quiet, defendant," warns Judge Abe Fumihiro. "You're disturbing the court." The judge has seen this behavior before. The guru seems to be using his powers of persuasion in an attempt to rattle the witness.

For Asahara, this will be one morning out of hundreds (by year-end he will have appeared in court 102 times). On the day of my visit, half the public seats are taken by his followers, including the two young women next to me. Tense and watchful, they lean forward whenever their guru mutters something. I can see a few sentences - "You must be a moral seeker; let the truth reveal" - scribbled on a pad. When the witness describes the murder, they drift off to sleep and start snoring.

At training centers all over Japan other young people are chanting Aum mantras. The followers meditate in the yoga style; some wear the famous electric headgear that supposedly configures their brainwaves to those of the guru. As before, the disciples live in communes in spartan seclusion; they believe the same things, live the same rigors, follow the same man. "Aum is back and growing," warns a security official in Tokyo, who prefers to remain anonymous. "I wish we had banned it."

Part 1: The Courtroom | Part 2: Malicious Desires Deleted | Part 3: Why Are We Here? | Part 4: Analysis Paralysis


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