Crushing The Cult Of Doom

Hatsuko Honda was minding her Tokyo beauty shop when the emergency call came. An officer from the neighborhood committee phoned at around 11:30 on a September morning, warning the 71-year-old hairdresser that intruders were on their way. As Honda hustled to finish her work, a sound truck came rumbling by, urging residents to take to the streets against members of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo. "I finished up a dye job and canceled my next customer," Honda says. " 'I'm sorry,' I told the waiting woman. 'I have to go now because Aum is coming'."

Outside, residents converged on a vacant apartment recently leased by Aum, the cult that committed the deadly 1995 nerve-gas attack on Tokyo' s subway system. When the first of the Aum followers arrived, a motley army of young mothers, retirees, tradesmen and community leaders met them in the street. Chanting "Get out" and "Go back home," the locals blocked sect members from entering the building. As the ward boss hectored cult spokesman Hiroshi Araki through a hastily wired P.A. system, drunken men began pushing and shouting obscenities. Panicky police hauled the cult leader from the scrum, hustled him a kilometer to the nearest railway station and shoved him aboard the first passing train. "In a situation like that, anything could have happened," said Araki, visibly shaken as the carriage rolled away.

Four years after the gas attack, Japan is again at war with Aum Shinrikyo. The alleged mastermind behind the tragedy, Aum founder and guru Shoko Asahara, is on trial for multiple murder charges. But a government study in February claimed that Aum is "strengthening its central organization." In response, on Nov. 2 the government proposed a draconian new law tailored to crush the sect. Alarmist reports of Aum's resurgence has sent Japan into a state of semi-hysteria. For the past year, communities across Japan have mobilized to wipe out Aum. In one town, farmers dug a moat around an Aum facility and manned guard towers for six months. In another, officials barred two of Asahara's children from attending the local school. Since April, eight prefectures and 23 cities have joined the Aum Shinrikyo Countermeasures Communications Association, and in June nearly 80 percent of respondents to a national survey said new laws were needed to rein in the cult. "It has almost gotten to the stage where anything goes as long as it's meant to smash Aum," says attorney Mizuho Fukushima, a Social Democratic Party lawmaker.

Why now? A minority chorus of critics say the government crackdown not only exaggerates any lingering threat from Aum, but also threatens to undermine Japanese civil liberties. They speculate that Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi is trying to divert attention from a floundering economy, or to mollify political allies with a grudge against Aum. But the Obuchi administration insists the threat is real. According to the government report by the Public Security Investigation Agency, Aum is now rebuilding businesses, expanding recruitment and acquiring new facilities across Japan. Police estimate membership at 2,000 or more. (Aum itself claims 1,500--up only slightly since 1997.) The proposed law is aimed at "organizations that committed indiscriminate mass murder." It would grant the Public Security Investigation Agency sweeping powers to search Aum facilities and keep tabs on members, while making it a crime for cult leaders to proselytize or collect alms. The backlash against Aum may also reflect the fact that the cult hits so close to home. Many kids who join Aum are dropouts from Japan's high-pressure world of exams and forced conformity. Indeed, hundreds of other new-wave religions also seduce Japan's stressed-out, emotionally vulnerable youth.

Fearful that passage of the new anti-cult law is imminent, Aum, NEWSWEEK has learned, is going underground. In September an Aum spokesman announced that the group is going into "hibernation" and will cease recruitment efforts. In a recent speech, says one cult member, an Aum leader rallied the faithful by declaring that the Jews survived persecution for 2,000 years, "and now they rule the world."

Aum shinrikyo means "supreme truth," but the cult has long harbored crazy ambitions. One of hundreds of "new religions" to emerge in Japan since World War II, Aum first came to prominence in the mid-1980s, led by its cherubic, half-blind guru. Now 44, Asahara was a rising star in the spiritual world before he became public enemy No. 1. Recognized as a religious corporation in 1989, Aum parlayed its tax-free status into a $1 billion empire that included restaurants and computer stores. As Aum thrived, its founder began to stray from his original hodgepodge of Buddhist and Hindu teachings. Asahara started to preach Judeo-Christian visions of Armageddon and the Tibetan Buddhist concept of poa, which sanctions killing evil beings to free them from bad karma. Soon he had built a kind of shadow cabinet--with ministries for science, finance, foreign affairs, health and intelligence--devoted to hastening the day of reckoning with weapons of mass destruction. By 1994 the cult had begun killing enemies, including a lawyer who represented cult defectors, and stockpiling sarin nerve gas. On March 20, 1995, Asahara's devoted followers released sarin into the Tokyo subway at the height of the morning commute, killing 12 people and injuring 5,000.

Following the attack, police raided Aum facilities and rounded up its senior leaders, including Asahara. Authorities revoked Aum' s religious status, and lawsuits rendered the cult bankrupt. But in 1997, the government shied away from invoking a cold-war-era "anti-subversive" law to ban Aum, following advice from scholars who said the law was not intended for use against religious groups. Since then younger members have revived the group, refusing to apologize for the subway attacks or to renounce Asahara. Public alarm spread.

The backlash was not long in coming. One of the first battles erupted in the idyllic village of Kitamimaki, which clings to a ridge high in the Japanese alps. A year ago Aum purchased a corporate retreat in the village, and vigilantes struck back. While sect members were out of the building, local farmers dug a trench around it, built a fence and set up guard posts manned 24 hours a day. They hung a sign at their command center saying in an emergency, ring the bell. call for reinforcements. put on headbands. link arms and stop aum from entering. Supported by local officials, villagers kept up their siege until Aum agreed to sell out last June. Participants acknowledged that they had violated Aum's rights but blamed Tokyo for failing to ban the cult in 1997. "When you think about it," explained a local official, "the government made the wrong choice."

Similar not-in-my-backyard battles now rage across Japan. This summer the city of Otawara denied residency applications for two of Asahara's children, who were living with fellow cult members in a local inn owned by Aum. Without a resident permit the guru's 18-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son could not attend local schools. After word got out, some 3,500 locals surrounded the inn, demanding that Aum "get out immediately," a demand they have resisted so far. Three weeks later in the city of Fujioka, 500 protesters besieged a print factory where 120 Aum members were living and working. "For the sake of our children we should fight them systematically," community leader Hiroshi Sawairi told the rally. "We should use people power to throw them out." Since then, Hiroshi's citizens' group has filed a lawsuit seeking to evict Aum. By July the uproar had spread to Tokyo, where Gov. Shintaro Ishihara declared the Japanese capital an Aum-free zone, barring the cult from access to public facilities. Two months later local bosses in Adachi ward evicted Aum from its Tokyo headquarters, creating a wave of fear about where the cult would go next. In quick succession most of Tokyo' s 23 wards established anti-Aum task forces and began rejecting members' residency applications. In Setagaya, police arrested an Aum member for trespassing after he was caught slipping fliers into mailboxes (a common practice in Tokyo, where households are inundated with junk mail).

Eventually Aum members tried to relocate their headquarters to the working-class neighborhood of Ikebukuro-Honcho, where Honda has her beauty shop. Even before the protests outside Aum's new office, the local government loaned $35,000 to a citizens' group trying to evict the cult. "Aum has never apologized," says ward boss Yukio Takano, "so it is impossible to separate those members already tried and convicted of crimes from members still on the street."

That kind of talk frightens Aum members, who say they had nothing to do with any sarin attacks. Authorities say cult leaders who avoided arrest in 1995 orchestrated the Aum revival from the now shuttered headquarters in Adachi, a distant Tokyo suburb near the prison where Asahara is incarcerated. On a visit to Adachi earlier this year, NEWSWEEK found a wired office that might have passed for an Internet start-up, were it not for the posters of Asahara and his two sons meditating in the lotus position. Authorities described a sophisticated multimedia recruitment campaign that has brought hundreds of new members into the cult. But Araki, the Aum spokesman, said membership was up only slightly. Sporting a mop-top haircut and wearing what looked like white pajamas, Araki complained about press hysteria over the Aum revival: "When I read the Japanese media, I think they are the doomsday cult."

Most Japanese find it deeply disturbing that Aum still appeals to some of the nation's most promising youth. Take the three female vocalists in the Aum pop-rock band, Perfect Nirvana. Two of them attend Waseda University. One, a Russian-literature major, says that, like Tolstoy, she is "searching" for meaning in life. The other is into Japanese literature. "It's not about ego," says the third singer, an 18-year-old high-school student. "We are presenting the teachings of our honorable guru. There's a power behind us that moves us to do this."

Aum's new aims are murky. Consider Perfect Nirvana' s concert video, which screens like outtakes from a high-school talent show but hints at something darker. The vocalists dance alluringly in flowing Indian saris, hinting at what criminologist Robert Lifton has called an "erotic promise of individual solace" Aum uses for "recruiting young men." The video begins with Tokyo street scenes--including a brief shot of the Shinjuku Station that Aum tried to gas with cyanide shortly before the sarin attack. Superimposed over this image is bold text: we hope all souls will enter perfect nirvana.

Is that a call to peace, or to end it all? "While we fully understand the public's antipathy toward Aum Shinrikyo, we do not see a clear danger that Aum will again conduct indiscriminate mass murder," says Shigeru Kobori, head of Japan' s Federation of Bar Associations, which opposes the new anti-Aum bill. But the voices of doubt are weak. With a solid majority in the Diet, the ruling coalition is expected to push the bill into law in record time. "We see Aum as a terrorist group," says legislator Toshiko Hamayotsu. What worries authorities most is the imminent release of Aum's charismatic former "minister of foreign affairs," Fumihiro Joyu. He is expected to assume leadership of Aum when his three-year prison term for fraud and perjury ends next month. Joyu "is Asahara' s greatest disciple," says Nobutaka Inoue, professor of religion at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo. "He will speak directly to followers and interpret the real meaning of Asahara' s situation."

The guru's fate looks grim. Asahara faces so many murder charges that he could be in jail for a decade before a verdict comes down. His followers are preparing for life underground. In early October, cult members say, Aum leaders began briefing small groups of followers, usually in restaurants, coffee shops or private homes, on the coming struggle. "[The Buddhist group] Soka Gakkai was persecuted for 20 years, and now it controls Japan," one said recently in southern Japan, according to a member who attended the secret meeting. "We have existed for barely 10 years, so it will take us some time to be like them." Another Aum member says cult leaders plan to take refuge in "family churches" if they can't work openly. Indeed the danger, cult experts say, is that the crackdown could strengthen Aum by reinforcing its persecution complex--particularly if Asahara is ultimately executed.

For Japanese who pine for a speedy conclusion, there is Teruo Ishii's new horror movie, "Hell." In the film, the King of Hades grows angry at the endless Aum trials and hauls the cult leaders into the underworld. There devils skin Asahara alive, over and over for eternity, and rip out the tongue of his chatty former spokesman, Joyu. "It' s half comical, half fearful," says actor Kenpachiro Satsuma, who plays the blue devil. "The audience, especially Aum victims, may feel good about it." Maybe, but the Japanese will be living with Aum for a long time to come.