The Doom Machine

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TIM LARIMER Nagoya and SACHIKO SAKAMAKI SanwaWhen Tokyo subway riders were attacked with sarin gas in March 1995, the curious little phenomenon in Japan that had sprung up around Nostradamus' predictions suddenly demanded a serious second look. In short order, authorities were blaming the Aum Shinrikyo cult and its guru, Shoko Asahara, for an act of terrorism that killed 12 people and injured more than 5,500, as well as for 15 other murders. Upon a closer look at Asahara's teachings, it was clear he was basing much of his vision on Nostradamus. Asahara wrote in his book, Country of Rising Sun, A Disaster is Near, published just before the subway gassing: Around Aug. 1, 1999 is the time to determine your life. That's the day Armageddon will take place. The world economy will face impasse, life becomes difficult and global war will break out.

Four years later, Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, is in jail facing criminal charges. One of his subordinates has already been sentenced to death for killing a crusading anti-Aum lawyer, his wife and child. Without its gurus and its highest-ranking disciples, Aum, many Japanese hoped, would simply lose its way and die. In fact, the opposite has happened. Even as the bearded and bushy-haired Asahara sits in a courtroom in chains, his movement continues to thrive. In court last week, listening to one of his former followers testify against him, Asahara sat quietly, appearing at times to fall asleep. At one point, he pulled a hair out of his head and let it fall: his devotees consider his hairs to be sacred. That's about all he can do to inspire his followers these days. Asahara is not in a position to give instructions, says Shoko Egawa, a journalist and Aum expert who herself was the target of a failed attack when toxic gas was released through the mailbox of her apartment door. Observes Tatsuya Nagaoka, 30, a former Aum disciple: Unless a direction comes directly from Asahara's voice, I can assure you 100% they won't do anything.

Still, Japan's Public Security Investigation Agency, which keeps an eye on what it considers subversive activity, says Aum still takes in $58 million a year from its retail computer business and continues to buy property. It has 38 compounds around the country, including four acquired in the past few months. Any real estate purchase of a warehouse or similar building arouses police scrutiny these days; sellers of one empty facility in a Tokyo suburb were questioned by police after potential buyers came to take a look. Police say Aum now has 700 followers living in communes, as well as 1,200 others scattered elsewhere. (Before the sarin attack, its membership in Japan totaled 20,000.) In May, in Tokyo's Shibuya ward, members dressed in white trousers and blouses gave a street performance for the first time since early 1995. They have been recruiting new members at several universities, often representing themselves as a friendship group rather than a religious sect. A freshman in college was 14 when the incidents happened, says Nagaoka. They don't really sense that Aum is a terrible group. Besides, the lower-ranking people are very nice. They help students with their problems, and nobody else is doing that.

One legacy of the Aum cult is its impact on a long-running debate over civil liberties. In recent weeks, authorities have searched facilities during several well-publicized raids on Aum property. Some skeptics view the moves as cynical attempts to rally support for tougher action against groups that threaten the national order. The Public Security Investigation Agency is working hard [on the Aum issue] because they want to justify their existence, and they sometimes exaggerate the situation, says journalist Egawa. The lower house of the Diet, partly capitalizing on the fear of Aum-like cults, recently passed a law giving police the authority to tap phone lines. Politicians are again debating whether Japan should apply its anti-subversive law--which has never actually been used against a group--in Aum's case. Personally, I feel that the law should have been applied, says a security official who declines to give his name. The cult still holds the dangerous teaching that even justifies murder. This cult isn't changed; it can't be changed--they still believe in Asahara.

That perception has ignited protests all over Japan by residents who suspect that Aum followers may be moving into their neighborhoods. Sanwa is a quiet farm town of 40,000 residents, 90 minutes north of Tokyo by train and car. Last June, a female Aum follower moved into an abandoned precision auto parts factory. By the end of December, 22 members were living in Sanwa and the factory had been turned into an Aum printing plant. But when 24 more followers tried to transfer their residential registration to the town, Mayor Kijuro Tateno said enough is enough. He refused to register them, even though they already live there, most of them in the printing plant. Which is more important? asks Tateno. The human rights of 24 people who have a peculiar belief or those of 40,000 people who have been living here for generations?

Sanwa residents handed in a petition with 33,000 signatures to the mayor, hoping the Aum followers would be evicted. Legally, though, there's little anyone can do. So the residents take turns keeping an eye on the Aum facility from a shack they built nearby. Now we watch Aum instead of cherry blossoms, says Yoshino Funabashi, an elderly woman peering through binoculars on a recent sunny day.

From the front gate of the cult's facility, visitors can spy 17 containers that the residents say store rice. There are cranes, forklifts and several large water tanks in front of a large two-story building that contains both printing presses and housing. Police raided the facility not long ago, but there wasn't much they could do beyond confiscating printed materials. It's frustrating, says Shigeo Nakazawa, a carrot farmer who leads an anti-Aum group. They don't seem to be doing anything illegal. We just have to tolerate them. But he sounds a cautionary note for other rural towns like Sanwa: because of Japan's recession, there are a lot of empty factories and warehouses around.

One thing the Tokyo subway gas attack did was bring the mysterious workings of the Aum cult out into the open. Now, as Aum survives its leaders' incarceration, ordinary Japanese are taking the group seriously, from the farmers in Sanwa who don't want the bizarre cult for neighbors to the shattered family in the Nagoya area who lost their bright young son to Aum a decade ago.

Last October, the family tried, for a second time, to take back their son. A member of Aum since August 1989, he had been arrested in Tokyo's Harajuku neighborhood on suspicion of stealing a bicycle. Knowing he was an Aum member, the police held him in custody long enough for his parents to bail him out of jail and take him home. The father explained to his son, then 29, that he had promised the police he would take responsibility for him while he awaited trial for the bike theft charge. But the son was suspicious. He begged to leave. He explained in emotionless detail what his life was like. It was the second time the parents had tried to persuade their son to abandon the religious group. It was the second time he ended up abandoning them. His heart was not with me, says his father. His heart was with Aum.

The son left behind a note that is a sad farewell to his parents and a defiant testament to his belief: I want to become free, he wrote. I don't want to be near my parents. I'm not a criminal... I'm not mind-controlled. At least within Aum, there are respectable people, and I'd like to live an aesthetic life with them... I wonder how I can get my parents to understand... Aum's top-ranking people have committed crimes, but those people are already gone, by taking responsibility. Certainly, the general public will be cold to us like a strong wind, but we'll continue to maintain our faith. His parents haven't heard from him since.