Why Japan's Terror Cult Still Has Appeal

For a cadre of loyalists, the group that released poison gas fills a spiritual void

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Shoko Asahara shuffles, handcuffed, into a Tokyo courtroom. His hair, once wild and frizzy, is now cut short. Accused of masterminding the poisoning of Tokyo's subway system with the deadly nerve gas sarin seven years ago, Asahara, 47, has spent the past seven years stewing in a jail cell. In court, he bobs his head up and down, looking tired and confused. He scrunches up his face and occasionally emits a grunt. Every move he makes is closely watched by his disciples, wide-eyed men and women who flock to the courtroom because it's the only chance they have to bask in the aura of the man they still consider their spiritual father. "It was always hard to tell what he was thinking," says one of them, Hiroshi Araki, trying to explain Asahara's puzzling demeanor. "He never did what you expected him to."

Before al-Qaeda, before the anthrax scare, there was Aum Shinrikyo. The mysterious cult, based on distortions of the tenets of Buddhism and Hinduism, attracted tens of thousands of followers in Japan and around the world. Asahara, its founder, was an intelligent misfit who claimed he could levitate himself and who appeared regularly on the TV talk-show circuit. Then, on a sunny March morning in 1995, followers of the doomsday cult, in an apparent attempt to create mayhem and distract police investigating their secretive chemical-manufacturing operation, quietly used the tips of umbrellas to puncture plastic bags filled with liquid sarin, which they left behind on five Tokyo subway trains. A poisonous cloud spread through the trains and stations. Thousands of commuters were sickened, and 12 people died.

Fast-forward to the present, to an era when terrorism is a global nightmare. Surprisingly, Aum lives on. True, many members quit after the atrocity, which led to the arrest and prosecution of Asahara and 18 others. But hundreds more (1,186 according to the group; hundreds more than that, according to police who watch them) stuck with it. And additional cults are springing up, offering refuge to disillusioned youth in a Japan that, owing to a pervasive sense of economic doom, is searching for its soul. By one government estimate, there are more than 10,000 "new religions" in Japan, meaning anything other than the traditional Buddhist, Shinto and Christian sects. There is one group whose leader claims that he doesn't need to eat, bathe or sleep because of his superhuman powers; another outfit worships feet. "People are seeking mental healing during this time of continuous bad news," says Nobutaka Inoue, a professor of religious studies at Tokyo's Kokugakuin University.

Asahara's group, which in 2000 changed its name from Aum Shinrikyo ("Supreme Truth") to Aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet), endures because its most loyal followers can't let go of their devotion to Asahara and his teachings. It has seven main facilities throughout Japan and 20 smaller branches where members can practice meditation. The Public Security Investigation Agency assigns about 50 agents to keep tabs on Aleph. Investigators say it organizes yoga classes, computer seminars and clubs on university campuses--activities that don't at first reveal the nature of the religion--to attract unsuspecting recruits. Wherever the cult's identity emerges, trouble follows; towns across Japan have protested the group's presence. Outside its headquarters in Tokyo's Setagaya ward, neighbors have hung large banners: AUM GO AWAY!

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