Aum Supreme Truth, the doomsday cult that carried out a deadly nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway system in 1995, is still recruiting members, making money and--with the release from jail this morning of Fumihiro Joyu--getting back a leader who could give the group new strength, according to Japanese analysts and a government report.
As the trials of cult founder Shoko Asahara and dozens of his followers on murder, kidnapping and other charges drag on, Aum has continued to run profitable businesses in personal computers, publishing and construction, and to "recover" members who had left the cult, according to a report released last week by the Public Security Investigation Agency, an arm of the Justice Ministry.
Aum's personal computer sales generated a $68 million profit last year, the report said. Aum also has used the personals section of Internet pages as a way to try to recruit new members and has launched an Internet home page in English.
Aum is estimated to have about 2,000 followers in Japan today, compared to the 10,000 it claimed at the time five of its top members released deadly sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system during morning rush-hour on March 20, 1995, killing 12 people and injuring more than 5,000.
Hundreds of its members were arrested, and the cult was stripped of its religious status, forcing it into bankruptcy the following year. Although Aum was widely reviled, it waged a successful public relations campaign to avoid being outlawed under a 1952 anti-subversion law. A panel ruled that there was no reason to believe the group still posed a threat to society, and there was not enough public support to apply the anti-subversion law in a country that had been subject to abusive police powers before and during World War II.
However, two new laws went into effect Monday that are aimed at giving police more power to monitor the group's activities and to help compensate victims of its crimes.
Aum campaigned vigorously against passage of the laws, announcing on Sept. 30 that it was temporarily suspending all activities and shutting down its branches while it conducted an internal review. On Dec. 1, it admitted for the first time that its members were involved in the subway attack and said it would offer compensation to families of the victims of that attack, and others. Aum was criticized, however, for not apologizing for the attacks.
Last Sunday, an Aum representative took that additional step. The acting leader, Tatsuko Muraoka, went to the home of a victim of an Aum gas attack in Matsumoto City that killed seven people in 1994 and apologized.
"If they had admitted the responsibility on the crimes, and if they had made an apology earlier, the way of deliberation of anti-Aum bills in [parliament] might have been different," said Shoko Egawa, an author and expert on Aum.
The new law would require Aum to report its activities every three months, and give police authority to inspect Aum facilities without warrants. Police applied Monday for permission to put the measure into effect, but before they can act a seven-member panel of judges, lawyers and academics must decide whether such a law can be applied to Aum.
Citizens' groups in communities around Japan that have been fighting the presence of Aum in their neighborhoods welcomed the law, hoping police will now relieve them of round-the-clock vigils monitoring--and in some cases blocking--entrances to buildings known to be used by Aum.
But other opponents of Aum worry that strengthening legal curbs on the group simply force it underground and make it harder for authorities to monitor its activities. "Their personal computer sales division was heavily criticized, so they are switching the emphasis from hardware to software," said Egawa. "Software sales can be dome from home, and it will be difficult to grasp who they are and what they do."
Into this struggle comes Fumihiro Joyu, described as second in rank to Asahara, the bearded, nearly blind guru who was arrested in 1995 and is being tried on 17 charges.
At the height of Aum's popularity, Joyu headed its Moscow offices and preached to an estimated 30,000 Russian followers. He returned to Japan to serve as Aum's spokesman after the subway attack and was a familiar face in newspapers and on television, declaring Aum's innocence.
Last June, as his imprisonment for perjury neared an end, he wrote a letter to Aum executives stating his intention to return to full participation in the sect upon his release, according to the Public Security Investigation Agency report. Earlier, the report said, in an appeal to Japan's political leaders aimed at staving off passage of the new laws, he wrote that he would "try to solve problems between Aum and local people and try my best to make sure followers observe various regulations and laws."
"A lot of attention will be paid to how Joyu will guide Aum after he gets out," the report said.
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Passersby glimpse Aum founder Shoko Asahara on television during a segment of his trial in 1996.
CAPTION: Shoko Asahara, as pictured in 1990, five years before the subway attack.