Aum Shinri-kyo and Related Controversies
"I was convinced that I had no choice but to follow (Matsumoto) for the rest of my life." TOMOMITSU NIIMI Aum Shinrikyo member and convicted killer Tomomitsu Niimi sat upright in the center of the court room as Judge Yujiro Nakatani delivered the verdict: guilty on 26 counts of murder. And when the judge sentenced Niimi to death, the Aum Shinrikyo cultist responded with a slight nod. His self-perceived role as a tragic martyr was complete.
Although Niimi's former colleagues in the cult blamed Aum founder Chizuo Matsumoto for their crimes, Niimi never once turned against his bearded guru.
He even appeared resolved to hear the death sentence handed down Wednesday at the Tokyo District Court.
But his demeanor changed when the judge sharply criticized the defendant.
Judge Nakatani described Niimi's crimes as "cowardly and selfish" and chastised him for offering empty excuses instead of showing sincere remorse. Rather than face the judge and his remarks, Niimi turned to the court gallery.
In past trial sessions, Niimi uttered statements that can only be considered challenges to social mores.
He once said the victims of his crimes were an unavoidable sacrifice for the happiness of the greatest number of people. He also said his ideal state of mind was the happiness he felt after killing people on the instructions of Matsumoto.
Tomoyuki Oyama, the father of Satoko Sakamoto, who was killed along with her lawyer husband and baby boy, said he had reservations about capital punishment, but felt Niimi deserved to die.
"I believe (he has not shown remorse) because he is trying to run away from the pain of looking directly at what he did," Oyama said. "He is very immature."
Those who remember Niimi from the days when he was growing up in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, are puzzled at how such a quiet child could have transformed into a cold-blooded killer.
"I guess it's only natural he got the death sentence, since he killed people one after another," said a businessman in the neighborhood where Niimi grew up.
There were signs from junior high school that Niimi was a troubled child.
For a graduation anthology, Niimi wrote a short composition titled "Worries," which contained the passage, "For the past three years, the only problem that I could never resolve was the bullying that was directed at me."
Niimi was a skinny boy born with a scar on his upper lip. Although he was a member of the swimming club at school, he never made the team as a regular. He was even bullied by younger students.
He wrote at that time he had no freedom to live or confidence to go on living.
His parents operated a recycling business and collected discarded newspapers and metal scraps. Niimi often helped his parents and read books he collected during his chores.
In his second year of high school, he read a pamphlet published by a religious organization that included members' descriptions of how their diseases were cured.
Niimi joined the organization, believing that his scarred upper lip could be healed.
After moving on to other religious organizations, Niimi read a magazine article during his college days about Matsumoto's experience of floating on air. When he began training with Aum, Niimi said he felt his body grow warm and that he saw the light.
In an Aum magazine, Niimi wrote about those experiences: "I was convinced that I had no choice but to follow (Matsumoto) for the rest of my life."
Senior Aum Shinrikyo figure Tomomitsu Niimi was sentenced Wednesday to death for his role in 26 murders and other crimes committed by the doomsday cult, including two deadly sarin attacks.
The Tokyo District Court found Niimi, 38, guilty of playing active roles in 11 crimes perpetrated by the cult, including seven cases of murder and two attempted murders between 1989 and 1995. The seven murder cases involve 26 deaths.
Other than Aum founder Shoko Asahara, Niimi is the only Aum member indicted in all seven murder cases, including the June 1994 sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, the March 1995 Tokyo subway gassing and the 1989 killing of an anti-Aum lawyer, his wife and their infant son.
Presiding Judge Yujiro Nakatani said Niimi bears grave criminal responsibility as a senior member of the cult, whose "unprecedentedly malicious" crimes shocked society.
The ruling marked the eighth death penalty the court has handed down to an Aum defendant.
Niimi immediately filed an appeal.
The judge said Niimi "willfully participated in the crimes, and actively fulfilled his orders. As a result, 26 people were deprived of their lives."
As Nakatani read the sentence, Niimi, who in his first trial session called himself "the direct disciple of Asahara," showed almost no emotion.
He told the court throughout his trial that he was still loyal to the guru, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, and that his belief in Asahara's teachings remained intact.
Niimi confessed to all the crimes for which he stood accused, other than the subway attack, but refused to apologize.
He said his "super-religious acts" transcended worldly values and that the crimes were his "self-sacrifice intended to salvage people."
"The defendant has refused to show any regret and has repeatedly made self-righteous excuses," the judge said. "The defendant has only insulted the victims and hurt their next of kin by his remarks (in court), and it is difficult to expect that he will someday repent."
Niimi's lawyers claimed that most of his crimes were part of Aum's attempts to cause turbulence in Japanese society based on their religious beliefs, and that only Asahara -- the accused mastermind -- should be sentenced to hang.
The court said, however, that Aum's crimes were mere attempts at self-protection rather than part of any action based on religious beliefs.
Shizue Takahashi, the widow of a subway worker killed in the 1995 sarin attack, told reporters after the ruling, "I have thought that (Niimi) deserves the death sentence. The accused behaved badly in court, and even seemed to be smiling."
Niimi, known as Aum's "home affairs minister" and one of Asahara's closest aides, played direct roles in all seven murder plots, with the exception of the subway attack, the court ruled.
His involvement in Aum's crimes began with the 1989 killing of cultist Shuji Taguchi, who tried to flee from the cult. Niimi strangled Taguchi, the court said.
He also strangled anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his 1-year-old son, Tatsuhiko, later that year, the court said.
Niimi played key roles in the cult's sarin attack in Matsumoto in June 1994 that killed seven people and seriously injured three others. In the same year, he participated in three other cult-related murders and one attempted murder, as well as another murder attempt in January 1995, the court said.
In the subway attack, which killed 12 and injured around 5,000, Niimi played a conspiratorial role and served as a driver for other cultists who released the deadly nerve gas on the trains, the court said.
Like the other seven cultists sentenced to death by the court, Niimi filed an appeal with a higher court.
The trials of four other senior Aum members, including Asahara, are still under way.
TOKYO - A former doomsday cult leader was sentenced to death Wednesday for his involvement in numerous murders, including the nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway that killed 12 people and sickened thousands.
Tomomitsu Niimi, former "Home Affairs Minister" of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, was found guilty in Tokyo District Court of murdering 26 people in seven separate attacks, including the 1995 subway gassing and the slaying of a lawyer and his family.
Court official Hideyuki Ito said Niimi has decided to appeal the case. It was unclear when the next proceedings begin.
Niimi was given the death sentence by a three-judge panel presided over by head judge Yujiro Nakatani, Ito said.
"The inhumane crimes go against humanity and (Niimi's) responsibility is extremely grave," Nakatani said, according to Kyodo News agency and public broadcaster NHK television.
Niimi gained notoriety at the start of his trial in 1996 by refusing to enter pleas and pledging eternal loyalty to Aum guru Shoko Asahara.
He has since reportedly admitted to all charges brought against him except involvement in the subway attack. But he claimed he was following Asahara's orders and shouldn't be subject to the death penalty.
During his final statement, he reportedly said: "The death-penalty system creates new misfortunes. Please create a society where the death penalty is not needed."
Niimi is accused of helping organize the 1989 strangulation of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto - one of the first to question the cult's activities - and the lawyer's wife and son.
Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, has been on trial since April 1996 and is indicted for allegedly directing the Tokyo subway assault, as well as other killings.
So far, prosecutors have demanded death sentences for 11 cult members. With Wednesday's indictment, a total of nine have been sentenced to die, but some of those sentences are on appeal, and none has yet been carried out.
Although authorities do not disclose what crimes are punishable by death, the murder of several people is usually believed to warrant the punishment.
The charismatic Asahara had predicted an apocalypse that only cult members would survive. Local media have reported that the cult was developing chemical, biological and conventional weapons in an apparent attempt to attack population centers and overthrow the government.
The cult was declared bankrupt in March 1996, but later regrouped under the name Aleph. It is under surveillance by Japan's Public Safety Agency, which has warned that the group remains a threat.
The ward government of Tokyo's Setagaya-ku is poised to enact an ordinance aimed at protecting local residents from the AUM Shinrikyo cult that allegedly launched two deadly nerve gas attacks, officials said Wednesday.
The ward government will submit a draft ordinance to the ward assembly for approval during a session that opens on June 12.
Officials said the move comes after a local court ruled that the ward government's decision not to accept residency registration applications filed by cult members is illegal and therefore invalid.
This will be the first local ordinance across the country that targets the AUM Shinrikyo, according to ward officials. The move is expected to spur other local governments to enact similar ordinances.
"We would like to use the ordinance as a springboard to step up efforts to ease local residents' fears over the cult. We will strongly urge the national government to place the cult under its surveillance over an extended period," a ward official said.
If enacted, the ward government could invoke the ordinance in cases where activities conducted by any organization placed under surveillance are deemed to threaten the peaceful life of local residents.
Under the ordinance, the ward government would investigate the impact that such activities have on local residents' lives and implement measures to ensure residents' safety.
Specifically, the ward government intends to investigate the losses the existence of AUM members in the ward have caused to the local community, such as a fall in land prices and an increase in the number of residents moving out of the ward. The ward authorities are also considering hiring experts to provide counseling to local residents disturbed by the cult.
The draft ordinance also states that the ward government can provide subsidies to organizations involved in anti-cult activities. The Public Security Investigation Agency placed the AUM Shinrikyo under its surveillance over a three-year period from January 2000 under the "law concerning surveillance of organizations involved in mass murder," which targets the cult. The agency regularly inspects the cult's facilities and orders it to report its activities.
Since December 2000, about 80 AUM members, including its leader Fumihiro Joyu, have moved into three apartment complexes in the ward's Karasuyama district. The ward government has turned down their applications for residency registration. However, the Tokyo District Court has ruled that its refusal to register them as Setagaya residents is illegal.
Shoko Asahara, founder of the cult, and many of his followers are under indictment on charges of involvement in many crimes he masterminded, including the March 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 people and sickened thousands of others.
Lawyers in Japan have opened their defence of the man accused of masterminding the deadly Sarin nerve gas attacks on Tokyo's underground railway seven years ago.
The attacks killed 12 people and made thousands ill.
But lawyers acting for Shoko Asahara, the founder of the Aum Shinrikyo, or Supreme Truth Cult, said his doctrine did not justify murder and it had been misunderstood by his disciples.
The trial of Mr Asahara began in 1996, and correspondents say it has come to symbolise the slow pace of Japan's judicial system.
Mr Asahara, 47, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, is accused of ordering the Tokyo attack, as well as other killings, including a June 1994 gassing in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto in which seven people died.
If convicted he could be sentenced to death.
But his defence lawyers claimed in their opening submission on Thursday that as Mr Asahara's sect grew bigger, it became difficult for him to maintain control over all the disciples.
"By misunderstanding the teachings of the accused, Matsumoto, some disciples believed it is permissible to deprive people of their lives for their salvation and committed a series of crimes," the defence argued.
His lawyers instead accused Hideo Murai, "science and technology minister" in the cult's self-styled government, and another follower, Yoshihiro Inoue, of planning the subway attacks.
Murai was stabbed to death in front of television cameras in April 1995 by a man outside the cult's Tokyo headquarters. Inoue has been sentenced to life in prison.
Mr Asahara, dressed in a blue sweater and grey trousers, kept his eyes shut as his lawyers spoke, AFP news agency reported.
His defence team is expected to submit "not guilty" pleas on all 13 charges. Their submissions are expected to take about a year.
Aum Shinrikyo has since changed its name to Aleph and renounced violence.
But Japanese security agencies announced on Wednesday that they were renewing their three-year surveillance of the cult as they believe it remains a threat.
AUM is now renamed Aleph and claims it is now benign has about 1,000 lay followers and 650 followers in cult communes, predicted an apocalypse that only cult members would survive. Thought to raise most funds from computer software business it runs.
TOKYO - Tokyo police said Monday they arrested the same day a member of the AUM Shinrikyo cult on suspicion of failing to declare the salaries of workers at his computer store in violation of the Local Tax Law.
TOKYO - Police said Monday they arrested a former public relations manager of the Aum Shinrikyo religious group on suspicion of listing an incorrect address on his driver's license.
Yukihiro Bessho, 55, listed his previous address on the license when he renewed it in Tokyo on Nov 16 last year, the police said. Following the arrest, the police raided eight facilities of the group, which now calls itself Aleph, in Tokyo on Monday morning, they said.
FUKUOKA - A former AUM Shinrikyo top member passed the entrance examination of Kyushu University medical faculty but was refused admission because of his former membership with the cult, officials said Friday.
The 33-year-old man, whose name is being withheld, was a top member of the cult's "Cabinet secretariat" and a close aide to guru Shoko Asahara.
Kyushu University officials said that they would not allow him to study at the university because they believe his past activities in the cult and the position he held were not suitable for medical education.
"We learned from reports that he joined the group when he was a medical student (at the University of Tokyo) and played a part in the cult's activities," said Nobuhiko Kuwano, who heads the Kyushu University medical faculty. "We now believe he is unsuitable for receiving education that tries to save people's lives." After the cult's sarin gassing in the Tokyo subway system in 1995, the man was arrested for confining children of woman followers in AUM facilities but was later released as law enforcers decided not to press charges.
He left the cult in May 1995, read law at Chuo University and graduated this year. He passed the Kyushu University medical faculty's examinations in February.
He submitted entrance documents to the medical faculty office but the university reportedly told him Friday that he would not be admitted. Officials quoted him as saying, "I understand."
A Japanese court sentenced a senior member of the Aum Supreme Truth to 10 years in prison for murdering a cult pharmacist who tried to help a sick disciple escape.
Shinichi Koshikawa, 37, was given a 10-year prison term Monday at Tokyo District Court for conspiring with other followers to kill Kotaro Ochida, then 29, in January 1994.
Koshikawa, who headed the sect's self-styled "commerce department," is still a believer in cult guru Shoko Asahara, and had pleaded not guilty, denying his and Asahara's role in the killing, Jiji Press news agency said.
But in his ruling, judge Hisaharu Yasui said the killing was "a cruel crime in which many followers restrained the victim and strangled him" with a rope at Aum's main compound in Kamikuishiki, a central Japanese village at the foot of Mt. Fuji.
Koshikawa "played an active role by holding the victim down," the judge ruled, adding there were no grounds for leniency.
Asahara ordered Ochida killed after he was found in a restricted area of the compound by followers as he was trying to arrange the escape of another follower, who was ill and confined in an Aum clinic, the court heard.
The guru himself has been on trial for almost six years, facing multiple charges, including murder.
He is charged with masterminding the 1995 gas attack on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995, in which 12 people died and more than 5,000 were injured by the Nazi-invented sarin gas.
Asahara has also been implicated in an earlier gas attack in the central city of Matsumoto that killed seven people in June 1994.
TOKYO - In a quiet suburb outside this teeming city, residents have hung banners from apartment balconies to greet their new neighbors.
"Aum Get Out," says one, while another urges: "Leave Aum. We want to rehabilitate you."
"Aum" is Aum Shinri Kyo, the religious sect responsible for the release of sarin gas on the Tokyo subway, which killed 12 people and injured nearly 4,000, on March 20, 1995.
Nearly seven years later, the onetime doomsday cult has reorganized on a much smaller scale. But it has renewed concerns among Japanese officials and citizens.
At its peak, the cult had an estimated 17,000 members in Japan, more than 10,000 in Russia, and chapters in the United States and Germany.
Shoko Asahara, the legally blind, charismatic leader of Aum Shinri Kyo - "Aum Supreme Truth" - planned to overthrow the Japanese government and "purify" a corrupt society through murder.
Almost six years after hearings began, Asahara is still on trial. The prosecution recently finished its case, and legal experts say the proceeding may take another six years.
Of the five people who released the sarin gas, two were executed. Two are appealing their death sentence, and one is serving a life term. Former cult spokesman Fumihiro Joyu served a three-year prison term and is the sect's new leader.
Charged with 13 crimes, Asahara is likely to be sentenced to death by hanging if convicted.
Criminal trials in Japan generally take a long time, although Asahara's is exceptional, legal experts said. In addition to the mountain of evidence arrayed against him, Asahara has chosen not to speak with his lawyers, making his defense an even more daunting prospect.
Some observers believe the government is moving slowly because it is afraid of making the guru a martyr.
Journalist Shoko Egawa, who has been writing about Aum for more than a decade, doesn't believe this is so. "If the government is prolonging this, it is because they don't want to be seen as acting hastily; they don't want to be criticized," she said.
Egawa speculated that Asahara would "become bigger among his followers" if he were executed.
Said Susumu Shimazono, a professor of religious studies at Tokyo University: "It's difficult to say whether it's more dangerous for Asahara to be dead or alive." How much influence Asahara has over the reorganized sect is a matter of debate. The group has renamed itself Aleph, after the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which means "new beginning." Aum differed from other so-called new religions in Japan because it was more urban and drew followers from the elite wealthy families and graduates of the top universities. The sect's adherents rejected the corporate, consumerist system of the 1980s and '90s in Japan.
Originally a yoga and meditation sect, Aum drew from mystical Tibetan Buddhism. Through asceticism and devotion to Asahara, Aum followers sought to purify themselves of the corrupting influences of the world. Asahara's apocalyptic vision embraced killing as a rite of purification.
"Many still follow Asahara, and he never renounced justified murder," Shimazono said.
That is cause for worry. In December 2000, Justice Minister Masahiko Komura asserted that Asahara continued to wield enormous influence over his followers and said Aum-Aleph still posed a threat to the public.
In 1999, crisis management consultant Raisuke Miyawaki, a former investigator with the National Police Agency, warned the government that it had hired many young systems engineers with Aum ties to help fix expected Y2K problems. A later probe revealed that more than 100 agencies and companies had hired them as subcontractors.
Miyawaki and others believe that Aleph will become a "cyber cult." The sect's secretive ways have alarmed those living near Aleph's cells.
In Karasuyama, a Tokyo suburb in which Aleph has settled, banners are only the most obvious evidence. The public security department and local residents monitor the sect's comings and goings 24 hours a day. Plainclothes agents from the Public Security Investigation Agency regularly search Aleph's apartments.
Hiroshi Araki is Aleph's official spokesman. During an interview in a roach-infested apartment packed with computers and VCRs - Aum funded itself by establishing a cut-rate computer and software business - Araki said Aleph had about 600 "devoted" followers and about 1,000 overall in 11 cities. Seventy live in Karasuyama.
Araki, 33, a graduate of Kyoto University, joined the cult in 1992. He said the sarin attacks and other crimes attributed to Aum came as a shock to him, but he remains a follower "so I can find out the truth" about what happened.
Aleph still follows many of Asahara's teachings, he said, although they have renounced the guru's dictates regarding justifiable homicide.
Police searched this apartment and others for three hours two days earlier, mainly checking the computers. Araki said they had become accustomed to the scrutiny. He seemed resigned to suffering for Aum's sins and willing to endure it to continue a search for enlightenment.
"I joined Aum because I couldn't find a comfortable place in this society," Araki said. "This is my destiny." Twenty years ago, a survey of Japanese religious consciousness showed that most university students thought that religion was gloomy, closed and boring. A post-Aum survey revealed that students added a new adjective: abunai, or "dangerous."
Araki, however, vigorously denied that Aleph threatened the society it has rejected. Still, he said, "I can understand psychologically why people are still afraid.
"This is a conflict I myself have a problem with."
TOKYO - Long before anthrax entered America's daily vocabulary, a doomsday cult in Japan was experimenting with the substance to explore ways to kill as many people as possible.
In 1993, members of the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) cult sprayed anthrax into the air above its Tokyo headquarters. It was later found to be a harmless strain used as a vaccine for cattle. Besides complaints of a foul smell, nothing came of it.
But the Aum Shinrikyo cult's forays into germ warfare and chemical weapons didn't start or end with anthrax. It also did research on the botulism microbe and poisonous gases and at one point tried to obtain samples of the Ebola virus.
On March 20, 1995, it finally found a formula for wicked success - plastic bags filled with sarin, a nerve gas. Cult members used umbrellas to puncture the bags on crowded Tokyo subways during morning rush hour and exited quickly. Thousands were soon coughing and going into spasms. Mass chaos ensued. Twelve people died, and 5,500 were injured. Many are still suffering physical and psychological effects.
Seven years later, although several former cult leaders have been sentenced to death, many say the government has done little to aid the victims and even less to ready itself for future acts of terrorism.
"Unfortunately, the Japanese government has done very little since 1995," said Masashi Nishihara, president of Japan's National Defense Academy. "We are not very well prepared. We say it's a typhoon mentality - we wait for it to pass, breathe a sigh of relief, don't worry about the next one. It costs a lot of money to build a strong house."
Japan's experience is relevant to the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, with the still-unsolved anthrax mailings and the vulnerabilities they revealed in the nation's security.
Bush administration officials have cited bioterrorism as a major threat facing America. Funding for defense against biological terrorism would increase by more than 300 percent, to $5.9 billion, under the budget President Bush sent to Congress this year.
In Japan, instead of analyzing how the sarin gas attack could have taken place and trying to prepare for future catastrophes, authorities treated the incident simply as a criminal case, said Shoko Egawa, a free-lance journalist and Japan's most renowned expert on Aum Shinrikyo.
"They weren't thinking so much about crisis management or terrorism but how to solve the crime," she said.
The government enacted two countermeasures in the aftermath of the 1995 attack. It tightened access to materials that could be used to make chemical weapons and passed a law subjecting Aum Shinrikyo to surveillance. The surveillance law is reviewed every three years.
"If Aum is cunning enough to stay quiet for three years, that would mean the surveillance would stop," said Shizue Takahashi, whose husband died in the subway attack. "I fear what would happen after that because the organization is still intact and active."
Japan has refrained from outlawing the cult or taking harsher measures because of its strong belief in religious freedom. Nor, after much debate, has it passed a law giving the prime minister expanded powers in case of emergency.
Meanwhile, Aum Shinrikyo continues to recruit new members.
The man believed to be the cult's second-in-command, Fumihiro Joyu, was released from prison two years ago after serving four years for perjury and forgery. The cult promptly changed its name to Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
To the amazement of many, it is finding willing converts. A report by the Japanese Justice Ministry last year said the cult is using the Internet to attract new followers and has more than 1,650 members. Although that is down from the 10,000 it claimed at its peak, membership is growing, according to the report.
It has resumed ties with Aum Shinrikyo members in Russia, where it once claimed 30,000 followers and half a dozen centers. It also had branches in New York, Bonn, Germany, and other major cities. Three Russian cultists were sentenced last month in Vladivostok for planning to detonate bombs in Japan in 2000 to free the imprisoned leader, Shoko Asahara. They got terms ranging from 4 1/2 to eight years.
The cult also announced late last year that it was starting up a software development firm. Aum Shinrikyo once ran a plethora of businesses, from computer consulting to noodle shops.
"They are sly and persistent enough to get around the laws and convince the public they are a decent and well-meaning organization," Takahashi said.
For the victims and their families, although they were awarded some compensation after suing the cult, the government has not responded to their requests for financial assistance, continued medical treatment or research into the long-term effects of sarin exposure, Takahashi said.
A survey of 1,000 of the victims found 20 percent still suffered physical effects - including vision problems and mental disorders - seven years later. Some have run out of insurance or been forced to give up jobs.
The attack has also shattered the Japanese people's sense of security. Once one of the modern world's safest societies, many have lost confidence in the government's ability to protect them.
"We feel the police are not taking enough precautions to keep us safe," said Mitsue Samada, a part-time office worker. "We used to rely on the police, but the trust has diminished."
The authorities in Japan say the Aum Supreme Truth cult responsible for the 1995 gas attack on the Tokyo underground railway is still dangerous and needs monitoring.
The justice minister, Mayumi Moriyama, said the group still considered its founder, Shoko Asahara, an object of devotion.
Mr Asahara is on trial facing several charges, including ordering the sarin gas attack, which killed 12 people and made thousands ill.
If convicted he could be sentenced to death.
The Aum cult - which has changed its name to Aleph - says it is now a benign religious group. It has an estimated 650 followers living in cult communes and some 1,000 lay members.
Tatsuya Mori took the gamble of his life when he packed in his job for Aum Shinrikyo. Although the documentary maker's plan was not to join the cult but to examine its activities and characteristics, his portrayal of the human side of the group ruffled more than a few feathers.
Two documentary films directed by Mori show not only what goes on behind the scenes of the cult, now known as Aleph, but also the smiling faces of members and their friendly interaction with the local people who monitor the group. Mori's footage is full of surprises and paradoxes that news coverage and TV documentaries have never captured.
``I wanted to eliminate prejudice and preconceptions,'' says the 45-year-old director, who believes violent conflicts occur only when people focus on one side of a story.
In ``A2,'' the second film in Mori's series about Aum made last year, a young cult member and local volunteer monitors in Fujioka, Gunma Prefecture, chat over the fence that divides them and exchange books before the cult's facility in the city is demolished. A relationship initially based on the committing of atrocities ends in friendship.
In the next scene, members of a radical right-wing group scream as they clash with police guarding the cult's Yokohama office, then calmly talk to another Aum follower. Mori then shows the right-wing group members, both old and young alike, attending a Shinto ceremony to offer New Year's prayers, pursuing their religious beliefs while persecuting those of another persuasion.
Mori even questions some cult followers about their beliefs, their guru Chizuo Matsumoto and his orders to kill.
Matsumoto, Aum's founder, is being tried for alleged involvement in at least a dozen crimes, including the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995, which killed 12 people and left more than 5,000 sick.
It was just after the Tokyo attack that Mori began documenting the cult.
At the time, he was following Aum for a TV documentary program. But a rift soon developed between him and the program's producer, as Mori refused to comply with some of the producer's conditions.
The producer demanded that Mori use Aum experts and researchers as reporters and include interviews with victims and their families. He was not to show the finished product to Aum members before it was aired on television. In other words, Mori says, the producer was simply out to make money and secure a high viewer rating by using a tried and tested formula that had worked for other stations.
Complying with the requirements would have defeated Mori's purpose in making the documentary. He broke his contract, refusing to pander to viewers' tastes and confident that other stations would jump at the chance to use his rare footage.
To his great disappointment, however, other stations set similar conditions. That didn't stop Mori, just as the cult's lethal gas attacks and slaying of Yokohama lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family did not make the director want to quit.
In fact, Mori says, he never felt afraid of Aum.
``I wasn't frightened at all,'' he says. Having requested that Aum allow him to film its members, he stuck his camera into every nook and cranny of the cult's facilities and recorded followers' activities.
Unlike news programs that portrayed Aum members as ``untouchables'' who often refuse media coverage or remain silent in the face of residents' campaigns against them, Mori's documentary films ``A'' and ``A2'' show them to be cooperative and even cheerful at times.
His unusual portrayal of Aum provoked harsh criticism when ``A'' was first screened in May 1998. Some members of the public even doubted whether his take on the cult warranted comment at all.
``I think the public simply decided to ignore my film,'' Mori says of the first Aum movie, which introduces the aftermath of the sarin gas attacks and the resulting confusion among followers.
Mori let his camera roll even when the police violently interrogated three Aum members on the street. When ``A'' was shown, human rights activists praised him for capturing what they considered unfair arrests, Mori says. But that was never his intention.
``That's not what I wanted to hear,'' Mori says. ``It means nothing if Aum is seen as good and the police are seen as evil. I hope people can think beyond that.''
In 1999, the director took the film to the Berlin International Film Festival, a move he describes as a great responsibility. ``I felt I was carrying a heavy burden and showing a negative side of Japan,'' he says.
The question-and-answer session that followed the screening of the film certainly became heated. Mori recalls one viewer wanting to check whether the movie was a true documentary, as he said Japan seemed fake and the people in the film appeared to be acting.
But Mori was relieved when an elderly German woman approached him afterward and gave him a hug. She told him Germany had once shown its dark side and had experienced terror similar to that brought about by Aum, and that was why it had gone to war, he says.
However, it was only after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States that Mori felt sure his approach was right.
``I realized Japan wasn't the only nation to suffer such terrorism,'' he says. ``I finally felt comfortable about introducing the film and felt proud of my work.''
Having grown up at a time when self-produced films were all the rage, Mori's first ambition was to make dramas. But, having trained as an actor, he would often stand in for actor friends, and he eventually found himself spending more time in front of the camera than looking through the viewfinder.
``Acting is much lighter (than directing),'' says Mori, whose starred in several films, among them ``Cure'' director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 1997 debut movie. ``You don't have to think much when you're acting. If I'd thought too much, directors wouldn't have liked it.''
Even when he took a job with a television production company, Mori's heart wasn't set on making documentary films. It was only when hunting down Aum members for ``A'' that he became aware of the power and scope of the genre.
``I realized I could present a subjective viewpoint through documentary films, unlike with TV documentaries,'' he says.
``A2'' won the Citizens' Award and Special Award at the 2001 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival.
Mori says he wanted to portray the aspect of the human spirit that is lost when an individual belongs to a group, whether it be a religious organization, a local community, a scandal-tainted firm such as Snow Brand Foods Co. or even the Foreign Ministry.
``I wanted to show that important things like imagination and love for others are taken away by the group mentality,'' he says.
When looking at two sides, it is the stronger and larger entity that has a greater capacity for altering its beliefs and opinions, Mori argues. Therefore, it is society as a whole that needs to learn from the Aum experience and change for the better, he says. He hopes members of the cult won't compromise under the pressure and demands of society, as they appear to be doing by having abandoned certain teachings and participating in street cleaning to gain acceptance by the community.
``Rules are rules, but they are just like us in allowing some things that even go against their religious teachings,'' Mori says.
Although Aum bans followers from watching movies, about 10 members featured in ``A2'' came to see the documentary, Mori recalls.
With the film having brought home to them the chaos they had caused, the followers left without comment, he says. But they later sent him an e-mail message saying the documentary had made them think and reconsider their stance.
Now that Mori has learned to manipulate documentary film making to present subjective views, his next project is a third documentary in the series, in which he will demonstrate his own beliefs about the Aum faith.
``A2'' opens on March 23 at Box Higashi-Nakano. ``A'' will play at Uplink Factory in Shibuya Ward from March 16.
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