Aum Shinri-kyo and Related Controversies
TOKYO, Japan - Former Japanese doomsday cult leader Shoko Asahara has been found guilty and sentenced to death for masterminding the 1995 nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subways and other crimes.
The mammoth eight-year trial of Asahara -- a partially-sighted yoga tutor whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto -- ended Friday with the Tokyo District Court finding him guilty of ordering his Aum Shinrikyo cult to release the sarin gas, killing 12 people.
Thousands of others on Japan's subway at the time of the peak-hour attack were sickened, and many are still suffering with headaches, breathing problems and dizziness.
Asahara was also accused of being behind the killing of 15 other people, including seven that died in a nerve gas attack in central Japan a year earlier.
Asahara has not given any coherent testimony during his trial, and defense lawyers have argued he was no longer in command of the cult when the subway attack took place.
But the guilty verdict was widely expected after former members testified to his leadership of the cult. Japan also has a 99 percent conviction record.
The death penalty has been ordered for 11 of 189 cult members tried so far in connection with the attacks. None of the sentences have yet to be carried out.
Security was tight at the court ahead of the verdict to guard against Asahara's followers disrupting proceedings. Subway travelers in Tokyo were warned to be on the alert and report any "suspicious objects."
Over 4,500 people turned up on Friday to try and get one of the 38 courtroom seats available to the public. Spectators were chosen by lottery.
Although trials in Japan are often lengthy, Asahara's eight year epic was due to the country's chronic shortage of lawyers and judges, the complexity of the case and a delay after the former cult guru fired his first attorney.
The 1995 subway attack shocked Japan and shattered its image as a safe and crime free haven.
At its height, the Aum cult commanded 10,000 members in Japan and 30,000 more in Russia. A crackdown on the group followed the subway attack and many of the cult's bizarre practices were exposed.
Among them, initiates to Aum paid large sums to drink Asahara's dirty bath water, sip his blood and wear electric caps to keep their brain waves in check with that of their leader's, The Associated Press reported.
The group still claims about 1,600 members in Japan and 300 in Russia.
Nine years after Aum Shinrikyo carried out its second, and last, sarin attack, and its founder and guru Shoko Asahara was arrested, the cult is teetering on the financial brink, unable to attract new members and apparently reeling from an internal power struggle.
And many of its existing flock appear to be having second thoughts about the cult's religious significance.
In December, the Public Security Investigation Agency said Fumihiro Joyu handed over the reins of the cult, which now calls itself Aleph, to five lieutenants in midmonth amid what it suspects was internal strife over Aum's future.
The five "choro-bu," or group of elders, rank lower than Joyu in terms of religious "level." They first assumed supervisory positions after Asahara's arrest in 1995 but installed Joyu as their leader when he was released from prison in December 1999.
"Joyu must have been forced to step down given mounting frustration among other senior members over his policy of severing the cult's ties with Asahara, at least on the surface," one agency investigator said.
While he still holds the title of cult representative, the 41-year-old Joyu has not taken part in decision-making, lectured at Aum seminars or performed the "initiation" ritual that is believed to pass on his supreme power to followers.
"We believe he was made to pay for the cult's failure to attract new members and for its current financial difficulties," the investigator said.
In 1995, Aum had about 1,000 followers leading communal lives at its facilities, along with some 10,000 lay followers who financially supported the commune residents, according to the Public Security Investigation Agency.
But according to Aum's latest report to the agency, it had 735 lay followers and 578 people living at its facilities across Japan as of the end of January. The number of commune residents had fallen by 28 from a year earlier, while that of the lay followers had increased by six.
While Aum has acknowledged that Joyu relinquished his responsibilities as leader, it denied the move was due to internal strife and claimed it was only temporary.
Cult spokesman Hiroshi Araki told a news conference Feb. 5 that Joyu's physical condition had deteriorated as a result of excessive "initiation" rituals to raise donations, and he was now training to regain his health at the cult's headquarters in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo.
But whatever the reason for his departure from center stage, one thing is clear -- the cult is in dire financial straits.
According to the Public Security Investigation Agency, a five-minute "initiation" session costs 1.5 million yen, and last summer the cult collected some 150 million yen through this process alone. But Joyu is said to be the only cultist allowed to perform the ritual.
Araki also said the cult tried throughout last year to raise donations by creating new branches to increase its lay followers.
But in the face of persistent campaigns against Aum's presence by people living near their dwellings, these efforts have proved fruitless, and have only served to further worsen the cult's financial state, he said.
Aum's financial woes have made it increasingly difficult for the cult to keep paying its promised redress to survivors of its crimes.
Earlier this month, lawyer Saburo Abe, the court-appointed administrator in charge of liquidating Aum's assets, said Aleph had paid 465 million yen into a fund for victim compensation by the end of 2003, but not once last year was it able to meet its monthly target. It was the first time this has happened since the redress plan was hammered out.
In a letter to Abe in October, Aum apologized for failing to pay the required amounts, and explained that it could not collect sufficient donations from lay followers amid the protracted economic slump.
The cult said neighborhood campaigns to oust its members have increased the financial burden. It had to relocate its Osaka headquarters twice and pay higher rent for the new site as well as other locations.
The financial woes have taken their toll on followers.
One member at Aum's Setagaya Ward headquarters said he entered an intensive religious training course last summer that usually involves several months of complete isolation. However, the course was halted within two months due to financial problems.
The follower said he now has a part-time job in line with Aleph's policy shift last autumn to encourage commune residents to work and support the cult. He said many of his colleagues are also holding part-time jobs, mainly at construction sites and restaurants.
But the void left by Asahara's absence, more than anything else, is probably the biggest factor undermining Aum's foundations.
Everything tied to Aum, including its religious goals, doctrines, training programs and organizational structure, had been based on Asahara being the leader.
A glance at the bookshelves of any Aum facility illustrates this. Although texts written by Joyu and videotapes of his lectures have been added, the majority of the items are Asahara's.
Many followers are also apparently pondering whether the cult has any religious relevance now.
The decline in religious fervor may have something to do with the drop in new recruits, which has effectively boosted the average age of the cultists from the mid-20s range to the late 30s.
One example of the dwindling religious enthusiasm was seen last February, when it was revealed that one of the cult's most respected leaders had been having a secret affair with a female cultist.
In December, the cultist, who at the time had been a choro-bu member and held the second-highest rank in the cult, was demoted to the lowest rank as punishment.
"We no longer have the financial means to support the lives of hundreds of communal residents," one cultist admitted in summing up Aum's dilemma. "But we also may no longer have the strong religious bond to keep us together if we live separately (as was the case in the years following Asahara's arrest)."
The Aum Supreme Truth sect, led by guru Shoko Asahara, whose trial ends Friday, was the first terrorist group to make the nightmare of unleashing a weapon of mass destruction on the public a reality.
While Asahara's lack of testimony in his eight-year-long trial for masterminding 27 deaths has left the motives for the 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway unclear, his earlier utterances indicated he saw Aum at war with the Japanese state, and it had to strike a decisive blow.
The doomsday cult, whose disciples included brilliant misfit scientists recruited to produce deadly chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons, shocked the world when they released Sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and injuring 5,000.
In exchange for all their worldly possessions, Aum promised its followers a hand in a new world order after surviving an Armageddon that was supposed to occur in 1997.
"People who have acquired the power of god through the right kind of training will be the ones to create a new world after 1997," Asahara, now 48, once said.
Asahara, an acupuncturist with a conviction for selling quack medicine, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, founded the cult in 1984 and renamed it Aum Shinrikyo (Aum Supreme Truth) in 1987.
Although it incorporated many elements of Buddhism, it also revered Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.
Its adherents meditated, practised yoga, attempted levitation, wore battery-powered electrode caps to receive their guru's brainwaves, and underwent bizarre training more akin to torture.
But Aum was more than a religion. It was structured as a mini-state with "ministries" mirroring those of the Japanese government.
Asahara was obsessed with the deadly Nazi-invented, Sarin, and was paranoid his enemies would attack him with it.
"As we approach the time of my death, what has become evident is poison-gas warfare, including Sarin," he said in a message to followers in April 1994, according to an Aum magazine published a month later.
"We shall learn how to defend ourselves against toxic gas weapons."
Two months later, it was the cult that unleashed them, releasing Sarin in the central Japanese town of Matsumoto, in an attempt to kill judges hearing a civil property suit brought against the cult. Seven people died.
The guru told followers in a radio message broadcast from Vladivostok a day after the Tokyo attack, "the time has come for you to awaken and give your helping hand to me."
"Facing death, you have to see to it that you will have no regrets."
When police raided Aum's ramshackle headquarters in Kamikuishiki, on the footslopes of Mount Fuji in the week after the Tokyo subway gassing, they found both starving followers and a sophisticated chemical plant capable of producing enough Sarin to kill millions.
Two months later, like another demonised leader run to ground years later, Saddam Hussein, Asahara was captured hiding in a hole in an Aum building in Kamikuishiki.
Aum boasted 10,000 followers at the time of the Tokyo attack, with four overseas branches including Moscow and New York.
But the cult crumbled following the arrests of its leadership in the wake of the Tokyo attack, and avoided being outlawed when the government decided in 1997, the rump membership of around 1,000 grass-roots followers, posed no threat.
In December 1999 Aum apologized for the crimes, changed its name a month later to "Aleph", the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, signifying a new beginning, and claiming it would reform, disowned Asahara.
A government minister expressed scepticism, saying the sect was simply trying to cirumvent the restrictions of a law passed a month earlier cracking down on its activities.
Today, Aleph has some 1,650 believers in Japan and 300 in Russia, according to the National Police Agency.
Since December 1999, it has paid 464.8 million yen in compensation to some 2,000 victims, about half the 960 million it promised by July 2005, its bankruptcy lawyer said.
Since the subway attacks police have arrested more than 500 people -- with three still on a most wanted list -- and 11 have received the death sentence, although appeals have been filed in those cases.
But the authorities remain vigilant.
On February 16, less than two weeks before the Asahara verdict, 200 officers raided 11 Aleph-related buildings across Japan, and found pictures, books, tapes and videos made by or about Asahara and his teachings in most of them.
The police have noticed a dangerous, hardening trend to restore the founder's teachings, a spokesman said.
"We are seeing the reality of the Asahara revival," the spokesman told AFP. "We cannot rule out the possibility that there will be new illegal acts committed by followers who are absolutely devoted to Asahara."
After a trial lasting eight years, the verdict will be handed down this week against Shoko Asahara, the self-styled guru who founded the Aum Supreme Truth cult behind the 1995 Tokyo subway nerve-gas attack.
Prosecutors have demanded the death sentence for the 48-year-old accused of masterminding the plot to release Nazi-developed Sarin gas into the Tokyo metro. Twelve people were killed and more than 5,000 injured in the attack.
The near-blind yoga-master, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, has been charged with planning at least 13 crimes, which resulted in the deaths of a total of 27 people.
He is also charged with ordering cult disciples to be killed and for another Sarin attack in central Japan in June 1994 that left seven people dead.
Prosecutors have branded offenses on the charge sheet as "crimes of a devil who has lost his humanity completely," and have labelled the guru "the most atrocious criminal in our nation's history."
They called for the death sentence against Asahara last April, saying that "under the guise of religion, (he) ordered followers to commit crimes purely to satisfy his own greed for power."
Members of the cult, which was founded in 1984, have testified in court that the offences were committed under Asahara's orders. The cult has acknowledged responsibility for the crimes and apologised.
But Asahara's 12 court-appointed defense lawyers - who are opposed to the death penalty in principle - have argued that the cult leader is innocent and that his followers were out of control when they committed the crimes.
Eleven cult members have already been sentenced to death, but none has yet been executed, pending appeals.
The landmark judgment will be delivered on Friday at the Tokyo District Court where more than 12,000 people queued for a handful of seats open to the public on the first day of his marathon trial in April 1996.
Asahara was arrested two months after the 1995 attack at Aum's ramshackle headquarters in Kamikuishiki in the foothills of Mount Fuji, where the sect had built a chemical plant capable of producing enough Sarin to kill millions.
At the time of the attack, Aum boasted 10,000 followers with four overseas branches including Moscow and New York.
Asahara recruited and brainwashed brilliant misfit scientists to produce deadly chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons, prosecutors said.
In exchange for all their earthly possessions, Asahara promised the cult's rank and file a hand in making a new world after an Armageddon that was supposed to occur in 1997.
Asahara has said he found enlightenment in the Himalayas in 1986, and the sect revered Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, although it was also heavily influenced by Buddhism.
The guru has refused to testify except for a few inconsistent remarks.
"I am responsible for these cases," he once told the court, but hours later he said: "I am totally innocent."
He also once demanded a halt to the spectacle of an "abnormal" and "ridiculous" trial, but said "I don't mind being hanged if you wish."
The cult itself escaped being outlawed under the Subversive Activities Prevention Act in 1997 when a legal panel ruled there was no reason to believe it could still pose a threat to society.
Aum has since renamed itself Aleph and deposed its founder, but police suspect his influence in the group remains high, saying some of the believers still use pictures of the guru and recordings of his voice in meditation.
This is the 12th and final installment of a series on Chizuo Matsumoto, the founder of the Aum Supreme Truth cult. A fallout shelter built by Aum Supreme Truth cult members to protect themselves from an anticipated Armageddon still stands in the snowy mountains of Kawakamimura, Nagano Prefecture. The concrete basement lies below a prefabricated warehouse, both of which were completed at the end of 1998 on a 17-hectare plot of forest land purchased by a company affiliated with the cult in June 1996.
The purchase was made more than a year after the arrest of Aum founder Chizuo Matsumoto, 48, also known as Shoko Asahara.
Among the items taken into the facility by cult members were rubber boots and underwear for dozens of people. Members also brought in more than 500 cans of cooking oil and soy sauce and radiological monitors.
A local villager who saw the interior of the facility said it was hard to believe Aum members tried to live in such a place.
Expectations that the world was about to end seem to have lived on in the cult even without its "guru."
In January 2000, when authorities were considering whether to invoke the Antisubversive Activities Law to outlaw Aum, Matsumoto reportedly refused to receive a letter notifying him of a hearing on the matter, waving away the employee of Tokyo Detention House who tried to deliver it.
"This has nothing to do with me. You don't need to give me the letter," Matsumoto was quoted as saying.
About two years later, photos of Matsumoto and books written by him gradually were removed from Aum facilities.
Using books he authored himself, Fumihiro Joyu, 41, the new leader of the cult and former top Aum spokesman, reportedly began reforming the group in an attempt to break away from Matsumoto's teachings.
But he failed to carry out reforms and stepped down from center stage sometime after October that year. Aum members reportedly have returned to worshiping Matsumoto in increasing numbers.
"Joyu tried to break away from Matsumoto's teachings in hope of preventing the period the cult was placed under surveillance from being extended. Since he failed to prevent the surveillance from being extended, he met with increasing opposition from senior Asahara followers," a public safety official said.
Matsumoto still the boss
Footage from a cult video shows a blurred image of Matsumoto. Sitting in the lotus position in a light blue-colored space, the "guru" says the secret ritual he is about to perform should not be revealed to others without his permission. He then chants for nearly 1-1/2 hours. After that, viewers are told to imagine they have become one with Matsumoto, now depicted in the video as Buddha.
The cult is believed to have used the video until November 2002 to instruct followers in the correct way to meditate.
The video, submitted by the Public Security Investigation Agency as evidence, is believed to have been one of the reasons the Public Security Examination Commission decided in January last year to keep the cult under surveillance for three more years.
The commission reportedly concluded Matsumoto was still the supreme leader for Aum members.
One man in his 20s rejoined Aum after leaving the cult in the wake of the March 1995 gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. Saying Matsumoto was more a symbol than a real person, the man was unable to abandon Matsumoto's preachings since he said they were "the only ones based on real principles."
Another man in his 40s, who joined the cult after the sarin gas attack, said Aum cannot sever its relations with its leader since receiving energy from Matsumoto by believing in him is the core of the cult's teachings.
A former member of the public security commission, who was party to the January 1997 decision not to apply the Antisubversive Law to the cult, said he was shocked a year later when he read "Aum to Watashi (Aum and I)," the memoirs of Ikuo Hayashi, 57, former head of the cult's "medical treatment ministry."
"Having read the book, I realized I had not been aware of the full horror of a cult that could change an intelligent doctor into a fanatic," the official said. "I'd only been concerned with the absurdity of its dogma during the commission's deliberations ahead of the January 1997 decision."
The official now wonders whether the decision made seven years ago was appropriate.
"Aum cases involve serial crimes committed by followers who became Matsumoto's hands and feet and believed they were doing good things," said lawyer Taro Takimoto, 47, who has talked with current and former Aum followers despite himself being the victim of a gas attack by the cult.
"Some current followers still believe Aum did the right thing. The government and society have no choice but to keep a close eye on the group's activities," he said.
Over the course of Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara's eight-year criminal trial, Tokyo prosecutors have portrayed him as a religious charlatan who used his teachings only to feed his lust for power and fame.
In their May 1996 statement at the start of his trial, prosecutors claimed Asahara ordered the heinous crimes of terror for which he is accused based on a twisted doctrine that, in his reckoning, justified murder.
When they demanded the death penalty last April, they likened him to the "ugliest" face of greed who made his followers commit crimes in the name of religion to satisfy his aims.
Testimony by some of his key disciples would appear to back this up, but then they were on trial for their lives, accused of committing the crimes he allegedly masterminded.
During their trials, Aum's doctor, Ikuo Hayashi, and Yoshihiro Inoue, another of the guru's top aides, condemned Asahara for blatantly using cult members to achieve his secular aims. Hayashi, who was deemed repentant, was spared the gallows, as was Inoue.
But Asahara's character appears less sinister, or at least more enigmatic, if not pragmatic, to other cultists and outsiders. In fact, he has been likened to a man with many faces.
While a number of scholars and journalists share the view of prosecutors, some of the people who knew Asahara in the past or still worship him beg to differ.
Prosecutors have branded Asahara a false prophet who, for inexplicable reasons, managed not only to attract thousands of followers in a short period in the early days of his cult in the 1980s but also impressed academics with his apparent persuasive powers.
Hayashi's lawyers painted Asahara as an egomaniac who committed his heinous crimes because of an inferiority complex and antagonism toward society.
Hayashi's counsel, in a later addition to their opening statement at his trial, which started in December 1995, traced Asahara's resentment to society to the poverty and other hardships of his youth, his near-blindness and a series of social failures, including his 1982 arrest for selling bogus Chinese medicine.
Claiming the guru suffered a narcissistic personality disorder, the lawyers alleged that to offset his inferiority, he developed a self-image boasting special abilities and a destiny to conquer the world.
Journalist Yoshifu Arita, who studied Asahara's history up to his 1975 graduation from a high school for the blind in Kumamoto Prefecture, said the guru may have been traumatized by the hardships and setbacks that haunted him, including coming from a large, and poor, family.
Although his vision impairment was not bad enough to keep him out of a regular elementary school, he was placed in a boarding school for the blind at age 6.
He was liked by his teachers and became a classroom leader, often voicing his desire to become a doctor or a politician -- apparent ambitions to overcome his hardships, according to Arita.
"There is evidence to suggest these circumstances fostered in Asahara a materialistic desire, but such ambitions were not unnatural for someone in his situation," he said.
When Asahara came to Tokyo, he dreamed in vain of enrolling in the prestigious University of Tokyo. After various ups and downs, he founded a rising new cult in the mid-1980s.
People who met Asahara during Aum's so-called heyday in the early half of the 1990s, when the cult had already ventured down its murderous path, said they sensed little antagonism by him toward society.
Hiromi Shimada, a former professor of religious studies at Japan Women's University in Tokyo who interviewed Asahara four times on television, said he saw no social resentment or grief in the guru, only a religious sincerity.
Shimada said Asahara appeared to have positive thoughts and was full of energy to overcome his physical and other hardships.
"He was the most successful leader of a new religion at the time, and seemed comfortable with his situation and confident in Aum," he said.
Asahara apparently impressed other intellectuals as well. He was frequently featured on TV talk shows, including a program hosted by Takeshi Kitano in 1991.
Hiroshi Aramata, a well-known writer and expert in occultism, said after interviewing Asahara in 1991 for a magazine that the guru seemed to be a "talented, objective man able to analyze his surroundings."
Aramata said in his article that Asahara was a legitimate guru of a new religion that has inherited its essence from traditional esoteric Buddhism.
Even after his May 1995 arrest, Asahara did not fit his widespread image as a terrorist, said Yoshihiro Yasuda, his chief attorney.
Yasuda said Asahara appeared honest, sincere and selfless -- more concerned about the future of his flock than for himself.
"He should not have been allowed to be a leader (of an organization), but I believe he was a truly religious man -- one who seemed to have transcended thoughts even over his own death," Yasuda said.
Even people who were more closely associated with Asahara have a hard time getting a fix on his character.
Impressions of Asahara carried by many current and former cultists seem to conflict, as if they really knew nothing about him.
A 37-year-old senior member of Aum, which now calls itself Aleph, said Asahara's attitude toward her changed greatly after she joined the cult in the early 1990s.
She said the guru was initially cold but then warmed up and was nice to her sometime around 1992, only to turn extremely harsh toward her in early 1994 as if he were a totally different person.
She said her 36-year-old brother, who was convicted for his role in Aum's production of firearms and quit the cult after his prison stint, also witnessed a transition in Asahara's personality. She said he now calls the guru "the best actor and trickster ever," capable of assuming any character before his followers.
Other cultists also seem to view Asahara as having a chameleon character. A 34-year-old member said he once told her he could transform himself to become "the most desirable guru for anyone."
"If there are 500 people, I can become 500 different gurus, and if there are 1,000, I can become 1,000 different gurus," she quoted him as saying.
Shimada said the key to Asahara's success owes much to his ability to adopt multiple personalities, which made him a lasting enigma and thus inflated his image in the minds of his followers.
Such inconsistency on Asahara's part made the cult seem extremely inconsistent and haphazard, which is perhaps one reason why the motives of the cult's crimes remain a mystery, he said.
"Not only did Aum's crimes seem to lack a concrete vision or logic, but the entire operation of the cult was likewise from the beginning. Nothing was consistent. This was why the cult became dangerous when it grew so large," Shimada said.
While Asahara's disciples justify his multiple personality approach as an effectively way to enlighten his followers, outsiders suspect he was merely an opportunist.
A neighbor of Aum's former headquarters in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, where Asahara and his family lived in the mid-1980s, recalls how the guru's attitude toward her suddenly changed after her husband died in 1986. He started making frequent minor complaints and became more arrogant.
"He first sizes you up and then talks to you," she said.
Former cultists have branded Asahara a please-all opportunist who was kind to his flock, heaping them with praise whenever they completed the cult's various "work" projects, which were considered to have religious meaning.
When cultists made mattresses to be used by followers at a cult complex in 1994 that turned out to be extremely uncomfortable, Asahara thanked them for their trouble anyway, a 38-year-old former follower said.
"I now think he had a (personal) weakness toward his followers (that made him accept anything they did out of hand), but it is scary to think that he perhaps acted the same way when they managed to produce sarin," he said.
A 35-year-old former cultist who claims to have briefly worked on Asahara's security detail said there was a dual power structure in Aum.
Asahara wielded absolute power over all followers in appearance but at the same time his senior disciples could control or at least influence him, taking advantage of his weaknesses, the ex-cultist said.
"While Asahara liked to cast the image of an absolute ruler, he was unable to even make minor decisions all by himself," he said. "While playing the role of a guru who knows and controls everything, Asahara may have effectively lost control over his rapidly expanding cult."
This assessment echoes the final argument Asahara's defense team gave in court in November, when they claimed their client did not in fact have control over senior cultists, because of his frail physical condition.
But the counsel acknowledged that Asahara, as the guru, bears a grave responsibility for failing to guide his followers on the right path.
When Aum Shinrikyo officially acknowledged for the first time in December 1999 that it was behind a spate of heinous crimes and apologized to the survivors, Hiroyuki Miyaguchi said he was relieved that suspicions he and other rank-and-file cultists harbored for years had finally been cleared up.
Miyaguchi, 38, even thought the apology would be a social turning point for Aum, which had not been forced to disband despite the arrests years earlier of its founder, Shoko Asahara, and many other top disciples on charges of committing the cult's murderous mayhem.
But he continued to wonder whether the heirs to Aum's helm were truly being sincere in their apology, because of the cult's mind-set of justifying everything its members did in the name of religion.
"Every Aum follower always has an excuse ready. This prevented the cult from promptly owning up to its crimes and would probably prevent the group from ever being truly apologetic," Miyaguchi, who left the cult in May 2000, told The Japan Times in a recent interview.
"I finally became critical of Aum, and this in turn helped me become critical of myself. Like many in the group, I indulged myself for too long in wishful thoughts that Aum was innocent," he said.
Miyaguchi recently coauthored "Aum Dictionary," a book indexing and explaining 1,090 Aum-related words.
A native of Shizuoka Prefecture, Miyaguchi had his first encounter with Aum in 1986 when he picked up a book on yoga, authored by Asahara, at a bookstore shortly after he failed to graduate from a Yokohama college because he was shy a couple of credits.
The failure to graduate prevented him from pursuing a systems engineer career, prompting him to live a free life and follow his desires. But not long afterward, he felt the need to devote himself to some cause.
He worked at record shops and attended computer graphics design schools for the next five years. But his anxiety over the future only increased, leaving him dissatisfied with himself and feeling isolated from society.
Around this time he turned to Aum, and its doctrine and yoga practice based on the roughly 80 books by Asahara that he purchased.
"I was desperate for something absolute in the area of relative and objective thinking, and Asahara's unusual confidence in his teachings, which there was no way to scientifically prove (correct) anyway, gradually captured my heart," Miyaguchi said.
He joined Aum as a lay follower in 1991, and two years later entered an Aum commune in Kamikuishiki, Yamanashi Prefecture, at the foot of Mount Fuji, abandoning most of his worldly possessions as a farewell to the secular world.
He soon found communal life much more exciting and soothing than the reclusive life he had spent in Tokyo. Many of the people around him shared the same values, and the cult's everyday discipline and programs made him feel he was on the right track.
"It was more than a permanent vacation, in the sense that we had full aspirations for a common goal (of enlightenment) and were actually trying hard to achieve that goal," Miyaguchi recalled. "Every day was like an all-night preparation for a campus festival."
Assigned to the cult's publishing section, Miyaguchi had occasion to see Asahara, when the guru gave speeches to followers and handed out their monthly allowance.
But in mid-1994, the guru started to appear less frequently before followers. The cult explained to rank-and-file members like Miyaguchi that Asahara was ill because of repeated poison gas attacks perpetrated by unidentified foes. That summer had actually seen a deadly sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, apparently targeting judges hearing an Aum-linked land dispute.
Then, he said, came a sudden wakeup call. On March 20, 1995, he was in the publishing section when a cultist came in shouting about the sarin attack on Tokyo's subway system. The follower was holding a newspaper's extra edition.
The cultist claimed Aum was being framed for the deadly attack. Miyaguchi said this made sense because he had believed the cult was above such crimes.
Following subsequent police raids on Aum sites that eventually led to the May 16, 1995, arrest of Asahara, who was found hiding in a secret chamber in the Kamikuishiki compound, many cultists left the commune or quit Aum altogether.
Miyaguchi stayed in the village until the remaining members were ordered by the cult's subsequent leaders to relocate to urban areas and live in small groups, financially supporting Aum by taking on outside jobs.
Miyaguchi moved from apartment to apartment with fellow cultists in and around Tokyo, working various jobs based on his skills as a graphics designer that he acquired in Kamikuishiki.
Before Aum's leaders finally acknowledged in 1999 that the cult was behind the sarin attacks in Tokyo and Matsumoto and other deadly crimes, it had been taboo for members to follow the trials of Asahara and other senior disciples, or probe the cult's past to confirm their suspicions, Miyaguchi said.
"But despite the leaders' denials and my own hopes that Aum was not involved in the crimes, I could no longer believe in the cult's innocence," he said.
Five months after Aum apologized, Miyaguchi walked out of an Aum dorm in the village of Sanwa, Ibaraki Prefecture, one early morning in May 2000 and boarded a train for Tokyo, where the former cultist now lives in an apartment.
Miyaguchi said he has no regrets about joining Aum, because it offered him the precious experience of believing in something for the first time and a chance to work with other people toward an ideal.
"But since I left Aum, I realized that many of us tended to always seek the easiest way to the best results," he said. "Now I think it is more important to face and accept reality, and to find my place in society."
Miyaguchi said he has paid almost no attention to the Aum trials and thinks it only "natural" that Asahara be sentenced to death when the Tokyo District Court hands down its ruling Friday.
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