Aum Shinri-kyo and Related Controversies
Shoko Asahara has been sentenced to hang for masterminding the worst terrorist attack in Japanese history; 11 of his closest followers have received death sentences, and many more devotees are serving substantial prison sentences. Yet the deadly doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, is anything but dead.
The Japanese government warned yesterday that Aum - now renamed Aleph - is concentrating its efforts on rebuilding a number of profitable businesses and increasing membership.
Most worryingly, the majority of its members remain loyal to its leader Asahara's vision of an apocalyptic collision between believers in his "faith" and the world outside the walls of the cult's numerous compounds.
"Aum members continue to practise teachings that justify violence, while retaining absolute faith in Asahara," the justice minister Daizo Nozawa told reporters. "The situation still poses a threat to society and we have to keep the group under close surveillance."
It has come as a shock to many in Japan, who assumed that when, in February, Asahara was sentenced to hang, the country would finally be able to put the terrible events of 20 March, 1995, behind it. It was on that day that members of the Aum cult released Sarin nerve gas at a point where three train lines converge beneath the seat of government in Tokyo. Twelve commuters and station staff died, and many more were injured.
Aum changed its name to Aleph in January 2000, in an effort to shed some of the stigma that it had attracted, and has repeatedly claimed that it no longer poses a threat to society. Instead, its new leaders claim, it is committed to "correcting the errors" some of its members made in the past and compensating the families of the victims.
Yet in police raids on the cult's facilities across Japan shortly before the Tokyo district court sentenced Asahara, 49, to death on 27 February, officials discovered books and videotapes featuring Asahara's preachings.
The Public Security Investigation Agency (PSIA) has said that despite universal condemnation of Asahara and all that he stood for, the group today has some 1,650 members in Japan - 650 hardcore live-in followers and 1,000 others who practise at home - as well as 300 others in Russia.
"The followers have strengthened their seclusion from society and have not changed their self-deceiving nature," Mr Nozawa said, adding that its followers have set up about a dozen companies to earn funds and attract new disciples. The cult claims that the businesses, mostly in the computer software sector, will earn money to compensate the victims of their predecessors' errors. The PSIA, however, contends they are designed to expand the group, which is also conducting expensive seminars and holds yoga classes to recruit new members.
Some followers have also joined ordinary companies in the last six months and are contributing their salaries to the cult, the agency report said.
The rebirth of the cult without the active participation of its charismatic leader comes as a surprise. Asahara was a darkly inspirational figure.
Before he founded the cult in 1984, Asahara had set himself up as an acupuncturist and earned himself a conviction for selling quack medicine.
Half-blind since childhood, he claimed to have found enlightenment on a visit to the Himalayas and quickly earned a devoted following among a generation of young Japanese who had grown tired of material possessions and decided they were looking for a more spiritual life.
Asahara's early disciples targeted intelligent but lonely and vulnerable "nerd"-type youths from Japan's universities. These men and women were later to set up the facilities to produce Sarin, guns and drugs, including LSD. At the peak of his powers, Asahara - whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto - had 10,000 loyal acolytes in Japan and an estimated 30,000 in Russia. Small groups also existed in France and the United States.
In 1990, Asahara decided to set up a political party and run for the Japanese parliament.
His campaign attracted media attention as his followers made up "cheer-leading squads" dressed in flowing white robes and wearing hats in the shape of blue elephants' heads.
Disappointed at Aum's dismal showing in the election, Asahara apparently changed his tactic and prepared to overthrow the Japanese government by force. It was this that ultimately led to the gas attack.
Asahara's eccentricities were clearly on display at his trial. He refused to speak during hearings set aside for him to explain his side of events. He also failed to co-operate with his own lawyers and, on several occasions, had to be removed from the court for gesticulating at witnesses and court officials, and making unintelligible noises.
On the day he was convicted, he had to be restrained by four court officials after he tried to stand up, waving his arms around. His 12-strong court-appointed defence team took two days to read the 700-page document that detailed why their client was innocent.
The lengthy appeals process means it could be a full decade before Asahara's trial reaches its conclusion.
The cult leader's last-ditch defence is that some of the group's senior leaders misinterpreted his teachings and took matters into their own hands, while their leader remained completely in the dark. His defence has repeatedly stated that Asahara was never at the scene of any of the incidents.
Some of the cult's leaders are still on the run. At railway stations across Japan, mug-shots of three of Asahara's key lieutenants are prominently displayed. The three are almost certainly being sheltered by other believers in Asahara's vision of the Japan of the future.
The fact that they have not been run to ground while an entire country searches for them suggests that the descendants of Aum are taking very good care of those with an intimate knowledge and belief in Asahara's world view.
The cult Asahara founded is alive and well, but it is missing the vital ingredient to make it a major threat once more. What the authorities fear most is that a new charismatic leader will emerge from the ranks to map out a dangerous new path to doomsday.
The doomsday cult behind the deadly 1995 Tokyo subway gassing is still a threat to society, using businesses to expand membership and remaining faithful to its convicted guru's violent teachings, the government said in a report Friday.
Followers of Aum Shinrikyo - whose former leader, Shoko Asahara, was sentenced to death in March - have set up more than 10 companies, including computer software makers, nationwide, the Public Security Investigation Agency report said.
The cult, which has changed its name to Aleph and remains under close surveillance by Japanese authorities, says the businesses are intended to raise funds to compensate victims of the subway gassing and other cult crimes.
The sarin gas attack on March 20, 1995, killed 12 people and injured thousands.
The agency report, however, said the businesses are aimed at expansion of the group, which is also conducting high-priced seminars and holds yoga classes to recruit new members.
Some followers also landed jobs at ordinary companies since around August last year to contribute salaries to the cult, the agency report said.
Although the group's membership has shrunk to nearly one-tenth of its peak, it still has 1,650 members - 650 hardcore live-in followers and 1,000 others who practice at home - in Japan, and 300 others in Russia, the agency said.
Despite periodical inspections of Aum offices and facilities, the group has kept videos and books with Asahara's philosophy, the agency said.
"Aum members continue to practice teachings that justify violence, while keeping absolute faith in Asahara," Justice Minister Daizo Nozawa told reporters. "The situation still poses a threat to society and we have to keep the group under close surveillance."
The cult is by law under the agency's surveillance. The Justice Ministry is responsible for publishing a summary of the cult's activities in an annual report. Asahara was found guilty last month of masterminding the subway attack and 12 other crimes that killed a total of 27 people.
Asahara, 49, was sentenced to death in a ruling that followed an eight-year trial. Eleven of his former top lieutenants have also been sentenced to hang, although none has been executed. Three of the cult's followers remain on a nationwide wanted list. Asahara's lawyers appealed the February verdict, and his case is expected to drag on for years.
Tokyo subway workers marked on Saturday the ninth anniversary of Aum Shinrikyo's deadly sarin nerve gas attack on the train system, observing a moment of silence and offering flowers at stations.
Subway workers at Tokyo's Kasumigaseki Station on the Hibiya Line observe a moment of silence at 8 a.m. Saturday, the time of Aum's sarin attack on March 20, 1995.
Kikuo Suzuki, the Hibiya Line's chief assistant stationmaster at Kasumigaseki Station, called on about 20 fellow workers to observe a moment of silence at 8 a.m., the time of the attack on five trains on three lines in 1995, for the 12 people who died and the thousands who were injured.
On the adjacent Chiyoda Line, Michio Kumagami, Kasumigaseki Station service chief, laid flowers for the victims.
In offering condolences, Kumagami said: "My feelings (for the victims) have never changed after years have passed. I would like to offer my sincere condolences to those who have been killed, and pray for the earliest possible recovery of those who are still ill."
More than 5,000 people were sickened in what was one of Japan's worst terrorist incidents. Of the 12 who died, two were station workers at Kasumigaseki.
Kazumasa Takahashi, one of the station workers, died after he collected plastic bags containing sarin.
Takahashi's wife, Shizue, said: "Nine years have passed so fast, we cannot make this incident fade away."
Passengers also observed a moment of silence in memorials at Kodemmacho, Hatchobori, Tsukiji and Kamiyacho stations on the Hibiya Line, and at Nakanosakaue Station on the Marunouchi Line.
Aum founder Shoko Asahara, 49, was sentenced to death Feb. 27 for his role in 13 criminal cases, including the subway attack, that resulted in the death of 27 people. His lawyers have appealed the ruling.
Aum renamed itself Aleph in January 2000.
A daughter of AUM Shinrikyo guru Shoko Asahara has been refused admission to a university even after she passed entrance examinations, sources have revealed.
The third daughter of Asahara passed entrance examinations for Wako University in the western suburb of Tokyo but officials of the school recently refused her enrollment.
"We are not certain we could protect her from the eyes of curious people if she was admitted," Wako University President Osamu Mihashi said on Tuesday.
"We suspect that if she is admitted, it would disturb the educational environment of our school even if she is not directly responsible."
The president said he knew some members of the public would be opposed to the decision to refuse her enrollment.
Government law enforcers who watch the cult said that the daughter, 20, had been unable to enter a university last year although she had been successful in paper examinations.
The Tokyo District Court in February sentenced Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, to death on 13 charges that claimed the lives of more than 20 victims.
Lawyers for a former senior Aum Shinrikyo cultist sentenced to death for killing an anti-Aum lawyer, his wife and infant son, and other acts asked for a lighter sentence at an appeal court hearing Wednesday.
The hearing for Kiyohide Hayakawa, 54, at the Tokyo High Court was the last session before his ruling scheduled for May 14. Hayakawa has pleaded guilty as charged in seven cases.
The head of Japan's Aum cult is sentenced to death for the 1995 Tokyo subway attack. But are others waiting in the wings?"
At the height of Shoko Asahara's power as leader of the apocalyptic Aum Shinrikyo cult, followers paid exorbitant sums for the honor of drinking the guru's blood. Since 1995, when Aum carried out a poison-gas attack that killed 12 people in the Tokyo subway, the rest of Japan has been baying for his blood as well. Last Friday, after a nearly eight-year trial, a Tokyo judge finally sentenced Japan's most reviled man to hang for masterminding the subway attack and 15 other killings by the cult. With 11 of Asahara's former followers already sentenced to death, the verdict came as no surprise. Still, after the hearing, Asahara's lawyers announced they would appeal.
Aum - which has been renamed Aleph and has distanced itself from its former guru - issued a press release apologizing to the victims and their families. Despite its founder's woes, the cult has been slow to die. In 2000 it even appeared to be resurgent under a charismatic new leader, Fumihiro Joyu. Recently, however, with death sentences raining down on its former leaders, its ranks in Japan have dwindled to 1,650 (it also has an estimated 300 members in Russia). "The cult has lost its vitality," says Masaki Kito, a lawyer who has represented Aum's victims. "It's unable to recruit talented young people, it's under surveillance, and it's running out of money."
Still, the danger posed by Japan's many religious cults has not vanished. "The conditions that created Aum - the straitjacketed education system and the lack of creative outlets in society - are the same as before," says Yoshio Arita, an expert on cults. "There's nothing to prevent other groups like Aum from appearing."
Tokyo subway gas attack
The court convicted Asahara of ordering his followers to release sarin on Tokyo subway trains on March 20, 1995, causing 12 deaths and seriously injuring 14.
Asahara and his henchmen huddled in a limousine two days beforehand to plot the nerve gas attack, reckoning this would thwart impending police raids, the court said.
Sarin attack in Matsumoto
The court said Asahara ordered his disciples to spray sarin in a residential district in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, on June 27, 1994, in order to murder a judge who was hearing a civil suit involving Aum. The guru also intended to kill other residents of the city, the court said, convicting him for the seven deaths in the attack and serious injury to four.
Murder of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family
Sakamoto, 33, a lawyer helping people with complaints against Aum, his wife, Satoko, 29, and their 1-year-old son, Tatsuhiko, were slain in their Yokohama condominium on Nov. 4, 1989. The court said Asahara ordered the murders to remove the threat Sakamoto posed to the cult.
Abduction-murder of notary clerk Kiyoshi Kariya
Asahara was found guilty of ordering followers to abduct Kariya, 68, the chief clerk at the Meguro Public Notary Office, on Feb. 28, 1995 on a Tokyo street in order to question him about the whereabouts of his sister, who wanted to leave the cult. Kariya was given a general anesthesia, which led to his death from heart failure. His body was cremated in an Aum microwave heating device.
Murder of cultist Shuji Taguchi
Taguchi, 21, who had wanted to leave the cult, was murdered in February 1989 at the Aum complex in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture. This was ordered by Asahara, the court ruled, based on testimony by Aum members.
Murder of cultist Kotaro Ochida
Ochida, 29, who had helped a female member escape from the cult's complex in Kamikuishiki, Yamanashi Prefecture, was slain on Jan. 30, 1994, and his body was also cremated in a microwave heater. The court found Asahara guilty of ordering the murder.
Murder of cultist Toshio Tomita
Tomita, 27, whom the cult suspected was spying on it, was slain in July 1994 at the Kamikuishiki complex. Asahara was convicted of ordering the murder.
Murder of company employee Tadahito Hamaguchi with VX gas
On Dec. 12, 1994, Hamaguchi, 28, whom the cult suspected was a spy, was killed with highly toxic VX gas on an Osaka street. The court said Asahara ordered the murder.
Attempted VX murder of parking lot owner Noboru Mizuno
On Dec. 2, 1994, Aum members attempted to murder Mizuno with VX because he had helped the family of an Aum member who wanted to leave the cult. The court said Asahara ordered the hit.
Attempted murder of victims' group leader Hiroyuki Nagaoka
On Jan. 4, 1995, Aum members attempted to kill Nagaoka by spraying VX gas at his neck on a Tokyo street. Asahara is guilty of ordering the attack.
Attempted murder of lawyer Taro Takimoto
On May 9, 1994, Aum members attempted to kill Takimoto by injecting sarin into the ventilator of his car in a parking area outside a district court while he was attending a civil suit against the cult. The court said Asahara ordered five members to kill Takimoto and was aware the sarin was lethal.
Construction of a sarin factory
Aum members completed construction of a chemical plant to mass-produce sarin by December 1994 at the Kamikuishiki complex in order to kill a large number of people.
The court ruled that Asahara was planning to spray a massive amount of sarin in Tokyo to destroy the capital and bring about his vision of a nation ruled by Aum.
Manufacture of firearms
Aum members produced gun parts and one prototype gun in 1994 and 1995 as part of a failed attempt to mass-produce automatic rifles. Asahara is guilty of ordering the arms manufacture.
The marathon trial of Chizuo Matsumoto, alias Shoko Asahara, the founder of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, reached a milestone on Friday when the Tokyo District Court sentenced him to death. But, to everyone's dismay, the trial left a crucial question largely unanswered: Why did the guru and a handful of his top disciples commit a series of such heinous crimes?
Asahara, a self-styled prophet of Armageddon, was found guilty on 13 criminal counts that caused 27 deaths, including the 1995 sarin gas attack in a Tokyo subway that killed 12 and injured thousands; the 1994 sarin poisoning in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, that left seven people dead and sickened hundreds; and the 1989 slayings of anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family. According to the ruling, Asahara "masterminded" not only the manufacture and use of the deadly gas but also indiscriminate terrorist attacks in a bid to militarize the cult. In doing so, the statement said he "exhibited a fanatic desire to promote himself and control others."
The trial took seven years and 10 months. This seems simply too long, even considering the peculiar problems that stood in the way, such as the defendant's consistent refusal to answer questions. Now that the sentence has been delivered, a review of the whole process is in order. Also needed is a further analysis of the dilemmas in modern society that seemed to have sent so many young people knocking at Aum's door.
The focal question in the trial was: Did Asahara actually give orders to kill? The defense counsel said no, putting all the blame on senior disciples who "ran amok" in their own ways.
The question took an oddly semantic twist as well: What did "poa" - the religious password used by Asahara - really mean? The defense counsel said it meant raising a person to a higher level of spirituality. The ruling said, however, it was a secret code for "kill" that was used in the slayings of the Sakamoto family. The conclusion was that Asahara plotted all 13 crimes with his aides.
The frustrating thing is that it took nearly eight years to reach that conclusion. In all, the court held 257 sessions and called 522 witnesses. Questioning took 1,258 hours. The trial would have lasted much longer had it not been for extraordinary steps taken by the prosecution, such as dropping nearly 4,000 surviving victims of the subway attack from their case.
A trial is, by definition, a time-consuming process. It takes time for the defense team to prepare its case, particularly in an elaborate trial such as this one. A defendant has the right to keep silent, and this causes delays in the proceedings. It would be wrong to blame the defendant for exercising this right.
Still, the delay in the Asahara trial was not inevitable. The defense counsel - a scratch team of state-appointed lawyers - could have worked more efficiently; they were criticized for using delaying tactics. The court showed itself to be largely powerless in facilitating the trial. Some of these mistakes must be avoided if the trials that lie ahead - at the appellate levels - are to proceed with reasonable speed.
The lesson is obvious: A speedy and substantive trial is essential not only to uncover the truth but also to help heal victims' traumas and rehabilitate defendants. Indeed, this is the basic tenet of the trial facilitation law that took effect last year, which sets a two-year limit on all first trials.
The ruling attributes the murders to Asahara's "illusory ambition to expand the cult through militarization and to eventually rule Japan as its savior and king." It is hard to understand how such a deranged visionary attracted thousands of promising young men and women, and why some blindly obeyed his horrendous orders, apparently without the slightest qualms.
During the trial, Asahara, who is said to be nearly blind, presented a pathetic picture of a disheveled and worn-out middle-aged man with no religious fervor, yet he apparently still commands awe and respect among an estimated 1,600 Aum followers in Japan. The group, which renamed itself Aleph in January 2000 and remains under surveillance by an agency of the Justice Ministry, no longer enjoys formal status as a religious entity, but its appeal to youths is likely to remain strong despite the death sentence against its founder.
Aum Shinrikyo is seen widely as a pathological phenomenon of a modern society in which young people, bereft of spiritual moorings, seek a new haven in radical cults. The death penalty against Asahara is no assurance that Aum will become extinct. It could even get a new lease on life if he is revered as a "martyr." That is why nonjudiciary means also must be sought to combat the Aum syndrome.
After decades of controversy over doomsday cults, legal and cult experts say many Japanese will continue to be lured by the promise of spiritual relief offered by such groups in an increasingly materialistic and alienated society.
This is despite a rash of public campaigns by lawyers, academics and the media disclosing the mind-control techniques used by cults and the suffering of former followers and their families.
Even the most violent cult in Japan's post-war history, Aum Supreme Truth, whose leader Shoko Asahara was sentenced to death Friday for crimes including the murderous 1995 Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, still has around 2,000 followers in its new incarnation, Aleph.
Legal and cult experts point out that Japan lacks social support such as professional mental health care and career counselling to bring those who leave cults back into society.
Although the growth in cult activity is not unique to Japan and reflects the changing social climate in many industrialized countries, the nature of Japanese society lends itself to it, they say.
"It's an illness prevalent in developed countries, including Japan," said Kimiaki Nishida, professor of social psychology at Shizuoka Prefectural University in central Japan and a researcher on mind control.
"People have become materially affluent as standards of living have improved, but they have found spiritual happiness or satisfaction increasingly hard to come by."
Hiroshi Yamaguchi, a Tokyo-based lawyer representing the National Network of Lawyers Against the Spiritual Sales who has been fighting the Unification Church through the courts for years, agreed, but said the proliferation of cults in Japan seemed to be worse than in other developed countries.
His group estimates the Unification Church, whose followers are referred to as Moonies, has about 20,000 core followers in Japan, much smaller than officially claimed. Most recently, married women in their 30s and 40s, many of them housewives, are recruiting new members for the church, Yamaguchi said.
"Japanese are looking for other forms of satisfaction than those found in everyday life," he said, adding that if they cannot find an answer quickly, they tend to fall for a ready-made solution.
And in a society where efficiency is cherished, critical thinking sometimes falls by the wayside.
With the pro-democracy activism typical of Japanese students and unions in the 1960s and 1970s a distant memory, many young people now turn inward to express their discontent, locking themselves up in a spiritual netherworld.
Among the major sects or new religions active in Japan are the Unification Church founded by South Korean Sun Myung Moon, which swept through college campuses in the late 1970s.
Aum emerged a decade later, growing fast with its cod-Buddhist dogma and pop-culture image, while legal setbacks for the Moonies meant they began to lose their luster as an alternative to more mainstream Christian and Buddhist sects.
In contrast to the followers of the People's Temple of Jim Jones who engaged in mass-suicide in the jungles of Guyana in 1978, Aum turned increasingly hostile towards the outside world, acquiring a formidable arsenal including chemical weapons in pursuit of its wild ambitions to conquer Japan.
The results were the deadly Sarin nerve gas attacks of 1994 and 1995 that killed 19 people and injured thousands.
In contrast to the West, the Japanese tendency toward group behaviour and the need for the social approval of others make it more difficult to isolate cult activity.
"I don't think Japanese as people are more vulnerable to cults but maybe social conditions in Japan are making them so," said Nishida.
Nishida added that the social emphasis on scientific thinking and development in highly industrialized countries like Japan tends to limit the place of religion, noting that for Japanese religious practice did not necessarily define their personal or social philosophy or behavior.
"Japan does not have the broad-based religious foundation provided by Christianity, or even Buddhism, but has a non-religious spiritual system based on ancestor worship," Nishida said, referring to the practice of Shintoism, Japans indigenous belief system.
Sadao Asami, a retired professor of theology, said this worked to the advantage of cults. Asami heads a group helping families extricate their relatives from cults.
"The basis of the Japanese belief system remains very primitive," Asami said, adding that the increasing emphasis on religious freedom and personal privacy in Japan and other developed countries has also worked to the benefit of cults.
He said the Unification Church, Aum, and self-proclaimed Buddhist psychic healers had exploited the Japanese desire to calm the spirits of their ancestors, as a tool to raise funds for their organizations.
Yamaguchi and other lawyers have appealed to the government to adopt guidelines set by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and designed to help assess what kind of cult behaviour, religious or otherwise, can harm people.
"It's not their teachings or beliefs but rather their activities that matter," Yamaguchi said.
While countries such as France have outlawed cults outright, Japan has been reluctant to crack down on them for fear of impinging on religious freedom.
Experts and anti-cult activists in Japan are not optimistic about the future.
"Has our society learned any lesson from the experience with Aum? The only change stemming from the Aum incidents is that police powers to investigate cults have been expanded," Yamaguchi said.
But the mental agony of individuals in society would continue to nourish the growth of cults, he said.
Members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which renamed itself Aleph, apologized Friday to the victims and their families of crimes committed by the group's founder Shoko Asahara, who was sentenced to death earlier in the day, and senior Aum leaders.
"We will deeply take to heart the death sentence and exert more efforts" to compensate the victims, the group said in a brief statement.
Doomsday cult leader Shoko Asahara was sentenced to death after being found guilty of plotting the deadly 1995 Tokyo subway nerve-gas attack and a series of crimes which claimed 27 lives.
Asahara, the founder of the Aum Supreme Truth sect, showed no emotion as Tokyo District Court condemned him to hang for "vicious and merciless" crimes at the end of a marathon eight-year trial.
"The accused is sentenced to death," presiding judge Shoji Ogawa said Friday after finding the 48-year-old guilty on 13 counts including murder for ordering the sarin gas attack nine years ago that killed 12 people and injured more than 5,000.
Dressed in a shapeless black sweatshirt and trousers with his greying hair and beard cut short, Asahara was also convicted of murder for an earlier attack using the Nazi-invented sarin which killed seven people in Matsumoto, central Japan.
Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, was also found guilty of ordering the deaths of an anti-cult lawyer and his family and cult members, and the attempted murder of others.
"The accused tried to become the king of Japan by forming Aum Supreme Truth and arming it. The accused killed or murdered people inside and outside the religious group who blocked his plot. He deserves extreme condemnation," Ogawa said at the end of a ruling which took four hours to read.
"His crimes did not stop at the murder of specific individuals but expanded into indiscriminate acts of terrorism," he said.
"His actions were cruel and vicious and merciless... He used religion to hide behind. The impact of the crimes on Japan and other countries and human society was very serious. He didn't listen to the voice of his victims."
Asahara's lawyers immediately lodged an appeal with the High Court.
"The verdict does not conform with reality," chief defence lawyer Osamu Watanabe said. "Facts concerning motives, purposes and plots were too weak. How can we argue with such weak facts?"
"Today's verdict is out of the question."
Members of the cult, which was founded in 1984, had testified that the offences were committed under Asahara's orders. The cult has acknowledged responsibility for the crimes and apologised.
Immediately after the verdict, the sect, now renamed Aleph, issued a statement accepting the ruling.
"We again deeply apologise for the victims and their families. We will forever take this verdict to heart, and will further work to compensate the victims," it said.
The judges rejected defence arguments that other cult members -- 11 of whom are appealing death penalties -- had acted on their own initiative and that Asahara was not responsible.
Ogawa said Asahara came up with the plan for the subway attack to thwart a planned police raid on the cult.
Shizue Takahashi, 57, whose husband Kazumasa died in the subway attack, was in court for the verdict and said she was glad Asahara got the death penalty she had long sought.
But for some ordinary Japanese, even the death penalty was not enough.
"In the old days, a person could be dragged through the streets and killed slowly as a result of many blows, and that would be the most fitting punishment for him," said Kuniko Watanabe, 68.
More than 4,650 people had turned up to try to get one of the few dozen seats reserved for the public at the hearing, prompting police to deploy an extra 400 officers in the capital and for security to be stepped up on the subway network.
Asahara was brought to the court by bus in a convoy of police vehicles, with a decoy convoy used to confuse potential attackers.
The charismatic cult leader has been in custody since being 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 of people.
The appeal against Asahara's death sentence means the case is likely to be completed for many years. Japan often keeps condemned prisoners on death row for 10 years or more before executing them.
More than 60 former Aum Supreme Truth members who seceded from the cult have set up at least five sects that engage in activities based on the doctrine of Aum's founder Chizuo Matsumoto, police said Thursday.
Followers were continuing to practice some of the cult's doctrines even though the group changed its name to "Aleph" to weaken its association with Matsumoto following Aum's sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995 and other incidents.
The Metropolitan Police Department and other authorities are watching the groups' activities closely as the date approaches for the Tokyo District Court to hand down its ruling on charges, including murder, against Matsumoto.
The factional groups are led by former cult members, but act independently of the Aum Supreme Truth cult. Police confirmed the existence of three such sects in Tokyo and two in the Chubu region.
According to police, a group in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, led by a 39-year-old woman who had been an Aum member, comprises 30 members who use materials, including brochures, that refer to Matsumoto's teachings.
The group's leader attended the closing remarks of Matsumoto's trial at the district court in October to hear his argument.
According to sources, it was likely that the other four groups were practicing activities based on brochures, books, videotapes and cassette tapes containing Aum Supreme Truth's doctrine.
A 45-year-old man in Utsunomiya, who had been a member of the cult and was arrested by the MPD in September on suspicion of forging a private document with a signature and seal, headed a 10-member group, but it dissolved recently. The man allegedly forged letters of attorney to apply for a family register without permission from customers when he was selling gravestones.
He joined the Aum Supreme Truth cult in 1992 and became part of its intelligence section. However, he left the cult in 1995 and opened a shop in Tochigi Prefecture selling gravestones.
The MPD seized account books from those who had associated with the man and found that, when he left Aum, he received about 10 million yen from Matsumoto before the cult founder's arrest. The MPD also confiscated pictures of Matsumoto, videotapes for ascetic practices and brochures from people who had connections with the man.
The MPD believes he was practicing Aum Supreme Truth cult doctrines with 10 other former members who frequented his shop.
The police confirmed that at least 630 Aum members were currently active in Tokyo.
Aum closed its office in Moscow, but opened a liaison office there in 2001, which has a membership of about 300. In 1999, Russian authorities uncovered a plot in which armed Russian followers planned to free Matsumoto.
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