Aum Shinri-kyo and Related Controversies

"Sect leader's wife pleads for apology"

(France Presse, November 10, 1999)

The Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth) sect should apologise for the crimes committed under its leader, Shoko Asahara, his imprisoned wife said in a letter to a magazine published yesterday.
"The responsibility for many serious crimes committed during our time rests with us," Tomoko Matsumoto, 41, said in a letter carried in the latest edition of the monthly Tsukuru magazine.
Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, is on trial for 17 charges, including murder in a lethal attack on Tokyo's subway.
Members of the cult shocked the world when they spread sarin gas in Tokyo's subway in March 1995, killing 12 people and injuring thousands.
The group was blamed for many other crimes, including a 1994 gas attack in central Japan that killed seven people and injured hundreds and the murder of an anti-sect lawyer and his family in 1989.
Some of Asahara's disciples have been found guilty of the sarin gas attacks and other crimes but the sect as an organisation has never admitted its responsibility in public or apologised.
Tomoko Matsumoto, now appealing for leniency for her involvement in a murder case, said the cult "totally lacks consideration for victims and bereaved families as well as for society".
She urged the sect to "regret what it should, draw a line and make efforts for a fresh start".
Asahara also unveiled part of a letter she received from her third daughter fearing the break-up of the sect.
"What do you think we should do, mom? . . . Are we just waiting for a fall?" the girl, 16, wrote. She is believed to rank high in the sect as Asahara's first child after his claimed "enlightenment".
"With a lack of unity within and under attack from the outside, we are standing before the collapse," said the teenager's letter, dated October 2.
The cult 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.
But last week the Government submitted legislation to parliament crackingdown on "any group that carried out random mass murder in the past and in which its leaders at the time of the murder still have influence over its members".
Although the law does not name the Supreme Truth sect, Justice Minister HideoUsui said he bel ieved "Aum will be the only organisation subject" to the legislation.

"Japanese Diet committee approves anti-cult bills"

("Agence France Presse", November 17, 1999)

TOKYO, Nov 17 (AFP) - A key Japanese parliamentary committee Wednesday approved legislation cracking down on the Aum Supreme Truth sect responsible for a lethal 1995 gas attack on Tokyo's subway.
The lower house Committee on Judicial Affairs approved two bills to fight the Aum Supreme Truth sect, following Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's pledge to address concern about cultists moving into new communities.
The 30-member committee "approved the bills by majority," a parliament official said.
The lower House of Representatives is set to pass the legislation Thursday for enactment in early December.
Aum Supreme Truth cult members, led by guru Shoko Asahara, shocked the world when they spread Nazi-invented Sarin gas in Tokyo's subway in March 1995, killing 12 people and injuring thousands.
The group was also blamed for many other crimes, including a Sarin attack in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto in 1994 that killed seven people and the murder of an anti-Aum lawyer, his wife and baby son in 1989.
The Aum cult escaped being outlawed under the Subversive Activities Prevention Act in January 1997 when a legal panel ruled there was no reason to believe it could still pose a threat to society.
One of the bills, submitted two weeks ago, restricts the activities of dangerous groups by giving the public security authorities the power to take such measures as banning donations.
Although the bill does not name the Aum Supreme Truth, it effectively targets the doomsday cult.
It covers "a group that carried out random mass murder" in the past 10 years and whose leaders at the time of the murder still have influence over its members.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party got support from the main opposition Democratic Party for the legislation, but only after making some amendments to safeguard against misuse.
One additional clause requires a review of the legislation every five years, including whether to scrap it.
The other bill is aimed at helping victims of the sect's terrorist attacks get compensation by enabling them to put claims on assets held not only by the sect but also by its affiliates.
Aum Supreme Truth cultists earn large sums through computer sales, according to the public security authorities.
Some lawmakers voiced concern over the bills because they were approved indiscussions lasting less than 20 hours over two weeks.
"It was difficult to spend enough time and have deep debate on points at issue amid a mood demanding the Aum sect be contained hastily," one opposition party member told Jiji Press news agency.

Japanese Gov't Approves Cult Law

("Associated Press", November 3, 1999)

TOKYO (AP) -- Japan's government has approved a bill meant to rein in the doomsday cult accused in the deadly sarin gas attack on Tokyo's subways, and the country's Parliament also was likely to adopt the measure.
The bill, approved by the Cabinet on Tuesday, would provide for the monitoring of groups that have committed mass murder. One target was the Aum Shinrikyo cult, whose guru is on trial in the March 1995 gassing.
Other members of the cult -- whose name means Supreme Truth -- are also suspected in the gassing that killed 12 people and sickened thousands, as well as several other murders. Some have already been convicted. The bill was almost certain to win approval because the ruling Liberal Democratic Party controls the majority in both houses of Parliament.
Under the law, which would take effect 20 days after passage, Aum would be placed under surveillance and would be required to report its activities every three months. Police would be able to inspect its facilities at any time.
Such control over citizens' groups is controversial in Japan because of the power held by police under the militarist government of the years before and during World War II.
The bill follows a resurgence in cult activities, including recruiting and honoring the guru, that have set off protests across the nation, especially in towns where the cult has set up offices.

"In Fury, Japan Invades a Cult's Rights"

by Calvin Sims ("The New York Times", August 27, 1999)

TAWARA, Japan -- Perched 20 feet up atop a rickety awning, Myoshi Kotani peeped through the surrounding cedar trees to get a better view of the shrouded buildings below.
"This is bad, very bad," Kotani said, referring to the workmen assembling prefabricated housing for members of Aum Shinrikyo, the sect behind the 1995 nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway that killed 12 people and made 6,000 others ill. "We've got to stop them. We can't let these murderers move into our community."
As a black Toyota van drove out the gate of the clandestine complex, a group of farmers who were camped out front began to jeer and shake their fists. "We don't want you here!" someone yelled through a bullhorn. "Go away, Aum!"
The residents of this tranquil farming village on the Nakagawa River, about 80 miles north of Tokyo, are on the front lines of a bitter nationwide campaign to banish members of the cult from Japanese society.
Anger at the cult runs high, and most Japanese seem untroubled by the campaign and its draconian tactics. But that widespread public tolerance is raising questions among some Japanese about the depth of Japan's commitment to civil liberties.
Japanese and Americans differ on how to strike a balance between individual rights and the welfare of society. The Japanese believe that the United States often emphasizes individual rights at the expense of the society as a whole. They cite as one example the recent shootings by Americans belonging to hate groups. Many Japanese see Aum as a dangerous force that continues to threaten their nation.
In recent weeks, dozens of municipalities across Japan have taken drastic steps to drive Aum cult members out of town. Many of their tactics are blatantly discriminatory and often violate the Japanese Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to live where they choose.
The most common anti-Aum tactic has been for municipal governments to refuse to accept members' residency applications, which are a legal requirement to live in any Japanese city and qualify for social services. Without residency permits, people cannot receive medical care, pensions or other public services. They cannot vote or obtain employment, a passport or a driver's license.
In some cities, residents will not allow children of cult members to attend public schools or to play in parks. Businesses will not sell goods to Aum followers, restaurants will not serve them and outdoor spas will not allow them to bathe. In one extreme case, three waste management firms have refused to pick up the cult's garbage and sewage.
Sympathy for Aum followers is hard to come by in Japan, which was devastated by the nerve gas attack in the subway. Except for a few human rights activists and constitutional scholars, almost no one has criticized this country's treatment of Aum followers.
Masayuki Tanamura, a law professor at Waseda University who specializes in civil rights law, said that Japan's treatment of Aum followers sets a dangerous precedent for a democratic society.
"I'm very worried that this kind of suppression of basic democratic rights, of freedom of expression and religion will destroy Japan's free society," Tanamura said. "It's not right to restrict or regulate people just because they have dangerous thoughts and believe in dangerous religions."
Aum Shinrikyo is a doomsday cult whose teachings are based on tenets borrowed from Hinduism and Buddhism. At the center of the group's beliefs is reverence for Shoko Asahara, Aum's founder, who teaches that the end of the world is near. The police have portrayed the nerve gas attack as the cult's way of hastening doomsday.
Many Aum followers are said to be people who were lost in Japan's workaday society and seeking guidance or spiritual salvation. Police officials say the group has about 5,000 members.
Because of the widespread fury against the cult, national and local government officials have turned a blind eye to the violations of the cult members' rights. Kijuro Tateno, Mayor of Sanwa in Ibaraki Prefecture, which has refused to allow 24 Aum followers to register as residents, said his town "may be violating the law in order to protect the safety of local residents."
Asked about the issue at a recent press briefing, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka said: "I think the heads of the municipalities in those areas are put in an extremely difficult situation. As they are dealing with a group that had committed brutal crimes in the past, my feelings are that I can understand it is inevitable that they take such measures."
According to a recent survey by Kyodo, Japan's leading news service, at least 35 cities in 16 prefectures have taken steps to oust Aum members from their borders. But the report found that such efforts appear to have had little impact so far.
"This is the worst treatment of any group that I've ever seen in Japan," said Kenichi Asano, a human rights advocate and communications professor at Doshisha University. "I saw a sign the other day that said: 'Aum Get Out of the Earth and Go to the Cosmos.' "
"I am not a defender of Aum, and if my daughter decided to join the group I would strongly try to persuade her not to do it," Asano said. "But until they commit a crime, members of religious groups have the same rights under the Constitution as anyone else."
Law enforcement officials, who are closely monitoring the situation, said that strong public opposition to Aum is fallout from the 1995 subway attack, which they described as the country's worst terrorist attack in modern history. "They call Aum the doomsday cult, and for many people who were trapped in the subway that day, it really did seem like the end of the world," a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity said. "You don't easily forget that."
Moreover, public anxiety over Aum has been mounting in the last year as the group stepped up its recruitment efforts, particularly on the Internet and at universities, and as its commercial ventures, mainly discount computer shops, have prospered, the officials said.
In recent months, the sect has purchased numerous properties across the country where it is constructing housing for its expanding membership. In addition, many Japanese fear that Aum may be planning another attack since several senior members, who recently finished serving prison terms related to the subway attack, have returned to the group.
While the Japanese have become more accepting of groups that are foreign to their largely homogeneous society and more willing to defend the rights of others, their tolerance wears thin when there is a threat, real or perceived, to social order.
Aum officials said that they are baffled by the widespread opposition to its members, who themselves have not been accused of any crime. Hiroshi Araki, acting chief of Aum's public relations department, said the group has received no assistance from the Government.
"We can't find any government organization that deals with this issue because it's an unprecedented case," the spokesman said. "We don't quite know how to respond to what's happening."
The group has filed claims seeking help from Japan's Bar Association and it has appealed the local governments' denial of residency registration to the provincial courts, but so far it has had no success.
Araki said that denying Aum followers residency registration has caused great hardship.
"As such every single aspect of our ordinary, everyday lives is being deprived by these local communities," Araki said. "And it's possible that it can get worst. Stones are being thrown and trucks are being crashed into our facilities. The physical damage could escalate."
Indeed, police officials have said that violent attacks against cult members are on the rise. One cult member was stabbed by two men while he was circulating flyers advertising a computer shop that is believed to be owned by Aum followers.
Yukinari Yamano, assistant director of the investigation division of the Justice Department's civil liberties bureau, said that the agency is monitoring the Aum situation and that it does not normally involve itself in such matters unless a formal complaint has been lodged.
Yamano said that the agency is mainly set up to promote civil rights and does not engage in enforcement, although it can conduct investigations and recommend that the Justice Department become involved. "One must keep in mind that both the residents of these cities and the members of Aum have human rights that must be protected," Yamano said.
In 1997, the Public Security Commission, an independent body, rejected the Government's request to apply the country's anti-subversion law to disband Aum.
The law allows the Government to outlaw subversive organizations that have engaged in terrorism and are likely to do so again.
At first, the Government said it was studying amendments to the law that would limit the cult's activities, but it abandoned those plans after religious groups complained that such an amendment might also restrict their freedom.
Now the Government is considering new legislation aimed specifically at Aum. "We want to consider this carefully," said Nonaka, the Cabinet Secretary. "But we must step up our effort within the government to diminish people's concerns."
Nowhere has opposition to Aum been more hostile than in Otawara, a place known for its pastoral way of life. Residents work hard tending the abundant rice fields and dairy cattle that dot the landscape, but they also take time to enjoy life and to get to know their neighbors, whom many here consider family.
Ever since 20 members of the Aum sect began converting an old inn into residential housing two months ago, local residents have made it clear that they were not welcome. The municipal government prevented the school registration of two children of Aum's founder, Shoko Asahara, who is on trial on charges of masterminding the subway attack and a series of crimes, including murder.
Otawara's Chamber of Commerce has advised city businesses to refuse to sell goods to cult followers, and many shops display posters that read "We do not sell any goods to people connected with Aum."
Last month, the protests turned violent when a man whom police described as a right-wing activist rammed his truck into the front gate of the compound, sending two male Aum members to the hospital with minor hand and back injuries.
Two weeks ago, about 3,500 protesters from Otawara and nearby towns formed a human circle around the Aum compound and chanted "Aum get out!"


"Japanese Cities Try Buying Out a Cult"

by Calvin Sims ("The New York Times", September 12, 1999)

OKYO -- Underscoring the fear that the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect invokes in Japan, a growing number of cities across the country are driving out its followers by using public money to buy up property owned by the doomsday cult.
A recent survey conducted by Kyodo, Japan's leading news service, found that four municipalities spent a total of about $1.4 million in recent months to buy property and facilities linked to the group.
The group, which distorts tenets from Hinduism and Buddhism into an apocalyptic mix, gained infamy in 1995 when some of its members released nerve gas into the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and injuring 6,000 others.
On Tuesday, without offering specifics, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi told prefecture governors that his administration plans to push legislation that would restrict the group's activities.
In the meantime, buying up property is among the tactics being used in a nationwide effort to restrain the group, which has increased its membership and visibility in the past year. The Kyodo news survey found that other cities are also considering using tax money to persuade followers of the group to move elsewhere.
Already many cities will not allow the group's members to register as residents, in effect denying them access to social services. Some businesses will not sell goods to the group's followers.
But it is unclear whether these efforts have been effective, and some say that the money used to buy property has served only to fuel the group's activities. Some people with close ties to the group suggest that it is simply taking advantage of the opportunity to sell marginal real estate at elevated prices.
Lawyers representing victims of the nerve-gas attacks and their families said that the real estate sales shed light on the group's vast resources, which they believe should be confiscated and used to pay claims brought by their clients.
"I think it's a very dangerous thing to pay Aum money for its property," said Kenji Utsunomiya, the leader of a group of lawyers representing victims of the subway attack. "They are using this money and money from their computer businesses to buy other real estate and increase their activities."
In May, the town of Takane paid the group $139,000 to give up rights acquired at an auction to buy land and a hotel. Last month, the town of Sanwa paid $162,000 to buy a printing plant that the group was leasing.
Anxiety over the group has risen since a 19-year-old woman said she was chloroformed and abducted near her home in Narashino for 12 hours last month. She said the assailants told her that she would be killed if her family did not drop a lawsuit seeking damages from the group for the death of her brother, who was killed in another nerve-gas attack linked to it in 1994 in Matsumoto.
A spokesman for Aum Shinrikyo, Hiroshi Araki, denied that his group was involved in the kidnapping, and the police have offered no evidence implicating the group.
After the subway attack, the government stripped the group of its status as a religious organization, and last year its assets were liquidated by the courts. It then reorganized without official religious status. While law-enforcement officials said the group has about 5,000 members, its officials put the number at 1,500.
Victims who had sued the cult were awarded nearly $8 million for crimes attributed to the group. The police have said that the group earns about $65 million a year through the sales of computers.


"Japan Drafts Bill to Control Some Cults by Year's End"

by Calvin Sims ("New York Times", November 3, 1999)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government approved a bill Tuesday that is intended to restrict the expanding activities of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, which was behind the fatal nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway system in 1995 and other terrorist acts.
The bill, which has been eagerly anticipated here, is expected to be approved with the support of the governing Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partners and to go into effect by the end of the year.
Although the bill does not mention Aum Shinrikyo by name, it gives security forces broad powers to monitor and curtail the activities of organizations that have committed "indiscriminate mass murder" and whose leaders hold strong influence over its members.
Several members of Aum Shinrikyo, including its founder, Shoko Asahara, are on trial for, or have been convicted of, crimes that include the sarin gas attack in the subways that killed 12 people and injured more than 5,000 others.
The proposed legislation comes in response to growing public outrage against the group, which has greatly expanded its membership and commercial efforts. It follows legislation passed in China last week that bans sects like the Falun Gong movement, a popular program of traditional exercises and meditation, which the Chinese government has tried to discredit by likening it to Aum Shinrikyo.
As Aum Shinrinkyo has sought new facilities to house its followers and conduct operations, many municipal governments across Japan have refused to allow members to register as city residents, in effect denying them access to social services. Some businesses will not sell goods to the group's followers, and some towns have spent public money to persuade members to leave town.
Japanese political leaders, city mayors, and victims of the subway attack applauded the proposed legislation Tuesday as a necessary step to prevent terrorism. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said that he hoped the legislature would pass the bill "as soon as possible.
Yukio Takano, the top official in Tokyo's Toshima ward, where the group's public relations headquarters are based, said, "I hope Aum's activities will be curbed by the law and that they are forced to leave our city and other municipalities."
But human rights activists and legal groups criticized the bill, saying that it impinges on personal freedoms and violates the constitution.
Shigeru Kobori, president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, said in a statement that while his organization understands the anxiety that many Japanese feel toward Aum Shinrikyo, the proposed law "contains serious constitutional problems in that it enables the authorities to take up measures to limit basic human rights."
"This is a very dangerous law because it could be used against any organization that the government, the police, or the public safety commission doesn't like," said Kenichi Asano, a human rights advocate. Under this law, if the government believes someone is part of a certain organization, they can arrest them, put them in prison, or search their home. People should be prosecuted because they individually commit crimes, not because they belong to organizations whose members have been accused of crimes."
Under the proposed legislation, an organized group implicated in serious crimes can be placed under the surveillance of the Public Security Investigation Agency for up to three years and forced to report on its activities every three months.
The bill gives police and public security officials the right to inspect the group's facilities at any time, and if the group is found to have broken any laws, it can be banned from acquiring land or facilities for up to six months.
In August, public support for legislation to restrict Aum Shinrikyo's activities increased sharply after a young woman told police a frightening account of being chloroformed and abducted for 12 hours by its followers.
The 19-year-old woman said the assailants told her that she would be killed if her family did not drop a lawsuit seeking damages from the group for the death of her brother, who was killed in another nerve gas attack linked to the group in 1994 in Matsumoto.
Although Aum Shinrikyo denied involvement in any attack and the police had no evidence implicating it, the young woman's accusations were widely believed, raising public anxiety and calls for the government to take action. But last week the woman admitted to police that she made up the story because she hates Aum Shinrikyo.
In another case that received widespread public attention, police arrested two members of the group in September and charged them with confining a woman follower against her will to a cell inside an Aum Shinrikyo building
But the two were released after the woman told prosecutors that she was not being forcibly detained but rather was undertaking an ascetic program voluntarily.


"Psycho-dissection bares menace of the madman with a weapon"
(NY Times' review of Lifton's book - See our own review)

by Richard Bernstein ("The New York Times", November 1, 1999)

Robert Jay Lifton has spent a good part of his life studying apocalyptic evil and its consequences.
The professor of psychology and psychiatry at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 1969 wrote "Death in Life," a book that explored the psychospiritual after-effects of the atomic bomb attacks on Japan.
"The Nazi Doctors" tried to answer how German physicians became so morally deformed that they put their knowledge of healing to the service of Nazi cruelty and murder.
There are many echoes of Lifton's earlier themes in his new book, "Destroying the World to Save It," which is mostly a study of Aum Shinrikyo, the messianic Japanese cult that carried out a nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995. Lifton's subject once again is the nature of self-justifying evil, the way in which those who carry out acts of lunatic criminality are persuaded of the higher good of their actions.
But he takes this theme a step forward as he compares Aum Shinrikyo to other cults, especially American ones such as People's Temple and Heaven's Gate, to reach an alarming conclusion: that the combination of apocalyptic, paranoid groups and readily available weapons of mass destruction poses a dreadful new style of menace.
"Aum's danger to the world -- and its greatest significance -- lay in its joining of megalomania to ultimate weapons," Lifton writes.

Destroying the World to Save It
By Robert Jay Lifton. Metropolitan Books, 374 pages, $26.

Lifton cites various notions that he finds common to the otherwise dissimilar cults that he studied -- their adherents' idea that death is purifying; their paranoid belief in the existence of evil forces that are persecuting them; their overriding need for spiritual meaning, immortality, power. But one has the sense that these terms are not quite up to solving the mysteries that Lifton himself evokes.
Lifton is best at description, and he begins with a long and richly detailed account of Aum Shinrikyo and its charismatic, probably schizophrenic leader, Shoko Asahara.
As many will remember, Asahara's nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway killed a dozen people, but the goal was to achieve (if that is the word) far more than that. Asahara wanted to bring about a global slaughter after which only he, the brilliant prophet, and his followers would remain.
Lifton's reporting on the Aum cult and on the distance that otherwise intelligent people are able to travel toward the annihilation of a genuine moral self is very good.
However, when Lifton turns to the reasons that these people lose the self in the totalistic doctrine of the cult, his language becomes blandly and mistily clinical.
As for the danger that a new form of global terrorism is upon us, it would of course be foolish for the world's police forces not to be on guard for the private makers of sarin or for those who dream, as Asahara did, of obtaining nuclear weapons.
He didn't succeed, of course. In fact, he never came remotely close to achieving his apocalyptic objectives, nor could he have done so.
Aum and the other cults discussed in this book did shocking things. Still, Lifton does not make the case that there is anything especially new or more globally menacing than what the world has faced from the troubling phenomenon of psychotic megalomania in the past.

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