Faced with mounting government and police scrutiny, in January, 2000, Aum Shinrikyo:
Many observers viewed these moves with skepticism, noting that the changes came just before the government were to decide whether Aum Shinrikyo should come under supervision in accordance with a law to regulate organizations that have committed mass murder.
As noted, permission was granted, and Aum Shinrikyo has been under observation ever since.
The group's name change, meanwhile, has not been well-received. In news reports, media in Japan and elsewhere generally continue using the name Aum Shinrikyo, or at least mention Aum Shinrikyo's connection to Aleph.
The religious group responsible for a deadly nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 said for the first time today that its founder and leader had probably been involved in the attack and that he would no longer serve as the group's leader.
Distancing itself from the leader, Shoko Asahara, who is on trial on charges of masterminding the sarin gas attack that killed 12 people and injured 5,000 others, the group, Aum Shinrikyo, said he was probably involved in other crimes as well.
But it also said members would continue to follow his spiritual teachings.
"Although we cannot say for sure, since the trial is still going on, we have come to a consensus that Asahara was likely involved in the series of crimes he is charged with," the group's senior members said in a statement. "Asahara is a genius in yoga and Buddhist meditation methods, and we will continue to practice those methods inherited from him."
The members avoided addressing the extent of their own complicity in any crimes. Although prosecutors have not implicated any of the senior members, critics of the group have said it is unlikely that the subway attack took place without their knowledge.
Many ordinary Japanese regarded the reorganization announced by the group today as largely cosmetic and expressed skepticism that the group would be any less dangerous. It was widely seen as trying to evade new legislation that would allow the government to curb its activities.
In addition to the subway attack, the trial of Mr. Asahara, 44, includes 16 other crimes, among which are murder, attempted murder, a separate nerve gas attack and production of weaponry.
The group said today that it was making "drastic reforms," including changing its name from Aum to Aleph, which is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and purging itself of doctrine that condoned murder for the benefit of the group.
Aleph, which members said signifies renewal, is also the name of a company affiliated with the group, which is believed to have about 2,100 followers.
Fumihiro Joyu, the group's charismatic former spokesman who is now its second-highest official, extended his apologies to victims of crimes linked to Aum and said it would compensate them through sales of real estate and other assets.
"I'd like to give a deep apology to the victims and bereaved, and say that I feel personally responsible as one who belonged to the same religious group," said Mr. Joyu, 37, who returned to the group last month after serving a three-year jail term for perjury in a case unrelated to the subway attack.
While Mr. Joyu is widely seen as the de facto leader, the religious group said today that its acting head, Tatsuko Muraoka, 49, would immediately assume the leadership mantle.
Ms. Muraoka said in a statement today that the group considered Mr. Asahara "a spiritual being" but that he no longer had the authority to give directions to members. She said that all followers had been instructed to abandon any dogma considered dangerous and that the group's main focus of worship would be Buddhist deities. Ms. Muraoka said the new group would pose "no threat to society."
By dismissing Mr. Asahara as its leader and undertaking a restructuring, the group appears to hoping to stave off a move by the Government to restrict its activities and finances.
Outside the local office of the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect here, dozens of riot police officers have been permanently stationed to control angry Japanese mobs that gather to denounce the sect, which killed 12 people five years ago when it released deadly nerve gas in the Tokyo subways.
Inside, Fumihiro Joyu, the boyish 37-year-old former spokesman for the group who became its de facto leader after being released from prison late last year, insists that the sect no longer represents a threat to Japanese society. The sect no longer espouses the same ideology, he said, though he insisted that followers had no reason to give up their reverence for the former leader who had led them to carry out the attack.
''Japanese society has nothing to fear from us,'' Mr. Joyu said. ''I think that the most important factor in resolving this conflict is time. We need time to adapt ourselves to the real world without losing our basic beliefs, and Japanese society needs time to get used to our different kind of philosophy and values.''
In a rare interview, Mr. Joyu, lean, clean-cut, dressed in gray slacks and a white Yves Saint Laurent sweat shirt, candidly discussed the difficulties that Aum is facing amid a government and grass-roots crackdown. He outlined a series of reforms intended to resuscitate the sect, which critics say is heading for collapse.
He also apologized for lying to the Japanese people five years ago when at televised news conferences he adamantly denied that Aum had any connection to the subway attack.
''I did so substantially in order to protect our organization as the spokesman,'' Mr. Joyu said. ''I have to admit that and apologize to the Japanese people for it.''
Under his direction now, the sect has already taken several major steps toward transforming itself, he said. It has changed its name from Aum to Aleph, which signifies new beginning, and distanced itself from its founder, Shoko Asahara, who is on trial for masterminding the gas attack and other crimes.
But many Japanese are troubled that Aum still considers Mr. Asahara a ''spiritual being.''
The sect has also vowed to use profits from its computer companies and other ventures to compensate victims of crimes committed by former sect members. And sect members are being re-educated to become more integrated into society.
Whether or not Mr. Joyu will succeed in remaking Aum is unclear.
Shoko Egawa, a free-lance journalist who is considered an expert on the sect, said Mr. Joyu has given Aum followers a new sense of purpose. ''Joyu has revitalized the followers by giving them a new goal -- to work hard to compensate the victims of Aum crimes as a way of spreading their 'Supreme Truth,' '' she said.
Ms. Egawa said that as long as Mr. Joyu remains the driving force behind Aum, she doubted that the group would pose a danger to Japan. ''He's a very calculating person, a realist and he knows that such crimes provide no benefit to him or the organization,'' she said.
Still, Ms. Egawa said she was worried that Aum would continue to use its longtime recruitment and conversion tactics, in which followers are stripped of their ability to think for themselves and blindly follow what they are told.
But Japanese antipathy for Aum runs so deep that many people believe that the religious sect will never be accepted into society no matter how many changes it makes.
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