At its peak, Aum reportedly "claimed 10,000 believers in Japan at its peak and tens of thousands more in the United States, Russia and elsewhere."
But even though numbers have dwindled after the group's 1995 nerve gas attack, Aum Shinrikyo continues to draw followers. That said, Aum is not growing as fast as some predicted. In July, 1999, The Guardian reported the group to have 2,000 followers:
Aum's revival is astonishing. Not only has it survived its years in the wilderness, but it is expanding again at an alarming rate. It now has about 2,000 followers, including 500 hard-core devotees living in cult-owned facilities. It earned a staggering ?30m last year from its shops, which sell cut-price computers assembled by unsalaried followers. It is distributing millions of booklets in which new recruits explain how Aum teachings have given them supernatural powers. It even has its own pop band, called Perfect Salvation, which performs songs written by the guru himself.
Six years later - on the occassion of the 10th anniversary of the nerve gas attacks - Japan Today still reports 2,000 members:
In 2000, Aum renamed itself Aleph
to try and shed its blood-soaked image. Aleph admitted Aum's responsibility in the subway attack, apologized and promised compensation. But its efforts to distance itself from Asahara brought only limited success.
That same year, Aleph leader Fumihiro Joyu, a Waseda University graduate once considered a heartthrob by Japanese women, wrote: "We could say that former Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara was a kind of genius in meditation, but at the same time we cannot approve of the incidents his organization caused. While inheriting the superior practices of yoga and Buddhism, and the meditation method his yoga talent has left, we'd like to clearly disapprove of the incidents."
Aleph's membership was recently estimated at as high as 2,000 and monitoring of the group by the Public Security Intelligence Agency continues — as does the controversy surrounding the group.
In researching his book Underground: "The Tokyo Gas Attacks and the Japanese Psyche,"
Haruki Murakami interviewed Aum followers and asked them whether, given the events of March 20, 1995, they regretted joining the cult. Almost all of them said they had no regrets.
In considering why this is so, Murakami's conclusion also could also be read as a warning: "In Aum they found a purity of purpose they could not find in ordinary society. Even if in the end it became something monstrous, the radiant, warm memory of the peace they originally found remains inside them, and nothing else can easily replace it."
What worries many people is that - despite claims to the contrary - many of Aum's followers apparently still revere the cult's founder:
Several of its senior members have been convicted of heinous crimes, including two deadly nerve gas attacks. It has been placed under tight surveillance and wherever its members try to settle, local residents and municipalities turn out to keep them away.
Still, Aum Shinrikyo claims more than 1,000 followers seven years after founder Shoko Asahara was arrested as the alleged mastermind of the cult's major crimes, and membership has recently been picking up.
For many of the cultists, the reason is simple; they say Asahara's teachings remain the best path to religious enlightenment and they believe the teachings themselves had nothing to do with what their accused predecessors did under the guru's orders.
In its attempt to win social recognition, Aum renamed itself Aleph and its leaders have tried to distance the cult from Asahara's legacy.
The cult now claims Asahara and and his cohorts in crime have been expelled. It has urged its followers to stop attending court sessions in the marathon trial of Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto.
But for many of Aum's die-hard ranks, the reason for staying in the cult is clear; they find the doctrine initiated by Asahara the "most effective way to enlightenment."
Books authored by Asahara and videotapes of his speeches are kept on the bookshelves of Aum branches.
Members say Aum's religious activities are based on Asahara's interpretation of traditional Buddhism. They claim they try to learn the mechanism of greed and other undesirable human desires, and free themselves from them by studying Buddhist documents and Asahara's speeches, along with practicing yoga and meditation.
Kenichi Hirosue, a 31-year-old cultist who lives at Aum's headquarters in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, with 60 others, said he had experienced a "strong physical catharsis" from yoga training under Asahara's guidance.
"And the Aum belief system developed by Asahara still fascinates me most out of other existing beliefs," he said.
"What he did may never be forgiven by the Japanese people, but I truly believe that what he taught will one day be recognized as the great legacy of human civilization," Hirosue said.
Court testimony by Aum figures accused of heinous crimes suggests that it was Asahara's teachings that prompted the offenses, including the murders. Asahara is said to have taught his followers that those who are in an advanced "religious stage" are responsible for "salvaging the rest of the world by all means," including murder.
But Aum claims such elements of Asahara's teachings have been purged from the cult's current doctrine. Videos of the guru's speeches now shown to members have had problematic references edited out, according to the cult.
Some current members are at a loss when asked if they would have committed similar crimes if they had been ordered by Asahara and his senior henchmen back then.
"Now, after all those crimes have happened, I can say I would never do anything like that," one male follower said. "But I am not sure I could have rejected Asahara's orders had I been under the same circumstances (as the cultists accused of carrying out Aum's crimes).
"After all, he was a fatherly figure to all the followers at that time."
A spokesman for the Public Security Investigation Agency said Aum "is no less dangerous than it was seven years ago, in the sense that all of its members are under mind-control to worship Asahara."
As many as 650 followers leading a communal life together "is sufficient (for the cult) to engage in terrorism on a grand scale," he said.
"The short explanation for why they stay in the cult is because they have been told they will go to hell if they leave," said Shoko Egawa, a journalist and author who has written about Aum for 15 years and who nearly died after a cult member released phosgene gas in her apartment when she was asleep.
"According to the doctrine of Aum, those who sin against 'the truth' - which means Aum - have to stay in hell forever, which is very frightening for them," she said.
"They also feel oppressed by Japanese society - these are the same people who were bullied at school or became hikikomori (hermits) - and they are not confident about being able to live in this society.
"As long as they remain in the cult, they believe they are saints and they look down on the rest of us as being ignorant," she said. "The cult controls their minds and makes them feel superior to ordinary people, and that makes it easier for them to stay with their own kind."
A sampling of articles addressing Aum's continued popularity and/or the group's continuing fascination with Shoko Asahara's teachings:
- Followers still see Matsumoto as their guru, July 8, 2004
- Is the doomsday cult poised for revival?, Apr. 17, 2004
- Day of Judgment: Teachings of guru still drive Aum, Feb. 24, 2004
- Aum alone: Most cultists say they have moved on. But have they really done so?, Feb. 27, 2004
- Japanese doomsday cult still kicking, Feb. 3, 2005
For our complete news archive on Aum Shinrikyo, see Religion News Blog's Aum Shinrikyo News Tracker.
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