Swayed by a mixture of dark fascination with the outlaw life and dissatisfaction with their own lot, a small but passionate group of young people are bound by their professed admiration for the criminal members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, who 19 years ago Thursday unleashed deadly sarin gas on the Tokyo subway system.
Calling themselves “Aumers,” some adore the cultists as if they were pop idols. Others say they feel excited by their insanity and even identify with them.
One self-proclaimed Aumer in her 20s who routinely blogs about her fascination with the cult said she thinks of them as her “idols,” citing their handsomeness and stoicism.
“(Their messed-up life stories are) a feel-good reminder that there are people whose life is more screwed up than mine,” said the woman, who goes by the online moniker “Shiruneko” and declined to give her real name and age.
She explained that her own life is similarly plagued by miseries, including an “underprivileged” childhood and frayed relationships with her family.
However, Shiruneko denies she is a follower of Aum Shinrikyo or has ever fancied becoming one, because “I’m so full of worldly desires I can never bear any sort of ascetic lifestyle.”
But despite her denials, experts caution that she and others like her are potential Aum recruits — and even potential criminals — because they don’t understand the severity of the cult’s crimes.
It is widely believed that Aleph, an Aum successor sect, remains staunchly loyal to cult founder Shoko Asahara and even seeks to whitewash Aum’s past wrongdoings.
Aleph and its rival successor sect, Hikari no Wa, had 1,650 members as of last June, according to the latest statistics by the Public Security Intelligence Agency.
This is an increase of 150 from the previous year, and includes a marked rise among people in their 20s.
Blogger Shiruneko said she first took an interest in the cult after seeing former member Makoto Hirata on TV when he turned himself in to police in 2011 after 17 years on the run.
She recalls being “hooked” by how surprisingly handsome “Mako,” as she refers to him, looked.
She combed the Internet for more information about Aum, whose past misdeeds she had heard about but never seriously studied.
Soon she had a new favorite: Tomomitsu Niimi, a convicted murderer now awaiting execution on death row. Shiruneko said she found him to be a “good-looking mad criminal” and that the unapologetic grin he showed right after his arrest was an instant turn-on.
Although insistent she has no religious interest, she noted: “If he were ever to form a new religious institution, I would definitely join.” Even so, she said she feels nothing but strong revulsion for Asahara, whom she calls “ugly,” “filthy,” “fat” and “plain disgusting.”
“I honestly don’t understand why people even thought about becoming his disciple,” Shiruneko said.
Most of the other Aumers she has met online, mainly through Twitter, are “surprisingly young, like teens,” she added.
Satoshi Hosokawa, a 31-year-old cook in Tokyo, says his interest in the doomsday cult is something of a lark.
His curiosity was aroused about a year ago when he stumbled across online clips of Aum cultists singing — off-key — songs they had written. The sheer absurdity of what they were doing titillated him, and before he knew it he began to make fun of them, drawing jokey cartoons of them and frequenting Hirata’s trial sessions with fellow Aumers.
Hosokawa emphasized that he fully understands the gravity and unforgivable nature of Aum’s past crimes, including murder. But he also admitted that he sympathizes with the cultists.
“I mean, it’s not like they killed people because they were driven by some ugly rage or something. They only obeyed their guru, thinking it’s a good thing to do. . . . In a way, they were being nice when they did the killing.”
Of Asahara, Hosokawa said he admires his ability to win his disciples’ trust and build his own “empire” to achieve his ambitions.
“There are many people who complain about society, but not so many of them can actually turn their ideas into action like he did,” he said.
Aumers are far from alone in their fascination with criminals.
When Tatsuya Ichihashi was arrested in 2009 for the rape and murder of Briton Lindsay Ann Hawker, after two years on the lam, he attracted a following online, mostly among women smitten with his looks.
Kanae Kijima, a “black widow” convicted of murdering three men for their money, likewise has female fans, often dubbed “Kanae Girls,” who are fascinated with her lonely-hearts seduction of her victims. Kijima, 39, has been sentenced to hang.
Tokyo sex shop owner and writer Minori Kitahara, who published a book in 2012 about her experience as an observer at the Kijima trial, said her calculated use of sex to manipulate men struck a chord with the Kanae Girls.
“It’s not like they admire Kijima because she is a killer. It’s more about how she lived her life, or how she responded to male desires in a completely businesslike manner while secretly looking down on her men as utterly inhuman,” Kitahara said. In her opinion it’s “nearly impossible” that the Kanae Girls would copy her crimes.
That may not be the case with the Aumers.
Self-described “pioneering Aumer” Masashi Nishimura, a 51-year-old university employee in Tokyo, has spent the past two decades blogging about the cult, purchasing Aum-themed merchandise and hobnobbing with its members.
He said he has seen some of his fellow Aumers eventually join the ranks of Aleph after dipping into its world.
Asked about the emerging young Aumers, he said: “Some of them might feel deep sympathy with the cult. The possibility (of them turning into criminals) is not exactly zero, I think.”
Nishimura said many Aumers, whose exact number is unknown, have extremely low self-esteem. They feel they are frivolous and deserve to be frowned upon, viewing themselves as “human garbage,” he said.
In his case, Nishimura said, he sees himself in half-blind guru Asahara, who grew up in poverty and felt neglected by his parents. Nishimura said he himself endured constant bullying in school and was often hospitalized as a child due to poor health.
“So I could understand how he tried to retaliate against society by (masterminding the sarin gas attack) and show to the world that he isn’t what it thinks he is.”
Shoko Egawa, a freelance journalist who has pursued Aum-related issues for years, is concerned.
“People who are frustrated for some reason find Aum easy to identify with because the cult is considered an enemy of the very society they’re unhappy with,” she said. “Remember. This is just the sort of inner angst that the cult is determined to tap into.”