The final three Aum Shinrikyo fugitives are now in custody, but groups working to rescue brainwashed followers from its main successor group are continuing their fight against the cult.
In a campaign to save the roughly 1,500 disciples who remain loyal to the cult, which changed its name to Aleph in 2000, the groups are calling on the former fugitives and other ex-members to warn the young about the risks it still poses.
“My goal is to make every single Aum follower leave the cult. . . . I’ve got to do something about this problem” while I’m still strong enough, Hiroyuki Nagaoka, the 74-year-old head of a group of relatives of former or current cult members, told The Japan Times on Friday.
Nagaoka said he believes Katsuya Takahashi, the last Aum fugitive who was arrested Friday, is still partly under the influence of Aum guru Shoko Asahara, currently on death row, and will require counseling to start viewing the world through his own eyes.
“What Takahashi has to do now is to gain the ability to think 100 percent with his own mind, through the assistance of councilors, to fully realize the heinous nature of his crimes and to think of ways to atone,” Nagaoka said.
“I also want him to send a message to the cult’s current followers to prevent a recurrence” of its past atrocities, he said.
Nagaoka founded Aum Shinrikyo Kazoku no Kai (Aum Shinrikyo Family Group) with other families in 1989, two years after his only son, Tatsuya, joined Aum and fell into Asahara’s clutches.
Although Nagaoka managed to get his son back the following year, he has continued to fight Aleph and assist other families’ efforts to save their loved ones. .
“It’s the adults’ responsibility not to let these kinds of crimes happen again,” he said.
The thought of quitting has never crossed Nagaoka’s mind, even after he was attacked by Aum members with potentially lethal VX nerve gas in Tokyo’s Aoyama district in January 1995, just two months before the sarin strike on the Tokyo subway system.
The attack almost killed Nagaoka, who suffered cardiorespiratory arrest and hovered between life and death for about 10 days. Seventeen years later, the right half of his body remains paralyzed and he still suffers chronic pain.
Experts say that due to Asahara’s demise many people now dismiss the possibility of falling under the influence of a cult, and warn the younger generation is especially at risk as it did not directly experience the shock waves generated by the Tokyo sarin gas attack 17 years ago.
They say anyone can fall prey to cults such as Aleph and that its members are actively looking for new recruits on university campuses.
Kimiaki Nishida, a social psychology professor at Rissho University and head of the Japan Society for Cult Prevention and Recovery, said Aleph’s increased activity is partly due to young people’s lack of awareness about the potential risks.
“When I question college students or youths about Aum’s strike (on the Tokyo subway system), they have heard about it but they don’t know why such a shocking incident took place or understand the reasons people joined Aum” in the first place, said Nishida, who gave expert testimony during the trials of several of the cult’s senior members.
“They think Aum’s crimes are over and that they are completely immune to Aleph’s influence. They believe there is no way they would ever join such a group” and remain oblivious to the dangers, Nishida warned.
According to a 2011 report by the Public Safety Intelligence Agency, Aleph conducted an aggressive recruitment drive last year, covertly seeking new members at universities by infiltrating cultural societies or using social networking services.
More than 200 new members joined the cult last year — roughly double the number in 2010 — and 62 percent were younger than 35, the report said.
Nishida said cults in general are trying to lure students via sports or cultural groups, but amid the nuclear crisis have also used antinuclear gatherings to distribute fliers with contact numbers.
“What worries me is that (Japan) hasn’t educated students about religion” and they therefore have difficulty distinguishing between various faiths and cult teachings, he said.
A recent study conducted by Nishida found that many people have been approached by cultists for the first time while at high school. However, barely any countermeasures have been taken to protect students.
“I believe we can make a difference simply by giving students basic guidance about cults’ activities and the danger they pose. . . . But the education ministry hasn’t made any move” to mandate classes about such groups at high schools, Nishida said.
Some colleges, including Osaka and Chiba universities, have started taking measures to protect students in recent years, starting consultation services or introducing compulsory classes on the threat cults continue to pose. Such steps should be carried out at all universities nationwide, Nishida said.
With the exception of Asahara, Nishida said he wishes the other Aum members on death row might one day have the inclination and also be allowed to recount to the younger generation how they fell under his spell.
“I wish (the young could hear them) talk about the reasons they believed Asahara’s teachings and why they carried out such unspeakable acts. I believe that would be the most effective deterrent against Aleph,” Nishida said.
That goes for the three recently seized fugitives, as well.
“I want them to explain their crimes, face their past and speak of the reasons behind their actions and what they hoped to accomplish,” he said.