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Over 20 years after AUM terror, cults in Japan still seeking to recruit youths

This photo shows guidebooks distributed to new followers several years ago by Aleph, a successor organization of the AUM Shinrikyo cult. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- More than 20 years have passed since a series of terror attacks and murders for which former AUM Shinrikyo cult guru Shoko Asahara and 12 of his ex-disciples were executed in July, but religious cults remain active in recruiting young people through social networking services and fake job seminars.

Universities, including institutions where senior AUM members once studied, are trying to counter cult recruitment through specially designed lectures, and support programs and consultation hotlines for both students and young researchers who are potential targets of cult recruiters.

A woman in her 20s living in the Kanto region ended up joining an "anti-social" religious group whose founder was convicted in a rape case abroad, after she was approached by a female stranger while shopping at a department store in Tokyo during last summer.

"I want to buy a birthday present for my friend. Do you have any recommendations?" asked the stranger as she approached the woman. They shopped together and exchanged account information on the free communication app Line. The two became close after the stranger invited her to women-only gatherings and other events, and before she knew it the young woman had become a member of the cult.

"They used and continue to use every means possible to expand their membership, then and now," says Takayuki Iwano, 38, a director of the Japan Society for Cult Prevention and Recovery (JSCPR), who was lured into the same cult but managed to quit. He offered advice to the woman.

In the case of Iwano, a group of about seven men and women approached him and invited him to join a soccer club at the canteen of his university 17 years ago when he was a fourth-year student. Initially Iwano was happy, thinking that he now had more friends. But after about two months, they invited him to what was described as a Bible study group, and he realized that they were members of a religious cult.

Professor Kimiaki Nishida of Rissho University, a specialist in social psychology and the chairman of JSCPR, explains that religious cults prey on worries and loneliness held by their potential targets. The professor points out that a shift in zeitgeist from the economy-first thinking up to the 1970s to pursuit of more spiritual posture in the 1980s that valued the internal richness of individuals, was behind the rise of cults.

"Youth movements (of the 1960s and 1970s) seeking social improvements died down, and students tried to gain happiness by changing themselves, not society," says Nishida. With doomsday theories and occult thinking getting popular, religious cults such as AUM sucked in young people with concerns.

Taido Kusuyama, chief priest at Daimyoji temple in the city of Yokosuka in Kanagawa Prefecture, has been active in supporting people in breaking away from cults. "Cults attract people by presenting what appears to be 'the right answer,'" says Kusuyama. "Once people become members, human relationships they develop within those groups or new roles given to them make it difficult for them to leave."

Following the series of murders and terror attacks committed by AUM Shinrikyo members, people became more suspicious of cults and their activities seemed to have stagnated. Under the surface, however, religious sects are still busy recruiting.

According to the society helping people to leave cults, one of the most popular methods of attracting people is the use of social networking services such as Twitter. Cultists try to reach out by sending Twitter messages or clicking "Like" buttons on Facebook. The Public Security Intelligence Agency says Aleph, a successor organization to AUM, is getting new members through fortunetelling sessions and yoga seminars. Some small-scale groups are staging fake job-hunting seminars and self-improvement sessions in search of newcomers.

Professor Nishida says that students have been worried about their futures as economic disparity widens following the burst of the economic bubble in the early 1990s and they are vulnerable to exploitation by cults. "You have to be cautious because many groups hide their religious identities," he warned.

--- Universities trying to fend off cults

Universities with potential cult victims, meanwhile, are taking measures to protect their students and young researches from the advances of religious sects with questionable ideologies.

Osaka University is one of them. A former science graduate student at the prestigious public institution, Hideo Murai, was a senior AUM member. He was allegedly involved in the murder of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family members, and was later stabbed to death by a gang member.

The university launched a lecture to study the connection between society and science and technology in 1996, the year after a series of AUM attacks, when police began raiding AUM facilities on terror and murder suspicions.

The lecture is open to students at its undergraduate and graduate schools of science and engineering science. The class draws some 400 students. Nagoya University professor emeritus Satoru Ikeuchi, who was an Osaka University professor from 1992 through 1997, recalls he was shocked to learn that Murai had become a cult member. "He studied at a graduate school, and still believed in outrageous things such as human levitation and committed heinous crimes," he recalls thinking back then.

Ikeuchi thus led the effort to open the lecture. "I think we've merely been teaching knowledge of science at the university. Delinking scholarship from real society can be dangerous," Ikeuchi told a meeting of professors as he argued for the introduction of the lecture.

The lecture's first session introduced the AUM incidents. Outside speakers such as corporate personalities and science reporters were invited to talk about how science and technology influenced society, and how society saw those disciplines. Some 600 people attended the lecture, and dozens of people continued discussions on subjects such as scientists' ethics even after the class time was over.

Professor Takahiro Sato, who is now involved in the management of such lectures, says the AUM cases are rarely mentioned recently. But Sato emphasized, "It is important to teach that universities are not ivory towers and that they are connected with society."

Other universities have programs to retrieve students from cults. Okayama University in western Japan started to distribute arm bands to officially recognize student circles in 2009 and allow only students with those bands to carry out recruitment activities on campus. The arrangement was made "because we began to see many cults on campus trying to expand membership by pretending that they were ordinary groups," according to a university official. The school also has a program to support students leaving religious cults.

Professor Shinya Sakairi, who is in charge of cult countermeasures, says it is not easy to warn students as there are no clear-cut standards about what constitutes a cult. "But the point is to remain vigilant," he said.

Chiba University near Tokyo has provided counseling services on cults since 2006. Students can make inquiries by telephone or email. The school also has a pamphlet for freshman students that warns of cults. "Even if students casually join cults seeking friends, getting out of those groups may not be easy," the pamphlet points out.

(Japanese original by Takayuki Kanamori, Akira Hattori and Epo Ishiyama, City News Department, and Taku Nishikawa, Science & Environment News Department)

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