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From loss to hope: Shizuoka guide dog center on ex-AUM cult land raising companions

Roughly 2-month-old puppies born at the Japan Guide Dog Association's Fuji Harness training center play in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Oct. 16, 2018. (Mainichi/Haruka Takaba)

FUJINOMIYA, Shizuoka -- A Japan Guide Dog Association training center built on the former grounds of the Fujisan headquarters of the AUM Shinrikyo cult, which perpetrated the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack and other crimes, has turned painful memories into hope by continuing to provide canine partners for the visually impaired for over 10 years.

The facility, "Fuji Harness," sits in the middle of the dairy farmland in the foothills on the Shizuoka Prefecture side of Mount Fuji in central Japan, and opened its doors in 2006. According to the association, there are an estimated 3,000-some people with visual impairments in Japan on the waiting list to receive a guide dog, but there were only 941 canines working as of March 2018.

According to the Fujinomiya Municipal Government and others, the land that Fuji Harness now occupies was bought by AUM in 1988, and the headquarters built. Just this July, 13 members of the cult on death row, including founder Shoko Asahara, whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto, were all hanged.

"There were times when Asahara's sutras would be blasted loudly 24 hours a day," an 85-year-old male resident recalled of the time that the land was used by the cult. It was after the sarin gas attacks by AUM members on the Tokyo subway that the residents got together and began to protest the cult's use of the land. The group was evicted from the site in October 1996, the following year, but the perception of the land's ties to the cult was too strong, and no buyer could be found.

In this Oct. 22, 1990 file photo, Kumamoto Prefectural Police conduct an on-site search of the AUM Shinrikyo cult's Fujisan headquarters, in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture, in connection to an incident of violating the National Land Use Planning Act in a facility in Kumamoto Prefecture. The search was the first by authorities on the premises of the cult's facilities. (Mainichi)

That was until the Japan Guide Dog Association, chaired by Yukihiko Inoue, 81, came into the picture. Inoue served as the commissioner of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department at the time of the sarin gas attacks. "I felt a connection," he recalled. "If it was a training facility for guide dogs, then I thought the residents would definitely welcome it."

From the day the facility first opened, training drills and the other operations have been on public display. With no other such facility offering an opportunity to watch training of guide dogs, there was some trial and error to figuring out the system, but now as many as 300 visitors come to watch the dogs learn on busy days. Each year, 120 candidate dogs are also born on the grounds. There is a "training dog wing" where the canines live, a "medical research wing" fully equipped for a surgery theater in the facility that supports guide dogs from breeding and birth all the way to retirement.

"The string of incidents (orchestrated by AUM) should not be forgotten, but I would like the building of a guide dog training facility here to turn this location into a place of hope," Inoue said.

Koichi Kumagai, 93, who served as the head of a neighborhood association here said, "For us, the story has already ended, but I heard that there are still young people joining (AUM's) successor organization."

On the grounds, there still stands a monument commemorating the eviction of the cult from the land. "We must continue to tell the story that there was once a cult facility here," Kumagai said.

(Japanese original by Yukina Furukawa and Haruka Takaba, Shizuoka Bureau)

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