Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult never really died

When Katuya Takahashi, 54, was arrested at a manga coffee shop in Tokyo in the middle of last month, it marked the end of the 17-year-long search for the last of the three fugitives suspected of crimes by the notorious doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo.

He is suspected to be a part of the 1995 deadly sarin gassing in Tokyo subways that killed 13 and injured more than 6,000 people.

Dozens of the cult leaders and followers have been arrested and given sentences in court trials -- with capital punishment finalised for its top leader Shoko Asahara.

The cult had been long buried in oblivion in the minds of most Japanese, but the investigation continued in search of the three fugitives who remained elusive, until recently.

On the last day of 2011, Makoto Hirata, 46, voluntarily surrendered at a police station in downtown Tokyo, which was a big surprise. And early in June this year, Naoko Kikuchi, the second fugitive, was caught in a Tokyo suburb, followed by the recent arrest of Takahashi.

All three looked quite different from their old photographs in the "wanted" posters shown in public places all these years, indicating the length of the period they had hid themselves.

Now that they were back in the news, it not only awakened the Japanese to memories about the cult that attempted to overthrow the nation, but the arrests of the fugitives also reminded them that the cult has not quite died out.

According to reports, the Aum Shinrikyo once had more than 10,000 followers in its prime.

After its terror crimes were known and its leaders were arrested, the group broke up into two splinter groups.

Its mainstream group, renamed Aleph since 2000, has successfully gained more followers in recent years, police say. It now has about 1,100 followers, of which more than 200 joined last year.

Analysts point out that the new followers are young people who do not know much about Aum Shinrikyo. The cult recruiters also skilfully lure the vulnerable young into free fun events, meditation or yoga activities, often via social networking.

With a successful computer sale business, the group has set up headquarters in Tokyo as well as more than 20 other facilities. The Public Safety Authority still tracks Aum Shinrikyo splinter groups and keeps the major group under constant surveillance.

I once observed the trial procedures of Asahara at the Tokyo Higher Court in l998. Next to me were a bunch of enthusiastic followers loudly admiring their leader.

I later interviewed a few of them, who were firm in their faith with signs of brainwashing. Seeking salvation and values only in their faith, they appeared unable to see other life options.

I remember their faces as we learned that Takahashi still appears to maintain faith in the cult's teachings.

Police found in his bag the books and lecture tape of the cult leader as well as his photographs.

He told police he would like to continue meditation and religious training in the detention centre. The cult, indeed, never died.

Meanwhile, the stories about his arrest exposed a new face of Japanese society.

While police investigators had a hard time with their search even after he was spotted, he was finally closed in on by hundreds of surveillance cameras set up at stations, stores, companies and offices and on streets.

A camera at a bank showed his face from different angles as he desperately withdrew cash from his account. A convenience store camera showed a new bag he had purchased.

Another one had him getting into a taxi, indicating his intention of staying away from stations and other places with cameras installed.

These images were immediately released via media, letting people know what he looked like.

Excited by the media's real-time reports about the chase drama unfolding, citizens were also very cooperative, functioning as "citizen police" as dubbed by the media. During 11 days of the chase, over 1,800 citizens called police to provide information.

After all, Japan has installed more than three million such surveillance cameras in public places in big cities across Japan, it is said.

And according to a survey by the police a few years ago, a majority of the Japanese on the poll favoured the surveillance by cameras, preferring greater security to privacy.

It is certainly a consequence of Japan's experience of having such a cult nearly 20 years ago.