One day a reporter received a telephone call from a former university classmate. "I'm worried about my girlfriend," he said. "She's been acting strangely."
At first the reporter thought it was nothing more than a lover's quarrel. But then the friend blurted out, "She's joined Aleph."
The girlfriend, a Ms Yuuki (a pseudonym), had been persuaded by a co-worker to join a yoga class.
"From not long after that, I had the feeling she was hiding something from me," the boyfriend relates. "Finally when I forced the issue she told me, 'I've joined Aleph.'"
After the 1995 arrests of Aum Shinrikyo's guru and other high-ranking members on suspicion of mass murder and other charges, Aum's buildings and other properties were confiscated and eventually sold off to compensate victims of its atrocities. Rather than breaking up, however, the cult renamed itself Aleph.
While it has publicly denounced Aum's crimes and is no longer seen as a threat to public safety, Spa! (Dec 13) reports that Aleph still employs recruitment tactics similar to its predecessor, seeking to attract gullible youth through "benkyo-kai" (study sessions) and yoga classes.
The cult currently operates centers in 10 cities and boasts membership of about 1,000. Another group called Hikari no Wa, headed by former Aum priest Fumihiro Joyu, broke off from Aleph in 2007. It is estimated to have 200 members.
After being expelled from a building in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, Aleph relocated to a four-story ferroconcrete building in Adachi Ward, where at least 50 members are said to be living. Nearby residents are campaigning to expel them.
The cult's most effective weapon for attracting new members appears to be collective amnesia of Aum's wrongdoings, compounded by simple ignorance. When Spa's reporter asked a sophomore at a university in Kansai, where surreptitious recruitment on campus has been ongoing, if he knew of Aleph, the youth replied, "Nope, never heard of them. Sounds like the name of some foreigner."
"Is Shoko Asahara the name of some historical figure?" a freshmen at the same institution responded when asked about Aum.
A person who joined Aleph recently told the reporter, "The study session was fascinating. Thinking that it would be all right if I only took part in the yoga classes, I paid the 15,000 yen signup fee, and became a member."
The yoga sessions were held in a place eerily familiar to those who remember Aum --- described as "resembling a training camp for ninja," with believers going about "clad in white pajama-like outfits."
"I had the feeling it was not an ordinary yoga school," the new acolyte said. "There was also a portrait of (Aum guru) Shoko Asahara on the wall in the conference room."
Several police raids of cult facilities this autumn failed to find incriminating evidence. But it's evident that Aleph is inclined to utilize misinformation about its former incarnation when it suits its purposes. In September, emails allegedly sent to subscribers who register at its social site invoked classic Aum dogma, warning adherents that "the world was being controlled by a Jewish-Freemason conspiracy, and since Japan's public security officials and mass media are under the control of Jewish capital, they are not to be trusted."
"I've been approached numerous times by troubled young people who were proselytized by Aleph, or who want to leave it," says Naruhito Noda, a former Aum member and leader of Aleph, who's now involved in social issues such as poverty. "While it's hearsay, I've been told by young people that when Aleph members attempt to recruit new adherents, they will deny the group was ever involved in the subway attacks. Fortunately most of these youth are skeptical and some come to me for advice."
While Aleph in its current form appears benign, Noda is convinced that once religious fanaticism takes root in a group, anything can happen.
"The fact is, once you enter a cult, it becomes almost impossible to leave. Japan is now in its second consecutive decade of economic stagnation and the dreams of its young people, both socially and economically, have been dashed. Aleph's ability to recruit believers under such conditions makes it a threat," he asserts.
The article ends on a worrisome note: monitoring of former Aum cultists by the Public Security Agency is slated to be phased out from next month.© Japan Today