No. 10 — March 10, 2000


Weekly Review

--- by Barbara Wanner

Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult behind the March 1995 sarin-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 people and injured thousands more (see JEI Report No. 10A, March 10, 2000), may yet wreak new havoc. Police officials issued that dire warning following February 29 raids on several Aum facilities that uncovered evidence that cult-linked computer companies had developed software for 10 government agencies and more than 80 major Japanese corporations. Authorities are concerned that Aum — now calling itself Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet — has gained access to sensitive government and business computer networks and could plant viruses or engage in other forms of cyberterrorism.

Senior Aum officials denied that the five software companies known collectively as the M Group, which have enjoyed a reputation for producing high-quality programs at cut-rate prices, sought government or corporate contracts in order to obtain information that would facilitate cult recruitment or enable the group to hack its clients' systems. Since last December, Aum has instituted various reforms aimed at assuaging the concerns of authorities and the public. The cult professes to have rejected the militaristic, anti-state views of its dethroned guru, Shoko Asahara, and maintains that it therefore no longer is a threat to society. Most notably, the group acknowledged its former leader's culpability in orchestrating the Tokyo subway attack and denounced him as its titular and spiritual leader.

Japanese authorities are not persuaded by the cult's claims to have changed its ways. The fact that Aum devotees have had brushes with the law as recently as late January has substantiated police fears that the group is composed of unstable individuals and, even without Mr. Asahara at the helm, is capable of committing new acts of violence.

Police arrested two of Mr. Asahara's daughters and another follower in connection with the January 21 kidnapping of the guru's 7-year-old son in Ibaraki prefecture. Although the cult dismissed this bizarre case as nothing more than a family feud, police have argued otherwise, alleging that, among other offenses, the daughters' accomplice tried to strangle another cult member during the abduction.

Another equally peculiar display of some followers' still-paranoid view of the world occurred January 19, when Naruhito Noda, a senior Aum member, threatened personnel at a Tokyo bank when they refused to allow the cult to open an account under its new name. Mr. Noda was released from police custody February 9 on the grounds that the incident, while disturbing in view of Aum's history, was not serious enough to warrant his indictment and prosecution.

Thus, the swift reaction of both government and corporate buyers of Aum-developed software to the revelations concerning the reach of the cult's software operations is not surprising. Recognizing that the M Group served primarily as a subcontractor to larger firms with which the Japan Defense Agency, the Ministry of Construction, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, to name a few of the affected agencies, had contracted, Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki urged all government bureaucracies to "[c]heck who their suppliers are, and that the suppliers should check where the products are made."

JDA wasted no time, announcing March 1 that it had suspended plans to activate a communications system for the Ground Self-Defense Force that incorporated some cult-developed programming. Defense officials insisted, however, that national security was not at risk, saying that no M Group software was used in the internal computer network that handles sensitive information.

Among the corporate giants that unknowingly were using M Group software were four Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. companies. NTT Communications Corp. immediately suspended an electronic greeting-card service developed by one of the Aum firms. Honda Motor Co., Ltd. also launched an extensive investigation of its software vendors and announced plans to tighten its information technology guidelines after the police raid uncovered company information in the cult's possession. Aum had a list of some 3,000 executives, obtained through a 1997 contract to work on the automotive maker's personnel management system. In addition, the sweep of the M Group companies revealed that one cult member was directly involved in developing on-line systems for Kiyo Bank, Ltd. in Wakayama prefecture and for other regional banks.

What distinguishes Aum from the plethora of other nonmainstream faiths in Japan, known as shinshinshukyo (Neo-New Religions), is that Mr. Asahara was able to recruit some of the best and brightest minds in programming, chemistry and other sciences from the nation's top universities. The cult offered them a chance to realize accomplishments in their respective fields that entry-level positions in corporate Japan did not. Some of the computer whizzes staffed the M Group companies, working for little or no salary, a factor that authorities say explains the ability of these firms to provide quality services at prices that undercut competitors. The profits generated by the M Group — estimated at the equivalent of $1 billion — helped to finance Aum's state-of-the-art laboratories, where cult scientists cooked up the sarin brew and other biochemical weapons of mass destruction.

The police raids were conducted under a law enacted in December. Targeted specifically at Aum, the legislation authorizes the Ministry of Justice's Public Security Investigation Agency to monitor any organization that has committed "indiscriminate mass murder during the past 10 years." The statute also allows the police to search such a group's facilities without a warrant. In addition, the Justice Ministry can order the organization to report its activities every three months and may restrict its operations for up to six months as a crime-prevention measure. A companion bill — written for the express purpose of compensating the victims of Aum's sarin-gas test in the Nagano prefecture city of Matsumoto as well as the Tokyo subway attack — allows bankruptcy administrators to seize the cult's assets.

Developing this legislation was a challenge for policymakers, given the importance attached to upholding religious freedoms. The constitution guarantees individuals complete liberty to pursue any faith. The U.S. occupation authorities included the article protecting freedom of religion largely in reaction to the institutionalization of Shinto by the pre-1945 militarist government. Its ultranationalist version of Shinto recognized the emperor as the descendent of the Sun Goddess and generally was used to justify Tokyo's savage conquest of East Asia. Thus, by making Aum the de facto target of the two laws, legislators sought to protect the public from the cult's propensity for violence without hampering the spiritual activities of other religions.

Fumihiro Joyu — the cult's spokesperson, who, two months ago, completed a three-year prison term for perjury unrelated to the subway attack — has insisted that the driving force behind the M Group's lucrative software operations was "merely economic and not based on malicious intent." Devotees are engaged in this and other businesses to raise funds to compensate victims of crimes committed by Aum, Mr. Joyu has claimed. In addition to the Tokyo subway attack, Mr. Asahara and his top lieutenants are on trial for deaths related to Aum's 1994 sarin-gas test in Matsumoto as well as for several instances of kidnapping and murder of both cult followers and critics.

The late January penetration of 11 government agencies by Internet hackers (see JEI Report No. 5B, February 4, 2000) no doubt has fed fears about Aum's potential to cripple the nation's computer systems. Recent evidence that the doomsday cult once again is expanding its membership is all the more disconcerting to authorities. At the very least, government agencies and major corporations will be far more wary of software salespeople.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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