How Sect, Spotlighted in Tokyo Attack, Thrives

RELIGIOUS fanaticism, not militant politics, is emerging as the primary motive behind Monday's nerve-gas attack on Tokyo subway riders.

Japanese police were expected to conduct a second round of searches and seizures at the facilities of a secretive religious sect today, continuing an investigation that began with predawn raids at 25 locations around Japan yesterday.

The police did not identify the group, called Aum Shinri Kyo or Aum Supreme Truth, as a suspect in the gas attack, saying the raids were connected to last month's abduction of a Tokyo notarial official whose sister was involved with the sect. But yesterday more information arose about the group that only added to earlier suspicions that it was responsible for the subway poisoning.

Representatives of the group strongly denied any role in the attack, which killed at least 10 people and injured as many as 5,000, alleging that the sect is the object of a conspiracy designed to destroy it.

Aum Shinri Kyo is one of several groups that are called Japan's ''new-new religions,'' a label that distinguishes them from the now well-established ''new religions'' that arose between 1800 and the period following World War II.

The new religions generally have a ''this-worldly'' focus, according to Susumu Shimazono, a professor of religion at Tokyo University. They promise to make people's lives happier, more prosperous, and healthier.

Helen Hardacre, a Harvard University expert on Japanese religion, has written that the new religions ''value self-cultivation in the core values of Japanese culture, sincerity, harmony, loyalty, filial piety, modesty, and diligence.''

The more recently founded sects, by contrast, provide their adherents with an ''other-worldly'' focus, Professor Shimazono said in an interview yesterday. ''The new-new religions tend to regard life in this world as less important,'' he says, adding that many urge followers to believe in reincarnation.

The new-new religions tend to appeal to young people who experiment with the sects for a few years before familial and professional duties begin.

Aum Shinri Kyo adherents live communally, apart from their families, and take part in rigorous forms of meditation and asceticism modeled on the practices of Buddhist monks and Hindu yogis. Yesterday six people found by police at one the sect's facilities were hospitalized for malnutrition and dehydration, and dozens of others were in a weakened state.

The group's founder, Shoko Asahara, claims to have achieved special powers through his own meditation. He first began leading a religious group in the mid-1980s, and the group was recognized as a sect in 1989. Experts estimate there may be 1,000 to 2,000 full-time members of this sect. The group claims 10,000 Japanese members. Although reliable information about the group is hard to obtain -- both Ms. Hardacre and Shimazono say no academics have studied Aum Shinri Kyo -- it seems clear that it subscribes to pessimistic views of the future.

The Japanese scholar says Mr. Asahara's writings speak of an impending catastrophe sometime between 1996 and 1998 -- ''They say a big event will happen and a large part of the urban population in Japan will die'' -- but he adds that apocalyptic views are not uncommon in the new-new religions.

The Asahi newspaper yesterday reported that the group planned to declare itself an independent nation in 1997, and has named its divisions ''ministries'' -- in the bureaucratic, not the religious, sense. The newspaper said the group is behind a project to build utopian villages in Japan that would be a basis for world salvation.

The group is technologically sophisticated, Shimazono says, and has discussed methods ''to protect themselves against nuclear attack.'' Media reports here say that Asahara has sometimes spoken of poison gas, including sarin, the substance used on Monday, saying conspirators have attacked him and his followers.

The group has been linked to previous incidents involving gas. In June 1993 Tokyo residents complained of fumes emanating from buildings owned by the group, but investigators were denied entry.

In July of last year residents of a village called Kamikuishiki, near Mt. Fuji, complained of foul odors. Investigators took samples near an Aum Shinri Kyo facility and determined last December that the smell was caused by sarin residue. The gas was responsible for seven deaths in the nearby city of Matsumoto in June 1994.

During raids, police carted off dozens of barrels of unnamed chemicals from the Kamkuishiki facility.

The group has also stirred allegations of forcing young members to stay in the sect, spurring parental protests. And it has been linked to two disappearances, including that of the Tokyo notary for whom police are searching.

Shimazono worries that, should Aum Shinri Kyo members be proved guilty, other religious groups will unfairly scrutinized. The professor says the sect has revived some Buddhist ascetic practices. But he adds: ''They have some strange ideas.''

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