YOU couldn't script a set of scenes better suited to a TV movie: stoic Tokyo commuters looking perplexed as they sniff the air; a purple-robed self-proclaimed guru charging people for a taste of his blood; Japanese investigators carrying canaries to detect nerve gas.
The drama unfolding in Japan over Aum Shinri Kyo, a religious group that is the unofficial leading suspect in last week's gas attack in Tokyo, at times seems to parody such a movie.
The media has reveled in the strange claims of cultists-allegedly-turned-terrorists, exhuming details of the sect's practices and probing for clues in the childhood of Aum's founder, Shoko Asahara. There is a torrent of speculation -- that the sect had plans to make explosives and biological weapons and that it murdered dissident members -- making the group seem more nefarious with each passing day.
Nonetheless, experts suggest that the emergence of a paranoid, apocalyptic religious group in Japan is not all that surprising. The sect may seem like a social aberration, say three of Japan's best- informed academics on the group, but societal factors explain its existence and, to a lesser extent, its defensive behavior.
Police have conducted a massive investigation of the sect, uncovering tons of chemicals reportedly necessary for the production of sarin, the gas that killed 10 and injured thousands on March 17. But after eight days of searching, authorities have not yet charged the group with complicity in the sarin incident, insisting that they are investigating the abduction of a Tokyo notary last month and unspecified ''preparations for murder.''
Mr. Asahara, the Aum leader, and his colleagues have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Since its founding in the late 1980s, Aum Shinri Kyo, or Supreme Truth, has offered followers the opportunity to practice arduous forms of asceticism drawn from Buddhist and Hindu teachings. Full-time adherents -- there may be 1,000 to 2,000 -- live communally and make large donations of their assets, reportedly under coercion, to the sect.
A well-educated group
Observers here have been struck that Aum has drawn many highly educated young Japanese, including lawyers, doctors, and scientists. The group has a yuppie flavor, operating a computer-assembly business and a chain of retail outlets. An Aum flier placed in Tokyo mailboxes on Tuesday says well-educated members ''are engaged in a variety of research so they can prepare for a highly civilized future society that will emerge after World War III.''
Asahara is only one of hundreds of religious entrepreneurs who have sprung up in Japan during the past decade or so. Many of these groups warn of an imminent apocalypse, promise followers supernatural powers, and suggest means of transcending everyday reality.
The appeal of these groups lies in Japan's post-war accomplishments: a stable and ordered society and a huge economy that finds a job for just about everyone. ''Now that people enjoy economic prosperity,'' says Tetsuro Ashida, a sociologist of religion at Kumamoto University, ''[they] want to seek the meaning of life ... something spiritual.''
In other words, many young people find the prospect of going from school to job, pausing for marriage, too dull. Hiromi Shimada, a professor at Japan Women's University who has visited Aum sites and met Asahara, likens the process to ''tracing a railroad.'' He adds: ''In this situation [young people] don't understand the meaning of life.''
Not all young Japanese sign up for a technologically sophisticated monk's life and the chance to drink a guru's blood at a sect like Aum; the new groups offer a wide variety of theologies and demand various degrees of commitment. But those who do join Asahara face skepticism and censure from the Japanese public.
Japanese religious practice, for the most part, is on the smorgasbord plan: people draw from many traditions, rather than choosing a denomination and identifying with it throughout their lives. Aum, however, demands complete devotion, and its followers have alienated residents where they have established communes. Renouncing one's family is particularly hard for most Japanese to accept, since this country has a long tradition of ancestor worship and filial piety.
''It is true that ... Aum members have caused trouble with local people,'' Mr. Ashida says, usually because of noise and construction vehicles, and occasionally odd odors. ''But it is fair to say that local people are responsible for this, because their initial reaction ... is to try to ostracize Aum members without any justifiable reasons.''
In November 1990, for example, more than 1,000 police raided 14 Aum sites across Japan after Aum members in Kumamoto prefecture were accused of questionable land purchases. Here again, police seemed to be saying one thing and doing another, claiming the 1990 raids were not linked to reports that Aum members had abducted a lawyer and his family a year earlier. The lawyer, Tsutsumi Sakamoto, and his wife and child have not been seen since 1989, nor have charges been brought against Aum Shinri Kyo members in the matter.
Kumamoto residents boycotted the sect, and parents and ex-followers set up an Aum Victims' Society. Other anti-Aum groups, typically arising from a mixture of parental concern and a version of the not-in-my-backyard syndrome, have sprung up in different parts of Japan during the past few years.
''In view of such ostracism by the society and massive police raids in 1990 and recently,'' adds Ashida, who has studied the sect's activities in Kumamoto, ''Aum Shinri Kyo's 'state conspiracy' allegation sounds reasonable to some extent.''
''Because of pressure from the media and security authorities,'' says the Aum statement, ''many things have happened that have made us unable to buy necessities and import things from abroad. As a result we have had to produce everything necessary to feed 1,700 full-time followers.''
As problems with neighbors and police have escalated, Aum Shinri Kyo has apparently become more convinced of an impending global cataclysm and more radical in its preparations for such an event.
During the past two years, says Susumu Shimazono, the head of the religion department at Tokyo University, ''the sense of tension between themselves and the external world has become very severe and intense.''
The tension, he adds, has made the group less willing to allow disaffected followers to leave and ''more concerned about the end of the world.''