ON April 7, Hideo Murai earnestly explained why he belonged to the Japanese sect Aum Shinri Kyo. The group is at the center of a police investigation into the March 20 nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system.
Saying that Aum's founder had acquired an ability to predict the future, Murai explained: ''We are preparing for the coming doom -- Armageddon -- and we feel that we are the only ones who can preserve and rebuild the civilization of earth,'' he said. They were surprising words to hear from a physicist trained at one of Japan's best science universities.
Wearing the purple tunic and pants favored by high-ranking Aum members, the round-faced Murai evinced nothing if not loyalty and sincerity.
A few weeks later he paid a price for his devotion -- a man who said he was angry at the sect stabbed Murai to death.
The gas attack and murder are only two of a string of unusual events that have occurred here over the past few months.
On March 30, 10 days after the Tokyo attack, a gunman nearly killed the country's top police official. Last month, there were two incidents in Yokohama in which hundreds of people complained of eye and throat irritation from an as-yet-unidentified gas.
On May 5, workers found chemicals in a toilet at Tokyo's Shinjuku train station. Experts said that the chemicals, had they not been discovered, would have reacted and generated fumes that might have killed thousands.
No convincing explanation has been offered to account for these events. The police have mounted huge investigations and arrested about 200 Aum members on a variety of mostly petty charges, building a case that reportedly will culminate in convictions for the gas attack. But so far no one has been formally accused.
As with the Oklahoma bombing in the US, these incidents of terrorism and the emergence of a militant group have caused some Japanese to ask what is afoot in their society. The Japanese are accustomed to order, at least on the surface, and these manifestations of an underlying disorder are causing people to wonder how this country will regain its sense of placid safety.
There are two main lines of inquiry:
*Because Aum is widely considered guilty, Japanese are asking how their society could have produced such a group. That many Aum members are highly educated and relatively young has been especially disconcerting.
*The spate of crimes has put intense pressure on the police, who are responding with plodding investigative work and massive leaks of information to the Japanese press that generally incriminate Aum. At the same time, some officials are calling for expanded police powers to deal with militant groups, a prospect that frightens many who remember the authoritarianism of prewar Japan, when police and other agencies persecuted religious followers and anyone who objected to the militarism of the day.
Intense scrutiny of sect
Two days after the Tokyo nerve-gas attack, police mounted huge raids of several Aum facilities -- the beginning of an intense scrutiny of the group by investigators and the media. Aum Shinri Kyo -- the name means Supreme Truth -- has probably been on the front page of all the major Japanese newspapers every day since late March.
Stories citing police sources have recounted details of brainwashing, devotees' adulation of founder Shoko Asahara, and the group's well-organized attempt to set up a shadow government that could run Japan after the apocalypse Mr. Asahara predicts. In recent days, new disclosures have linked the group to the production of the Tokyo subway gas.
The revelation that many well- educated youths had joined Asahara was greeted with surprise and consternation, but lately some observers have begun to see Aum as a byproduct of schools and universities that emphasize rote learning, specialization, and competition.
''I have long lamented the way the Japanese educational system has produced students who have a high level of technological sophistication,'' says social psychologist Yasushi Haga. The problem, he adds, is that their personalities are ''somewhat biased.'' The graduates of science programs have no philosophy, no love for humanity, no sense of beauty, Professor Haga asserts. ''Aum has attracted these people.''
Tetsu Yamazaki, a playwright who often appears on TV as a social critic, says of the Aum Wunderkinds: ''They were following the course, but the course is ... so rigid. They came to have an impulse to get off.''
Aum has cropped up in the past few years, these experts say, because it no longer makes as much sense to follow ''the course.'' About 80 percent of Japanese are middle-class -- hardworking, educated, and essentially conservative. Many of them personally helped turn a war-ravaged country into the world's second largest economy. ''Now that they have achieved their goals,'' Mr. Yamazaki says, ''they don't know where to go.''
The idea that a post-prosperity letdown has suffused the country with ennui makes sense in the context of a particular view of Japan. This analysis says that this country, unlike many others, has functioned as a unified and well-ordered machine, with enlightened bureaucrats marshaling the nation in order to reach a goal they have convinced their fellow Japanese to share: postwar reconstruction followed by global economic superiority.
It seems to make sense that people in a reconstructed, prosperous Japan might feel bereft, and that the younger generation would then be susceptible to the manipulations of gurus promising enlightenment and a way to survive Armageddon. Indeed, Aum is not the only new sect to preach about an impending apocalypse.
The scary thing for many here is to consider what the bureaucratic machine might do to restore the sense of order necessary to economic growth and social stability. Justice Minister Isao Maeda has said he will explore whether police should be allowed to eavesdrop on telephones, plea bargain in order to win cooperation from suspects, and mount undercover operations. Other officials have called for amendments to the law on religious groups, which currently gives the government virtually no authority to monitor what such organizations do. These ideas, however, make many Japanese uncomfortable.
The run-up to World War II was marked by militaristic, authoritarian rule in Japan, including brutal religious persecution, and many Japanese are wary of putting too many means of coercion in official hands again. Notes Hideo Yamada, a former director general of the National Police Agency: ''Japan has the best national safety with least [police powers] in the world.... There has been continuous restraint on police power since the war.''
But even this level of restraint is insufficient in the eyes of Makoto Endo, a lawyer who has made a career out of countering investigative excesses. ''If the current trend continues,'' he intones, citing what he calls unconstitutional searches of Aum property in the first days of the investigation, ''Japan will be a fascist police state.''
Others, like playwright Yamazaki, worry that the majority of Japanese will allow the government to increase its powers as long as it restores the sense of social order that has come to define this country.
A lack of leadership
But it may also be that Aum and the recent disturbances are not spurs to authoritarianism but the signs of a transitional lack of leadership in a country still trying to construct its post-cold-war identity.
The political group that ruled for much of the post-war era, the Liberal Democratic Party, was rejected by the voters in 1993, and a process of political realignment has yet to produce an effective and credible replacement.
Masaharu Gotoda, an LDP man who is one of Japan's most senior and respected politicians with a rare reputation for incorruptibility, observes that both Japan's economy and its political life are in disarray at the moment. The recent crimes, he adds, ''have caused people to feel unrest and worry about the future.'' But, he adds, ''I'm confident that politicians will successfully deal with the matter eventually.''
Like many younger leaders, including ones who have criticized the LDP's collusive ties with big business and the bureaucracy, Mr. Gotoda sees the emergence of a new kind of leadership in this country: ''In the past, there were ideological conflicts among Japanese politicians. But such conflicts have disappeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union ... Politicians now are required to clarify their positions on such issues as whether to put emphasis on urban interests or on rural ones. In terms of diplomacy, politicians should decide whether they will continue emphasizing Japan's relations with the United States, or shift emphasis to Japan-Asia relations.''
And how should these new leaders address the current unrest? ''One of the most important things in maintaining order is to create an economy that can guarantee people affluent lives, and also to upgrade the educational level, although these measures sound not very bold,'' he offers.
Coming from a politician sitting in one of the most affluent and educated societies on earth, this prescription sounds less than ''not very bold.'' But Gotoda explains: ''It is true that people have an above-average level of cash, but not accumulated assets. In other words, this society still isn't truly affluent. People are working hard every day ... but can only live in tiny houses.'' He adds that the ''Japanese lifestyle lacks a sense of relaxation.''
Echoing the concerns of Haga, Gotoda says: ''Japanese schools don't teach important values needed for responsible individuals in the society; they only teach how to pass school-entrance examinations.... This is not a desirable education at all.''
A social paradox
There is a bitter irony in Japan's wrestling with the kind of social ills that are common elsewhere. Many younger politicians who have been advocating a more individualistic, consumer-oriented, and relaxed Japan have used the phrase ''normal country'' to suggest what this nation should become.
After the past two months, it's possible to argue that Japan is simply facing the downside of normalcy, phenomena caused by modern-day social alienation and frustration. For Westerners living here -- who now have to think twice about personal safety and who are seeing a lot more police than before -- the place is indeed beginning to feel more ''normal.''