"It's a type of war," explains Shinichi Ide, a burly man with powerful hands, tending his bonfire with the order and control you'd expect from a local fire chief.
Chief Ide is only barely exaggerating. Standing guard this cold and rainy night are grizzled retired men and stout middle-aged women equipped with homemade wooden shields, alarm bells, and the occasional club. Judging from the villagers' determination, you might think their mountainous rural enclave in central Japan had become a landing zone for little green men.
Kitamimaki's would-be newcomers are indeed pariahs, but they aren't from outer space. They belong to a religious group known as Aum Supreme Truth, whose followers released nerve gas in the Tokyo subways in March 1995, killing 12 and sickening thousands.
Behind Ide stands a large, dark two-story house that is ringed by barbed wire and a newly excavated ditch, the handiwork of the local unwelcome wagon. The house was purchased by Aum followers last month, but neighbors have vowed not to let the new owners take possession, for fear that they will use the house as a place to plan crime and mayhem.
After a massive police investigation and the trials of key members - some of which continue today - Aum is slowly reconstituting itself. The group is recruiting new members and acquiring facilities around Japan in a manner not seen in more than four years.
Not in my backyard
Local residents around Japan are resisting, though rarely with the intensity on display in Kitamimaki. Like any town that finds itself on the drawing board for something unpleasant, such as a new landfill or nuclear reactor, the reaction here has been pure NIMBY - not in my backyard.
This being Japan, it's also been NITTWA - not in the town we administer. In Kitamimaki village, the authorities have sided with local residents, rather than staying impartial. Village official Hiroshi Arai says he and others have acted with "common sense," but adds that "it's quite difficult to figure out what to do."
Mr. Arai's perplexity mimics a national anxiety over how to handle the re-emergence of an apparently law-abiding Aum Supreme Truth organization. Japan has never been particularly tolerant of fringe or radical groups - here joining the consensus is the national expectation.
But in the Japanese context, Aum is indeed radical. It encourages young Japanese to renounce their universities and the prospect of the company life for a rigorous communal existence guided by a doctrine that is part Buddhist, part Hindu, and partly the original spin of founder Shoko Asahara, who is now on trial for murder and other charges, mumbling through court appearances.
Even so, says Kenichi Asano, a journalism professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto who has risked criticism to defend Aum's right to exist, making room for difference is the true test of a democracy. "Many Japanese people still think that this is a homogenous - one-race and one-culture - country," he says. "It is not that way, but many people still think so."
Aum's acts of 1995 constituted, in some ways, the ultimate affront to Japanese society. For one thing, Aum's insistence on the renunciation of family rubs against most people's Confucian-inspired respect for parents and ancestors.
It also plotted a takeover of the government, harebrained though the plan was, and attacked those commuting to work in Japan's bureaucracies on March 20, 1995. Japan's bureaucrats have taken a lot criticism lately for mismanagement and corruption, but in general they are a venerated lot.
On top of all this, Aum as an organization has never apologized for the harm it has caused - a refusal that grates in a culture where some well-spoken contrition can make all things new.
But Aum spokesman Hiroshi Araki says that with trials still under way and manifest untruths being reported by Japan's media, it's impossible to know what to apologize for. "The truth is in a black box," he says.
Aum's modest numbers
The government maintains the group has approximately 700 full-time members and another 1,500 who follow Aum teachings from home - although Mr. Araki says the numbers are 500 and 500, respectively. These numbers are far below the organization's early 1995 strength, when it also boasted thousands of followers in Russia. Aum earns money by operating computer and tutoring businesses - banking on the technical expertise of its members - and recruits on campuses and even among members of the military.
Still, says lawyer Taro Takimoto, who tracks the group in his attempts to persuade followers to leave, Aum is hardly expanding. At present, he says it poses more of an "annoyance" to society than a danger. He cautions that the Public Safety Investigation Agency exaggerates Aum's threat to justify its own existence in a world without cold-war dangers.
Araki maintains that the reaction in Kitamimaki village is unusual and that many of Aum's neighbors show a good deal more tolerance. That may be true, but there are also plenty of communities that have mounted petition drives and protests to discourage Aum from moving in or staying.
The Kitamimaki house remains disputed since local residents have filed suit saying the house was fraudulently transferred. Aum disputes that charge, saying its followers are entitled to their property.
"I'm more worried," Araki says, "that the government is losing it's proper role - the neutral stance." In Kitamimaki the local anti-Aum forces are run by a village assemblyman, Masayoshi Mizushina, who says the district that includes the village has donated nearly $10,000 to buy food and other supplies necessary to mount the villagers' vigils.
In the early morning of Jan. 6, when Aum members tried to move in to their property, local officials used the village public-address system to raise the alarm. Five hundred villagers turned out to remove the new arrivals and their possessions from the house.
Arai, the town official, says things never turned violent, but spokesman Araki produces pictures of what he says is a follower displaying his torn jacket and bloodied knee after the eviction. There was nothing for the Aum followers to do, says Araki, but pack up their things and go back to where they came.