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Society

Japan cults target lonely college students isolated by pandemic

Former Aum Shinrikyo groups exploit social media to recruit new members

Chiba University has put up signs warning students to watch for cult recruiters. The sign reads: "Chiba University does not accept disguised religious recruiting."

TOKYO -- Cults and other dubious groups are approaching university students who feel lonely and isolated by the ongoing closure of classrooms as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into a second year.

These groups include Aleph, the main successor to the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, which staged the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway 26 years ago Saturday, killing 14 people and injuring more than 6,000.

Attempts to attract incoming college students via social media are especially visible. In the spring of 2020, a male student, just before enrolling in a university in Tokyo, ran across a tweet with a hashtag claiming to be from a student group at his university. The message read: "You're joining our university this spring. Would you like to hear from upperclassmen?" 

The university's orientation program for new students was canceled, with most classes held online due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. Feeling anxious and deprived of opportunities to meet classmates and older students, he accepted the invitation.

A reply came from a person claiming to be an upperclassman at the university. The two began to converse by video and number of other "seniors" appeared, offering advice on how to sign up for courses and other topics. His interlocutors seemed reliable to the student, who began college life without going to campus.

But the first-year student began to feel uneasy around the summer of last year because all the people he talked to by video were middle-aged men, and they began to include what sounded like religious teachings in their conversations. When he asked the university for advice, administrators discovered that the Twitter account belonged to a religious group seeking to recruit new followers.

The coronavirus outbreak forced many universities to introduce remote learning in 2020. In the second semester of the current school year, only 20% of universities, higher vocational schools and other schools were offering full in-person instruction.

A Kyushu University survey in June last year found that 40% of students feel lonely or isolated because they have fewer opportunities to meet classmates and teachers. Cult groups are trying to capitalize on this loneliness.

The coronavirus crisis has prompted Aleph to shift its primary method of winning new adherents to social media and away from speaking to people in bookstores or on the street, according to Japan's Public Security Intelligence Agency (PSIA). More than 60 people, mostly in their 20s, joined Aleph in 2020. Recruitment activities by Aleph "target young people without direct knowledge of the sarin subway attack," a PSIA official said.

Universities are stepping up efforts to keep students from getting sucked into cults. In March, Sophia University in Tokyo warned incoming students on its website not to respond to unknown text messages following the discovery of an account opened by a group trying to recruit new members.

Chiba University has put up warnings around its campuses encouraging students to contact a consultation office it has set up if they are approached by cults.

Quite a few Japanese universities will hold orientation programs and classes online in the 2021 school year. "Many students try to connect with classmates and gather on-campus information via social media," said an official at the University of Tokyo. "They should be careful of solicitation that is designed to take advantage of their loneliness."

Cults capitalize on people's anxieties to recruit new members. Shoko Asahara (born Chizuo Matsumoto), the founder of Aum, who was executed in 2018 for orchestrating the deadly sarin attack, used his yoga school as a base of operations, expanding the cult's influence in the 1980s and '90s by predicting the end of the world, inflaming the fears of believers. The cult had some 1,400 live-in followers and more than 10,000 lay followers when it launched the sarin subway attack in March 1995.

"Cults approach people in a masterly fashion. But if you constantly are exposed to different values, you can recognize their fishiness," said Toshiyuki Tachikake, a professor of applied psychology at Osaka University. "It is important to deliberately increase one's communication with family members, as well as acquaintances and friends, even amid the coronavirus problem."

As Aleph and two other splinter groups of Aum, such as Hikari no Wa, maintain their influence, the PSIA extended its surveillance period for another three years in February under a law aimed at suppressing organizations that have committed indiscriminate mass killings. The three groups' combined membership numbers around 1,650, almost unchanged over the past several years.

Aleph had assets totaling 540 million yen ($4.97 million) at the end of January, according to a report submitted by the group to the intelligence agency as required by the law. Although its assets have dropped significantly from 1.29 billion yen in October 2019, Aleph has, since last February, refused to report assets generated through business activities such as sales of study materials and seminars, despite the agency's demand that it include these revenues in its reports.

Noting that the three groups retain their absolute faith in Asahara, the intelligence agency acknowledges that they continue to follow Aum's teachings and training methods. 

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