Four California activists are investigating charges of religious persecution against Aum Supreme Truth, the sect suspected in a poison gas attack against subway riders here in March.
In an interview Friday, Los Angeles lawyer Barry Fisher said he and the others decided to visit after hearing that authorities had conducted mass arrests of Supreme Truth members, that sect children had been removed from their families and that officials were making allegations of mind control against the group.
These actions, and other steps taken by the government against Supreme Truth, may suggest persecution of the group, he said, adding that, even if some sect members were involved in illegal acts, it does not justify attempts to scapegoat all followers or quash the entire religion.
"How a country reacts to religious persecution is a test of basic freedoms, and Japan doesn't have a long history of fundamental freedoms," said Fisher, chairman of the American Bar Assn.'s subcommittee on religious freedom.
He arrived in Japan on Wednesday to investigate whether Supreme Truth, which adheres to Buddhist and yogic beliefs and has branches in Russia, the United States, Germany and Sri Lanka, is a legitimate religion.
He was accompanied by two Santa Barbarans--J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions, and James R. Lewis, director of the Assn. of World Academics for Religious Education--and Thomas Banigan of Anver Bioscience Design Inc. in Sierra Madre.
Melton said he contacted Supreme Truth's New York office after news reports raised questions about possible persecution.
Supreme Truth agreed to pay the group's plane fare and expenses--but no other fees--and has made its officials, including spokesman Fumihiro Joyu, available for interviews.
The group plans to hold a news conference in Tokyo on Sunday to discuss its conclusions.
After a mysterious poison attack killed 12 people and afflicted more than 5,000 Tokyo subway riders March 20, police launched an intensive investigation against Supreme Truth, which is led by blind and bearded guru Shoko Asahara.
In extensive raids, police have seized more than 1,000 drums of toxic chemicals and petroleum, scoured the group's laboratory facilities and examined cartons of documents--seizing evidence which they say proves that the group made sarin, a Nazi nerve gas suspected in the attack, according to Japanese press reports.
More than 150 people have been arrested on unrelated charges, such as trespassing and possessing expired car registrations. Authorities have removed numerous sect children from their families, saying their welfare was endangered.
Japanese officials have announced that they will seek to remove Supreme Truth's status as a religious entity, which has given them special protections and tax benefits.
Fisher said scandals taint religious groups worldwide, "but that didn't bring about a government calling for an end to a religion, and that is precisely what is being done here. There seems to be no one rallying to protect innocent individuals."
Underscoring the tense climate here, two of the Californians said they were questioned by immigration authorities at Narita International Airport for more than an hour after arriving Wednesday. Although the authorities were polite, the Californians said they found it unnerving. They said they have been followed by unidentified men ever since.
Officials at their hotel, they said, have told them they may not bring guests to their room and have posted three men on their floor; at least three other unidentified men, possibly security police, have been posted in the hotel lobby. It was unclear whether these guards were protecting or spying on the group. Hotel officials declined to comment on the security.
Times special correspondent Thomas Caldwell contributed to this report.