Japan cults target lonely college students isolated by pandemic

Nikkei -- Mar 22
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.

- Nikkei