Aum Shinri Kyo members danced barefoot yesterday in memory of one of their leaders, whose murder left Japan wondering what could possibly happen next in its soap opera of horror.
Hideo Murai, 36, was fatally stabbed on Sunday night by a self-proclaimed right-wing extremist angry over a nerve-gas attack that officials suspect was carried out by the apocalyptic cult.
Murai, who was in charge of the cult's chemical research, had appeared on television almost daily to deny it ever produced sarin, the gas that killed 12 people and harmed 5,500 in Tokyo's subway system a month ago.
Surrounded by cameramen and reporters, Murai was entering the cult's Tokyo headquarters when a burly man stabbed him from behind. The attacker made no attempt to escape and tossed a steel kitchen knife on to the pavement. Murai died six hours later in hospital from blood loss and circulatory failure.
The attacker was named as Hiroyuki Jo, 29, of Korean descent, who told police he was a member of a right-wing group based in central Japan. "I got angry after watching television. They are bad guys. We've got to do something," he said.
The organisation which he claimed to represent, Shinshu Shieikan - "The Patriotic Hall of the Holy State" - exists in name only, and has no record of right-wing activities. Its official address in the town of Ise, 200 miles west of Tokyo, is a branch office of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's biggest crime syndicate. There are links between organised crime and the right wing, but for an ethnic Korean to be a member of a patriotic nationalist group is not the norm.
Mr Jo reportedly told police that he had intended to hurt any one of the leaders of Aum Shinri Kyo. The man he singled out was the chief of the cult's self-styled "Science and Technology Ministry", and his death robs the police of a key figure. Murai designed the industrial laboratory near Mount Fuji where police have since discovered hundreds of tons of chemical and biological weapons ingredients. His arrest, on charges of manufacturing sarin, was expected at any time.
Yesterday afternoon, Aum members performed bizarre dances on the spot where he fell. "We have no hatred towards the criminal," said their chief spokesman, Fumihiro Joyu. "We hope that Murai did not die in vain, and that the truth will be revealed."
Murai had become a regular guest on Japanese television, and insistently denied all connections between the sarin attack and the cult which, he said, was stockpiling chemicals in preparation for a coming world war. "It's my responsibility to help us to survive Armageddon, and protect human civilisation," he told viewers. "The means are up to me."
Recently his elderly mother was also interviewed. "He has been completely brainwashed," Mrs Murai said. "What a fool."