Shoko Asahara, whose charisma once drew thousands to his doomsday cult, has turned into a “doll” in his decade of detention since the Tokyo subway attack, wearing diapers and mumbling incomprehensibly, his daughters say after a series of prison visits.
The bearded guru who preached an apocalyptic mix of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs turned 50 on March 2 in the dark at the Tokyo Detention Centre as he has lost his eyesight completely, the daughters say.
Asahara was arrested at a commune near Mount Fuji two months after the sect shocked the world on March 20, 1995, by releasing Nazi-invented sarin gas in rush-hour Tokyo subways, killing 12 people and injuring thousands. He was sentenced to death last year, but has an appeal pending in a higher court.
Asahara’s second and third daughters, both in their early 20s, have been seeing him since a court lifted a ban on family meetings last August. The guru is married with four daughters and two sons.
The second daughter was the first in the family to meet him and was shocked.
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“He didn’t say a word,” she says, recalling a 30-minute meeting on August 17.
“Father, sitting in a wheelchair beyond the celluloid partition, was looking right, left, up and down, jiggling his legs or just mumbling,” she said in an interview with AFP at the office of one of Asahara’s lawyers.
“I may well have been transparent air to him,” she says.
“I believe he is wearing diapers as his trousers were bulging out,” she says, arguing he must be suffering some illness.
“He was a proud man and it is unthinkable for him to live for years in a state of incontinence,” she says. “He is now like a doll which responds to nothing.”
The third daughter says she had sometimes asked herself “Whom am I seeing now?” during meetings with her father and that he was asleep for a whole 30-minute meeting on January 31.
“I want [the authorities] to check him mentally and physically. Can a person who cannot recognise his own daughters understand what’s going on in court?
“I want father to get [medical] treatment if necessary and resume trial when he gets fit enough. I cannot help thinking father is in an unfair situation,” she says.
The daughters, who were minors at the time of the subway attack and lived with their father at the commune at the foothills of Mount Fuji, do not publicly use their names to protect their privacy.
Asahara was sentenced to death in February 2004 by the Tokyo District Court which found him guilty of the subway attack and a series of crimes which claimed 27 lives.
The Tokyo High Court in December rejected his defence counsel’s request to halt the appeal trial over his increasingly erratic behaviour, judging he was fit enough.
Seeing the victims of crimes attributed to the Aum cult, “the desire of the public is to hang him as soon as possible”, says Takeshi Matsui, who accompanied the daughters in the interview and is one of Asahara’s two defence attorneys.
“The media cannot report that he is unfit for trial and the court will never be able to suspend it” in fear of public anger, he says.
Authorities counter that the cult remains dangerous, despite its dwindling membership, new name and renunciation of Asahara as its leader.
Even if Asahara is a shadow of his former self, followers still believe in his teachings and are ready to kill others for it, an expert at the Public Security Intelligence Agency says.
“Our investigation has found that followers are obliged to watch videos of Asahara’s sermons. Their places which were raided were filled up with his books with no single exception,” the expert says.
“The goal of this religion is to become a clone of Asahara,” he says.
Asahara was born Chizuo Matsumoto as a son of a straw-mat maker at Yatsushiro on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu and left for Tokyo after training as an acupuncturist.
Weak-sighted since childhood due to illness, he emerged as a yoga-instructor in 1984 while launching a religious group that later developed into the Aum Supreme Truth.
Claiming to have spiritually awakened in the Himalayas in the 1980s, he lured young people into the sect and its communal life saying they would gain “super power” through his training programs.
Authorities say the exercises range from the innocuous, such as breathing routines and yoga, to the sometimes deadly, including soaking for long stretches in hot water and beating followers with sticks.
Asahara turned increasingly anti-social after unsuccessfully running for Parliament in 1990. His sermons began to predict a cataclysmic war would sweep the world before the end of the 1990s and he urged the sect to take up arms, according to authorities.
Japanese membership in the cult peaked at 11 400 before the gas attack, but has stayed flat at around 1 650 for the past five years, according to the security agency.
Despite their father’s public notoriety, the daughters say they have happy memories of Asahara such as a fighting game in which they would use infrared rays with toy guns to aim at bandages on the enemies’ foreheads.
“We couldn’t shoot him as he would put the bandage on the wrong side of his head and a cooking bowl on top of his head, saying, ‘This is a due handicap as I can’t see,'” the third daughter says.
The second daughter lives quietly with her mother and two brothers near Tokyo, while the third daughter studies at a university in the capital.