Man behind attack that shocked a nation is a broken man – or an elaborate actor – facing execution
He was behind the worst act of terrorism ever carried out on Japanese soil, but in the eyes of Kaori, his youngest daughter, Shoko Asahara was “a loving father” who taught her and her siblings to cherish all living things.
“I remember him as a very kind, very proud man,” she told the Guardian in a rare interview, as her father’s lawyers battled to save him from the gallows for masterminding the March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in which 12 people died and thousands were injured. “For me there is a huge gap between my image of him and the image created by the media.”
As leader of the doomsday cult Aum Supreme Truth, Asahara, 51, commanded the fanatical loyalty of 40,000 followers in Japan and Russia. Although its membership has since dropped to about 6,500, the perceived threat posed by the cult, now called Aleph, was underlined yesterday when 160 investigators raided its premises across Japan amid suspicions some cultists remain loyal to Asahara’s violent teachings.
But the Asahara who languishes in prison is a shadow of his former self, incarceration having brought on a swift mental decline that has left him unable to speak or recognise his own children, his lawyers say. After more than 140 meetings in prison, lawyers say their client no longer understands what is happening to him and his trial should be halted. But their attempts to save him from the gallows have all but failed.
‘Like a doll’
A court-appointed doctor said Asahara’s apparent mental decline was simply an elaborate scam to escape execution. If so, he has managed to fool even members of his own family. “The first time I saw him he was just like a doll, he couldn’t say a word,” says Mayumi, his second daughter, who has visited him 28 times since August 2004.
His once long hair is now kept short and his beard has been replaced by greying stubble. Dressed in regulation grey prison uniform, the incontinent, nearly blind Asahara communicates with a series of indecipherable grunts, all meticulously recorded in his daughters’ personal diaries. He can walk only with support and urinates and masturbates in front of his lawyers and daughters.
“I told him that my [two] brothers wanted to see him, that they had grown up and their voices had broken,” said Kaori. “But he just sat there, rubbing his leg constantly. He didn’t respond at all, even when I shouted.”
The daughters’ description of their father is far removed from the image Japanese have of the white-robed guru who drew thousands of disenchanted young men and women into his cult.
After a mammoth trial that ended with a death sentence in February 2004, Asahara’s legal options appeared to have run out last month when the Tokyo high court threw out his appeal. His lawyers filed an objection to the ruling but it is not clear when a decision will be issued. If the petition is rejected Asahara could be led to his death at any time.
The daughters say they have spent the 11 years since their father’s arrest living like fugitives. They have been denied housing and schooling, and are subjected to regular vilification in tabloid newspapers, which are convinced that they are under the malign influence of their father.
They refuse to meet the local media and only agreed to talk to the Guardian and two other foreign reporters provided they were not photographed and were referred to by aliases. During the interview, at the office of Asahara’s lawyer, the daughters described how their lives had been blighted by their father’s status as one of the most hated figures in Japanese criminal history.
Their elder sister had attempted suicide after being bullied at school and Mayumi was shunned when she asked the school principal for help. Their 11-year-old brother was recently denied admission to a junior high school, even though he had passed the entrance exam. Like Kaori, he has taken legal action to try and secure his right to an education. “Every move I make is reported, and none of it true,” said Kaori, who was recently awarded 300,000 yen (?1,400) in damages from a university that refused to enroll her. “I don’t trust the media any more. We just wish they’d forget about us.”
Like other members of the cult, the daughters were given Aum identity numbers but say they have never been active members, either of Aum or its successor, Aleph, which says it has renounced violence. The women, now in their early 20s, live separately at secret addresses. They receive limited financial support from a guardian – a former Aum member who looked after them after their parents were arrested – but pay their way working part-time, moving jobs frequently after employers are tipped off about their identities.
Kaori’s recent legal victory means she can now study at university, although she refuses to name which one. “By the time I started attending classes everyone knew who I was, but people have accepted me for who I am and I have made lots of friends,” she said. Mayumi, who is studying for a law degree via correspondence, admits she doesn’t have a single friend.
The sisters are reluctant to talk of the crimes for which their father is expected to hang. Kaori calls them a “big problem” but says she can’t find the words to describe her feelings towards the victims. Asked if she thought her father capable of ordering such atrocities she said: “I would like to ask him directly.”
Her physical resemblance to her father, and reports that as a child she had been anointed as his successor as head of the cult, has her constantly watching over her shoulder: on the day we meet she is wearing a wig. She says any semblance of a normal life will elude her as long as she remains in Japan, and she has loose plans to settle in Canada, where she spent a month studying English a few years ago.
“I was happy there because no one knew who I was,” she said. “I could be myself, and I realised how much pressure comes with living in Japan. But I can’t leave now. If I left and did nothing to help my father I would regret it forever.”
Aum Supreme Truth: Dark and dangerous
Formed in the late 1980s, Aum Supreme Truth, with its secretive compound in the foothills of Mount Fuji, was seen as a weird, but harmless, group of yoga enthusiasts with an interest in spiritual development and ambitions for a modest role in party politics.
But there was a darker, hidden side to Asahara’s most loyal disciples. While Aum’s elite scientists set about developing chemical, biological and conventional weapons, Asahara convinced his followers – mainly disenchanted youths, among them graduates of Japan’s best universities – that only unswerving faith in the cult’s philosophy, a mix of conventional religions, the occult and yoga, would save them from a nuclear holocaust orchestrated by the US.
At about 8am on March 20 1995 several of Asahara’s followers released sarin, a nerve gas developed by the Nazis, on several subway trains during the morning rush hour.
The cult was also responsible for a sarin attack on the town of Matsumoto in 1994 in which seven people died, and of killing Tsutsumi Sakamoto, an anti-cult lawyer, his wife and young son in 1989, among other crimes.
In 2000 the cult renamed itself Aleph, agreed to compensate victims and claimed it had renounced violence. The cult’s headquarters in the Tokyo suburbs remain under constant surveillance. Police believe 1,650 members in Japan and 300 in Russia are still faithful to Asahara.