Day of Judgment: Aum’s tricky guruegotistical and persuasive

This is the ninth installment of a series on Chizuo Matsumoto, the founder of the Aum Supreme Truth cult.
[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6]
[Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10][Part 11] [Part 12]

Armored vehicles surrounded the Tokyo Detention House while hundreds of police officers patrolled on foot. It was May 15, 1996, a year after the arrest of Chizuo Matsumoto, now 48, also known as Shoko Asahara, and the Public Security Investigation Agency was about to start procedures to determine whether the Antisubversive Activities Law should apply to the cult.

All the windows of a training room in a detention center office building had been covered with steel sheets. Escorted by warders, Matsumoto awkwardly entered the room. Speaking hesitantly into a microphone, he began his testimony: “Er…. I’m sorry I’m a little nervous today. I beg your pardon if there are some parts I can’t explain well,” he said.

Concerning a cult doctrine that is said to justify murder, Matsumoto clearly said, “There is no danger in the cult’s doctrines. But if they invite misunderstanding, I will abandon them forever.”

As to the claim by the agency that the cult was trying to start a revolution, Matsumoto said, “When I heard the claim, I’m sorry, I laughed at it.” He then went on to give a commentary on the cult’s doctrines, sounding to observers as if he were giving a sermon to followers.

Matsumoto was talkative, seeming to be a totally different person from the man who spoke for only three minutes and then remained silent at his first trial hearing just three weeks earlier.

Social commentator Ryoko Ozawa, 66, who was a witness to Matumoto’s testimony, said, “It seemed to me that he wanted attention more than he wanted to save himself or his cult.”

It was in January 1996 that lawyer Katsuhiko Yoshinaga, who was appointed to represent the cult during the trial, went to the prison to meet Matsumoto for the first time.

Yoshinaga agreed to represent the cult on condition that Matsumoto did not continue to defend the group’s criminal acts.

Matsumoto immediately agreed to the conditions: “I never had any intention of justifying the cult’s behavior,” he said. Matsumoto then begged the lawyer to represent him, and even promised Yoshinaga he would ask Aum members who were still at large to give themselves up.

During 50 subsequent meetings with Matsumoto, Yoshinaga said the cult leader was able to reel off excuses and alibis on the basis of his marvelous memory, unhindered by the fact that he was blind and unable to take notes.

“Matsumoto is a very smart person. He knows well how to argue with others. He is good at reading minds and knows how to unsettle people,” Yoshinaga said.

Immediately before his second session of questioning on May 28, 1996, Matsumoto suddenly asked Yoshinaga to prepare and coordinate his testimony, and told the lawyer that he wanted to step down as the leader of Aum. It was the first time Matsumoto had ever expressed an intention to quit.

After Matsumoto started explaining his justification for his crimes, he declared that he would quit as the cult’s guru and chief representative. “I have no relationship with the cult, so I think there is no requirement to apply the Antisubversive Activities Law to the cult,” he said.

Matsumoto defended himself in two statements made over nine hours. The clarity of the testimony disappointed one of his lawyers, who said at the time, “We thought it ruined our strategy to seek psychiatric tests for Matsumoto.”

In January 1997, the Public Security Examination Commission under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry decided not to apply the Antisubversive Activities Law to the cult. The judgment reflected a view that most of the cult members who had been at large already had been arrested, and that the danger posed by the group was now limited.

However, “When I told Matsumoto of the commission’s decision he just kept muttering to himself as if he had no interest in the matter,” Yoshinaga said. “I asked him, ‘Do you hear me?’ But he just kept talking to himself and showed no interest.”

“Matsumoto was not delighted to hear the news, which led me to wonder if he had thought he would be released from prison if the Antisubversive Activities Law was not applied.”

Since then, Matsumoto has dealt with court-appointed lawyers regarding his criminal trial. Matsumoto told the lawyers that if he was free to defend himself, he would be found not guilty. “Matsumoto was always convinced that he could persuade the authorities not to apply the Antisubversive Activities Law,” one of the lawyers said.

In a hearing about two months after the commission’s decision, Matsumoto continued attempts to disrupt the testimony of Aum members. Using his cult name, he said, “Shoko Asahara is the only person who can speak for the Aum Supreme Truth Cult.” He seemed to have totally forgotten his promise to quit as the group’s guru.

As ever, the need to flatter his own ego came before the needs of others.

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