Aum Shinrikyo guru Chizuo Matsumoto’s life in prison remains a mystery even as the founder of Japan’s notorious doomsday cult appears headed for the gallows.
Last week, the Supreme Court effectively cleared the way for authorizing capital punishment for Matsumoto, 62, after upholding the indefinite prison term imposed on the last remaining suspect in the disbanded cult’s deadly 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system and other crimes.
A rare glimpse of how the guru better known as Shoko Asahara is spending his remaining days was recently provided by the prison in response to an inquiry by a family court involved in legal proceedings initiated by one of his daughters.
Matsumoto’s hearing and other physical functions are intact and he is not suffering from any psychiatric disorders, the prison said. The reply was issued in response to an inquiry connected with an inheritance-related claim Matsumoto’s fourth daughter filed against her parents.
In November, she told a news conference that the court accepted the claim the previous month.
Matsumoto, whose death sentence was finalized in September 2006, gets exercise, takes baths and accepts health checks but adamantly refuses to meet visitors, the prison said.
During his initial trial before the Tokyo District Court between 1996 and 2004, he pleaded not guilty, insisting his cult’s crimes were committed by his followers.
“I ordered them to stop, but they won,” he said. He later replied to other questions in court with silence.
Matsumoto was visited by family in 2004 but has not agreed to meet with anyone, including his lawyers, since 2008, according to a report submitted to the Tokyo High Court by a psychiatrist who interviewed him and other sources.
He is also said to have started using diapers on a daily basis in 2001 after showing signs of incontinence.
During his appeal trial after the district court sentenced him to death in February 2004, Matsumoto’s defense lawyers claimed he was incapable of standing trial and should be given medical treatment.
The Code of Criminal Procedure stipulates that the execution of a death row inmate must be deferred if the subject is mentally incompetent.
But the high court rejected his defense team’s claim based mainly on the psychiatrist’s report and an interview with Matsumoto by the judges.
There is “no problem” with sending Matsumoto to the gallows, a senior Justice Ministry official said.
Including the once-revered guru, a total of 13 people who were senior members of the cult have been given death sentences.
The ministry basically refrains from using capital punishment if there is any possibility a death row inmate will be asked to testify in court as a witness.
For the former cultists on death row, this buffer effectively vanished after the top court upheld the ruling against 59-year-old Katsuya Takahashi last week. The Justice Ministry is now beginning to consider their executions in earnest, but it appears that it will not necessarily stick to the tradition of suspending the death sentences of those whose retrial petitions are pending.
Matsumoto and at least seven of his fellow Aum inmates have yet to see their latest retrial petitions answered. And another is preparing to submit a retrial petition.
In July, the ministry broke the tradition for the first time in 18 years by executing an inmate whose 10th retrial petition was pending. Two inmates on their third and fourth petitions, respectively, were hanged as swell in December.
Matsumoto’s current plea, filed by his family, is his fourth.
“We don’t have a position of refraining from capital punishment due to retrial pleas alone,” Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa has said.
And although decades have passed since the attack, Aum Shinrikyo is still active and has continued operating under the name Aleph. The group is luring young followers unaware of the deadly subway attack and making headway in spreading its teachings.
According to sources at the Public Security Intelligence Agency, the main successor group of the cult has been recruiting followers in their 30s or younger. They approach people found wandering the shelves of the spiritualism and religion-related sections of bookstores and invite them to “study groups” with the intention of building personal connections.
Once they gain their trust, the recruiters explain that the “Tokyo subway sarin attack was a conspiracy to frame Aum Shinrikyo,” before revealing they belong to Aleph.
The group procured a four-story building in Sapporo around May 2016. According to nearby residents, many followers gather there on the weekends, some with children.
In November, the Hokkaido Prefectural Police raided Aleph facilities in Sapporo and Fukuoka and discovered a set of guidelines detailing how to recruit followers on social networking sites.
One line in the book reads: “Send an email that refers to the profile information of the targets, and make it clear that we accept them for who they are.” The guideline also says that people over 50 are less of a priority compared with younger targets.
Aleph, which has around 1,500 followers, is clear about its devotion to Asahara. They display his photos and celebrate his birthday. There is even a breakaway group of about 30 people that has taken on the tradition and continues to revere the founder.
Aleph members have been seen walking for hours on end around the Tokyo Detention House in Katsushika Ward where Asahara sits on death row. The walking is part of spiritual training called kinhin. Authorities are concerned these avid believers might deify Asahara’s corpse and ashes after his death sentence is carried out.
According to sources at the Justice Ministry, if no one claims the body of an executed individual, it is cremated and handed over to close family members if so requested. One of Asahara’s family is deemed powerful enough to become the leader of Aleph. But the family disagrees with the cult’s policies and is concerned that infighting might affect its current members.
There are also concerns about those who have left Aleph but still believe in the cult’s doctrine.
Hikari no Wa (Circle of Light), another splinter group founded by former Aum spokesman Fumihiro Joyu, 55, upholds a policy of “departure from Asahara.” But some of its former members claim the group is adopting the same severe training methods used by Aum .
“We must prepare for all sorts of (post-execution) incidents, such as “lone wolf” terrorism or suicides,” sources said in a statement.
“I want Asahara to be executed very soon,” said Hisashi Mizukami, the head of an anti-Aleph council in Adachi Ward, where many followers reside. “But I’m also fearful of what might happen.”