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Children of condemned Aum guru Shoko Asahara reviled by society as criminals

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

In the early hours of May 16, 1995, police raided the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s facilities in Kamikuishiki, Yamanashi Prefecture. At 9:45 a.m., cult founder Shoko Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, was arrested and taken into custody.

It was a historic victory for the Japanese police to have finally captured the man believed to be the mastermind behind the group’s subway sarin attack on March 20 earlier the same year, which had killed 13 and injured thousands in Tokyo.

But it was also a day that forever changed the lives of Rika Matsumoto and her five siblings — the two sons and four daughters of Asahara and his wife, Tomoko.

Among the six Asahara children, Rika and Umi Matsumoto — not her real name — have expressed deep but complex affection for their father. But one of the siblings doesn’t want to have anything to do with him anymore.

“My father was the whole world to me,” Rika said. “It was that day that I lost most of my sense of reality and my clock stopped ticking.”

Rika, 34, the third daughter of Asahara, was reported to have been Asahara’s successor, and his favorite as Acharya Seitaishi — a term which she explained in her 2015 book, “Tomatta Tokei” (“A Clock That Has Stopped”), as one of the highest ranks within Aum Shinrikyo with seitaishi meaning “great master.” Rika has insisted, however, that she was just a child at the time and had no authority inside the cult despite the position attributed to her.

During a recent interview with The Japan Times, Rika and Umi, Asahara’s second daughter, recalled how difficult it has been to live in society as children of a guru who now awaits the gallows for a series of heinous crimes, including the sarin attack and another one the previous year.

At the time of their father’s arrest, the daughters were 12 and 14. Their mother was also arrested soon afterward. While other children in the cult were taken into custody by the government, the Asahara children were not.

After their parents’ arrest, some of the children went to live with their maternal grandparents. Rika decided to stay at the Kamikuishiki facility until 1996, when the cult was officially declared bankrupt and all of its property was handed over to a trustee in charge of handling the bankruptcy.

“We stayed because we believed our father would be back. So as children, we were trying to protect Aum Shinrikyo because we thought he needed a place to return to,” Matsumoto said. “But (in the end), irrespective of his possible return, we couldn’t survive inside Aum anymore.”

Life on the outside proved to be extremely difficult for Asahara’s children. Everywhere they went they faced discrimination and scorn, with their address registrations refused and being denied entry into schools.

Rika was by that time desperate to enter school to receive an education. Umi recalled Rika, who had only been to kindergarten, not being able to read even hiragana at the age of 9. She had been repeatedly rejected from elementary, junior high and high schools.

After later being rejected from multiple universities, she turned to the courts — and was finally able to attend Bunkyo University to study psychology.

“I’ve never been good with people but I had always hoped that I would someday be able to go to school and make friends,” Rika said. Despite being turned down repeatedly, she couldn’t give up “because I knew that going to school was going to be the only way out (of Aum) for me.”

The experiences of Rika’s three younger siblings echoed her own, with them being repeatedly rejected from schools. When they were able to secure places, they faced severe bullying. The Civil Law stipulates that the parents of minors who have committed crimes carry certain responsibilities, but Umi points out that there are no laws holding children responsible for their parents’ crimes.

“My younger siblings were forced to listen to the locals shout, ‘Give those children sarin to drink and kill them,’ ” Umi said. “Even if my father was involved in those crimes, that is about my father and not about me.”

Taro Takimoto, a lawyer who for years has been helping Aum members leave the cult, has pointed out that Asahara’s children should have been taken into custody along with some 200 children who were rescued from the cult.

“Society sees the children of general cult members as innocent victims, but Asahara’s children are viewed as children of a criminal,” Takimoto said. “The biggest factor that determined their fate was that Asahara’s children couldn’t get away from the cult after their father’s arrest.”

Takimoto himself is a victim of a sarin attack carried out by the cult in 1994 over his involvement in helping cult members escape.

He has been supporting several children of former Aum members, including Asahara’s fourth daughter who goes by the name Satoka Matsumoto. He notes how much Satoka suffered. She has tried to kill herself several times.

Most recently, Takimoto represented Satoka in an unusual case in which she filed a petition with the Yokohama Family Court to deny her parents any right to inherit her estate. The lawyer explained that there is no law enabling children to officially cut ties with their parents.

Last October, the family court approved her bid, determining that her parents had acted with “gross misconduct” and recognized her claims of having been abused by them. Neither Asahara, who is on death row, nor his wife appeared at the family court hearing.

Satoka held a news conference in November together with Takimoto, during which she stressed that she has cut all ties with the cult and described in detail the abusive environment in which she grew up, inside the walls of the cult where she was born and raised.

She said Asahara made her eat an omelet containing pieces of broken glass and that she was forced to stand outside in the cold for hours wearing very little clothing.

“I have never, not now or in the past, thought of my father as a father,” Satoka said during the news conference. “My father was already a cult leader from the time I was born and I have never called him Dad.”

Rika and Umi, on the other hand, have very different memories of their childhood, growing up in a house in Chiba Prefecture with their parents before Asahara built the Aum facilities, and going to the local schools. The sisters described Asahara as warm, kind and strict.

“He was not Shoko Asahara, the strong monster … but I think people needed to believe that the crimes were committed not by regular people but by those who were brainwashed by a monster,” Rika said.

While Takimoto said Satoka is a complete victim of her parents and of the cult, he has mixed views about Rika’s culpability.

He argued that while she too was a victim, she was also responsible for abuse that went on inside Aum after Asahara’s arrest that was the result of severe “seminars” held under her supposed leadership as seitaishi.

She was 13 at the time.

“The third daughter was not just a victim but also an offender,” Takimoto said. “Of course, I do realize she didn’t choose to be in the cult but I don’t think she has truly faced up to what Aum has done.”

Hiroko Goto, a juvenile law professor at Chiba University, argued that Rika was just a child herself, even though she may have been older than Satoka. Goto has met Rika, and stressed that all of Asahara’s children were victims.

“Under the juvenile law, those under 14 are considered juvenile delinquents who cannot determine right from wrong,” Goto said. “These children were forced to exist inside the cult without a choice because of their parents.”

The professor echoed Takimoto’s viewpoint that it was a mistake for the government not to have put the Asahara children under protective custody.

“By not taking them into custody the government clearly separated the Aum children from the rest, conveying a message that Asahara’s children were offenders,” Goto said. “By doing so, the government was trying to reduce anxiety within society (toward the cult).”

According to Rika and Umi, all six of the siblings continue to suffer mental issues. Rika has also said that she has tried to take her own life.

“Everyone she had a relationship with growing up, including her parents and other cult members, all became criminals. Can you imagine what that must have been like?” asked Goto. “She was placed in a hopeless situation.”

Throughout the years, Rika and Umi have supported each other. But the last time all six siblings were together was in 1999.

Rika and Umi live with Asahara’s eldest son, but the three are estranged from their other brother and two sisters. Their youngest brother lives with their mother and the other two sisters each live separately, away from the family.

“We had to go our separate ways. It was difficult for us to be together within the structure of a family,” Rika said. “Sometimes it is important to let it go.”

Rika and Umi have said they knew nothing about the crimes committed by cult members, and stressed that they have no current ties with any of the Aum spinoffs, including Aleph.

Rika, however, spoke of the deep pain she feels over what the victims and their families have experienced. On Saturday, she attended the annual symposium hosted by the sarin attack victims for the first time.

“I was terrified but I felt I needed to face the victims. I felt I shouldn’t run away,” Rika said. “When I thought about the precious loved ones these people lost, the pain and suffering everyone went through, I thought I might go crazy.”

A couple of years after his arrest Asahara began babbling nonsense in court, sometimes speaking in broken English. A court-commissioned psychiatric examination found the guru to be mentally competent but Asahara’s defense team submitted the results of exams by six psychiatrists questioning his mental state. Asahara’s death sentence was finalized in 2006.

In 2004, Rika and Umi were granted visitation rights for the first time since Asahara’s arrest. The sisters were shocked to see how different he was. He had lost a tooth and looked like an old man, they said.

“He was a mere shadow of his old self. He didn’t look like he was there,” Matsumoto recalled. “He couldn’t understand what we were saying or even comprehend that we were there. The more I saw my father, the more isolated I felt.”

The last time they met their father was 10 years ago. Since then, they have visited the detention center in Tokyo once or twice a month but were told he won’t come out of his cell.

The sisters are seeking proper medical treatment for their father, in the hope that he will be able to speak again and answer truthfully their questions about the cult and his involvement in the crimes committed.

Article 479 of the Criminal Procedure Law stipulates that executions of mentally incompetent inmates shall be suspended.

However, in the process of Satoka’s petition last fall, the family court revealed documents stating that as of May last year Asahara showed no sign of clear mental disability, and that while he refuses to come out of his cell for visitation he will in most cases come out to bathe or for health checkups.

With the last of the Aum criminal cases having been finalized in January, Asahara and the 12 other death-row inmates could be executed at any time.

Because no prior notice is given to anyone regarding executions, including the inmates themselves, Rika said she wakes up in fear every morning of getting the phone call to say that her father has been executed.

“You can’t undo something once it has happened. Just like our world has collapsed, you cannot unwind the clocks of reality,” Matsumoto says. “I am terrified, unable to have a moment of peace.”

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