Cult leader’s daughters call for him not to be executed
Tokyo attacker Shoko Asahara and followers set to hang amid mental competence doubts
Shoko Asahara following an interrogation in Tokyo in 1995. Thirteen Japanese cult members may be sent to the gallows for an attack on the Tokyo subway system and other crimes. Photograph: Kyodo News/AP
Some people joke they have parents from hell. In Rika Matsumoto’s case it seems to be true.
Matsumoto’s family broke up two decades ago after her father was arrested for masterminding the worst terrorist attack in Japan’s modern history. Her mother was convicted of murder. Rika (34) says she has lived much of her life since “hovering between life and death”.
She, her sister Umi (36) and four siblings were partly raised in a countryside compound run by Aum Shinrikyo, the apocalyptic cult founded by their father, Shoko Asahara. This week marks 23 years since his followers gassed the Tokyo underground with sarin, a chemical weapon developed in Nazi Germany.
The 1995 attack killed 13 people, sickened more than 6,000 and inflicted wounds on Japan’s psyche from which it has yet to recover.
Not surprisingly, Asahara (born Chizuo Matsumoto) is one of Japan’s most reviled men. The blind, charismatic guru attracted zealots who committed a series of increasingly brazen crimes, including the murder of a lawyer and his family and the 1994 gassing of an entire neighbourhood that killed seven and injured 600. Defectors and recalcitrant devotees were tortured and murdered.
I have never, not now or in the past, thought of my father as a father,' she said, after successfully petitioning to cut ties with both parents
The authorities feared the cult might use helicopters to drop poison gas over Tokyo, one of the world’s most crowded cities.
Monster vs human
Despite their father’s fearsome reputation, however, the sisters express love for him. When she was seven and nursing a fever, says Umi, Asahara lingered by her bedside for days, mopping her brow. Rika recalls him clowning around to make them laugh. “People think of him as a monster but he was human,” she says.
Their younger sister, Satoka, has different views. In November, Asahara’s fourth daughter said he had violently abused her. “I have never, not now or in the past, thought of my father as a father,” she said, after successfully petitioning to cut ties with both parents. She said she supports the death penalty for her father. Her sisters call those claims “lies”.
Satoka may soon get her wish. The last of the marathon Aum trials wound up in January and Asahara and 12 other cultists are on death row. Many believe the government wants the executions carried out quickly, consigning a painful national watershed to history.
The sisters say they have been ostracised because of their infamous name. Rika, who left the cult compound in 1996, was blocked from entering school and had to fight in the courts to be allowed to study at university. She says she has repeatedly attempted suicide. “We were just children at the time but we have been treated like criminals.”
If the government follows the law, they cannot kill my father,' says Rika. 'It’s as simple as that'
They long ago cut ties with their mother, Tomoko, who was released from prison in 2002 after serving time for helping to lynch a cultist. They last saw their father in prison a decade ago but he has since refused to emerge from his cell. It is, in any case, difficult to recognise the babbling, shambolic figure they saw; he wears a nappy and makes no sense, says Umi.
Asahara mumbled incoherently through 256 court sessions without ever offering an apology, let alone an explanation. Prosecutors struggled to tie him directly to the cult’s crimes but convicted him on the basis of testimony from other cultists. The sisters believe their father is no longer mentally competent and that legal corners were cut to send him to the gallows.
“If the government follows the law, they cannot kill my father,” says Rika. “It’s as simple as that.” She and Umi are demanding proper medical treatment for Asahara and a stay of execution: Japanese law states that hangings must be suspended in cases of mental disability. The government has rejected claims that Asahara is seriously ill.
The cult has split into splinter groups. Aleph, as Aum now calls itself, offered condolences to the victims of the subway attack this week, but said executing Asahara would be “a grave, irreversible mistake”. Doubts remain about whether it has officially severed its connections to a leader who once declared himself Christ and led nearly 40,000 people around the world.
The call announcing his death could come to Rika’s mobile phone at any time, she says. Japan’s justice ministry gives no prior notice before hangings, which are shrouded in secrecy. “I just want to hear him speak in his own voice, to explain what happened,” she says.