Killing for the cult

The ritual murder of an elderly sushi-shop owner by a gang of women has exposed the secrets of a bizarre Japanese cult, and shone a disturbing light on the nation's weakness for extreme religions

Times, UK/November 14, 2007

It was another quiet autumn night at the Yoshinozushi restaurant on the deserted main drag of Komoro. Once the place had thronged with fans of its Kyoto-style sweet sushi, but a few years ago they had suddenly vanished: what was known in town as the "cult's sushi shop" was empty.

The owner, 63-year-old Motoko Okuno, was preparing to close at 11pm when she allegedly received an abrupt summons from the leaders of the cult that had brainwashed her for decades: come immediately to our headquarters. The message was a death sentence.

When she arrived at the opulent facilities of the Kigen-kai cult, perched on the hill above Komoro, Motoko was shown into a room filled with dozens of familiar faces: women, young and old, with whom she had eaten, drunk and prayed for many years. The men had already been sent away.

Her 26-year-old daughter, Michiko, was there, her son-in-law too. Michiko, the leaders told her, had transgressed the Kigen-kai ("Era-society") code. Her crime was that she had jokingly shown a condom to the "Great Deity's" granddaughter, and told her that it was a protective amulet that would guarantee prosperity. As a punishment, Michiko had been forced to wear a bin-bag plastered in condoms, and was beaten up by cult members.

Now, Motoko was told, she too must pay for her daughter's crimes. A blow to her back knocked her to the floor. She writhed in pain as the women pounded her with a deadly hail of fists and feet.

As the agony stretched on for nearly an hour, a fake gun was rammed into her mouth and her face caked in chalk by way of ritualistic humiliation. To complete the shaming, members rode on Motoko's back, grabbing handfuls of her hair as "reins".

In the background, police claim, orders were given to the 50-strong female mob by Yasuko Kubota, the 49-year-old daughter of the guru who had founded the Shinto-based Kigen-kai cult in 1970. It is a version of events strongly denied by Kubota herself.

The guru was a man Motoko had devoted her life to but whose teachings, since his death five years ago, have become twisted beyond recognition.

The guru had always liked Motoko, and it was a favouritism that had caused a rift within the cult.

Kubota's orders, say police, were calculated to heighten the victim's pain: "Stamp on the inside of her thighs," she commanded, and the cult's enraged flock obeyed. Women in their eighties looked on; girls as young as 15 were told to join in or they could never hope to be "children of the gods".

As the orgy of violence subsided, Motoko lay motionless on the floor.

Somebody produced a bottle of Kigen-sui – the "magical" water sold to cult followers for Y60,000 (£300) per litre – which, they believed, was capable of curing every known ailment.

Motoko's body and mouth was liberally splashed with this supposed elixir of life, but, at the critical moment, its much vaunted powers were nowhere to be seen. Motoko was dead.

Motoko's body was taken secretly back to the sushi shop, and the place wrecked to make it look as if she had died in a domestic fight. In fear of further reprisal by the cult, Motoko's daughter and husband told the police that they had killed her accidentally. Their confessions were quickly dismissed as flimsy inventions. A fortnight later, 21 cult members were arrested for the killing: the youngest was 15, the oldest 81.

By last week 15 of those women, including Kubota herself, had been officially charged with injury leading to death, and two with the attempted cover-up. But even police admit that the deeper mystery of the Kigen-kai remains unsolved. How did entire families become sucked into its belief system? Why was there such a high proportion of women members involved in the beating? Had there, as the townspeople of Komoro mutter, been deaths before that had been more successfully covered up?

"There are things we still do not know and we are still investigating," said one senior Komoro police officer. "We don't exactly know why this particular family was targeted, or why the woman was killed for something her daughter was accused of." There are enough gaps in the case to trouble even the National Police Agency 100 miles away in Tokyo: was this an ultra-rare glimpse into a large, sinister sect with tentacles across Japan or just a final death spasm of a clique on the edge of extinction?

The Kigen-kai incident has provoked uncomfortable soul-searching as people wonder whether Japan, for all its reputation as an irreligious technoscape, is in fact a "fertile paddy-field" of cultism. In a country with 183,000 officially registered religious organisations – and perhaps thousands of unregistered ones – how many of them exert total control over believers, and how many could turn nasty?

Japanese experts on cult behaviour have long warned of the dangers posed by ignoring the country's "hidden" affinity for religion and the capacity for small religious groups to grow invisibly yet epidemically into powerful forces of thought-control.

Shoko Egawa, an expert on cultism, described Japan as especially susceptible to cultism: "When something is going on in a closed space where group psychology and religious belief work together, people's behaviour will eventually stop being led by rational thought," she said.

Kigen-kai, as an officially registered religion, operates virtually tax-free. "The Government and local authorities examine the group when they issue approvals, but they don't examine the organisations ever again. They don't even know what to examine. This is the root of the whole problem," she said.

Even for the nonexpert residents of sleepy Komoro, tucked away among the beautiful mountain forests of Nagano, the death of Motoko was perhaps not totally unexpected. For more than 30 years, the townspeople had watched as the Kigen-kai cult grew more and more eccentric, expanded in size and wealth, and drew hundreds of followers from elsewhere in Japan.

Today, eerily silent since the October arrests, the sprawling headquarters of the cult rise from the hill above Komoro in sparkling contrast with the decaying shabbiness of the town below. It is enough to tempt any resident's curiosity.

For Komoro itself is one of Japan's slowly dying towns – a place that once bustled with tourists and local craftsmen but which now creaks through life on the front line of the national ageing crisis. The only visible inhabitants are elderly, and in the toyshop the lurid robots on display in the window are dulled with dust. Komoro's shopping streets are mostly shuttered: any stores still in businesss seem far too quiet to survive much longer.

But the Kigen-kai headquarters gleam with opulence. Straddling a winding hill-road, the large, ice-white buildings of the cult would not be out of place in the wealthiest districts of Tokyo.

Gold plaques bearing the seal of the Yamato dynasty adorn the eaves, and everything is meticulously clean.

Halfway towards the main shrine, we are stopped by a guard: any further progress requires a series of formal bows and hand-claps towards a pair of stone statues flanking the central building.

It is not just the shrine and the buildings that give the Kigen-kai its aura of mystery, say residents. There were those times when cult members paraded through town and dumped vast quantities of fish and fruit into the local river. Or there was the ritual where zealots dug a huge hole in the side of Mount Asama and threw in votive offerings of fried tofu slices to appease the fox-god. To nearby residents' consternation, the offering succeeded chiefly in attracting actual foxes – along with an unwanted flock of jungle crows and a plague of mice.

Long-term residents of Komoro describe decades of such bizarre events, all stemming from the arrival in the mid1960s of Kensuke Matsui, an outsider from Yokohama who wore tattered military fatigues and claimed to be the reincarnation of Yamato Takeru No Mikoto – the prince of the ancient Yamato dynasty. He also claimed to be an exorcist and a healer. And, to everyone's surprise, plenty of local people believed him.

One of them was Mikiko Koike (not her real name), a 68-year-old storekeeper who managed to escape the cult's clutches some years ago, but lives in constant fear that disciples will one day come to her shop and dish out a fatal punishment lynching.

"I joined because of the headaches," she says. "My husband joined because I was a member, and the rest of the family then had to join because we were both members." Fighting back tears, Mikiko describes blinding headaches that followed the birth of her son. Doctors whom she visited were unable to treat the migraines, and eventually, in desperation she turned to Matsui – the proto-guru who was, at this stage, still calling himself "the teacher". Mikiko's problem, according to the diagnosis, was that she had walked through the ceremonial Torii gates of a Shinto shrine in Kyoto while her baby was still too young. He absolved her of the sin and the headaches stopped immediately. "That was when I started to believe," she whispers sadly.

For the first few years, she continues, the Kigen-kai was a friendly affair. Matsui lived in the town with everyone else and disciples could drop in on him at any time. Offerings were made at a small shrine in his house and his behaviour was modest. But in 1970, the idyll ended.

"Things had started to turn before 1970, but it all changed when the Kigen-kai became officially recognised as a religion by the Ministry of Education and moved up the hill," says Mikiko. "That was when he started selling the Kigen-sui water and people began sending him envelopes full of cash. Word spread across the country and we heard that membership numbers were into the thousands." She produces an empty bottle of the Kigen-sui water, carefully kept for 20 years in its elegant lacquered box, and confides her longstanding doubt that the expensive "panacea" was anything more than tap water.

"Suddenly, Matsui was no longer 'the teacher', but wanted to be known as the 'Great Deity'," she says. "We could no longer just go to see him and he started to drive around in very expensive cars. You could really feel the influence of the whole thing dividing Komoro – everyone knew exactly who was in the Kigen-kai and who wasn't."

As the guru's power grew,so too did the scope of his festivals. On one occasion, say local people, around 5,000 uniformed cult-members descended on the town to celebrate the birth of the "second messiah" – the guru's daughter who would one day succeed him as the leader of the now wealthy sect. Some years later, on her first day at primary school, the daughter emerged from a crimson Rolls-Royce from which a red carpet was unfurled by an obliging team of zealots.

Mikiko and her husband, though completely under the guru's spell at the time, found some of the antics blushworthy. "It was embarrassing to go into a supermarket to buy ten kilos of fried tofu. Everyone knew two people couldn't eat that much, so they instantly knew we were Kigen-kai members and that the tofu was destined to be thrown into the river. We even drove to the river at night so nobody would see us wasting all that food," she says.

But, adds Mikiko, it was the Kigen-sui that undid the whole affair. As Matsui's teachings grew ever more doctrinaire, so too did his insistence that believers rely entirely on the water for all medical needs. Any trip to a mainstream doctor would be punished.

When she started suffering from acute stomach pains, Mikiko persevered with drinking the water. The elixir did nothing and eventually her husband, Takeo, intervened. "I was a member of the Kigen-kai, of course, but I could see that she was genuinely ill," he says. "Her parents were also members and insisted that she was not taken to a real doctor, and anyway, we were terrified that people would see us going to the local hospital and report us to the Great Deity." Eventually, Mikiko was smuggled out to a hospital in another town, where a doctor instantly diagnosed cancer. Unable to break free from the guru's mental hold over her, she told him what the doctor had said.

Her prescription was more Kigen-sui water. If she did anything else, the guru said, Mikiko's shop would go bankrupt and she would die. A month or so later, at death's door, she returned to the real doctor who removed three-quarters of her stomach in an emergency operation. "That was when I stopped believing," she whispers.

But Mikiko and her husband were not alone. The faith of thousands of Kigen-kai members was shaken to the core when, in 2002, the water's mystical powers were once again found wanting and the guru himself died of pancreatic cancer. Thousands of members – mostly living outside Komoro itself, are thought to have abandoned their faith in the years that followed, but the cult itself did not die.

Former believers say that the Kigen-kai, which is thought to have been taken over by the guru's daughter, became ever more fierce in its attempts to control the zealots as membership – and income – bled away. The fatal beating of Mrs Okuno, say those who have escaped the cult's tendrils, was a tragedy waiting to happen.

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