Children of Asahara forced to pay for guru's alleged crimes

The Japan Times/December 30, 2000
By Hiroshi Matsubara

Watching them play on the floor amid scattered toys and books, it's hard to believe that these two boys were once hailed by thousands of Aum Shinrikyo members as holy children and heirs to their guru's legacy.

When asked to settle down, the boys, ages 6 and 7, run up the stairs as though their excessive energy will not allow them to sit still; circumstances do not allow them to venture outside often. Since the arrest of Shoko Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, in May 1995 on suspicion of masterminding a series of heinous crimes, his children -- four daughters and two sons aged from 6 to 22 -- have been paying the price for their father's alleged crimes.

They've been forced to change residences at least six times in the past five years, often on sudden notice. Since July, when they moved to Ryugasaki, Ibaraki Prefecture, under the guardianship of three former Aum members, the three youngest children and their 19-year-old sister have been virtually locked up in their five-bedroom house.

The city, in the first such move by a local government, has rejected the applications of Asahara's two sons and his 11-year-old daughter to register for school. It cites the concerns of local residents, who stage demonstrations outside the family's door. In an interview with The Japan Times earlier this month, the three children told of how their lives have been disrupted and expressed their desire to be accepted in society.

"I can understand people's anxiety to our presence in their neighborhood or local schools," said the 11-year-old girl, who in the past five years has spent only three semesters in public elementary schools. "But without going to school and making friends, I cannot draw a picture of my future."

The girl said she cannot study well at home without the discipline of teachers and due to the interference of her playful brothers, but her bookshelf was filled with well-worn history and other school textbooks. "My life has been very confusing, even to myself," she said. "But the days when I attended school every day were the most satisfactory and enjoyable times of my life."

Asahara's youngest son said there were too many things he enjoyed during the one semester he spent at school in Otawara to list. He and his sister were allowed to attend school earlier this year on the condition that they left after a single semester.

"That's a snail (the school's) principal gave me," said the 6-year-old, pointing to a small aquarium on a shelf. While his siblings related their school memories, Asahara's 7-year-old son -- who was forced to stop attending school in Asahi, Ibaraki Prefecture, after just one day due to local demonstrators -- suddenly appeared to become very sad and dashed up the stairs to the second floor.

The head of the household, a 39-year-old licensed teacher who has taken care of Asahara's children over the past decade, said they have learned to hide their emotional stress in front of strangers.

The children's mother, 42-year-old Tomoko Matsumoto, is in custody awaiting an appeal on a six-year prison sentence upheld by the Tokyo High Court in 1999 for her role in the killing of an errant cultist. Asahara's 22- and 17-year-old daughters live in separate towns and visit their siblings occasionally.

The Ryugasaki house was purchased by two civil activists who support the children, but the city has so far rejected the household's applications to register as residents, following the precedent set by the city of Otawara, Tochigi Prefecture, which drove them out of town earlier this year.

Locals have submitted to the city office a petition with around 37,000 signatures demanding that the city maintain its opposition to the household's registration. Like Otawara, the Ryugasaki Municipal Government has found justification for its actions in the Constitution, which assures the rights of individuals unless they threaten public welfare.

Outside the housing compound, the children's neighbors have organized extensive protests and posted "Against Aum" signs on their doors. In August, more than 1,500 locals gathered in a vacant lot behind the house and chanted "Aum, go away!" and "You devils have no human rights!"

The children's main guardian said the household currently has no financial or personal ties with Aum. She added that the children truly wish to live normal lives as members of society.

She declined, however, to say how they financed their daily living. "We do not tell the media so as to protect the privacy of the children," she explained. "We have reported (on this matter) to the city office." According to Shingo Yamaguchi, chairman of the local residents' association that has voiced opposition to the children's enrollment at local schools, the association's principal concern is that the children are still tied to Aum and that their presence in Ryugasaki could lead to cultists flocking to the town.

"Only after they have proven that all ties to Aum have been severed should they start attending local schools," he said. While residents still harbor concerns over the children's presence, they appear ready to seek a solution so that the children's basic human rights are not further infringed upon.

During a local residents' meeting held earlier this month, some 1,000 participants agreed to begin seeking settlement of the issue through talks with Asahara's children and their guardians. The two sides have met once already at the recommendation of the Mito District Court, where lawyers filed a suit demanding that Ryugasaki accept the children's residency and school registrations.

"I personally wish we could put an end to the children being sent around from one municipality to another, here (in Ryugasaki)," said Yamaguchi, adding that he believes many locals support his view.

The children's guardian said she would cooperate fully with her neighbors to settle the problem.

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