Cult Leader Should Not Be Executed, Daughters Say

They say their father, who ordered a gas attack in a subway, is mentally ill. Shunned by Japanese society, the sisters say no one believes them.

Los Angeles Times/April 2, 2006
By Bruce Wallace

TOKYO - Like good daughters anywhere, Mayumi and Kaori Asahara worry about their father's declining health. They are alarmed that he looks so thin and won't see a doctor. They fret that he refuses to wear the new clothes they gave him to replace his fraying old ones.

But they desperately need something back from their father too. They are seeking an explanation of why the man who taught them to cherish life, even that of an ant, could be a cult leader responsible for Japan's worst terrorist attack.

"I need to ask my father directly what happened," said Kaori Asahara, who was 12 in 1995 when her father ordered the Aum Supreme Truth cult's sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 12 people and made thousands ill.

On death row, Shoko Asahara isn't talking to anyone. Not to the two daughters who visit him regularly, not to his own lawyers who have tried in more than 140 meetings to get him to help formulate a defense that might save his life.

Asahara, 50, has been sentenced to death, and his time for final appeals has run out. In Japan's secretive penal system, he could be sent to the gallows at any time. But the prospect that he will provide any insight into his motives is becoming slimmer and slimmer.

Still, Kaori and Mayumi say he should not be executed. They say that their father is mentally ill and incapable of understanding what is happening to him, that he is a helpless cripple who must wear diapers to keep from soiling his clothes. He sits in a wheelchair, head lolling to one side. His left hand scratches idly at a leg or his chest.

He does not speak. He only mumbles, making no requests and seeking no last-minute mercy.

Mayumi Asahara, who has visited her father 28 times over the last 19 months, said he was "like a doll."

That is not the image the rest of Japan holds of Asahara. Prosecutors and prison officials contend the cult leader is feigning mental illness in an attempt to escape justice.

And when Japanese close their eyes they still see Asahara as he was when he was orchestrating mayhem: A white-robed guru with a flowing black beard and glass eye, a man who twisted the minds of well-educated men and women who seemed indistinguishable from everyone's else's sons and daughters. The image has become the icon of evil in modern Japan.

But the man in the picture is also a flesh-and-blood father whose children are paying heavily for his sins.

They have been bullied and banned from schools and fired from numerous jobs. They say they still are trailed by police and chased by media that manage to find them every time they move.

Now in their 20s, Kaori and Mayumi grew up in the Aum cult and recalled a very happy childhood.

"We were told: Do not kill and be kind to other people," Kaori said in an interview with three foreign journalists at the offices of her father's defense team. "Now we are told my father directed others to kill people, so there is a very big gap.

"I think the image of the last 11 years is more famous now," she said, tears welling in her eyes.

It was the only time during the interview that either daughter, dressed in sober business suits, cried. Both acknowledged it was "a fact" that the gas attack victims suffered, but said they did not have words to express their feelings about what happened.

Their father's lawyer said they agreed to talk with foreign media because they saw it as their last chance to pressure authorities to provide psychiatric help to Asahara instead of executing him.

The sisters say there is no point talking to Japanese media, which they say are more interested in reporting salacious details about Asahara's prison life.

"Some Japanese media say you are the children of devils so you don't have any rights," Kaori said.

"Whatever I do is all broadcast and most of it isn't true.... Rather than try to change our image, we just want them to forget about us."

But the family has not been able to drop below the radar.

Their mother was found guilty in 1999 of conspiring with her husband to kill another cult member. She was released from jail in 2002.

The Aum cult was declared illegal in the wake of the gas attack, but has been reconstituted as a legal group called Aleph. The sisters denied they were members of Aleph or any organized religion, and said they received no money from it.

"When the name was changed to Aleph, they sent us a form and asked if we would like to submit a subscription," Kaori said. "We did not."

The family name has cost Kaori part-time jobs as a golf caddy, convenience store clerk, waitress and grocery deliverer. She said she was fired from all of them when her identity was exposed.

"The managers would say, 'I'm sorry, but ... ,' " Kaori said. Her close friends know who she is, and some have been harassed by reporters seeking gossip.

Two years ago, Kaori went to court when three Japanese universities refused to honor acceptance offers after finding out who her father was.

The courts overturned the ban and Kaori is attending one of the schools, which she declined to name.

"I am studying psychiatry so I can understand about my internal condition and understand other people from a scientific point of view," she said.

She already has had rare insight into human behavior.

Years ago, when bullying at elementary school drove their elder sister to cut her wrists and they feared she would kill herself, the family sought a meeting with the school principal to ask him to intervene.

They received no sympathy.

"The headmaster said: 'Your sister's life is only one. But many people lost their lives in the sarin attacks,' " Mayumi said.

In February, a junior high school refused to admit Asahara's youngest son. The principal said he could not guarantee the safety of other students since the 11-year-old, who was a newborn when his father was arrested, could conceivably be under the influence of the cult.

"The school never even interviewed the son; they just acted on the basis of the Asahara image," said Takashi Matsui, one of Asahara's defense lawyers. He said the boy and Asahara's other son had been prevented from attending elementary school.

Mayumi, 25, says she has no friends and doesn't go out much because she fears being followed. Instead, she studies law by correspondence.

In visits since August 2004, she has recorded her father's condition in notebooks, page after page of his mumbles and her impressions. And she looks for signs that prison officials are lying about his condition.

Prosecutors and prison officials say he acknowledges questions with a mumbled Japanese phrase that means "I understand."

"But he says the phrase even when he's alone," Mayumi said.

The sisters would like to move on with their lives, but won't as long as their father is alive.

Kaori visited Toronto last year and reveled in the freedom of being someplace where no one knew her.

"It was only there that I finally understood about the heavy pressure I'm under in Japan," she said. She would like to leave permanently, but for the time being that is not an option.

"Of course many things are bitter," she says. "But I think I would regret it if I didn't do everything for my father's case."

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