Hard legacy for family of japanese sect's leader

New York Times / September 1, 2000
By Calvin Sims

Ryugasaki, Japan -- They were the child princes and princesses of Japan's most notorious religious sect, Aum Shinrikyo, which released deadly sarin gas into the Tokyo subway in 1995. Their pictures were prominently displayed next to their father's portrait above cult shrines, where thousands of Aum disciples hailed them as heirs apparent to the spiritual throne. They were considered child gods.

Then their father, Shoko Asahara, founder of Aum, was jailed for masterminding the subway attack, which killed 12 people and injured 5,000, and the children's utopia crumbled along with the doomsday cult.

Today, Mr. Asahara's six children, four young women and two boys from 6 to 22, are social pariahs. Although they have distanced themselves from the cult, which now calls itself Aleph, the children conceal their identities for fear of reprisals. They are constantly relocating, because everywhere they move neighbors conduct extensive protests.

Most public schools will not let them attend class. Although they had no role in the subway attack, the children, some of whom are still too young to understand what occurred, are being held accountable for the worst terrorist assault in modern Japanese history.

In a rare interview, four children talked about growing up in Aum Shinrikyo and the virtually impossible task that they face in moving beyond the cult's infamy in a country where the sins of fathers are often forever visited upon children.

"People say that our family is evil because of what happened five years ago, but these little children hardly know anything about it," Mr. Asahara's 19-year-old daughter said, referring to her brothers, 6 and 7, and her sister, 11. "To go to school is a very precious thing. It's a part of life to make friends and become educated. What justice will be accomplished by denying them this basic right."

Last week, Ryugasaki, where the family recently moved, just northeast of Tokyo, refused to let the children register for school, citing residents' concerns. Masayuki Ono of the city's educational affairs division said that there was "great anxiety among residents" and that the parent-teacher association of the local elementary school had collected 1,355 signatures opposing the children's admission.

The children said that since the subway attack they had grown accustomed to being despised and rejected. In the last five years, they have moved at least six times, often on short notice and in the wake of large and sometimes violent protests outside their doors.

Despite the constant upheaval and emotional stress that the children have endured, they appeared happy, outgoing and well adjusted. But the adults in charge of them said the children had been deeply traumatized but were quite skillful in masking their pain, especially in front of strangers.

Aside from one another, the one constant in their lives has been their current guardian, a 39-year-old former cult member who has cared for the children for the last decade. She is a licensed teacher and provides them with home schooling. Two other women also attend to the children's needs.

The cult said it provided financial support for the children for humanitarian reasons.

"It has been very difficult for them, because everything and everyone they believed in was suddenly overturned overnight," the guardian said. "The worst part is the internal struggle that is going on inside them. It's far worse than the opposition they face from the public."

The children have few if any friends and spend most of their time indoors. Once a month, they are allowed to visit their mother, who is on trial for conspiring with her husband and a cult follower in the murder of a dissident Aum member in 1994. Their father, who is also standing trial, does not receive visitors. The oldest sister, 22, is estranged from the others, and the third daughter, 17, lives separately but visits them frequently.

Asked what they would like most to do in the world, the youngest children scream with glee, "Go to school!"

"There are so many things that are necessary for me to learn at school, and I think it would be fun to make some new friends," said the 11-year-old. She added that she fully understood the barriers that prevented her from attending school. But when pressed to explain them, she simply smiled and looked down.

In the spring, Mr. Asahara's youngest son, who most closely resembles his father, was allowed to attend an elementary school temporarily in Otawara in Tochigi Prefecture despite opposition from residents. "There were many good teachers there, and we caught a crawfish on a field trip," the boy said.

"The principal gave me a snail, and I still have."

But the 19-year-old daughter expressed deep fear that her classmates would learn that she is one of Mr. Asahara's children. Although she usually enrolls in college correspondence courses, she attended classes at a university for the first time this summer. "When I meet people who are kind to me," she said, "I get really scared, because I always feel that the person may suddenly change if they find out who I really am. I don't get too close to anyone. I try to be nice but I don't go beyond that."

The cult's legacy is highly likely to haunt the children for the rest of their lives. Major Japanese companies typically investigate the family backgrounds of prospective employees to make sure that there are no skeletons in their closets that would later embarrass them. Quite often, Japanese families hire private investigators to research the backgrounds of their future in-laws.

Experts on cult groups said keeping the Asahara children isolated from the rest of Japanese society was far worse than integrating them.

"At the moment, the Asahara children are being raised by their servants," said Shoko Egawa, an investigative journalist who is considered an authority on Aum. "They are being brought up as special children. But I wonder if this is good. If they go to public school, they will be treated the same as other children. If they make friends, they will have contacts with those who don't have Aum values."

Although they have disassociated from Aum, the children said they had fond memories of growing up in the cult. "They were like my older brothers and sisters, and that's what we used to call them," the second oldest daughter said. "We were like one big extended family, and I sometimes miss that." But the children are careful, perhaps by design, to note that although they were reared in the cult, they do not subscribe to their father's teachings.

They officially left the cult this year when the group changed its name to Aleph and said for the first time that Mr. Asahara had probably been involved in the subway attack and that he would no longer be its leader.

Still, the children say they love their parents. The 19-year-old daughter said she remembered her father as an extremely gentle man who despite his many commitments nursed her through a terrible illness and was always available to help her with school work.

That depiction contrasts sharply with the image that most Japanese have of Mr. Asahara as the pink-robed head of the cult whose colony at the base of Mount Fuji included tiny torture rooms and laboratories that made poison gas. As leader of Aum, which once had 10,000 members, he is accused of ordering the attack in which members planted sarin in crowded subway cars in morning rush hour on March 20, 1995.

On a recent summer afternoon, as Mr. Asahara's young sons raced their red and blue bicycles, including one with training wheels, through a park here, they seemed as innocent and rambunctious as other Japanese boys their age. Keeping a close watch, the boys' polite older sisters seemed equally harmless, as they cheered for their younger brothers in a family outing that a passer-by, who apparently did not know they were the Asahara clan, described as "ever so lovely."

But a few blocks from the park, there was nothing lovely about the hostile banners that neighbors had posted outside the children's new house. "We Don't Want Aum Here," the signs said. "Aum Go Away." The boys seemed oblivious to them.

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