Reporter dogs cultists' trials

Japan Times/March 20, 1998

For more than eight years, freelance journalist Shoko Egawa has devoted her time and energy to reporting on Aum Shinrikyo, driven by regret that she could not keep her friend, lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, and his family from being murdered.

Egawa, a 39-year-old former newspaper reporter who has gained fame through her dogged reporting on the doomsday cult, says she is nowhere near being satisfied by her findings.

On the contrary, she feels frustrated by some cultists who in court show no remorse for the consequences of the crimes for which they stand accused. "It disgusted me when I saw (Yoshinobu) Aoyama speaking in (cult founder Shoko) Asahara's trial the other day," Egawa said during a recent interview while taking in a quick lunch at the Tokyo District Court before heading off to cover the trial of another cultist accused of releasing sarin in a Tokyo subway train. "Aoyama acts as if he has nothing to do with the slaying of Sakamoto. He might not have criminal responsibility for his death per se, but I felt, 'Can't you agonize a little bit over what kind of influence your report (on the meeting with Sakamoto) to Asahara had?'"

Aoyama, the cult's lawyer at the time, allegedly had a confrontational meeting with Sakamoto a few days before the lawyer and his family vanished from their Yokohama condominium one night in November 1989. Egawa attends court sessions of the accused cultists day after day, looking for clues as to why Aum members -- many with elite academic backgrounds, a desire to achieve religious salvation and no criminal history -- became numb to the loss of human life, including the death of the Sakamotos.

Egawa is one of the few journalists who started digging into the cult long before the terrorist attacks it allegedly carried out, including the March 1995 subway gassing and the June 1994 sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. She exposed Asahara's shady activities in her pioneering book on the cult in 1991.

Egawa says her motive for covering the cult originated with the disappearance of Sakamoto, his wife, Satoko, and their 1-year-old son, Tatsuhiko.

Egawa started investigating the cult out of a sense of guilt that she might have contributed to the family's disappearance, a feeling that hasn't changed, she says. Before Sakamoto vanished, Egawa introduced the mother of an Aum follower to the lawyer, leading to his confrontation with the cult.

Because of Egawa's motive, which she concedes is not purely journalistic, she admits to not being 100 percent objective in covering the Aum saga. "I knew a year after Sakamoto's disappearance that it would be very difficult to find him alive," she said. "But if I had said such a thing, it would have devastated his family very much. So it was inevitable for me to try to find information that would give us hope. That's what I mean when I say I haven't been objective."

The "objective" media, however, cannot seem to match her persistence. Egawa argues that journalists should pay closer attention to signs of other "destructive cults" emerging here. "What is most scary is that Aum Shinrikyo is not the only group that practices so-called mind control," she said. "But (the media) seem to be shying away from exposing these groups, because police haven't done anything about them, just like police didn't do anything about Aum for so long."

Egawa says she is determined to follow the Aum trials, despite predictions that Asahara's trial will probably drag on for 10 or 20 years. "It's been almost nine years, and I am tired of it, frankly," she said. "Aum trials are unpleasant to watch. But I can't quit halfway through."


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