Sept. 04, 2000

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, 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 of growing up in Aum Shinrikyo and the virtually impossible task they face in moving beyond the cult's infamy in a country where the sins of fathers often are 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," 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?"

Ryugasaki, where the family recently moved, has refused to let the children register for school, citing residents' concerns. Masayuki Ono of the city's educational affairs division said there was "great anxiety among residents," and the local elementary school's parent-teacher association 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, sometimes violent protests outside their doors.

Despite the constant upheaval and emotional stress the children have endured, they appeared happy, outgoing, and well-adjusted. The adults in charge of them said the children had been deeply traumatized but were 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 taken care of the children for the last decade. She is a licensed teacher and provides their homeschooling. Two other women also attend to the children's needs. The cult said it provided financial support for the children for humanitarian reasons.

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

But the 19-year-old daughter expressed deep fear that her classmates would learn that she is one of 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 the rest of their lives. Major Japanese companies typically investigate family backgrounds of prospective employees to make sure there are no skeletons in their closets that would later embarrass them. Japanese families often hire private investigators to research the backgrounds of 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.

Said Shoko Egawa, an investigative journalist who is considered an authority on Aum: "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."

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