Japan's deadly Aum cult

July 05, 1995|By Georgie Anne Geyer

TOKYO — IN THIS confused and jittery country, there is one shining light: Her name is Shoko Egawa, and she is as close to a Joan of Arc of journalism as any young journalist I have met.

Because of her unique and dangerous ties to the deadly Aum Shinrikyo cult, which is accused of poisoning the Tokyo subways last March, Shoko "lives" now at her publishing house. She says she's not afraid of them anymore, but . . .

Ever since the weird Sarin gas attack that shook Japan to its very soul, killing 12 and injuring 5,500, it has been the modest, forthright and intelligent young woman who has gone on television hour after hour, day after day, patiently and unexcitedly explaining the supposedly inexplicable to a traumatized Japanese people.

"There are several things I always keep in mind when I speak," said this scholarly looking young woman in casual pants and blouse, when she agreed to talk with me in a rare personal interview. "First, I always explain that I have personally been involved with Aum and Mr. Sakamoto, so my views can't always be objective. As a friend, I have to be involved.

"But as a journalist, I am involved in something of the public work as well. What I have to do is show the facts first."

Ms. Egawa became "involved" in the spring of 1989 with the strange Aum cult, into whose fortified quarters Shoko Asahara, the lethal blind guru, had chillingly led thousands of vulnerable young Japanese. She never went inside. Instead, she meticulously gathered her priceless information from witnesses, from internal records, and from wherever she could.

When parents of a "disappeared" child came to her, she innocently put them together with an attractive young lawyer, Tsutsumi Sakamoto. It was when Sakamoto, his wife and boy mysteriously disappeared from the face of the earth that Shoko Egawa began her journalistic drive to know what the cult was -- and what it really did.

"They had some kind of virtual experience of dying and seeing hell," she related. "A person would be confined in a small room with a television set. For five hours, they were continually shown videos of assault and murder. The person would suddenly feel that he himself was dead, his body cool.

"Then he was sent into another room and made to sit in a zen position. Suddenly he would hear a big drum, whispering, people weeping. This is all really skillful. After that, they would believe they were able to be reborn and see the truth. It was all a ticket to a higher world."

For anyone who has seen the television pictures of the cultists roaming about in bizarre headgear, with earphones and wires attached to their temples, Ms. Egawa explains that "they thought he was sending his own brain waves to them -- to help them be in a 'higher stage.' Actually, they were $2 Walkmans."

Another superb woman analyst of Japanese society today -- and of the Aum cult -- is Sophia University Professor Kuniko Inoguchi, who says that "the strangeness of the cult is that it was really power-driven. Asahara really wanted to take over Japan. They had created a cult structure that was based exactly on the structure of the Japanese state apparatus.

"They attacked at 9 o'clock in the morning, when the major

bureaucrats of the government would be riding the subways to work. It was like a hijacking, kind of a socially engineered coup . . . a virtual coup . . . Psychologically, the whole society was hijacked."

As I reflected on the Aum phenomenon, two observations occurred to me. First, it does not surprise me that for the most part the analysts of the cult are women. I have always thought that women are mentally freer to confront the "impossible."

Second, whether they are a cult (Aum, Jonestown, the militias) or a cultlike political organization or nation (Castro's Cuba, Khomeini's Iran, Hitler's Germany), essentially all of these "entities" embody the same characteristics and characters: a "holy family," a "holy leader" whose word is godlike, a sense of being "reborn" and finally inside the aura of "supreme truth," and a giving over of one's life to the cult and to whatever the leader demands. Most often, the experiment ends in some awful form of Armageddon. Indeed, that was what Mr. Asahara was aiming at, believing dementedly that his self-induced "Doomsday" would bring him to power.

The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was raised in the Argentine Pampas, where the cowboy-gunslingers ruled with violence. He partook of none of it, being a studious and vulnerable young man. But he understood them. And he mused with me once in Buenos Aires over the question of whether

"understanding" something was not more important than "living" Somehow his words seem appropriate to this case. All but seven of the Aum leaders, including the evil Mr. Asahara, are under arrest. Several have confessed that the cult murdered the innocent Sakamoto family and buried them in three different places in Japan. After all their diabolical destructiveness, they will be gone -- but, thanks to Shoko Egawa and a few others, worst of all for them is that they will finally be understood.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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