News

The Corpse And The Cult

The guests in room 1272 gave workers at Marroad International Hotel near Tokyo the creeps. They refused maid service, hid for months like recluses and ignored management's polite requests to vacate. When police were finally called in on Nov. 11, they found a bathrobe-clad corpse lying on a bed in candlelight--attended by two members of a cult called Life Space. "Don't touch," one of them warned, "he's still alive." The stench of rancid flesh argued otherwise; investigators who removed the withered body described it as "mummified." Coroners concluded that the elderly man had been dead for as long as four months before police raided the room.

The "mummy" was quickly identified as Shinichi Kobayashi, a longtime Life Space follower. But key details of his death remain a mystery. Last June the 66-year-old engraver slipped in the bathroom in his Osaka residence and was knocked unconscious. At the hospital, doctors identified a life-threatening cerebral hemorrhage. Then, eight days after his accident, Kobayashi's 31-year-old son Kenji and two fellow cult members removed him from the Osaka facility against doctors' orders and took him to the Marroad. There the Life Space guru, 61-year-old Koji Takahashi, began treating Kobayashi with gentle touches called "shakty pats." Police say the old man died soon thereafter, but the Life Space leader claims his patient was alive until the coroner performed the autopsy. "I'm not as crazy as someone who would treat a dead man," Takahashi told NEWSWEEK during a rambling, three-hour interview. "Do you think I'm that crazy?"

Police in Japan don't buy the guru's explanation. Last week, they raided four Life Space facilities looking for the proof they need to prosecute group leaders for Kobayashi's death. They netted material that could implicate the guru directly. The gold nugget: a five-volume, 2,000-page account, authored by cult members under Takahashi's direction, of the guru's lengthy effort to help Kenji "revitalize" his father. Entitled "Father and Son's Bonds Are Connected at Once When the Son Nurses the Father," the series--a copy of which NEWSWEEK has obtained--rejects Japanese medicine, presents some of Takahashi's teachings and chronicles Takahashi's campaign to revive a man who, midway into volume 1, is clearly already dead. His "treatment" is administered by touching palms on the patient's head and body. The technique is borrowed from Indian guru Sai Baba, a healer whom Takahashi claims to have followed for 6,000 years through countless reincarnations.

Born at the outbreak of World War II, Takahashi is a chubby man with a willowy gray beard who lost vision in his right eye in an air-gun accident at 14. He was an accountant until he formed Life Space and began offering self-enlightenment seminars in 1983--charging participants up to $5,000 per course. These programs, in which participants role-played as beggars or blind people to experience different perspectives, attracted thousands, and over time Takahashi developed a core group of about 200 followers, including refugees from Japan's high-stress corporations and universities.

Written to vindicate the group in Kobayashi's death, the books appear to accomplish just the opposite. They show how the elderly man's son, acting largely at the urging of his guru, ushered an invalid away from quality medical care and made him, in effect, a cult guinea pig. In volume 1, for example, the book claims that the elder Kobayashi's chief doctor "understood, but could not consent to" Kenji's request to take him away--a refusal the cult ignored when it whisked the semiconscious man from the hospital in a wheelchair on July 2. Just six days later, after his first shakty pat therapy, a section by Kenji describes Kobayashi's alarming deterioration, by then probably postmortem. "My father looks like a decomposed body," Kenji observes. "He is not breathing, he has no pulse, the stench... is strong and his face is green."

For the next four months, entries show the guru maintains that the old man's rotting body is alive--as evidence to the contrary mounts. When assistants notice "three white insects" near the patient's nostrils on July 27, he identifies these bugs as "ascetic tics" that swarm around holy men on the shore of India's Ganges River. "When people die," he adds, "the insects they attract are yellow." On Sept. 23 the guru examines his patient, then reasons: "His hair does not come off, even if you pull. When people die, the hair drops off in three days." On Oct. 9 he asks: "Did you check his pulse?" "Yes," replies a follower, "but today we can't find it." To which the guru retorts: "It is something an amateur cannot recognize." The book's grisliest pages appear in volumes 2 and 4, where color photographs taken on Oct. 7 show close-ups of the body. Volume 5 ends on Oct. 28, two weeks before the police raid on the hotel room. The final sentence, an observation of a cult volunteer, exclaims: "Wow! Shinichi is smiling."

A concluding volume, which the group says is due out soon, will explain the cult's version of events through the autopsy. Police aren't waiting around. Investigators say they are rapidly amassing evidence against the Life Space guru and his followers. In Kobayashi's case, possible charges range from "abandonment of a corpse," a relatively minor offense, to "abandonment resulting in death," or even murder, according to Japanese legal experts. Last week's raids also turned up nine children between the ages of 9 and 17 who, authorities say, were living unsupervised in Life Space apartments. The children have been put in temporary custody at a child-welfare center. "We are not sure if we should call this maltreatment or neglect or abuse," says a center official.

Takahashi remains in a beachfront hotel suite near Tokyo, but Life Space is already losing in the courts. Last month an elderly couple on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, successfully petitioned for custody of their 6-year-old granddaughter, a girl who had been left by her parents, both Life Space members, to live largely unsupervised with other "cult kids." "The girl was living in a hotel room with other children," says Shinya Uchida, a lawyer for the grandparents. "They were given a thousand yen [$10] a day to get their own food." The grandparents located the girl after she phoned them. Sadly, the elder Kobayashi was too frail to sound a similar alarm before he became his own cult's most gruesome experiment.