A man in Tokyo’s Machida city often wondered what happened to the woman who lived next door. She appeared happily engaged, was amiable and polite--and then abruptly disappeared with her “fiancé” on Dec. 28, 2010.
“There is a possibility that the two left the apartment because they became too friendly with us,” the 49-year-old man said.
Other neighbors and colleagues describe the same woman as well-mannered, fashionable and sociable, sometimes drinking alcohol but never to excess. They didn’t know she was Naoko Kikuchi, a former member of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult accused of involvement in one of the nation’s most notorious postwar crimes.
Kikuchi, 40, was arrested on June 3 on suspicion of murder and other charges related to the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 13 people and sickened more than 6,000.
Her lawyer, Taro Takimoto, says she is fully cooperating with the police, and may provide further details about the cult that terrorized Japan with a prolonged crime spree in the 1980s and 1990s.
Takimoto, who has supported defectors from the Aum Shinrikyo cult, met Kikuchi at the Tokyo Wangan Police Station in Koto Ward on June 4.
According to Takimoto, Kikuchi said: “I do not believe (Aum Shinrikyo cult leader Shoko) Asahara anymore. I am talking about everything to police honestly. I am sorry for fleeing for a long period.”
Those who knew Kikuchi are now describing phases of the fugitive’s 17 years on the run.
Even two days before her arrest, Kikuchi was seemingly living a normal life in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture.
On June 1, she visited a beauty salon in the city wearing a pale pink jacket and trousers.
According to a 33-year-old male hairdresser at the salon, Kikuchi appeared to have recently dyed her hair on her own and asked him to shorten her hair by about 2 centimeters.
But she also instructed him to leave her bangs long enough to reach her eyebrows.
Using a 30-percent discount ticket, she paid 3,700 yen (about $46), and declined a shampoo, saving her an additional 500 yen. When she last visited the beauty salon in July 2011, she used a 50-percent discount ticket to pay 2,500 yen, according to the hairdresser.
On the beauty salon’s records, Kikuchi wrote her alias of Chizuko Sakurai, her address in Midori Ward’s Shiroyama district of Sagamihara, and her occupation of “part-timer.” She did not include her date of birth.
“Her face was skinnier than that of the photo on the wanted list. So I did not know at all that she was Kikuchi,” the hairdresser said.
In February this year, Kikuchi attended a party at a Japanese-style “izakaya” pub in front of JR Hashimoto Station in Sagamihara with female colleagues of her company, which provides nursing-care services.
According to a colleague at the party, held from 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., Kikuchi drank beer and then switched to cocktails. However, she did not become drunk.
The colleague said she was once invited to Kikuchi’s house, a run-down structure that looked nearly unlivable. But inside, a carpet covered the floor and the room had been beautifully renovated. Kikuchi told her colleague that her housemate, Hiroto Takahashi, 41, really likes old houses, and that she was satisfied with her living conditions.
The 37-year-old wife of the president of the nursing-care company also visited Kikuchi’s house, where they talked about the events of the day while eating cake and drinking tea.
According to the wife, the home was clean, and Kikuchi kept killifish in an aquarium as well as a brown rabbit.
After the visit, Kikuchi sometimes e-mailed the president’s wife, seeking advice.
Before coming to Sagamihara in December 2010, Kikuchi and Takahashi moved into an apartment in Machida in western Tokyo. They visited their 49-year-old neighbor with a box of cake as a greeting present.
At that time, Takahashi called himself “Jin,” his parent’s former family name. Kikuchi was wearing fashionable red glasses, according to the neighbor.
The neighbor asked Kikuchi, “Are you his wife?” She replied, “We have not married yet.”
The neighbor and his partner often visited a nearby yakitori (char-broiled chicken) pub with Takahashi and Kikuchi. He said he was impressed when Kikuchi split up the food in even portions for the four people and returned the empty dishes.
A woman in the 60s and her daughter in Machida also said they drank with Kikuchi. According to the woman, Kikuchi told the daughter, who cannot drink alcohol, “You can order oolong tea.”
After the drinking session ended, Kikuchi saw off the mother and daughter in front of the pub, waving her hand.
But on Dec. 28, 2010, everything on the balcony of the apartment in Machida was gone. Takahashi and Kikuchi also disappeared.
“They were a loving couple,” the 49-year-old neighbor said. “They looked happy.”
According to a local real estate company, the apartment had two rooms and a dining-kitchen area. The rent was 77,000 yen a month, including management fees.
Takahashi started living in the apartment in March 2007 under the name of Hiroto Jin. The two were never late in their rent payments.
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