May 11, 2018

A One-person Cult? A Japanese Dance Master Accused of Driving a Student to Suicide

Sharon Stern's parents believe a butoh master named Katsura Kan brainwashed and abused her
Shany Littman
May 10, 2018

A visitor must pass through two gates and by three guards at the entrance to the neighborhood where Hana and Tibor Stern live. Opposite the striking, spacious residence of these Israelis living in Hollywood, Florida, is a park with a lake. Many of the homes here have pools, and in some cases there's a yacht anchored behind the house. The Florida weather is warm, even on a late-winter day, and a particularly calm atmosphere envelops the neighborhood. But for the Sterns, the comfortable, protected bourgeois bubble that they created for themselves with hard work fell apart one night six years ago.

On April 25, 2012, Sharon Stern, their younger child ended her short life not far from her parents' home, in the area where she was born and grew up. In the two years that preceded her suicide, Sharon traveled the world, reaching as far away as possible, in every sense, from Hollywood, Florida. In those two years, her parents watched as she grew more distant from them, swept up in a swirling current whose nature they could not grasp. They saw her falling apart, physically and mentally. In the farewell note she left her family she wrote, "I'm sorry. I had to. Please tell my family I loved them. Can't survive the storm."

Since then, her parents have been fighting the person whom they allege fomented that storm in their daughter's soul, and whom they are convinced bears ultimate responsibility for her suicide. They filed a wrongful death lawsuit against him in the United States, claiming that their daughter was a victim of negligence and neglect and was denied medical treatment.

"I never believed that it was possible to lose a child to hostile outside forces like this," Tibor Stern says. "It's what's known as 'undue influence' – it could be hypnosis, brainwashing or happen through art. The result is that the family doesn't exist and your former life doesn't exist, only the guru exists. He is a supreme power. What he decides for you is what you do."

Enter the guru

Sharon, known affectionately as Sharoni, was born in Florida in 1979. Her parents, who are in their late 60s today, immigrated to the Miami area from Israel more than 40 years ago. Tibor Stern had been born in Czechoslovakia to parents who survived the Holocaust, and as a youth he came with them and his two siblings to Israel. He left in a fury after participating in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, feeling that the country was exacting too dear a price from him. He had just married Hana Kobi, from an old and well-known Tiberias family, and persuaded her that a better life awaited them in America.

When they arrived in Miami, the Israeli community there numbered just a few dozen people, the Sterns relate. Presently some 80,000 Israelis live in the greater Miami area, most of them prosperously.

The Sterns opened a diamond business and were successful at it. They had two children, Ronald and Sharon, born four years apart. By all accounts, not least the family stories and photos, Sharon was a happy, creative and vivacious girl. On her phone, her mother has videos of her doing imitations in different accents. In every social event she was the center of attention, a girl endowed with self-confidence, a sense of humor and a great love of acting and dancing. After completing Hillel Day School in Hollywood, a modern-Orthodox Jewish school, she attended the University of Miami. As such, she always remained close to her family and to her childhood friends.

Relations with her parents were close and unmarred by confrontations. From their point of view, she was perfect and obedient as a daughter, Daddy's little girl. "She was the smartest girl I knew – intelligent, strong, there were never any problems with her. She was the pillar of the group, an artist, an actress, a singer, she stood out at university. Family was always the top priority for her," her father says.

In her mid-20s, Sharon met Todd Siegel, a software engineer from a Jewish family in New York. They were married in 2007. It was a magical love story, their friends say. In 2008, Sharon decided to return to school and obtain a master's in fine arts. She chose Naropa University in Colorado, where the family has a summer house, and the couple moved there.

Naropa is a Buddhist-oriented private university that was founded in 1974 in the city of Boulder by exiled Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa. In 1988, Naropa became the first recognized Buddhist university in the world when it obtained accreditation from the higher education authorities in the United States. Advanced educational methods are employed, studies are often informal and in any case inspiring, former students say.

But Sharon's parents consider Naropa a very dangerous place. It was there that their daughter first became acquainted with butoh, a Japanese form of dance theater that developed in the late 1950s. She took part in workshops given by a butoh master from Kyoto, Katsura Kan, the stage name of Terugoshi Kotoura. Kan, now 70, is considered one of the world's leading practitioners of the dance form, and was a visiting teacher at Naropa.

Tibor Stern's anger spills over uncontrollably when he talks about Kan. "Kan had been a construction laborer in Japan, but when he came here it was a big thing. The guru had arrived," he recalls. According to Stern, after his daughter's suicide, he demanded that the university take responsibility for her death, but the institution said it could find no proof of inappropriate conduct by the teacher during the period when Sharon studied there.

Stern says he began to notice a difference in his daughter's behavior in her second year at Naropa. Kan, he says, made her cut herself off from her family so that he could consolidate his control over her: "Before that she used to speak to us a few times a day: 'Daddy, good morning, how are you, I miss home.' And suddenly, a week or two could pass in which she ignored us. She stopped being the considerate, caring girl we knew. Sometimes she would yell at us and at her husband, and she became irritable and distant. There wasn't much we could do – after all, she was already a married woman.

"We spoke to her husband and we warned him, and he said, 'Don't you trust your daughter?' He loved her very much and believed that she needed to apprentice herself to this distinguished teacher. She thought it was a spiritual dance through which you see the essence of life."

What did Katsura Kan promise her?

"He told her that she was very talented but not yet ready to dance solo, and that she would have to accompany him and learn from him. She became responsible for organizing their performances and trips internationally. I asked her if this was the goal of her life, to travel the world with him, and she said no, it was only until she could do a solo, which she could then put on her résumé. That's how she also submitted to giving him money and sex. In her diaries she calls him God."

'Heartless manipulator'

In 2010, after concluding her studies, Sharon began to accompany Kan in his worldwide trips to give performances and hold workshops. They travelled to San Francisco and to France, Japan, Russia, Brazil and other venues. In March 2011, they came to Israel, where Kan conducted a workshop and performed with local butoh artists. The visit was organized by L., an Israeli (she doesn't want her name to be used) who had studied at Naropa with Stern for two years and since returned to Israel.

L.: "I remember that they had very close relations, something with a great deal of light, happiness and movement, a kind of turn-on. Because she had an Israeli background and spoke Hebrew, we connected and truly loved each other. There was something pleasant in her voice and her body, something feminine and beautiful, with so much softness. From my point of view, one way, possibly superficial, to explain this story is the yearning for depth that many people have, especially in America and especially in Boulder."

According to L., who kept in touch with Sharon after she returned to Israel, her friend talked about butoh with great reverence and said she wanted to go deeper into it and was very impressed by Kan. "I myself wasn't wild about him in terms of the content of what he taught, it didn't seem deep to me," L. recalls. "But he gave Sharoni a platform. She created a performance of her own and asked me to dance in it. She devoted a great deal to it, but I felt that she still hadn't fully grasped its essence. The question of what Kan would think of it was always hovering above."

L. had kept in touch with Stern after returning to Israel. During the 2011 visit, L. says she had the sense that the relations between Sharon and Kan were close but at the same time tense. "She told me that it wasn't possible for them to have a relationship, 'but I always love him.'"

Katsura Kan, known cult leader, Nazi sympathizer and predator of students - דלג

After a few days in Thailand, Kan and Stern went to Indonesia, followed by Japan. Her parents say that Kan realized very quickly that her mental state had deteriorated and that he could not cope with it. "He saw that she was suffering mentally," says Stern, "so he tried to send her back, and accused us of sending him a sick woman."

In the civil suit against Kan, Sharon's parents accuse him of neglecting their daughter, and of preventing her from receiving treatment. The email correspondence between Kan and Sharon shows a tormented, unstable relationship – but also one with its own internal codes that weren't always fully understood by outside observers. Sharon's parents see the relationship as one big manipulation whose only purpose was exploitation.

"He drove her crazy, because she saw him as a god," Tibor Stern explains. "When she was already in love with him, as a person or as a guru, he abused her physically, financially and mentally. She asked him why he was also with other girls, and he said he didn't love anyone, for 'my truth is that I love myself.' On the one hand, he wrote her, 'we are long life partners for sure' and that he was the only thing she had in her life, and on the other hand he suddenly stopped answering emails. She wrote him that she wanted to die, and he asked her to send him money via a Kyoto bank."

Darkness and eroticism

It's not only Kan that the Sterns blame – they also accuse butoh itself. In their lawsuit they describe butoh as a collection of actions created to explore the taboos of pedophilia and homosexuality. "Butoh is a dance of pain, suffering and death," Tibor Stern asserts repeatedly. "The goal is to lose your personality and your authenticity." The website Families Against Cult Teachings, which Hana and Tibor Stern established, contains many photographs of Katsura Kan in performance, his body smeared in white, making seemingly threatening faces. But dancers who do butoh completely reject the idea that it is a cult or a dangerous art.

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