The fifth episode, unlike the last four, is more about how a cult leader can cultivate a positive image of themselves among their followers. The leader tries too hard to build such an image because that is the only way to remain in power and relevant. How to Become a Cult Leader now discusses Shoko Asahara, the man who led the deadly cult of Aum Shinrikyo. Why did we call it deadly? Read to the end of the article to understand how the man went from a cult leader to someone willing to do anything to keep his image alive.
The episode begins with the narrator and experts talking about how Shoko Asahara, before he chose to be a cult leader, was a television personality, the owner of a bento box franchise, and had the inherent quality of being good at publicizing himself. Every cult leader out there is great at selling themselves and their ideas so that people believe in their final goal.
Shoko Asahara did something similar in Japan, what Jim Jones did in the USA. Rich people were hyper-materialistic and sought ways to engage with their spiritual sides. Shoko Asahara was one of the cult leaders in Japan who took advantage of the rampant aimlessness of the youth and used it to further his goals. This is one of the many acts carried out by the so-called ‘spiritual leaders’ all over the world. They tap into one point of weakness and use it to their benefit. They soon turn these people into loyal subjects.
Experts state that Shoko Asahara was born into a poor family. He was blind in one eye and had poor vision in the other. His feeling of abandonment began right from his school days. This could be the reason behind Shoko Asahara wanting to build an image so that there would be people relying on him and wanting him to provide answers to many of the existential questions. He began his meditation and yoga group in 1984, but there is not much information about what drew people to his cult. There is only mention of his claiming to purify the whole world and that he could read minds. There were also images being circulated of his ability to levitate. People, in general, exclusively expect out-of-the-box qualities in their spiritual leadership, which was enough reason for them to join their group and continue being a part of it.
The enthusiasm for Shoko Asahara was such that people obsessed over the water he bathed in, the bed he slept on, and the mat he sat on. Such a kind of craze only makes sense if the man has managed to convey his ideas convincingly to the existing members and the possible recruits, which include many educated men and women carried away by the enigma of the group and their leader. It is not hard to believe people with the highest education qualifications admired and appreciated what Shoko Asahara and his group, Aum Shinrikyo, were teaching. There were plenty of youth from a scientific background who willingly gave up on their life of logical reasoning to believe in a man who claimed to provide everything they asked for through yoga and meditation. One of the members of Aum Shinrikyo was a scientist who was entranced by Shoko’s vision, joined the group, and became one of his loyal members.
The experts in the documentary were quick to point out that the members of Aum Shinrikyo exponentially grew from 10,000 to 40,000 worldwide, and that was only possible because of the controlled image building the group was into, and there were loyal group members that did not speak about the happenings of the commune. Shoko managed to recruit many high-profile members into his group, which could mean the group would get far more attention than before. Shoko’s pious image was the reason why many were willing to believe his words and the power he believed he could transmit power through his mind to his followers. His meeting with the Dalai Lama also cemented his image in the country as the man who knows it all.
The controlled imagery soon got out of hand when people came out and spoke against Aum Shinrikyo. The main man’s only solution to stop this from happening was to kill the people. One of them happened to be Shuji Taguchi, who was unfortunately killed by Shoko Asahara, but there was never any proof gathered against Shoko or his group. Shoko was also instrumental in killing lawyer Tsutsui Sakamoto, who was building a strong case against him. The way Tsutsui Sakamoto was eliminated showcases the arrogance with which Shoko ran his group, and there is a high chance he convinced himself and his group that Aum Shinrikyo was invincible.
The reason behind Shoko’s not being convicted so far was Japan’s law that separated the state from religious bodies, where questioning religious leaders would often be interpreted as snatching away their freedom to express their faith. No government investigation agency was willing to question him because of his right to run a religious organization.
The exploitation of this constitutional loophole is one of the many things that cults are notorious for. This is the only way they can sustain themselves for a long time. Shoko Asahara went one step further and announced his candidacy in the upcoming local elections in the country in the hope of becoming a leader with a spiritual background. It is easy to understand that Shoko wanted to gain political power and probably wanted to expand his control over the people. Addiction to power is a common trait found in cult leaders. Unfortunately, people hardly voted for him, even though Aum Shinrikyo ran a rather different kind of election campaign. Maybe the general population saw through their rubbish and wanted some real leaders in power. The media and the populace, in general, made fun of them, and it makes sense to do that because the freedom allotted allows them to question the intentions of the group. Something that Aum Shinrikyo is unaware of because their system mirrors dictatorship.
Shoko Asahara did not take the defeat lightly, as the cult began speaking up against everyone else who did not vote for them and branded them as supporters of Freemasons and Zionists. This is just the atypical nature of a cult leader who is rejected by the masses, and they feel the need to prove themselves right. This time Shoko and his group were one step ahead and gassed the Tokyo subway using sarin nerve gas. To him, it was just revenge on people, but for the world, it was an act of terrorism because 14 people died in one of the deadliest attacks on Japanese soil. The man was engulfed in his image so much that he forgot that he was not above the law.
His power and the controlled image he built of himself did not come to his rescue or help in evading his capture because 13 followers, including Shoko Asahara, were eventually accused of a crime of heinous nature, and all of them were executed in the year 2008. The persona he built for himself led to his downfall. Shoko Asahara himself is to blame for the collapse of his image, just like other leaders mentioned in the documentary.