Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Becoming a cult leader led to Shoko Asahara's attack on the Tokyo subway 29 years ago today

I just finished Netflix's six-part series How to Become a Cult Leader fittingly today on the 29th anniversary of the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack by the Aum Shinrikyo cult led by Shoko Asahara, the subject of part 5 of the fairly well-done series (I'll give it 3.5 out of 5 stars).

The series, narrated by Peter Dinklage, takes "at best a questionable approach to the material," noted the Chicago Sun-Times. Providing a "playbook" for how to start a cult, each episode focuses on one leader and the tools they used for success. 

  • Charles Manson has always been the Mt. Everest of cult leaders for me, and while I didn't learn anything from the episode about him, there is excellent footage from his story and each of the other ones highlighted. 
  • I've always been fascinated by crazy-eyed Marshall Applewhite of the Nike-shoes-wearing Heaven's Gate.
  • I learned a lot about the Jim Jones cult.
  • I didn't previously know anything about the failed-actor Jaimie Gomez's "army of servants."
  • I learned more about Sun Myung Moon and his sushi-pushing, Washington Times-owning, mass-wedding Unification Church.

On March 20, 1995, there were coordinated releases of sarin gas on five Tokyo subway trains near the Japanese parliament headquarters, which killed 13 people, severely injured about 50 more, and resulted in temporary vision problems for almost 1,000 others. 

The tragedy was found to be the work of Asahara, who was sent away as a child to a boarding school and felt he had been abandoned by his family. According to the TV series, this was the source of his pain and his desire to create a major PR plan around his life and image. That plan was to form Aum Shinrikyo in 1984 as a yoga and meditation group, all the way through its transformation into a killer cult that wanted to purify the world. His believers thought he was god and that he could levitate and read people’s minds. 

Aum gained 10,000 members in Japan and about 40,000 worldwide. Japan had become very materialistic in the 1980s and people there were vulnerable to questioning this consumerism. Asahara gave speeches at top universities about spiritual awakening, and he gained prominent professors into the cult. 

He began killing cult members if they somehow acquired bad karma. For his other followers, that was fine. He also ran for office to gain more attention and to spread his message. The mass media ended up making fun of him and his group and from then on, Asahara decided the world was corrupt and it would need to be punished. On a busy Monday morning, his canisters caused thousands of people to go into convulsions and have trouble breathing from the nerve gas. 

The subway attack was not the end of the cult's murderous rampage, as they tried to assassinate judges and government officials who opposed them, succeeded in murdering a lawyer investigating them as well as Asahara's own son, and developed bombs and biological weapons like anthrax. Asahara and other top members of the cult were eventually found guilty in what the Japanese press dubbed "the trial of the century" and he and others were executed by hanging in 2018. His ashes were given to one of his daughters in 2021.

I was still curious as to why Asahara became so murderous. The show didn't quite tackle that well enough, but it seems the combination of his obsession with Biblical prophecies of apocalypse, his immense control over his followers, and the possibility that he wanted to overthrow the Japanese government during a vulnerable time of economic turmoil may have been the perfect storm for Aum Shinrikyo.

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