Who Is Shoko Asahara From Netflix’s How to Become a Cult Leader?

Depicted in Netflix's How to Be a Cult Leader, here's the full story of Shoko Asahara and his cult Aum Shinrikyo.

How to Become A Cult Leader. Shoko Asahara from episode 101 of How to Become A Cult Leader.
Photo: Netflix

This article contains spoilers for HOW TO BECOME A CULT LEADER episode 5.

How to Become a Cult Leader provides a terse, yet encouraging, look at some of the history’s most notorious cult leaders across history. Narrated by Peter Dinklage, the Netflix series offers “tips” on how to break into this growing field, offering six half-hour episodes of cautionary tales.

Episode 5 focuses on Shoko Asahara, leader of the meditation and yoga cult Aum Shinrikyo. On March 20, 1995, the group released plastic bags containing homemade sarin, a toxic nerve gas, on five subway lines of the Tokyo Metro during rush-hour. The gas killed 13 people and injured over 6,000. As the documentary points out, a second but failed attempt was made on the subways using Zyklon B, hydrogen cyanide. These weren’t the first casualties of the sect’s run.

Reverend Shoko Asahara was born Chizuo Matsumoto on March 2, 1955, in Japan’s Kumamoto Prefecture. He came from a poor family, was blind in one eye, extremely shortsighted in the other, and was abandoned in a school for the disabled. He received acupuncture and herbalist training. According to How to Become a Cult Leader, Asahara spent a decade cultivating an image as a spiritual guru TV personality, and owner of a popular low price Bento box franchise, before gaining cult renown.

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Beginning as a 15-person meditation group called Aum Shinsen no Kai in 1984, Asahara founded Aum Shinrikyo in 1987. The teachings synthesized an amalgam of Buddhist and Hindu theology around the practice of yoga. 

“Holy Master Asahara” wrote the book Esotheric Methods of the Developing of Supernatural Abilities. He espoused the benefits of meditation, explored the phenomenon of levitation, and explained the structure of the main channels of energy in the human body: Shaktipat is the transmission of energy from guru to practitioner. Followers believe it produces a very high elevation of the energy and spiritual level.

The documentary claims Asahara’s disciples thought he was a superhero, the “wisest of wise men, more like a god or something transcendent.” His bathwater was considered sacred. According to How to Become a Cult Leader, the group accumulated 10,000 members in Japan in its first year, and 40,000 worldwide. Many followers lived at a commune-like complex at the foot of Mount Fuji.

Aum Shinrikyo targeted universities, recruiting an attractive and educated young following with money. This included the scientist Hideo Murai, who developed an “electrode helmet” designed to transmit Asahara’s thoughts directly to the disciple; and chemist Masami Tsuchiya, who would ultimately develop sprayable sarin gas.

The organization invested in small retail outlets, and a personal computer assembly factory. They produced books, videos, anime, and magazines, where adherents placed endorsement ads attesting to the attainability of levitation and telepathy.

Aum Shinrikyo was a very popular sect, receiving the blessing of the Dalai Lama. But when parents complained about kidnapping, Asahara upgraded his media presence, appearing on talk shows assuring the world his group was safe.

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Accusations of mind control began after reports came out about 10-day “madness” camps, grueling meditation sessions, sleep deprivation, self-starvation, and drugging. Some acolytes were zapped with electrodes to increase alpha waves, or as the documentary calls it: shock treatment.

In 1988, a practitioner died after being immersed in cold water to remedy a bad reaction. Asahara ordered his followers to destroy the body, telling them the dead man wasn’t ready to achieve enlightenment, and was reincarnated to begin his spiritual cycle anew. In 1989, one of his followers threatened exposure, and was killed. According to the documentary, Asahara used the death as a teachable moment, branding the fallen believer an “enemy of the truth.” It was the same year the growing cult was granted legal recognition as a religious corporation. It was time to enter politics.

Asahara and 24 other Aum Shinrikyo members ran for election to the Diet, Japan’s parliament, as The Truth Party in 1989-90. Their platform was unique, promoting the group’s beliefs. In his book Disaster Approaches the Land of the Rising Sun, Asahara predicted Armageddon would come to Japan in a gas cloud from the U.S., which was ruled by Freemasons. He also claimed to travel forward in time to 2006, hearing first-hand accounts of World War III. The Truth Party lost in a landslide.

According to the documentary, Asahara proclaimed “the world has rejected us, and needs to be punished,” claiming the election was stolen by an international conspiracy. Asahara tasked his followers with procuring nuclear weapons, tanks, guns, Ebola and anthrax.

By 1994, Aum claimed 36 Japanese branches with 10,000 members, plus international offices. The movement’s midtown Manhattan office offered yogic training, and videotapes of lectures. The cult had six offices in Russia, reportedly with somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 followers. Aum also broadcast an hourlong program on Russian radio. Then the group perpetuated the deadliest attack on Japanese soil since the 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The March 1995 subway attack killed 13 people, and sickened more than 1,000. Another 4,000 people showed up at hospitals for treatment of anxiety and trauma. Asahara was arrested after being found hiding in a meditation tank. Police also found drug labs on the premises. Asahara pleaded not guilty, and never testified. The trial went on for eight years before he was convicted on 13 charges, including the 1989 assassination of an anti-cult lawyer.

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The cult was also responsible for over 40 deaths, and thousands of injuries during the testing of nerve agents like VX and sarin from 1990 to 2000. This includes a 1994 sarin attack in Matsumoto, Japan, in an attempt to kill three judges set to rule on the sect. Aum used a refrigerator truck to release the gas, and wind dispersed it in a residential neighborhood. The attack failed but killed eight and injured hundreds.

Asahara was sentenced to hang in 2004. The sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2006. His execution was postponed in 2012, following the arrests of other cult members. Asahara was executed in July 2018, along with Tomomasa Nakagawa, Kiyohide Hayakawa, Yoshihiro Inoue, Masami Tsuchiya, and Seiichi Endo. Aum Shinrikyo’s offshoots continue under different names, and mission statements, to this day.

How to Become a Cult Leader can be streamed on Netflix.