How to Become a Cult Leader (2023) s01e05 Episode Script

Control Your Image

[narrator] Look at all you've built.
You've handcrafted a utopia
and groomed obedient souls
for a journey to the afterlife.
But instead of lurking
on the fringes of society,
wouldn't you rather
be treated like a star?
Cult leaders want to let the world know,
"Look how great we are."
They try to keep a good face to the public
even though all kinds of horrible
and often criminal things are going on.
[narrator] Nobody worked harder
or more creatively
at this task than Shoko Asahara,
leader of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo.
[speaks Japanese]
[narrator] Before he became infamous
for executing a poison gas attack
on the Tokyo subway,
Asahara spent a decade
cultivating a reputation
as a spiritual guru,
TV personality,
and owner of a popular
low-price bento box franchise.
He was quite active
in proselytizing and publicizing himself.
Look, he's levitating!
Society in general,
we never thought
Aum is that violent group.
We had no idea.
[narrator] Follow the master's methods
and learn how much you can get away with
with the right PR plan.
Ready for your close-up?
Shoko Asahara founded
Aum Shinrikyo in 1984
as a yoga and meditation group.
He exuded kindness
and a paternal power. And, well
[narrator] Years later,
he turned Aum into a deadly cult
whose members would give their own lives,
and countless others, to purify the world.
Before you learn
the secrets of his success,
let's get up to speed on the guru himself.
Asahara was born in 1955
in the southern island of Japan in Kyushu
from a very poor family.
[Erica] He was almost blind in one eye
and only had short sight on the other one.
So from very early on,
he was sent to a special boarding school
for students with disabilities.
[Ian] Asahara felt
he'd been abandoned by his family.
This being sent away
created a sense of resentment
and abandonment in him.
[Ian] He trained as an acupuncturist
and as an herbalist.
He was interested in Tibetan Buddhism.
[Ian] He went to India
and did some meditating
and so on in the Himalayas.
And then it developed more into this idea
of finding a new path to save the world
and creating a kind of very utopian view
of a new world.
His believers thought of Shoko Asahara
as the absolute wisest of wise men.
Actually, not even a man, more like a god,
or something transcendent like that.
He was portrayed
in some magazines as able to levitate.
[Erica] This was one
of his supposed powers.
The other one was the ability
to read people's minds.
His bathwater was sacred
because it'd been in touch with his body.
[Ian] The same was true of his blood.
[narrator] Within a decade
of its founding,
Aum had 10,000 members in Japan
and an estimated 40,000 worldwide,
with Asahara himself
becoming a minor celebrity,
and that was no accident.
If you want to burnish
your own image in anti-cult world,
start where Asahara did
and prepare to reap the rewards.
[narrator] As a cult leader,
your followers
aren't just the human throne
upon which you sit,
they're your ambassadors.
Having elite or appealing followers
is helpful to a cult and the cult leader
because it provides
a marketing opportunity.
It presents the cult
as something that is safe and legitimate
and something people
would wanna be part of.
[narrator] Asahara wasn't the only one
to know the value of an A-list crew.
Keith Raniere of NXIVM
offered special incentives to celebrities
to lure them into his group,
including actress Allison Mack,
who ultimately received jail time
for her role
in the cult's sex trafficking operation.
After the Symbionese Liberation Army
kidnapped and brainwashed
heiress Patty Hearst,
she became the group's public face
and helped them rob a bank.
While Anne Hamilton-Byrne's cult,
known as The Family,
took off after she enlisted
respected physicist Raynor Johnson
to help her recruit
among Australian high society.
When it came to drawing elite followers,
Asahara had the right message
at the right time.
[Ian] Asahara comes out of the 1980s.
Japan has become very materialistic.
[reporter] The Japanese are in a hurry
to spend their money.
[Ian] They're economically rich,
but is it really satisfying?
Some of the members
came from top university,
so highly educated young people.
Some of them
were quite talented at computing.
[Erica] Aum offered something
for young people
who didn't fit in this high-speed,
consumerist society.
Young people tend to need
guidance in their life, right?
[Atsushi] "Who I am?" You know?
Those basic questions about themselves.
Aum Shinrikyo gave the answer.
[narrator] Targeting new disciples,
Asahara gives speeches
at Japan's top universities,
where he delivers his promise
of a simpler, more meaningful life,
along with some alluring assistance.
Before long, Asahara hooks a prize,
Hideo Murai,
a brilliant scientist
who becomes entranced
by Asahara's spiritual vision
as well as by the guru's promise
that everyone who follows him
will gain supernatural powers.
Soon Murai renounces the outside world
and moves in to a tiny cell
to focus on his meditation.
Asahara takes full advantage
of his new disciple,
harnessing Murai's high-tech background
to build shortcuts to enlightenment
including an electrode helmet
that supposedly helps Asahara
transmit his brain waves
directly to followers.
Murai's scientific gifts
help Asahara dream bigger
and will ultimately fuel the guru's
terrifying visions for the future.
Thanks to Asahara's top-flight recruiting,
Aum membership grew from 35 in 1986
to 1,300 just one year later.
But high-profile followers
can lead to high-profile attention.
How do you make sure
people don't get the wrong idea
about you and your circle?
To lead a spiritual movement,
you can't just talk
about achieving perfection,
you have to show it in action.
It's very important to convince people
there is something sacred about you,
about your character.
[Lola] There's something pure about you.
[narrator] Asahara did his part
by crafting a pious image.
It was really important to Asahara
to be seen as a proper religious leader.
[narrator] He even sought out and received
the blessing of the Dalai Lama himself.
While Asahara was projecting
his own purity to the outside world,
he demanded even more
from his followers in private.
When they join,
one of the first things
they were given to do
were ascetic training by sitting for hours
or being confined in dark spaces
or hanging upside down.
They would strive to do more practice
to become closer to Asahara.
They said, "He wants us to be enlightened,
and therefore to be saved,
but he has to be harsh."
[narrator] Asahara stages his
extreme spiritual boot camp
at the group's headquarters
at the base of Mount Fuji.
The program,
extended meditation
sleep deprivation
[rooster crowing]
and electroshock therapy.
[narrator] Before long,
things get out of control.
Follower Majima Teruyuki
begins showing signs of distress.
[screaming and grunting]
[narrator] To calm him down,
Asahara orders disciples
to douse Teruyuki with cold water.
It doesn't help.
Majima goes into cardiac arrest and dies.
Asahara and his inner circle
decide on their next move,
protect the group at all costs.
Asahara has them destroy the body.
But despite a successful cover-up,
it creates a new dilemma within the group.
Asahara has ordered somebody
to do this practice
in order to become
more spiritually advanced.
This person has died
because of this practice.
[Ian] What do you do?
It's gonna make Asahara
look like he's failed.
[narrator] But as the playbook tells us,
necessity is the mother of reinvention.
[Ian] So a different type
of explanation emerges.
It was the idea that Majima
could not attain enlightenment
and the truth in this body.
He wasn't quite ready for it,
therefore he had to die
in order to re-enter
the cycle of reincarnation and try again.
At least he died
under the supervision of the guru,
and that'll help him
to the next spiritual level.
[narrator] Do the devoted members
accept Asahara's reasoning?
Of course they do.
But there is one notable exception.
A few months later,
one of the people who was involved
in that cover-up has a crisis.
He tells those around him,
"I'm going to go to the police."
[narrator] That would be inconvenient.
How do you make sure a disciple
doesn't put your program in jeopardy?
But it is true, Thomas.
The Lord has risen.
I will not believe.
[narrator] Nothing is more dangerous
to you as a cult leader
than people who know your secrets.
People who've been on the inside
are the ultimate threat.
It just takes one person
to start spreading doubt,
and doubt is the biggest nightmare
for a cult leader.
[narrator] So that's why you need to stop
potential leakers in their tracks
like wavering Aum member Shuji Taguchi.
[Erica] Taguchi wanted to tell police
about the accidental death
and the hiding of the corpse.
"If Taguchi leaves and goes to the police
and denounces Aum,
it will damage the movement
and it will prevent us
from saving the world."
[narrator] When Asahara learns
of the young man's intentions,
he has a few of his true believers
help "clear" Taguchi's mind.
[narrator] But it's not enough
to do the trick.
Seeing no other path,
Asahara orders Taguchi killed.
Then his inner circle does something
they're getting good at,
disposing of their victims.
Meanwhile, Asahara uses Taguchi's death
for another teachable moment.
Asahara orders Taguchi's death
as a way of saving him,
from the perspective of Aum.
[narrator] Need more explanation?
All right then.
In Buddhism, every action someone takes,
good or bad, affects their karma.
Do bad things
and your bad karma will stay with you,
come back at you
and affect what you become
in your next life.
Asahara convinced his followers
that they were doing good
and Taguchi wanted to hurt them
by spilling their secrets to the cops.
This would give him bad karma.
Therefore, Asahara was protecting Taguchi
from getting bad karma
by killing him.
And ultimately
we get to the point
where anybody who stands against Aum,
they become known as "shinri no teki,"
literally means "enemies of the truth."
It is a way
that Asahara legitimated murder.
[narrator] For Asahara's followers,
that was good enough.
Of course, the larger public
can be less understanding
when it comes to homicide.
Luckily, the playbook offers a way
to regain control of your reputation,
with a smile.
The media is like a dog.
Neglected, it sniffs around
and drags out your unmentionables.
it can be a cult leader's best friend.
Bark like a dog.
Groups like Aum,
they definitely need the media
to have a platform
to express their doctrine.
[Erica] At the same time,
the media can be their first enemies.
They can be the one
criticizing them and attacking them.
[narrator] All the savviest gurus
knew how to play this game.
Sun Myung Moon set himself up
to get good headlines by purchasing
the long-standing news service
United Press International
and starting the influential paper,
The Washington Times.
Jim Jones's Peoples Temple
had a whole PR department
to help control the leader's public image.
Turns out, they needed it.
While Heaven's Gate tried to control
media coverage of their mass suicide
by sending out press releases
timed to coincide
with the discovery of members' bodies.
[narrator] Shoko Asahara also attempted
to bring the media to heel,
especially as rumors
about his less savory practices
began seeping out.
You start to see parents of young people
who've left their families to join Aum
campaigning against Aum saying,
"You've kidnapped our kids."
More external criticism started.
- Look
- [reporter] Pretty obvious, isn't it?
It was important
for the organization to respond to it.
[narrator] Asahara's first step,
name an official spokesman.
They do not collect true
or precise information.
[narrator] Step two,
get himself into the spotlight.
They try to intensify
Asahara's presence in the media.
- [TV host 1] Is that not good, by the way?
- [Asahara] I used to like Akiyoshi-kun.
He was also quite funny and entertaining.
[TV host 2] So you can float
for two or three days?
[Asahara] That's what scripture says,
but it's not the case for me.
They invited the guru into a talk show.
"Maybe they're not so bad then."
"They're so strange. Maybe they are safe."
[narrator] Asahara gave regular interviews
in yoga and meditation magazines,
not to mention the cartoons.
They made various manga of his teachings.
[Ian] They started making anime as well,
which depicted Asahara
as this great guru figure
floating around
doing levitation and so on.
[narrator] Amazingly,
these films weren't Aum's biggest
cultural contribution to their time.
That would be this little earworm.
Master, Master
Master, Master, Master
Master Asahara
[narrator] Sonshi Ma-Chi,
or "Guru's March,"
gained so much mainstream popularity
that children all over Japan
would reportedly sing it in school.
Asahara also wrote a love song
to sarin nerve gas.
That didn't quite catch on.
They want to be noticed.
They want to attract attention.
[narrator] Unfortunately,
getting into the spotlight
also brings out the haters,
like Tsutsumi Sakamoto.
Sakamoto is an anti-cult lawyer
who's building a case
against Aum Shinrikyo.
During an interview on a Tokyo news show,
Sakamoto claims he's had tests run
on Shoko Asahara's blood
that disprove the guru's claims
that it has supernatural properties.
Sakamoto says he's going to release
the results publicly.
Fearing retribution from the guru,
an employee at the TV station
tips off Aum leadership,
who kill the story.
Soon after,
Asahara sends his followers
to Sakamoto's apartment.
Six men, led by Hideo Murai, enter
and attack Sakamoto,
his wife, and his baby son,
injecting them
with fatal doses of potassium chloride.
They smuggle out the bodies,
hide the remains in metal drums,
bury them in different places
across the country,
and drop the murder weapons in the ocean.
Aware that Sakamoto
had been targeting Aum,
police immediately suspect
the cult's involvement
but their investigation hits a wall.
In Japan, there is very strict separation
of religion and state in the Constitution.
You know, the police,
they are very hesitant
to investigate in any religious group.
Whenever the police did come to Aum,
which they did from time to time
because of complaints,
he would start immediately talking about,
"You're infringing
our religious freedoms."
[narrator] That's right.
The police were afraid of bad press too.
Now that you've mastered
media relations in all its forms,
your path to acceptability
is well in sight.
Time to follow the playbook
and turn all this good will
into something even more useful.
Politics, like leading a cult,
isn't always held in the highest regard.
[announcer] Deep fried butter on a stick.
Republicans who are running for president
tried to butter up the crowd.
[narrator] But show me a better way
to prove that you're legit.
[Diane] Cult leaders are addicted
to power. They can't get enough.
So that's why often times
they get involved in politics.
Cult leaders wanna have control,
so if they run for office
or get elected
to various boards or whatever,
that's to their advantage
because they can start to control
the outside community.
[narrator] All the savviest gurus
knew how to play this game.
After Jim Jones's support
helped George Moscone
become mayor of San Francisco,
he got himself appointed
to the city housing commission,
which expanded
his local power base and influence.
Bhagwan Rajneesh worked the system
by turning his cult's commune
into an incorporated city.
It thrived
until his followers started trying to kill
local government officials.
While fundamentalist
Mormon leader Warren Jeffs
had so much power in his hometown
that he hand-picked the city manager,
the police chief, and the mayor.
By getting into politics,
Shoko Asahara was seeking
more than just power.
He wanted respect.
He was ambitious
as anybody who thinks they're the messiah
is likely to be ambitious.
[Ian] He had visions for himself
as doing something special.
He's got a message for the world.
[Asahara] If this is being used
in the correct way, there is no issue.
He thought, "I'm gonna get
more public coverage in an election."
"We're gonna be covered by the media.
They're gonna listen to our message."
[narrator] Eighteen months
before Japan's national elections,
Asahara founds a political party.
He and 25 other high-ranking Aum members
run as candidates for Parliament.
Their political campaign was unique.
The election campaign
was a kind of parody
of Japanese elections.
They showed a very strange dance
and music with some elephant masks
and it's just crazy.
[narrator] As for their platform,
it's what you might expect.
It seemed to be mostly about
the value of yoga and meditation
and telling people
the world was going to end
unless they converted
and joined Aum Shinrikyo.
[narrator] Believe it or not,
Aum lost in a landslide.
Asahara got less than 2,000 votes,
so he was a major failure.
It was meant to heighten their profile,
but of course what happened
was the mass media made fun of them.
Now the election's over, it's over, right?
It's not like I can say whatever I want
[narrator] Asahara wasn't going
to just take the L lying down.
It was from that point onwards
that we really see Asahara
in his sermons to his followers saying,
"The world has rejected us."
"It doesn't deserve to survive.
It needs to be punished."
[narrator] Indeed.
Asahara was about to uncover
a tactic hidden deep inside the playbook
that's favored by cult leaders
with their backs against the wall.
If you can't join them,
beat them.
Keep away from me.
I hate you, you hear me? I hate you.
When you try everything
to enhance your image,
and nothing seems to work,
you could decide to give up.
Maybe pursue a new line of work.
After getting crushed
in the Japanese election,
Shoko Asahara chose a different approach.
Asahara was not someone
very good in dealing with failure,
so in a sense,
the defeat was a turning point
in the organization.
[narrator] First, Asahara creates
a new narrative to explain his defeat.
He claims the election was stolen
by a massive international conspiracy
dedicated to suppressing his movement.
It involves the United States,
Great Britain, the Freemasons,
and an international Zionist conspiracy
centered in Japan.
He claims that these forces
seek to destroy Aum Shinrikyo,
and there's only one way for Aum,
and ultimately humanity, to survive
strike back.
The idea of the final war
shifts from being a kind of metaphorical
spiritual battle
between good and evil to a real battle.
[Ian] They say, "We've got to make
the weapons to fight against evil."
[narrator] To outfit the coming battle,
Asahara deploys
four of his most trusted disciples.
Former astrophysics student Hideo Murai
is charged with developing nuclear,
microwave, and laser technologies.
Seiichi Endo was once
a veterinary student,
but his new job is to develop
bioweapons like Ebola and anthrax.
Kiyohide Hayakawa,
once an engineer working in construction,
jets off to Russia
to try and purchase tanks, fighter planes,
and even nuclear warheads.
They all come up empty.
But it's Asahara's Fourth Horseman,
chemist Masami Tsuchiya,
who becomes the guru's breakout star
perfecting homemade sarin nerve gas,
which the group tests on land
they buy in the Australian outback.
With a working weapon
of mass terror finally on the table,
all Asahara needs now is a target.
[siren wailing]
[reporter] For thousands
of Tokyo commuters returning to work,
the unthinkable became
a terrible reality on Monday morning,
poisoned by gas canisters
left on several trains.
I'm a survivor of Tokyo subway's
sarin gas attack in 1995.
[reporter] They staggered out
of the subway,
eyes streaming, noses bleeding.
Others suffered convulsions and vomiting.
We didn't know what was going on.
The hospital
was already like a war hospital.
[reporter] More 3,000 people were admitted
to hospital throughout Tokyo.
Emergency departments struggled to cope
with those affected by the nerve gas.
Yeah, I was pretty much
ready to die at that moment.
In total, there were 14 people
who lost their lives,
and thousands of people were injured.
[siren wailing]
[narrator] After hearing rumors
Aum had been experimenting
with chemical weapons,
police raid the group's compound,
but Asahara evades capture.
Aum leadership denies any involvement.
We are very sorry
for the event that happened in Tokyo,
but we've nothing to do with that.
[narrator] Even as police discover
enough guns, explosives, and poison gas
at cult run facilities
to kill four million people.
On May 5th,
Aum attempts a second subway attack,
with Zyklon B.
This one fails.
Finally, on May 16th, police raid
Aum's Mount Fuji headquarters again
and find the guru
hiding inside a meditation chamber.
[speaking indistinctly]
[Ian] Ultimately, 13 members of Aum,
including Asahara,
are found guilty
of conspiracy to murder and of murder.
And then in July 2018,
all 13 of them were executed.
[narrator] And so ends Asahara's attempt
to preserve his image
and create a new world.
Neither really worked out.
But despite what you've seen so far,
your cult building experience
does not need to end like this.
You can learn to play the long game
and create a group that's built to last.
Your guide
for the playbook's final chapter
is the former
North Korean refugee who created
one of the 20th century's largest
and most profitable religious movements
[cheering and whistling]
and whose influence endures to this day.
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