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What I learned from my fascination with cults: Aum Shinrikyo

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SEPTEMBER 29, 2022

I’ve always had a morbid fascination with cults. Their manipulation tactics and psychology have been at the forefront of many late-night Wikipedia rabbit holes. I’ve listened to podcasts and watched some less-than-reliable YouTube videos, gathering information on the cult leaders who would seek to target people just like me: young, impressionable, vulnerable, searching for their place in the world. As people who have just transitioned into adulthood, many college students may fall into this category.

I stumbled upon the name Aum Shinrikyo for the first time a couple of years ago while listening to the true crime and paranormal podcast “Last Podcast on the Left,” a podcast I would highly recommend for those who think they can get past the somewhat obnoxious humor. To give a quick debrief, the ideology of Aum blended Hindu, Buddhist and apocalyptic Christian beliefs, which leader Shoko Asahara claiming he was both the second coming of Christ and the first “enlightened one” since the Buddha. It started out as a money-making scheme and devolved into a paranoid doomsday cult as members paid exorbitant prices.

The cult stood out to me for several reasons.  First, it was one of the few cults I’ve learned about that wasn’t American: It was a cult that was primarily created and developed within Japan. Second, the cult had a brutal impact on the world. Its 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway was the deadliest domestic terrorism attack in Japanese history, killing 14 and wounding 1,050 people. Finally, their technologically advanced methods and widespread following of up to tens of thousands of members shocked me.

What stuck with me most about the rise and fall of Aum Shinrikyo, and why I think the story is relevant to a Berkeley audience, was its connection to university students. Aum Shinrikyo specifically recruited and targeted recent graduates from elite universities, students who were searching for purpose in a world that pushed them from stressful academic work into even more stressful and unfulfilling careers. They targeted those who felt that they had failed academically as well, providing an escape from the singular school to work path. Nearly half of Aum members were between the age of 20 and 29. They sought an escape from the drudgery of the work-centered world around them, and Shoko Asahara promised an answer to their miseries. 

Parallels can easily be drawn between the world of Japan in the 1990s and the pressure many of us feel today. We often feel so much pressure to succeed, and when we face setbacks, it can feel like an overwhelming failure. It is during these points that students can become susceptible to fix-all solutions. This can come in the form of religious or political extremism, diets or following lifestyle figureheads such as Andrew Tate. It can be easy to think that if you just follow this book or this person that everything will be fixed. But the truth is often much more complicated. It’s this thinking that led thousands of college students to follow a leader such as Shoko Asahara. 

All too often, students at academically high-pressure colleges focus solely on book smarts. But there’s so much importance in other skills. We have to learn how to look out for ourselves and our friends, to learn how to read people and to develop a strong sense of self in order to protect ourselves from those who try to prey on us when we’re at our most vulnerable. It is this belief in ourselves that can prevent the tempting offer of handing off our decisions and our ideals to someone else. 

Contact Lauren von Aspen at 


OCTOBER 03, 2022