Syney Morning Herald, May 10, 2003
If the Earth moves for you it’s probably Thursday. Herald Correspondent Shane Green reports.
The defining moment of weirdness in the story of the Pana Wave Laboratory, the white-clad doomsday cult roaming the mountains of central Japan, arguably came this week, when the group’s guru gave a rare interview.
Sixty-nine-year-old Yuko Chino, believed to have terminal cancer, told a Japanese TV crew – forced to wear the cult’s white garb – that she would be dead within days.
“But that’s nothing as important as Tama-chan,” she said. “We’ve been feeding him every day since last summer.”
Tama-chan is a bearded seal normally found in Arctic waters. It turned up in Yokohama’s murky river system in August and was duly celebrated as an urban miracle. If Japan wasn’t already unsettled by Pana Wave, this connection with a much-loved, cute national icon did the job.
The Japanese media have linked the cult to the funding of a failed attempt to capture the seal earlier this year. At the time, it was thought to be the work of people worried about how the Arctic seal was coping with its polluted environment.
But the rescue move, it seems, was part of a bigger picture. The rescue of Tama-chan would save the world from destruction on May 15 – next Thursday.
Crazy? Let’s hope so. But in Japan, recent history has shown that to ignore such cults can have devastating consequences. In 1995 the Aum doomsday cult made its sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subway system, killing 12 and injuring thousands.
Japanese authorities came in for severe criticism doomsday warnings. “People with the ears to hear will face death,” a recent statement declared. One pamphlet said that if the guru died members should “exterminate all humankind”.
Pana Wave is not only strange, but clearly scary.
In light of the Aum experience, police have followed the cult closely as its caravan of white vehicles makes its way along mountain roads about 250 kilometres west of Tokyo, draping the roadside in white cloth wherever it halts.
The white is supposed to offer protection from electromagnetic waves the cult members say are directed at their guru by a communist group that wants her dead. Their mountain odyssey is a search for a haven from the waves.
The locals in potential havens have been less than welcoming. After a confrontation with police a week ago, the cult headed towards the town of Oizumi, where it has a built a facility – including pools for Tama-chan.
A town meeting decided to call all Oizumi’s 4000 residents to block the cult’s path, while local authorities invoked ordinances and closed roads. Pana Wave took the hint and continued its search elsewhere.
The cult also wintered in the village of Izumi for six months before this latest journey, but the village is determined to prevent the members from returning.
A local official said: “People in our village are nervous about their presence because it is abnormal to see everyone in the group wearing white, including glasses.”
The official said that when the village asked the cult members to leave, one of them responded by asking: “Are you going to take responsibility if a sick person dies?”
The village officials suggested taking the sick to a hospital. “But they refused, saying any hospital is dangerous because there is a lot of electromagnetic waves.
“They didn’t seem to have any common sense,” the village official complained. “This made us nervous. We don’t know when they are going to do something dangerous. That’s why we strongly requested them to leave the village after the snow melted.”
Taro Takimoto, a lawyer and the secretary-general of the Japan De-cult Council, argued Pana Wave was not as dangerous as Aum, but warned of an “abstract danger”.
“They say they will make all mankind die out if their guru dies,” he said. “They also don’t mind violating laws. A destructive cult is defined as a group in which believers obey their guru so absolutely they don’t care about breaking the law. It is obvious that believers obey the guru absolutely.”
The Weekly Bunshun magazine reported in its May 5 issue that the guru first came to notice in the late 1970s when she quit her office job and founded a private cram school.
She tried to recruit the high schools girls who came to her for English lessons, asking them to pray instead of pay. Soon, the number of believers had grown to 1000.
The magazine said the group came under police investigation after a steel tower intended for a high-voltage electricity line was destroyed, but no charges were laid.
Mr Takimoto said that the main sources of income for the cult included a publishing company and the marketing of health supplements and water purifiers.
He added that Pana Wave had lost members in the past five or six years. The group was showing “terminal symptoms” and had been reduced to just several hundred followers.
Next Thursday – doomsday – will obviously provide some more definite answers for Pana Wave. The cult believes that destruction will come when the Earth’s axis tilts with the approach of a 10th unknown planet, causing a massive earthquake.
Back near Tokyo, Tama-chan has re-emerged – although distressingly, with a fish hook lodged in its eye.
Regardless of what does or does not happen on Thursday, it’s clear Pana Wave was at least right that Japan’s city rivers are no place for an Arctic seal.
1978 913 members of the People’s Temple followed their leader, Jim Jones, into eternity by committing mass suicide with poisoned drinks in the Guyanese jungle.
1994 Since 1994, 74 followers of the Order of The Solar Temple have committed suicide. Many of the bodies were found burned in houses and chalets in France and Switzerland; five bodies were found in a chalet in Canada. The order believes death voyages by ritualised suicide lead to rebirth in a place called Sirius.
1995 Aum Supreme Truth (since renamed Aleph) staged a sarin gas attack on Tokyo subways, killing 12 and leaving 3800 sick. The group preached the world would end in 1997 and only its followers would be left to start a “new race”.
1997 Thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves inside a mansion in San Diego as the Hale-Bopp comet neared Earth. They predicted their immortal essences would reunite with extra-terrestrial powers travelling in a spaceship shrouded by the tail of the comet.