Japanese Cult Vows to Save a Seal and the World

The New York Times, May 13, 2003
http://www.nytimes.com/
By HOWARD W. FRENCH

GODAISHI, Japan, May 13 — The trees were doing just fine in this tiny mountain hamlet, before the people in the odd white suits showed up the other day. Indeed, in a manner commonly seen in Japan, the pines grow straight and tall here, as neat as columns.

But that did not stop members of the group, which calls itself the Pana Wave Laboratory, from wrapping the trees in white sheets — halfway up the mountainside, in fact — when they pitched camp with a score of vehicles, all white, behind an abandoned school.

Ever since they started roaming Japan in caravan formation late last month, the movements of the group, which predicts that the world will come to an end on Thursday, with a reversal of the earth’s magnetic poles and cataclysmic earthquakes, has been the object of a mass media frenzy of the kind that periodically sweeps Japan.

In most places where they have stopped, their unusual dress and behavior — they do not believe in bathing, and reportedly eat only instant noodles — has scared the wits out of the locals, for whom memories of another doomsday sect, Aum Shinrikyo, are all too fresh.

[In an attempt to gauge the potential threat posed by the group, on Wednesday police officers across the country raided buildings it occupies, Reuters reported.]

On recent days, Pana Wave has lightened its own story line dramatically, issuing statements saying that all hope is not yet lost for the earth, if only Tama-chan, a bearded seal that showed up, far from its native arctic habitat, in a Tokyo river last August, is “rescued.”

If anything, the media frenzy surrounding Tama-chan has been even more intense than the interest showered on Pana Wave, with almost daily bulletins on its whereabouts on the nightly news.

The animal has displaced Hello Kitty as Japan’s most beloved mascot, and whether or not it saves the earth, the sect’s linking its own image to that of the seal was a savvy bit of public relations.

Along with building specially reinforced, Buckminster Fuller-style geodesic domes, which the group’s reported 1,200 members believe are cataclysm-proof, Pana Wave has reportedly also been digging swimming pools, which press reports say are intended to house Tama-chan.

From behind a yellow crime scene cordon put up, as one policeman said, to “avoid trouble,” Mika Fujimoto, a 17-year-old who took the day off from work and drove 90 minutes to get a glimpse of the Pana Wave members, shouted, “We support you because you care for Tama-chan!” at some of the white-clad members who moved around mysteriously in the distance.

“I don’t know about the end of the world stuff,” she added, “but at least on Tama-chan we can agree.”

Although Pana Wave has been a harmless oddity so far, one community after another has chased it away, forcing its all-white motorcade back onto the highways, where the cortege of journalists who follow has grown by the week.

It has not helped its image that wherever the group has stopped, the local police have recalled that the Aum sect — which killed 12 people and injured 5,500 in March 1995 in a poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway system — had similarly benign-seeming origins.

The group’s recent wanderings also have been driven by some of its own rather particular requirements. Its leader, Yuko Chino, 69, is said to be suffering from cancer caused, Pana Wave members say, by electromagnetic waves manipulated by obscure Communist groups working in cahoots with agents of the former Soviet Union.

Her survival and their own health, members believe, depend on finding that rarest of sites in Japan: a place where there are few electrical power lines, which is what brought them back to where they began 10 years ago, this little depopulated mountain village of terraced rice fields worked by old women in straw hats.

The end of the world may be nigh, but Pana Wave is rebuilding its base here as a precaution, and the construction is not quite complete, which is why it needs to camp out.

Although it is merely a half-hour drive from Fukui, a smart and prosperous looking city of about 250,000, the little town of Godaishi is about as rustic as one finds on Japan’s main island of Honshu.

In the early afternoon elderly women — there appear to be few youths here — take a break from tending their rice paddies by sitting in a shady spot on the sidewalk for a chat. “They haven’t done anything wrong in the 10 years they’ve been here,” said one of the women, who gave her name only as Maeda. “They have never stolen so much as a single leek. I have to say that the white clothes are a bit strange, though.”

Since their return here, Godaishi has become a place of pilgrimage, and not just for the news media that rush about at the least rumor of a Pana Wave sighting, or for the sometimes overbearing policemen, who have staked out every driveway and barn. Ordinary curiosity seekers, too, are legion, and many of them seem far more leery than the locals.

“They don’t work, and yet they have all of these vehicles,” said Michiko Watanabe, 49, who drove here with a friend and her Chihuahua in a Mercedes to get a glimpse of the group. “It sort of leaves you with an uneasy feeling. Where do they get the money, and what happens when it all runs out?”

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