BBC, May 14, 2003
By Robert Pigott, BBC’s Religious Affairs Correspondent
This cult organisation – one of many in Japan – has caught the nation’s attention with its prediction that a close encounter with a 10th planet will set off earthquakes and tidal waves destroying most of humankind.
Pana Wave – and its bleak prognosis – might once have gone unnoticed.
But since the poison gas attack by another cult – Aum Shinrikyo – on the Tokyo subway in 1995, Japan has grown suspicious of their destructive power.
Pana Wave’s bizarre progress across the country in a caravan of white vehicles (their steering wheels bandaged in white) has provided a captivating spectacle.
To protect themselves from electro-magnetic waves allegedly directed at them by Communist aggressors, members of Pana Wave drape themselves – and surrounding trees, bushes or crash barriers – in white fabric.
Television crews, at first shunned, have been allowed to approach only when similarly garbed in white.
As so often with cults, this one has a powerful personality at its centre.
Another reason for heightened awareness of the plethora of cults is the trial of Shoko Asahara, leader of Aum Shinrikyo, reaching its culmination eight years after the group carried out the worst terrorist attack in Japan.
Twelve people were killed and 5,000 injured when members of the group released sarin gas on the subway system in Tokyo during a Monday rush hour.
Aum Shinrikyo – which had also preached that the world was coming to an end – was found to hold vast stores of the chemicals needed to make sarin.
Several explanations are offered to explain the growth in cults in Japan, but many trace them back to the loss of spiritual certainties taught before the war, and to the more recent economic decline that has eroded the confidence of a society that has measured its worth by work.
Some say the malaise has reached deep into society, with parents and teachers losing authority, and traditional moral values being undermined.
In such an atmosphere people – especially the young – are seeking alternative forms of security and spiritual fulfilment.
The Japanese Government – which recently estimated that there could be more than 200,000 cults at large – says many have profit as their main motivation.
It may have had in mind groups such as Ho-no-hana Sampogyo, a so-called foot-cult led by “His Holiness” Hogen Fukunaga.
The organisation claimed to be able to tell people’s fortunes in the soles of their feet. They might be told a short toe meant their foot was out of balance, and charged huge sums for getting the “powers of heaven” flowing.
These activities led eventually to legal claims against His Holiness by former members of the cult.
In other Western countries a hunger for spiritual exploration is not being met by established religions; in Japan their failure seems far greater. Japanese attend services which include Shinto, Buddhist and Christian rites, but stripped of much of their theology.
It’s a weakness that has helped promote novel religions, which mix elements of several faiths and folk beliefs.
Even disillusioned former members of such groups will accept that they offered at least elements of truth.
The doomsday cults – which predict the end of the world or the creation of a new world order – are the most sinister, but the absurd, white-shrouded Pana Wavists may not gain even the distinction of being considered dangerous.
Of course, if the world does end on Thursday sceptics will face a position of unthinkable embarrassment.