Analysis: Japan’s lethal doomsday cults

UPI, May 1, 2003
By Uwe Siemon-Netto, UPI Religion Editor

WASHINGTON, May 1 (UPI) — Once again, Japan is fretting over a bizarre doomsday cult that reminds the country of the religious terrorists accused of killing 12 and injuring nearly 6,000 in a nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

It’s not clear if the Pana Wave Laboratory group, which set up camp on a mountain road 170 miles west of Tokyo, is linked to the Aum Shinri Kyo sect, whose leaders allegedly tried to trigger World War III when poisoning commuters on underground trains with sarin gas.

The similarities cannot be overlooked, however. Like Aum Shinri Kyo followers, the 40 Pana Wave members involved in a standoff with police are clad entirely in white.

Both groups have apocalyptical visions: Pana Wave apparently believes that the world will be destroyed by disasters on May 15; Aum’s founder Shoko Asahara, currently on trial for his life, urged his followers to arm themselves for doomsday.

And they armed themselves with a vengeance. On the slopes of Mount Fuji, they produced AK-47 Kalashnikov automatic rifles under a Russian license, plus chemical weapons, and they tried to develop biological warheads. They bought a Soviet helicopter and tried to acquire nuclear devices from Russia.

The Pana Wave adherents resemble the Aum cultists in that they, too, evidently have graduates from top Japanese universities in their ranks, most of them trained in mathematics, physics, chemistry and computer science.

Four years ago, I asked Hideto Tomabechi, a prominent sociologist of knowledge, to explain this phenomenon to me. Why do young scientists — the nation’s elite, in a way — join such nutty outfits? Why do cults of the Aum Shinri Kyo variety have such great appeal not just in Japan but also in Russia and elsewhere?

According to Tomabechi, this is a deadly youthful revolt against the materialism and consumerism of the post-World War II era. “In this secularized nation, these young people have no knowledge of any traditional religion,” he continued. “So they developed for themselves a cyber faith.”

Tomabechi pointed at his computer. “What do you do when this machine goes awry? You press the reset button, hoping everything will be well again after you have rebooted the machine. This is exactly how these cultists view the world,” he went on. “All that’s needed is a calamitous war, functioning like the reset button, and then a better world will emerge.”

Computers were a peculiar ingredient in the weird apocalyptical stew I discovered when I visited one of Aum ShinriKyo’s headquarters in the Yanaka district of Tokyo. Computers were everywhere, operated by horribly intense nuns and monks in white.

Indeed, Aum Shinri Kyo accumulated a fortune by having these unpaid followers assemble computers the sect then sold at bargain prices in its own stores.

These electronic devices are essential tools of the syncretistic faith Minuro Sugiura, a political scientist and member off the Aum Shinri Kyo “Senate,” described to me, while Azusa, my interpreter, shivered fiercely by my side.

Loudspeakers in an adjoining chapel emitted eerie hymns all penned by Asahara, the sect’s semi-blind guru. “Fight, you braves of the truth,” was one title, “God Shiva with us” declared another tune.

Shiva is the destroyer in the Hindu trinity. Yet the Aum people claim to be Buddhists, thus belonging to an atheistic religion. But listening to Sugiura, I realized that Christianity was part of the stew as well. “We are waiting for Armageddon,” he said.

“Wait a minute,” I said, “You lifted Armageddon out of the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible? Will Armageddon not end with the victory of the forces of Christ?”

“That’s right.”

“But then who is Christ to you, then?”

“The highest conscience, the guru of 20 Buddhas, an incarnation of Shiva.” The destroyer!

Asahara, who will be hanged if his prosecutors have their way, has composed a hymn about his cult’s role in this cosmic event: “Armageddon is near. We are part of the holy military that will kill bad souls.”

Tomabechi foresees a spiritual abyss if Japan’s educational system continues to ignore the young generation’s quest for a deity. “Shoro Asahara is only one of many tempters acting like magnets to this unrealistic young cyber generation.”

Tomabechi told me this four years ago when Aum Shinri Kyo was down due to many arrests — but never really out. Now there is Pana Wave Laboratory — perhaps Aum Sinri Kyo’s offspring, perhaps just a soul-mate, but one that nevertheless has doomsday in mind.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday May 2, 2003.
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