Countdown to doomsday: What makes a cult leader tick?

The Mainichi Daily News/May 8, 2003
By Ryann Connell

About the only constant in Yuko Chino's apparently soon to be over life is that other people have nearly always regarded her as something of a kook. Those who knew her as a child almost universally describe the ailing 69-year-old cult leader as a weirdo. Much of Japan remains befuddled as her white-clad followers from Panawave Laboratory drape unblemished cloth along the roads as they traverse the countryside in preparation for what they believe will be the end of the world later this month.

Chino, Shukan Bunshun (5/15) says, grew up in a slum area of Osaka. She left a lasting impression on many.

"She was like her mother, tall and pretty. She was pretty smart. But she was a real weirdo," a greengrocer tells Shukan Bunshun. "She'd walk along the road and then suddenly stop as though she was thinking of something."

A local tobacconist adds, "She was peering into the store one day and I asked her what she wanted. She just ran away without saying a word. She was pretty scary as a kid. She had about 20 or 30 cats she'd let run around everywhere. It was a real pain, so I asked her to do something about them, but she just turned to me and said, 'Haven't you ever heard of animal welfare?' and then did nothing about the cats."

A neighborhood association boss also remembers the young Chino.

"She hated people. I used to call her father, who was an accountant. If she answered the phone, she'd tell me not to call anymore. She bought some tape with sounds like a fax and used to play that whenever anybody telephoned their house," he tells Shukan Bunshun. "I can remember her walking her dog once. She was wearing these really skimpy hot pants. They were so short, you could see everything."

Chino seemed to have no problem with baring it all, as the boss' wife explains.

"I suppose she must have been in her late 30s at the time, but she was really into streaking, which was a huge trend in the United States back then. I remember her running naked through the town and her mother chasing after her. She screamed in pain when her mom finally caught up," the wife tells Shukan Bunshun.

Chino's mother was a Christian and Chino herself was baptized as a teen. She studied English before finding a job at a major company. In one of her books, she describes the unrequited love for a man she'd fallen head over heels for and how it drove her to attempt suicide when she could not get him.

In the wake of her suicide attempt, she jumped from job to job, settling on work at an American pharmaceuticals firm for a few weeks before giving up after developing a fierce hatred of others, especially men. She began teaching English in a room at her family home. Within months, a group of schoolgirls she had been teaching became her first followers. Marriage also followed, but it was less than conventional.

"It was a pure sham. I've never even met Chino. In the '80s, there was a rumor the Soviets were about to attack Japan, so Chino's followers wanted to move her to the United States for safety. I was working in the cult's Tochigi Prefecture branch at the time and was put in charge of arranging the emigration proceedings. One of the cult leaders at the time told me it would be easier to get people to obey my orders if I was married to Chino, so we filled out the papers and that was it. It was only ever a paper marriage," Chino's ex-husband tells Shukan Bunshun. "I was going to go to the States, and we dismantled all the cult's Japanese branches, but the emigration plan didn't work out and we came back and started all over again."

It was about this time that a group of young scholars inside the cult began to refer to themselves as the scientific faction. They began warning of the threat of harmful electromagnetic waves that communist guerillas were releasing into the atmosphere.

"Panawave Laboratory in Fukui Prefecture was built as a result of a search to find a place where there were few electromagnetic waves and Chino could be safe," a woman who belonged to the cult for 15 years tells Shukan Bunshun, adding that she was one of the few in Chino's inner circle who were ever allowed to see her face. "She hated being worshipped and was an intelligent and elegant woman. (Panawave Laboratory's) scientific faction had begun setting up "shields" of white cloth on walls by the late '80s, but the white garments that have become their trademark were not yet the norm. All the white covering was done on the orders of the scientific faction, not Chino."

By the mid-'90s, however, cultists were starting to dress only in white.

"Chino wore a tracksuit everywhere, but it had to be made of entirely natural materials. She never bathed and would go off by herself to a car and change her clothes," the woman says.

As the millennium drew closer, the white shields began to go up everywhere around the cult's complex.

"Eventually, members started taking Chino out to try and find a place with fewer electromagnetic waves. They'd take her out for one day and come back. Then they'd go out for three days and come back. That's how the caravan that's causing all the fuss now started out," she says.

Always hermetic at best, Chino has become almost a total recluse in recent years. Her followers also withdrew into themselves, becoming more insular and frequently clashing with outsiders.

"Whenever the electromagnetic waves started, Chino would get sicker," a long-term Panawave member tells Shukan Bunshun. "It's become more difficult for us to spread Chino's word, so most of our studies now are done amongst ourselves."

In Oizumi, Yamanashi Prefecture, Panawave members have built a series of domes they say are capable of withstanding any major disaster. Local officials inspected the site last weekend, finding dozens of dogs, cats, pigs, crows and even an iguana. It appears the group is preparing for the calamity it says will kill us all on May 15. So, how are we going to go? Chino, in what she called her final statement issued on May 5, lets us in on her secret.

"It will be caused when electromagnetic waves strike the Japanese archipelago and the delicate gravitational balance between the Andromeda nebula and other nebulas is altered."

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