Police Stand-Off with Cult Raises Concern in Japan

Reuters/May 1, 2003
By Elaine Lies

Tokyo -- Around 40 members of a mysterious doomsday group are involved in a tense stand-off with police in rural Japan, in a chilling reminder for many Japanese that such cults remain active eight years after a deadly gas attack.

The group, which calls itself "Pana Wave Laboratory" and believes the world will be devastated by natural disasters on May 15, set up camp on a mountain road in central Japan last week and is refusing to budge until Saturday.

The cult members, clad entirely in white in what they say is protection from electromagnetic waves that made their founder gravely ill, have blocked off the narrow road in Gifu prefecture, some 171 miles west of Tokyo.

"We don't know what they're really thinking or what they might do," a police officer in the nearby town of Hachiman told Reuters, adding that 300 police had been sent to the area.

"And of course in the past there was Aum."

Japan's image of being relatively free from violent crime was shattered in 1995 when a gas attack on the Tokyo subway allegedly carried out by the Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth Sect) killed 12 and made more than 5,000 ill.

The group, whose leader Shoko Asahara is still on trial, had preached that the world was coming to an end and that it needed to arm itself to prepare for calamities.

Japanese newspapers have reported that the cult involved in the stand-off -- apparently an offshoot of a religious group that emerged some 30 years ago -- believes there will be a reversal of the magnetic pole on May 15, causing tidal waves and earthquakes.

An official with the group also told reporters earlier this week that a communist group was seeking to take the life of their leader by trying to kill her with a weapon using electromagnetic waves.

The communist group was also after key politicians, including Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, he said.

Bad Memories

Japanese newspapers also said that a pamphlet issued last year by a religious cult that evolved into Pana Wave Laboratory said that if their leader died, they should "exterminate all humankind at once."

"Many of the residents here are elderly, and they are very worried. They say the group is weird," the police officer said.

But Taro Takimoto, a lawyer with extensive experience of helping Aum victims, said it was unlikely that the group posed a danger to the general public.

"I don't believe they'll do anything dangerous to outsiders, the way Aum did," he said. "If anything, it would be more likely to end in a mass suicide of group members."

Although Aum has changed its name to Aleph -- the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet -- and insists it is now a benign religious group, memories of its violent past remain strong.

Prompted by concern the cult was making a comeback, Japan's parliament passed new laws in 1999 allowing the government to put the doomsday cult under strict surveillance.

A week ago, prosecutors demanded the death penalty for Asahara, who stands accused of masterminding the subway attack and 12 other charges.

Japan is still home to numerous cults and has seen a number of bizarre deaths related to them in recent years, including in 1999 when police found cult members keeping a mummified body in a hotel room.

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