Another bizarre cult raising eyebrows and concern in Japan

AFP/May 1, 2003

Tokyo -- Japanese police said Thursday they were ready to crack down on a bizarre "white-costume" cult which has stirred unease among local people by occupying a public road and shrouding the surrounding area with mysterious white screens.

Police started questioning white-clad members of the Pana Wave Laboratory cult who, since last Friday have been occupying a 200 meter (660 feet) stretch of a mountain road with a caravan of 15 white-shrouded cars and vans in Gifu, some 300 kilometers (185 miles) west of Tokyo.

The local authority on Wednesday issued an expulsion order to the cult, which claims the earth is in danger because of electromagnetic waves used with evil intent by communists, according to its website.

But the doomsday sect, whose membership is believed to top 1,200, refused to move immediately, only saying the group may move on this weekend.

"It is clear that local residents have trouble with their occupation of the road and their presence has brought fear to residents," said a spokesman for the Gifu Police Department.

"We are going to strictly deal with the case by utilising every possible regulation," the police spokesman said. Television footage showed police officers questioning the sect members and examining their vehicles Thursday afternoon.

There were 250 police at the scene according to one channel, NTV.

This was the first major confrontation between a cult and a local government in Japan since the Aum Supreme Truth, the cult responsible for the 1995 subway sarin nerve gas attack, illegally built a compound housing a chemical plant on the slopes of Mt. Fuji.

National police chief Hidehiko Sato told a news conference that the cult members were "bizarre." "They resemble Aum Supreme Truth in its early days," he said.

Wearing surgical-style white robes, flowing headgear and facemasks, the Pana Wave members have erected white fabric screens along the roadside, and wrapped nearby guardrails and tree trunks in white, claiming that white cloth can help them avoid being exposed to harmful electromagnetic waves.

All of their vans are also white and covered with squares of white paper printed with a mysterious whirlpool pattern. Television footage showed the inside of the vehicles are also white with the steering wheels bandaged.

Other pictures showed cult members trying to fend off cameramen with large mirrors resembling reflective riot shields.

Hiroko Chino, the 69-year-old female guru, who founded the sect in the 1970s, has moved with her closest followers from place to place across the nation in the caravan for the past 10 years.

Taro Takimoto, an anti-cult lawyer who survived a 1994 VX nerve-gas attack by Aum, said Pana Wave was actually the sect called Chino Shoho (True Law of Chino).

Takimoto said he obtained literature from the cult threatening to "destroy all mankind" in the event of Chino's death.

"What they say is dangerous, and we have to keep a close watch on them even though they are not powerful enough yet to cause a disaster" in society at large, the lawyer said.

Over the last few days Japan's television networks have given extensive coverage to the cult and its perceived similarities to the Aum sect, whose founder, Shoko Asahara, has been on trial for seven years for the subway attack and other crimes involving the deaths of 27 people.

Prosecutors demanded the death sentence for the nearly blind Asahara last month.

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