White-robed cultists hit the road

The mysterious group 'studying' electromagnetic waves raises concern nationwide

The Asahi Shimbun/May 2, 2003

Hachiman, Gifu Prefecture -- Threatened with being slapped with a traffic violation, a mysterious group of white-robed cultists packed up Thursday and vacated the forest road they've occupied for the past week. It was not clear where the group was headed.

The strange behavior of the cult, known as Pana Wave Laboratory, has raised eyebrows, and in some cases alarm, around the country.

"The group is strange and similar to Aum Shinrikyo in its early stages,'' said Hidehiko Sato, director-general of the National Police Agency. "We're going to crack down on any possible illegal activities of the group.''

Aum Shinrikyo was responsible for the deadly sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995.

The 40 members of the Pana group are living in a caravan of 15 vehicles, also shrouded in white.

Around 4 p.m. Wednesday, the mayors of Hachiman and Yamato, towns near where the group was camped out, visited the site and urged them to leave the area immediately.

The leader, who has not given his name, was reluctant. Producing medical records, he said, "There are people who are suffering from cancer or heart disease.''

Before the group finally moved out Thursday evening, the leader said they would be gone by Saturday. He asked that the mayors "take into consideration the sick members.''

Speaking to reporters, he said: "We have no intention of harming residents. We are carrying out a serious study of electromagnetic waves.

"One of the sick members is a woman. If we move now, the electromagnetic waves caused by the move could kill her.''

However, Hachiman Mayor Kunio Komori said, "We cannot trust the medical records because the addresses and names of the patients and doctors are blacked out.''

Anxiety is running particularly high in the village of Oizumi in Yamanashi Prefecture, where someone affiliated with the group owns a domed building.

"We are going to take steps to prevent the group from entering our village,'' said Deputy Mayor Akira Kobayashi on Wednesday.

A local resident, who asked not to be identified, said, "If the group stayed here, it would damage our image as a resort area.''

Village authorities assured citizens that no members of the group or related organizations had attempted to register as a new resident.

According to police, Pana Wave Laboratory is an alias of the Shoho organization, an offshoot of a religious sect. The Pana group was established in the late 1970s by a woman, now 69, who is apparently regarded as its head.

While the group's purpose remains unknown, it reportedly has 1,200 members, many of whom live together in the mountains, mainly in the Chugoku region.

The group is not registered as a religious organization.

Police on Wednesday reported a strange incident that took place in Oizumi village in February this year.

A member of Eruaru Publishing Co., an affiliate of the Pana group, fell seriously ill in an inn rented by the publishing house. But no one called a doctor and the person died without ever receiving medical attention.

Subsequently, group members delivered the body directly to a hospital without informing the hospital or police ahead of time.

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