New Religious Cults in Japan: Part One -
Pana Wave Laboratory Cult Claims Japan's Fate is Sealed
J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
Ever since the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult gassed the Tokyo subway with lethal sarin nerve gas back in March 1995, the entire country has been on edge about the activities of Japan's many new religious sects and cults. Recently, this latent fear in the national psyche has been powerfully reignited by the bizarre activities of another doomsday cult called the "Pana Wave Laboratory." This organization claims that the world will end on 15 May 2003, unless the group can rescue a stray seal nicknamed "Tama-chan." This strange group has triggered a nationwide feeling of uneasiness as well as an intense debate about how safe Japan is from the activities of some of its potentially dangerous doomsday cults.
Although the Pana Wave Laboratory doomsday cult has not committed any crimes, its weird activities and predictions of cataclysmic events share some striking similarities with the behaviour of Aum Shinrikyo in its early days. Police officers currently monitoring the cult have also commented on this likeness, reinforcing the public's concerns about the organization. This situation has led to massive media coverage of the group's every movement, which in turn has heightened the public's sense of anxiety.
Pana Wave Laboratory was a previously obscure Fukui Prefecture-based cult, which was founded around 1977 by the now 69-year-old Yuko Chino. The National Police Agency estimates it has some 1,200 members. It only rose to national prominence on 25 April 2003, when its eerily white-clad followers drove a white-painted 21-vechicle convoy on to a remote mountain road in Gifu Prefecture and subsequently blanketed the area in white. The cultists initially refuse police requests to move on and spoke about the imminent demise of the world. This instantly brought back memories of Aum Shinrikyo and sent alarm bells ringing around the nation.
The members of Pana Wave Laboratory explained to the media that they cover themselves, their property and the area surrounding them in white in order to "avoid harmful electromagnetic waves." Some members of the group also continually move around the country to better avoid this apparently harmful radiation. They believe the source of the evil electromagnetic waves lies in a complex conspiracy involving left-wing groups in cahoots with agents of the former Soviet Union's KGB and its scientists. These rather strange beliefs are explained in detail on the cult's Japanese web site (http://www.panawave.gr.jp/index.html).
The primary reason for public concern is that the cult also believes that the human race faces total destruction on 15 May 2003 from a massive earthquake which will be triggered by the violent tilting of the Earth's axis. It is the setting of a clear deadline for the destruction of mankind that worries so many people. The public is scared that the group might attempt to bring about doomsday themselves, just like the Aum Shinrikyo cult did in 1995.
However, all is not apparently as bleak as it appears. According to the cult's leader, the world does not have to end within days. Apparently, mankind can be saved if the cult can successfully "rescue" a stray bearded seal, which currently lives along a river in Saitama Prefecture. The wandering seal, affectionately known as "Tama-chan," has made the banks of the Katabira River its home since about August 2002 and become something of a national celebrity in the process. For reasons the group have not yet explained, the telegenic seal has now also become their messiah. The cult denies allegations carried in some newspapers that they have recently attempted to kidnap the poor seal, but admit that they are trying to "rescue" the unfortunate creature. The sect has built two makeshift swimming pools for the seal at its dome-shaped, and allegedly doomsday-resistant, facilities in Oizumi. The town of Oizumi is located in Yamanashi Prefecture and is the final destination for the snow-coloured cult convey.
The general reaction of the Japanese public, as express in TV chats shows and the readers' columns of national newspapers, is one of both amusement and an underlying sense of fear. When you speak to ordinary people, they almost burst out with laughter at the thought that a stray seal could save the world from disaster, but at the same time the memory of the terrible crimes committed by the equally bizarre Aum Shinrikyo are still fresh in their mind. The current situation clearly illustrates that the government, police and legal system have so far miserably failed to make the public feel safe about the nation's numerous doomsday cults.
The inadequacy of the police and the dinosaur's pace of the Japanese legal system means that the spectre of potentially dangerous doomsday cults still troubles a great many people. The seemingly endless trial of Aum Shinrikyo's guru, Chizuo Matsumoto, constantly reminds people of the state's failure to effectively tackle this issue. Matsumoto's hitherto 7-year court battle has left victims of the cult and their relatives frustrated and angry. The cult's 1995 Tokyo nerve gas attack killed 12 people and injured over 5,000, yet even though the current trail looks like ending sometime at the end of 2003, the appeals process could extend the final verdict by another decade or two.
In the meantime, Aum Shinrikyo continues to recruit new members and has renamed itself Aleph in order to disguise its true identity. Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the activities of the seal-worshiping Pana Wave Laboratory create such a sense of fear in the Japanese public. The current situation is completely unsatisfactory. Unless the world really does end on 15 May 2003, the issue of doomsday cults is something that the Japanese government must urgently and effectively tackle.
Pana Wave Laboratory Home Page (Japanese)
Tama-chan puuru kaitai he pana ueebu-kenkyuusho
[Tama-chan Pool to be dismantled, Pana Wave Laboratory] (Japanese)
Kyoto Shimbun, 5 May 2003
Doomsday Cult Claims Stray Seal as Savior of Humanity (English)
Mainichi Daily News, 6 May 2003
Pana Wave Sect Convoy Eyes Yamanashi Base (English)
The Japan Times, 7 May 2003
On-line Picture of Tama-chan, the Bearded Seal