Tuesday May 6, 2003
Less than a fortnight before the day it predicts the world will end, Japan's latest high-profile cult rolled slowly and bizarrely away from a confrontation with the police yesterday, leaving behind sniggers, fears and a mountainside draped in white sheets.
Until recently, little was known about Pana Wave Laboratory - one of Japan's many small and mysterious sects - but the group has been given prominence in the past week, which has seen a standoff with the authorities and a raid by hundreds of riot police.
The cult believes most of humankind will be destroyed on May 15, when an undiscovered 10th planet approaches Earth, reversing the magnetic pole and causing floods and tidal waves.
To prepare for the final day, a group of about 40 believers have formed a convoy of a dozen white vans that travel Japan's mountain roads in search of an area free from electromagnetic waves.
The group ended a five-day standoff with police early on Friday when faced with the threat of arrest and has since moved camp twice to its current site, an unused road in the mountainous village of Kiyomi, 170 miles west of Tokyo.
It says communists are using such waves to try to kill their ailing guru, Yuko Chino, a 69-year-old self-proclaimed prophet who is said to be suffering from cancer.
In what it claims is a form of defence, followers dress from head to toe in white, drive white vans and cover the trees and roads around their camp in white sheets.
While most Japanese have been amused at such antics, others have made alarming comparisons with the Aum Supreme Truth cult which was scorned for its outlandishness before stunning the country with a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground in 1995.
Hidehiko Sato, the director-general of the national police agency, indicated that the authorities were assuming the worst about Pana Wave Laboratory. "The group is similar to Aum Shinrikyo in its early stages," Mr Sato said. "We're going to crack down on any possible illegal activities of the group."
So far, however, the closest the cult has come to criminal activity is a couple of parking violations - for obstructing the view of its drivers by filling their vans' windscreens with white stickers.
One follower claimed the cult had been trying to save Tamachan, a seal that has been in the news for making his home in a river near Tokyo.
But any sympathy this might have generated was destroyed by a statement from the group that said: "People without the ears to hear will all face death."
The Japanese media said the cult released a pamphlet last year urging members to "exterminate all humankind" if their leader died.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003
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