Japanese Cult Panic
by Benjamin Dorman
From late April to mid-May, official police statements and intensive media
coverage once again stirred up fears of millennialist religion in Japan. A
week after prosecutors argued for imposing the death penalty on the founder
of Aum Shinrikyo—the millennial group whose murderous gas attack on the
Tokyo subway system in 1995 remains a painfully close memory for many—the
story of Pana Wave Laboratory hit the presses and the airwaves.
Pana Wave members, who dressed in white clothes, drove
white vehicles complete with bandaged steering wheels, and wrapped their
immediate surroundings in white sheets, provoked both “amusement and an
underlying sense of fear,” as the prominent daily Mainichi Shimbun
put it May 6. Pana Wave was, the same newspaper declared a few days later,
“a weird cult.”
On May 15 Asahi Shimbun, another major daily,
reminded readers that Aum, which changed its name to Aleph sometime after
the subway attack, had similarly been ridiculed for its bizarre behavior
before the extent of the crimes it actually committed in the 1990s came to
light. The article aired the concerns of Susumu Yamada, an official of
Oizumi village in the central Japan prefecture where Pana Wave owned a
facility, that the strange activities of Pana Wave members were making the
residents feel uneasy.
Years before Aum launched its attack, it had run-ins
with local communities whose residents complained about the group’s
activities. But in the case of Pana Wave, a lot more people were listening
than before. Amidst the flurry of talk show chatter and letters to the
editor, Prime Minister Koizumi himself felt impelled to ask why anyone would
join such a strange group.
Pana Wave claims to be the “scientific arm” of Chino
Shoho, a small and hitherto little noticed religious sect founded in 1977 by
a former English teacher named Yuko Chino. The English-language Japan
Times reported May 6 that Chino’s mother was associated with a
group called God Light Association (GLA). After the death of GLA’s founder
Chino gathered followers around her, having published a book describing her
beliefs, which included elements of Buddhism, Christianity, and New Age
spirituality. According to the Japan Times, these ideas developed
over the years into a combination of spiritualism, science fiction, and
political conservatism. The paper ran an interview with a follower who
stated that members regard Chino as the “last Messiah to succeed Buddha,
Moses, and Jesus.”
When Chino became ill in the early 1990s, the group
established Pana Wave Laboratory in order to conduct research into
electromagnetic radiation, which the members felt was the cause of her
illness. The group began to wander around western Japan in search of a
location that was free from electromagnetic radiation.
According to Pana Wave’s Japanese language website (www.panawave.gr.jp),
KGB agents using research conducted by scientists in the former Soviet Union
have tampered with power lines in Japan. The group claims that these
activities are not only dangerous to people but also are causing untold
environmental destruction. Pana Wave believes that the color white
neutralizes the harmful effects of electronic radiation and, as a follower
told the Japan Times, protects them from “persistent attacks by an
Chino had long made millennial predictions that—unlike
Aum’s pre-subway attack announcements (and songs), which actually mentioned
sarin gas—were rather short on details. But with her illness purportedly
worsening the messages became more specific. Mainichi Shimbun
reported May 6 that she had recently predicted that she would die on May 15,
and that on that day a 10th planet would move close to the earth,
reversing the magnetic pole and triggering massive tidal waves and
Beginning in October 2002, Pana Wave’s cavalcade of
vehicles was parked on a stretch of road in Fukui prefecture that had been
closed for the winter. When the road was opened in the spring, local
authorities asked the group to move on, threatening to charge them with
violations of the Road Traffic Law. On April 25 Pana Wave relocated to
neighboring Gifu Prefecture but the mayors and citizens of nearby towns
demanded that they leave.
Media attention was triggered by a series of articles
in the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun. On April 25 the magazine
called some facilities owned by Pana Wave “satyams”—a Sanskrit word for
truth that Aum had used to identify both its places of worship and the
laboratories where members produced the gas that was used in the subway
It was not just this hint of Aum that made Shukan
Bunshun’s sensationalized report catnip to other media organizations.
The magazine claimed (rightly as it turned out) that Pana Wave had a
connection with the latest star in Japan’s media firmament.
In August 2002 a bearded seal somehow strayed into the
polluted Tama River and was given the name Tama-chan (“Dear Little Tama”).
Tama-chan quickly acquired a legion of fans besotted with its kawaii
(cute) nature (Nature and animals are sacred in Shinto, which many Japanese
practice along with Buddhism).
The seal also became something of a cause célèbre
amongst environmentalists. (After the seal received a residency certificate
from the city of Yokohama, a privilege that non-Japanese humans cannot gain,
a group of foreigners wearing seal costumes with whiskers painted on their
faces organized a demonstration to demand the same privilege.)
In early May Pana Wave members announced that global
destruction could be averted by rescuing Tama-chan. Later it was revealed
that a Pana Wave member had funded a botched attempt in March to capture the
seal by the “Group That Thinks About Tama-chan,” whose activities were
heavily criticized by the opposing “Group That Watches Over Tama-chan” and
other Tama-chan fan clubs.
Meanwhile a Fuji TV reporter was granted an
unprecedented interview with the 69-year-old Chino—who was supposed to be at
death’s door but looked fine to him—during which she elaborated on the
nature of the forthcoming calamities and Tama-chan’s potential to save
humanity. Belief in Tama-chan’s miraculous powers aside, other observers
viewed this “connection” as no more than a cheap publicity stunt perpetrated
by Pana Wave.
Pressure on Pana Wave intensified after May 1, when the
chief of the National Police Agency (NPA), Hidehiko Sato, announced that the
group not only looked strange but also resembled Aum in its early days (he
did not go into specifics). Thereupon the Pana Wave story saturated the news
for two weeks.
The police ordered the vehicular cavalcade to move from
Gifu Prefecture, and again threatened to charge the group with violating the
Road Traffic Law. As the vehicles moved from one area to another they was
greeted by protesting local residents, perplexed law enforcement officials,
an army of media, and the odd Tama-chan fan hoarsely shouting out support
for the group’s efforts to save the seal.
The frenzy prompted a strong response from Shoko Egawa,
the independent journalist who was among the first people to alert the
public to the criminal activities of Aum. Writing in Asahi Shimbun
May 10, Egawa lashed out at the media, comparing the reporters covering the
story to Italian paparazzi. The NPA chief’s “impressionistic meanderings”
connecting Pana Wave to Aum were, she claimed, way off the mark. Both media
and police were, so far as she was concerned, generating unnecessary fear
amongst the public.
On May 14, in a move that was widely viewed in the
media as an attempt both to quell the growing public fear about the group
and to collect information, some 300 police investigators swooped down on 12
Pana Wave facilities located around the country as well as on the 17 white
vehicles that made up the cavalcade. After collecting some 400 pieces of
evidence, the police charged the group with possessing three falsely
An Asahi Shimbun report the same day quoted a
police officer as saying that the police wanted to snuff out any social
anxiety at an early stage. On May 15 the paper published an article by
Masayuki Tanamura, a professor on the law faculty of Waseda University,
warning of the dangers of heavy-handed police action and citing Waco as a
lesson that Japanese authorities needed to heed.
After the May 15 deadline passed without either global
destruction or Chino’s death, interest in the group dwindled rapidly. Most
newspapers ignored claims by Pana Wave members that the end of the world
would be delayed by one week. By early June, the group appeared to have
returned to its prior state of innocuous obscurity. Tama-chan was last
sighted swimming freely in a river in Saitama prefecture.
It is clear that the Japanese authorities remain all
too eager to show the public that their fingers are on the pulse of any
millennial threats. The media continue to convey the message that
“millennial group” equals criminal activity and requires swift, decisive,
extensive, and very public investigation.
The specter of Aum continues to haunt Japan.