Japanese police are conducting searches and seizing vehicles at a dozen sites linked to a cult that has become a media obsession in the country. The Pana Wave group has been traveling the Japanese countryside clad in white from head to toe - even swathing their vehicles in white sheets. There is growing concern about this group, which bears similarities to a cult that released poison gas in a deadly attack in the mid-1990's.
Members of the Pana Wave group have been wandering rural Japan in search of a location free of power transmission line radiation. Cult members, on the move in caravans, also claim communist agents armed with radiation weapons are pursuing them.
Group members have told police they are trying to protect their leader, a 69-year-old woman they say is dying of cancer and living in one of their white vans.
The group first drew attention a few weeks ago, when its vans blocked a small country road, and the members draped white sheets over trees, fences and their cars. The cult has dominated Japanese magazines, newspapers and television news.
Police and dozens of television news crews have been following the Pana Wave caravan since then. The scrutiny has led to clashes between the group and the media.
The white-clad cult members claim that journalists' TV cameras emit harmful signals and have tried to fend off reporters with giant mirrors.
According to the group's literature, self-proclaimed prophet Yuko Chino preaches that a 10th planet is approaching Earth and will cause a shift of the magnetic poles. Reputable astronomers say the cataclysmic predictions about the imminent arrival this month of Planet X or Planet Nibiru, spread by some New Age groups on the Internet, have absolutely no basis in science.
Police say their raids Wednesday of Pana Wave's offices, living quarters and camps are the beginning of a full-scale investigation.
The police appear to want to avoid the criticism they received in 1995, after the Aum religious cult released lethal sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing a dozen people and sickening thousands. The police for years had ignored warning signs that Aum, led by Shoko Asahara, was dangerous. Asahara now is on trial for murder.
Cult expert Rick Ross of the Ross Institute in the United States says Japanese authorities need to proceed with caution.
"They have to watch them very closely, listen to whatever complaints are coming in and follow up on them," he said. " But, at the same time, they have to be very wary of putting too much pressure on this group that may cause them to become more volatile than they already are."
The National Police Agency says the cult has been around for about 25 years and is believed to have up to 1,200 followers. Japan's national police chief calls the group bizarre and says it reminds him of Aum in its early days.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has said he cannot understand how people can be so gullible as to believe the cult's prophecies.
Some Japanese television stations have aired interviews with the cult leader. The woman told the networks that she was dying.
Ms. Chino says the police can investigate all they want, but they will not find any weapons or poison. She says they are running away from communist agents who are attacking them. The cult leader warns that her followers will make and defend themselves with what she calls scalar electromagnetic weapons if they are attacked, just as Aum defended itself when it was threatened.
Cult expert Rick Ross says groups that begin preaching an imminent end to the world deserve scrutiny.
"Some doomsday groups do become violent. One of those doomsday groups at the millennium did implode," he noted. " The Movement for the Restoration of the 10 Commandments in Uganda, 1,000 people died by murder and suicide in that one group alone."
On the other hand, Mr. Ross says, the Pana Wave cult could turn out to be harmless and may just be looking for publicity. If that is the case, Japan's news media have already fulfilled that desire.