You have to hand it to Tama-chan. The superstar bearded seal has caused some lively public discussion about important social issues. Because of Tama-chan, people have started talking about the disgusting state of the country’s rivers, the cavalierly cruel treatment of animals, the impact that rubber-stamped construction projects have on the environment, and even the necessity and fairness of the residence card system.

Tama-chan’s grip on the public imagination has impressed the media so much that even the smallest tributary leading off the main story attracts swarms of reporters looking for a new angle. After all, it was Tama-chan who led the media to the Pana Wave Laboratory.

Pana Wave is the scientific arm of a mysterious cult — Chino Shoho — whose members dress all in white and drive white vehicles with white stickers in the windows because they believe white protects them and their leader, a 69-year-old woman named Yuko Chino, from electromagnetic radiation. The media has dubbed them a “doomsday cult” because of Chino’s prediction that a planet will collide with the earth.

The group has been around in one form or another since 1977, but until a month ago no one was paying attention to it.

Then, earlier this year, a foreign animal-rights group tried unsuccessfully to capture Tama-chan, and the media discovered that they had been summoned by something that calls itself the the Group That Thinks About Tama-chan (Tama-chan wo Omou-kai), which seems to be in opposition to the Group That Watches Over Tama-chan (Tama-chan wo Mimamoru-kai).

The leader of the Omou group, Yuji Awano, told reporters that he planned to take the seal and place him in a specially built pool on Yatsugatake Mountain before releasing him back into the wild. Awano, it was later learned, was once a follower of Chino. The connection became stronger when it was reported that scallops which Awano had acquired to feed Tama-chan had been purchased by Chino’s cult.

Awano denied the connection, but almost immediately reporters and video crews descended on Gifu Prefecture, where the cult was camping on the side of a mountain road, draping white cloth on all the trees and guardrails in the vicinity. As the media coverage intensified, residents in the area became more alarmed and comparisons to Aum Shinrikyo arose.

In response to the huge coverage, the head of the National Police Agency said that the cult’s activities resembled “Aum in its early stages,” a comment that made people uneasy because it is generally believed that Aum’s crimes could have been prevented had the police and the media been more vigilant about Aum in the early 90s.

Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka said that the NPA should provide concrete proof of such a similarity, otherwise the comments unnecessarily “fuel public concern.” Freelance journalist Shoko Egawa, who was covering Aum long before its crimes came to light, blasted the media in an opinion article in the Asahi Shimbun, saying that all these reporters are doing “is following [Pana Wave]. It’s like watching show business reporters tailing a big celebrity.”

Egawa was the only prominent media person who pointed out how ridiculous the coverage was. The reporters and pundits who, prior to the 1995 Tokyo subway attack, advocated tolerance of Aum’s “bizarre” behavior, have since been humiliated and ostracized. No one wants to be caught in a similar situation this time, and so everyone in the media plays up Pana Wave’s “bizarre” behavior: the white fabric, the paranoia about leftist conspiracies, the animal-rights fanaticism (Chino keeps two flies as pets).

But how bizarre is it? Why is dressing in white so weird? At least they have a stated reason for it, namely to shield themselves from EM radiation. Scientifically, that may be an unproven theory, but what about the Diet? There you have hundreds of men all dressed identically in dull gray suits for no reason except that everyone in the Diet dresses in dull gray suits.

And if the group is “bizarre” for being afraid of EM radiation, what does that say about Sweden, a country that actively tries to curb EM radiation, which many scientists believe can cause cancer (which Chino claims she is dying of)? Leftist conspiracies? How about Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who wants to bomb North Korea as punishment for abducting Japanese citizens?

So far, the only illegal activity the group can be accused of is violating traffic laws. Prior to this week’s search of the group’s facilities and vehicles, the police had investigated the group at least three times for blocking roads — though at those times the media never felt it was newsworthy enough for coverage (if, in fact, they knew about it at all).

The overt similarities between Pana Wave and Aum are the apocalyptic theories and the leaders’ respective cults of personality. From the information that has come out, the similarities could be considered unsettling. The cult’s flyers say that the day Chino dies, the world will come to an end. On the other hand, the group has promised the mayor of the village where the Pana Wave Laboratory is situated that they will be gone in a year. If anything, Chino’s followers act more like employees than cultists.

Students of group psychology will tell you that this latter point is meaningless when it comes to cults, but so far there have been no former members or families of members who have come forward and borne witness to coercion or mind control. The police have indicated that the cult appears to be harmless. If people are sleeping sounder tonight, I suppose they can thank the media for having drawn attention to Pana Wave, despite the fact that the coverage was pointless and self-serving. Better yet, thank Tama-chan.