In the past few weeks, a mysterious caravan of white vehicles carrying white-robed people has been traveling around the country, causing disputes with residents along the way. The group calls itself Pana Wave Laboratory, a doomsday cult that evokes memories of crimes committed by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. This week’s police raids were only to be expected.

The Metropolitan Police Department and other prefectural police authorities searched white-camouflaged vehicles as well as cult facilities in Tokyo and four other prefectures: Fukui, Yamanashi, Okayama and Fukuoka. Police also questioned key members of the cult and confiscated many documents and materials. The trigger for conducting the raids was suspicion that some group members had committed a relatively minor law violation: making false car registrations.

At the moment, the cult is not suspected of any serious offense. Nevertheless, it has created suspicion and even alarm, in large part because very little is known about this quasi-religious organization, particularly its activities and finances. Police should speed up their investigation to find out what it is up to. One lesson from Aum Shinrikyo is that its heinous crimes, including the sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway in March 1995, could have been prevented if police had begun investigating the group sooner.

As for Pana Wave, police first must do everything they can to clear up public apprehensions about it. An analysis of seized documents, for example, may provide clues to its real aims. One can only hope that it is just a bizarre cult with no destructive intent. Given the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion, investigators need to exercise utmost caution.

This is not the first time that police have raided the cult. In April 1998, Hiroshima prefectural police searched its facilities in Tokyo, Fukui and Okayama on suspicion that some members had tried to engage in extortion. In the latest case, the group is suspected of making false car registrations using another person’s name. Police say this may have been done systematically over the past several years.

Until recently, Pana Wave was not even included in the MPD’s watch list on grounds that it posed no threat to public safety. It came under surveillance after its members, dressed completely in white, began to behave strangely, causing friction with locals. The cult founder, a 69-year-old woman, had warned in an apocalyptic message that a big earthquake would hit in early May.

The extensive police mobilization seems out of proportion to the relative lightness of the suspected offenses. False car registration carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison or a 500,000 yen fine. The scale of the search suggests determination on the part of law-enforcement authorities to forestall any untoward developments involving the weird cult.

According to the National Police Agency, the dress and behavior of Pana Wave cultists bear an eerie resemblance to those of early Aum Shinrikyo followers. Initially, police were not much concerned about Aum because it was considered more or less harmless. What happened afterward, of course, proved them wrong. Aum, now called Aleph, was disbanded as a religious organization following a series of felonies.

At this stage, Pana Wave does not appear to be a security menace. It claims to be engaged in the scientific study of electromagnetic waves harmful to the human body and the environment. It says its vehicles and members are clad in white to reduce the effects of such electromagnetic radiation. Even trees along the forest roads where the caravan parked were covered with white cloth.

The cult, founded in the late 1970s, is not registered as a religious organization, and many of its members, numbering an estimated 1,200 across the country, live collectively in mountains, according to the police agency. The group is said to have its headquarters and other facilities in Fukui Prefecture. New sites are reportedly under construction in Yamanashi.

Pana Wave began to attract media attention in late April when a caravan of its white wagons occupied a forest road in Gifu Prefecture. After that, the procession moved to other prefectures, returning to its base camp in Fukui City last Friday. As it traveled in zigzag fashion, all the while sending cryptic messages, tensions with residents increased.

A touchy issue — freedom of religion — arises with police probes into Pana Wave and, for that matter, into any cultlike group or religious organization. The need is to maintain balance between public order and voluntary religious (or quasi-religious) activity. For that, police must walk a tightrope to avoid excessive intervention.

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