Police raided the headquarters of a secretive, female-dominated cult yesterday after one of its followers was beaten to death, allegedly for failing to carry out a group ritual properly.
Detectives believe that about ten followers of the Kigenkai cult subjected Motoko Okuno, 63, to an hour-long ordeal of kicks and punches, and there are fears that the cult may have carried out more violent attacks in the past.
Four hundred police officers raided several of the sect's premises and hauled in for questioning more than 20 of its leaders - all women. Several of those led away from the cult's compound were teenagers.
Detective initially suspected Ms Okuno's husband, daughters and son-in-law, who all said that the violence was the result of persistent family quarrels. But when they discovered that the family were all members of the sect, they began to focus their investigation on the cult itself.
One of the cult's many rules is that when a person becomes a devotee, their whole family must join and it is believed that Ms Okuno, who owned a sushi restaurant, was coerced into the sect. Police further suspect that Ms Okuno was attacked at one of the cult's properties, which include an elaborate Shinto-style shrine. Her husband, 35, remains under suspicion and has been rearrested for destroying evidence.
The public image of religious sects in Japan has been forever coloured by the atrocities of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which was responsible for releasing sarin gas on the Tokyo underground in 1995. The gas killed 12 people and injured 3,800, and Shoko Asahara, the cult's leader, awaits the death penalty for masterminding the attacks.
Another Japanese cult known for displaying bizarre behaviour is the Panawave Laboratory, whose devotees expected Armageddon in May 2003 and draped trees and river banks in white sheets to protect themselves from it.
The Kigenkai cult, whose main office is in the northwestern prefecture of Nagano, is thought to have about 300 followers across Japan and has been active for more than 35 years. For the past decade, it has been officially registered with the Ministry of Education as a religious institution. But what began life as a relatively straightforward group of fortune-tellers has, say critics, evolved in a stranger direction.
Residents of Komoro, the town nearest to the group's headquarters, take a dim view of its activities, which include making votive offerings to the local river by hurling fruit, vegetables and fried food into it. The group is notorious for its methods of extracting "donations" from followers: it has been known to sell ordinary pebbles as so-called "spiritual stones" for about £1,200 each.
The cult also offers a mineral elixir called "kigensui", which, it says, cures diseases such as cancer. The bottles, which sell for about several hundred pounds, are thought to contain little more than normal water. Soaks in a full bath of the supposedly magical liquid are also available for a price, and many members take them because cult rules forbid them from visiting mainstream doctors.
The cult's religious convictions are based loosely on Shintoism, the traditional animist belief system of Japan that makes deities out of trees, waterfalls and other natural phenomena.