Police raid Japanese cult's headquarters after woman is beaten to death

Tokyo, Japan - The headquarters of an obscure Japanese cult, whose devotees toss dead sardines and fruit into local rivers as a purification ritual, was raided today after one of its followers was beaten to death.

Amid fears that the Kigenkai sect might have been responsible for past incidents of violence, police entered several of the group's premises and took away more than a dozen of its leaders for questioning. They plan to extend their sweep to more than 20 facilities over the next few days.

Officers believe that the secretive cult was responsible for the death of Motoko Okuno, a 63-year old sushi restaurant owner and herself a member of the sect. She was admitted to hospital late last month, the victim of a savage attack which she did not survive.

The initial focus of the investigation was on the woman’s husband, daughters and son-in-law, who said that the violence had erupted as a result of persistent family quarrels.

But when it was disclosed that the family were members of the sect, police dismissed their confessions as fake and began to suspect that the cult might have been involved itself.

Officers believe that Ms Okuno was beaten at one of the cult’s facilities, which include an elaborate Shinto-style shrine. Her husband, who is 35, remains under suspicion and has been re-arrested for destroying evidence. The cult is believed to have a rule that anyone marrying a member must themselves become devotees of the Kigenkai.

The image of religious cults in Japan was forever tarnished by the violence of the Aum Shinrikyo sect which was responsible for the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo underground that killed 12 and injured 3,800 in 1995. Its leader, Shoko Asahara, is facing the death penalty for his role in masterminding the attacks.

The Panawave Laboratory is another Japanese cult whose members display bizarre behaviour. Members draped trees and river banks in white sheets to protect themselves from killer electromagnetic waves and an Armageddon that did not occur as expected in May 2003.

The Kigenkai cult, whose main office is in the northwestern prefecture of Nagano, is thought to have about 300 followers in Japan and has been active for more than 35 years. For the past decade, it has even been officially registered with the Japanese ministry of education as a religious institution.

Residents of Komoro, the town nearest to the group’s headquarters take a dim view of its activities, which include a ceremony in which large quantities of fruit, vegetables and fried food are hurled into the local river.

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 — for the equivalent of several hundred pounds per 720ml measure — a mineral elixir called “kigensui” which purports to cure incurable diseases such as cancer.

The bottles are thought to contain little more than normal water. Soaks in a full bath of the magical liquid are also available, at a price.

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.

In a break from the usual traditions of Shintoism the cult’s members also worship the personality of their founder, who died several years ago. His daughter is now understood to have taken over as head of the cult and is said to maintain a lavish lifestyle — all tax-free under Japan’s generous rules governing religious orders.