Tokyo -- When police entered the hotel room, they found a dead man's wife and son keeping vigil over the man's partially mummified body on the bed.
But when authorities tried to remove the body, the wife and son protested - saying he was still alive.
What ensued was a bizarre custody battle for a corpse that has pitted police against a fringe religious group. It also has deepened fears that, just five years after the nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subways, Japanese cults may once again be on the rise.
"Just when we thought it was safe again, something scary like this happens," said Chieko Oda, a 53-year-old Tokyo housewife. "I just can't believe it."
The family at the hotel near Tokyo's airport belonged to a hitherto unknown religious cult called Life Space. The cult is led by a scraggly-haired, silver-bearded former tax accountant claiming supernatural powers.
Police said the family checked into the hotel in July, and that Shinichi Kobayashi had probably been dead for several months before he was found last weekend. Members of the cult, however, say Kobayashi was undergoing treatment for an illness and required "complete rest."
"Until he was taken by the police, we believe he was alive," Kenji Kobayashi, the man's son, said after the body was cremated today. "We, his family, all believe that."
To prove he was gradually recovering, cult members took photos of the corpse each day. The changes they claimed were indications of life - the corpse's darkening color, for example - were merely signs of decomposition, police say.
Police do not suspect foul play in Kobayashi's death, however, and no charges have been filed.
Japan in recent years has seen a swell in the number of new religious groups and occult movements. Experts are divided over the reasons, but many believe the postwar stress on material wealth has left people feeling a need for spiritual fulfillment that mainstream, conservative religions - mostly Shinto and Buddhism - have failed to satisfy.
Life Space would seem to be a good example of the kind of New Age fringe groups that are growing in popularity.
At a news conference Thursday, Life Space leader Koji Takahashi, 62, described himself as a superhuman being who does not need to eat, wash or sleep. His teachings blend elements of Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism with claims of telepathic powers and supernatural healing skills.
"I am a guru," he said. "I need not bathe because I cannot get dirty."
Few other details, including how many members the group has, were immediately clear.
The battle over Kobayashi's mummified body has dominated TV news reports over the past week and fanned calls from the public for tighter controls on fringe groups. But official concern was already high.
Parliament is now debating the introduction of tough new laws to crack down on the Aum Shinri Kyo doomsday cult, accused of killing 12 people in the 1995 subway attack. The new laws would allow the government to place Aum under surveillance and inspect its facilities at will. A related bill also would make it easier to seize the cult's assets.