Happy Science, which boasts millions of followers, is led by a man who channels Buddha (and Jesus and Freddie Mercury) and says he can defeat the coronavirus. For a fee.
When New York went into lockdown last month, emissaries of a religious group called Happy Science showed up in a ghostly Times Square to deliver a peculiar end-of-days gospel. They wore ritual golden sashes and huddled in a semicircle.
"Doomsday may seem to be coming," a young minister said.
"But the greatest saviour," he continued, "our master, is here on earth."
One or two passersby lingered, taking in the gloomy scene. Of the few people who were on the street, most rushed past.
None of this was as haphazard as it seemed.
Happy Science is an enormous and powerful enterprise claiming millions of adherents and tens of thousands of missionary outposts across the world. Secretive, hostile to the media, and structured around a tiered, pay-to-progress system of membership, they're sometimes called Tokyo's answer to Scientology.
"To many," The Japan Times wrote in 2009, "the Happies smell suspiciously like a cult."
The coronavirus pandemic has proved to be a perfect vehicle for the religion's apocalyptic themes and esoteric doctrines. Its many, many texts are filled with UFOs, lost continents and demonic warfare; now they detail the supernatural and extraterrestrial origins of the virus.
And in addition to the new DVDs, CDs and books for sale, Happy Science is offering "spiritual vaccines" — for a fee, the faithful can be blessed with a ritual prayer to ward off and cure the disease.
In Times Square, the minister wrapped up his speech with a special incantation. He lifted his arms and chopped them to and fro, shouting as he went. His flock cheered and waved homemade placards.
One read, "Happy Science Knows the Truth!"
The exalted star at the centre of the Happy Science universe is a former Wall Street trader named Ryuho Okawa, whose followers, incredibly, regard him as the incarnation of a supreme being from Venus. What's more, he also claims to channel the spirits of hundreds of characters, dead and alive, like Freddie Mercury, Barack Obama and Steve Jobs. Okawa almost never appears before the media and, via aides, declined requests to speak.
Before his extravagant reinvention, Okawa was born Takashi Nakagawa in 1956, on the southern island of Shikoku in Japan. The postwar decades in Japan had seen a surge in new and novel forms of religion that blended imported New Age texts with longstanding Japanese traditions. It was in this soul-searching mélange that Okawa came of age.
He attended Tokyo University and seemed poised to become a businessman. In the early 1980s, he joined one of the country's largest trading firms and said he spent a year working at its Manhattan office.
But Okawa would pursue another career.
Around this time, he came to believe he was in contact with wise men from the past, like Buddha and Jesus. They told him he was chosen to spiritually redeem a world gone to rack and ruin. Who was he to say no?
"It was up to me," he later wrote, "to gather all the peoples of the world into this new faith."
Okawa returned to Tokyo, where he tapped into the city's burgeoning metaphysical scene and attracted a following. Playing on the economic anxiety of the early 1990s, he self-published several tracts with titles like "The Terrifying Revelations of Nostradamus" and "The Great Warnings of Allah."
The books were hits. And as more flooded out, the tales became more and more dazzling. At first Okawa was just a channel for far-flung spirits. Then he was a reincarnated Buddha. Eventually he proclaimed himself the supreme deity of this world. And remarkably, his followers agreed.
Life on earth, Okawa came to teach, was engineered millions of years ago by a creator god from Venus named El Cantare who had been reincarnated over the years as deities and enlightened masters, like Hermes, Thoth from Atlantis, Odin, Buddha and an Incan king named Rient Arl Croud. The latest incarnation of El Cantare, of course, was Okawa himself.
Soon, Happy Science would fill stadiums with ceremonies that blended theatrical cosplay and what looked like revelation. Okawa might leap from a mock UFO, clad in feathery angel wings as smoke machines billowed.
Between the growing media franchise and fees and donations, Okawa's project made him exceptionally rich. By some estimates, Happy Science had revenues of US$45 million ($75.5 million) a year.
But there was always a dark side, never far from the surface.
In the mid-1990s, Happy Science's rivalry with another doomsday group, Aum Shinrikyo, took an ugly turn. Aum first tried to assassinate Okawa, then later launched an attack on the Tokyo subway with sarin nerve gas, killing 13 and injuring thousands.
Yet where other enterprising messiahs fell aside, Okawa persisted. Happy Science has since opened private schools in Japan, and in 2009 it branched into politics, with a right-wing platform that has seen limited success in local elections.
Okawa has continued to churn out books, which now number more than 2,000, most of them transcriptions of lectures. A film division also puts out feature-length anime.
Meanwhile, Happy Science has left scores of disaffected members in its wake. Opponents accuse the group of fleecing acolytes in what they say amounts to a pyramid scheme. Much to the embarrassment of Okawa, his own son Hiroshi (once primed as a successor) is now one of Happy Science's most vocal critics.
Hiroshi Okawa, in a message, said of his father: "He claimed to have received the 'messages of God,' he relentlessly lied to his followers."
He added, "I believe what my father does is complete nonsense."
Happy Science's claims of 11 million members also seem unlikely. When Okawa's first wife, Kyoko, left the group in 2011 she estimated real membership was 30,000.
For his part, Okawa denounced his estranged family as demonic. He has since remarried.
So, troubled at home, the Happies have set sights on America, where they have found a receptive, if modest, welcome. In 2008, Happy Science purchased a Manhattan townhouse and, after renovations, installed its North American headquarters here, relocating from a small office in New Jersey. For the grand opening, Okawa flew in with his entourage to hold an inaugural lecture that packed the sanctuary and an overflow room downstairs.
The building is on a shaded Tribeca alley, sandwiched incongruously between espresso cafes and designer boutiques. Looped videos of Okawa's lectures play on a large screen facing the street.
One afternoon before the shutdown in New York, Yushi Hagimoto, the head minister in the city, sat in the foyer tidying up wares. Glittering amulets and jewelry were for sale. A golden statue of El Cantare, his face modelled on Okawa's, sat at the dimmed central altar.
Hundreds of Happy Science texts lined the shelves, with titles like Alien Invasion, 7 Future Predictions, Spiritual Message From the Guardian Spirit of Donald Trump, and so on.
"The books about demons are very popular," Hagimoto said.
When news broke this year about a deadly virus spreading from China, Happy Science was quick to pivot to this novel cataclysm.
Beginning in January, Okawa claimed to receive messages from a trio of extraterrestrials — going by the unfamiliar names R.A. Goal, Metatron and Yaidron — and the spirits of Chinese leaders, including Xi Jinping. (The guardian angels of Boris Johnson, John Lennon and Angela Merkel also sent transmissions.)
According to Happy Science, the virus was created as a bioweapon by the Chinese government in Wuhan, and then, in a twist, it was unleashed by a UFO to punish the communists for their godless ways. It has spread to other lands that lack true faith.
This material was quickly published as three booklets in Japanese and has now been translated in English this month as "Spiritual Reading of Novel Coronavirus Infection Originated in China."
But there is hope for the faithful, the Happies say. Along with the book series, they now sell coronavirus-themed DVDs and CDs of Okawa lecturing; the sound alone of his voice is meant to hold immune-boosting power.
In one video clip, Okawa advised, "You must knock out the coronavirus with your El Cantare belief."
In another, "It will become like, 'Out with the demons, in with the good fortune.'"
Okawa also introduced the sacred text of a new ritual purported to miraculously cure the disease. It is conducted in private at temples, in exchange for donations. Japanese ads list several prices for virus-related blessings, going from US$100 ($170) to more than US$400 ($670).
Numerous members of the Tribeca congregation have requested the coronavirus prayer.
"It's amazing," Hagimoto said. "We're seeing people being cured."
In the early days of the virus, Happy Science had proudly kept its Manhattan doors open for business even as some churches closed. But as infections in the city soared, the temple announced that it would lock up.
Beginning this month, Happy Science will administer spiritual vaccines remotely.
Written by: Sam Kestenbaum
Photographs by: Adrienne Grunwald
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES