In the run-up to Dec. 21, 2012 — the date of Earth’s annihilation, according to a supposed Mayan prophecy — a Japanese mystic urged mankind to abandon all fear. Master Ryuho Okawa would intervene with the cosmos to avert Armageddon.
He stood before adherents — draped in spangly fabric, black hair shaped in a perfect coif — and declared in a warbling voice: “There shall be no ending of the world because I have my mission … and my mission is not over yet!”
Okawa is the 66-year-old leader of Happy Science, a religion he founded in the mid-1980s after leaving behind a stockbroker career. However, this incarnation is merely his current form. Over the millennia, a benevolent alien God named El Cantare, from Venus, has inhabited legendary figures: Socrates, Jesus, Buddha and, at present, Okawa. So he claims.
Though Japan’s population is famously averse to organized religion (more than half claim no religious affiliation), self-avowed prophets have long emerged from the fringes of society in attempts to fill the spiritual void. Happy Science is among the most enduring and far-reaching “new religious movement,” as they’re called in Japan. The organization runs dozens of missionary offices overseas, including a North American bastion in Manhattan. It also boasts more than 10 million adherents.
But this claim — like much of its founders’ teachings — is fantastical, according to Hiroshi Okawa, 33, the master’s eldest son. Once groomed as a successor, Hiroshi defected five years ago, calling his father’s operation a “cult” and a profit-machine endlessly searching for fresh converts.
“Ten million believers is a complete lie,” Hiroshi told The World. “I’d say 13,000 at most. I know this because I had inside information and access to their resources.”
(The Happy Science organization turned down an interview request from The World.)
Much of the organization’s revenue comes from followers’ donations. According to Happy Science representatives: “It really is a spiritual discipline to get rid of worldly attachments. It’s just to show your love and gratitude to God.”
New converts, after swearing their belief in El Cantare, provide their address and bank account details.
Prophetic books are Happy Science’s other major revenue stream. Master Okawa will frequently go into a trance, summon the spirit of some legendary figure and report their deepest thoughts, which are then transcribed and sold. He’s channeled Zeus, Moses, Joan of Arc, Osama bin Laden and living figures too: Hillary Clinton, Kim Jong-un and Leonardo DiCaprio.
“He doesn’t believe any of it,” Hiroshi Okawa said. “It’s a fantasy world — and he knows it.”
Hiroshi said that he too was once urged by the organization to feign supernatural powers. He studied at his father’s side, observing spiritual channelings, often in front of other top Happy Science officials.
“You ask some spirit to come inside you and start talking as if you’re them. It’s just a performance.”
“I remember Ryuho [Okawa] trying to channel Michael Jackson’s spirit and making that iconic sound” — hee, hee! — “and the impersonation was so bad. Luckily he didn’t ask me to try but, if he did, I was ready to do my impersonation [of the pop star] as best as I could.”
(Hiroshi later parlayed skills learned from channeling sessions into acting; he starred in and directed “Gray Zone,” a popular film in Japan.)
Happy Science’s follower count in Japan is likely maxed out, according to Hiroshi, and that has forced Okawa to increasingly target the West — namely America.
“He wants to be king of the world. That’s his sole motivation. But if you want to rule the world, you must first become king of America.”
In recent years, Master Okawa has intensively courted Donald Trump supporters with books such as “The Trump Secret,” “Trump Shall Never Die” and other titles drawn from supposed channelings of Trump’s eternal soul. Not only does Trump possess the “spirit of bushido” (a moral code governing ancient samurai), according to Okawa, he is also the reincarnation of America’s founder: George Washington.
The mystic’s other recent pronouncements appear calibrated to entice right-wing conspiracy theorists: China’s government is working behind Greta Thunberg; Xi Jinping is inhabited by a malevolent alien alter ego named “Xi Jinping X”; COVID-19 can be cured by “spiritual vaccines,” available at Happy Science outposts in eight US states, including Florida, Georgia and New Jersey.
The stated mission of Okawa’s organization is to spread freedom, truth and happiness. But Hiroshi warns potential converts to stay away, contending that their donations will only make his father even richer. (The organization, in denouncing Hiroshi, claims he is “jealous” and likens his falling out to the rift between Jesus Christ and Judas.)
Master Okawa, according to his son, lives “like a Hollywood star” in a Tokyo glam district, Shirokane, inhabiting a four-story mansion complete with a pool, sauna and tennis courts — often surrounded by “pleasant-looking” female secretaries.
“He’s originally from a small village in a mountainous area of Japan,” Hiroshi said, “and grew up with an elder brother who was extremely smart, referred to as a prodigy. Nobody paid attention to little Ryuho [Okawa] so he developed an inferiority complex, desperate for someone to look at him instead of his older brother.”
Master Okawa, according to his son, spends much of his time inside his mansion grousing about politics, with news channels such as CNN International playing the background, “just going on and on about this or that prime minister.”
It’s ironic, Hiroshi said, but the Veunsian deity who founded Happy Science does not appear all that happy himself.