As a historic general election looms on Aug. 30, Japan’s long-suffering electorate faces a clear choice: vote for the conservative party that has virtually monopolized power since 1955, or opt for its more liberal but untested rival, which promises long-awaited reform. For those with a taste for the apocalyptic, however, there is always the Happiness Realization Party.

Offering what it calls a “third choice,” the Happies have an eye-catching manifesto: multiply Japan’s population by 2 1/2 to 300 million and make it the world’s No. 1 economic power, and rapidly rearm for conflict with North Korea and China. If elected, the party’s lawmakers will invite millions of foreigners to work here, inject religion into all areas of life, and fight to overcome Japan’s “colonial” mentality, which has “fettered” the nation’s true claim to global leadership.

A Happiness commercial posted on YouTube last week lays out the stakes. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is preparing to nuke Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, bring Japan to its knees and enslave its people. “Japan will be unable to do anything about this because of its Constitution,” Kim sneers in the clip, referring to the so-called pacifist clause — Article 9 — of the 1947 document, written under U.S. Occupation, which renounces the right to wage war.

Against pictures of a mushroom cloud exploding over Tokyo and red ink slowly drowning the nation, the narrator warns that China ultimately lurks behind this plot. “With a population of 1.3 billion, China will rule the world,” intones the voice of Kim. “And North Korea will be No. 2.” Neither the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, nor their likely successors, the Democratic Party of Japan, have an answer to this threat, says the party. “The very existence of the nation hangs in the balance.”

For those wondering how the narrator is privy to the thoughts of the world’s most reclusive leader, the answer is simple: The Happies have a hotline direct to his subconscious.

A book released recently, “The Guardian Spirit of Kim Jong Il Speaks,” by party founder and President Ryuho Okawa, explains that the voice of Kim’s “guardian spirit” warned him of the North’s plans. Okawa also tunes into the thoughts of Japan’s wartime monarch, Emperor Hirohito, and his deceased predecessors.

Being able to commune with the dead is but one string to Master Okawa’s bow. A reincarnation of Buddha, the party’s Web site records how he achieved Great Enlightenment in 1981 “and awakened to the hidden part of his consciousness, El Cantare, whose mission is to bring happiness to all humanity.” Before he founded the Happy Science (Kofuku no Kagaku) religion in 1986 he wrote books in which he channeled the spirits of Muhammad, Christ, Buddha, Confucius and Mozart. Conveniently, if improbably speaking in Japanese, the prophets had much the same message: Japan is the world’s greatest power and should ditch its Constitution, rearm and lead the world.

Okawa, 53, a University of Tokyo graduate, has reportedly written 500 books — about 18 per year since he attained enlightenment. His wife, Kyoko, until last week the leader of the HRP — Happy Science’s political wing — is also a Buddhist saint: the reborn Aphrodite and the bodhisattva of wisdom and intellect.

So far at least, the press has largely ignored this exotic third way. For many, the Happies smell suspiciously like a cult, but they are certainly taking the election seriously. In a rare interview with the respected magazine Bungei Shunju last month, Master Okawa explained that they have fielded candidates in every electoral district in the country — more than the ruling LDP. “Organizationally, we are stronger than either the LDP or DPJ,” he boasted, citing Happy Science’s network of believers.

Asked if it was true that he decided to enter politics after being contacted by the spirits, he replied: “Yes, it’s true. But it’s up to people to decide whether to believe it or not.”

The Happies claim to have distributed 11 million copies of their bible, “Shoshin Hogo” (“The Dharma of the Right Mind”), in Japan since 1986, and opened 200 local temples. Okawa’s books, mixing new-age philosophy with extreme neoliberal views, have sold millions more, reportedly providing the funding for their campaign. Startlingly, Okawa claims that 100 lawmakers in the Diet also support their beliefs. Although there is no independent proof of this, some lawmakers appear to be close to the party: former LDP politician and current Chiba Gov. Kensaku Morita, for example, published an article in Happy Science’s monthly publication in 2008.

Followers say that after nearly two decades of economic and social problems that have sapped Japan’s confidence, they are attracted to Okawa’s support for a strong, resolute nation. “Japan is pitiful today,” says Hiroko Hirota, 52, a Happy Science member who works as a nurse in Tokyo. “We can’t keep depending on the U.S. and the rest of the world. We have to stand up for ourselves.”

Those views, and the Happies’ program of radical conservatism and personal self-help, echo the Christian fundamentalist movement in the U.S., points out Tomohiro Machiyama, a journalist who was once sued by Happy Science for criticizing them in print. “It’s the idea that you’re the elite, the ones chosen by God. It’s an attempt to bring social Darwinism to Japanese politics.”

In their quest to rebuild what they call a lively, powerful country, the Happies are also prepared to tackle a key political taboo, says Koichi Maeda, an election candidate for the party in Tokyo: opening the drawbridge to fortress Japan. “Other political parties only look at the problems in front of their faces; we’re looking at 20, 30 years down the line, when we can no longer pay for the social security of our elders. We want to make this a country like America: open and genki.”

As part of its project to create a “300 million-person nation by the year 2030” and “make Japan’s GDP No. 1 in the world,” the party promises to accept more immigrants. “People will say that foreigners from Asia bring crime,” accepts Maeda. “But people think like that because foreigners don’t study Japanese and learn how to live here. We will change that situation.”

Translating those beliefs into political power has proved easier said than done. Tokyo voters shunned the Happies’ candidates in last month’s municipal election. “Parties that are too openly backed by a religious organization have a really hard time getting broader support in Japan,” explains Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo’s Sophia University.

New Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partner, which is controversially backed by the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, has “real mobilization power,” acknowledges Nakano. But he thinks it is unlikely that the Happies can rival them. “I doubt that the party has a comparable army of dedicated supporters, in spite of the public display of its money and clout.”

Tokyoites had their fill of apocalyptic cults in the 1990s when Aum Shinrikyo — also led by a guru who could commune with the spirits — gassed the Tokyo subway in 1995 in a bizarre plot to take over the government. Twelve people died and 5,000 were injured in what remains Japan’s worst terrorist attack. Machiyama sees obvious parallels with the Happies. “They both attract people who consider themselves elites. Aum followers were highly educated but they were social losers. They wondered ‘Why can’t I get ahead?’ “

But the Happies reject any comparisons with Aum, and indeed claim that Okawa foresaw the cult’s crimes long before the police or media. “It was Master Okawa who warned the police that Aum was planning to spray sarin gas over Tokyo from above, which could have killed 1 million people,” says HRP spokesman Yasunori Matsumoto.

Shoko Egawa, an investigative journalist who was almost murdered by Aum followers after she sounded early alarm bells, has also noted the similarities — Aum famously turned deadly after its unappealing stew of religion, doomsday science and politics was rejected by voters in 1990. Its attack came as Japan struggled with the fallout from a profound economic transition that has only deepened since. “The worry is what will happen to Happy Science after they fail in this election,” says Egawa. “That’s the unknown that we must think about.”

Okawa also rejects any talk of heading a cult, and says the lack of press interest in the party is unimportant. “We are only beginning,” he told a group of 2,000 followers recently in Shinjuku. “The media has failed to recognize this. We will grow 10-fold, 100-fold, 1,000-fold. This is not the work of humans, it is the work of God.”

As he spoke, tears rolled down the face of one believer watching the speech on a monitor. “It’s beautiful,” she said.

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