Last month, when New York began quarantining, emissaries from a religious group called Happy Science they appeared in Times Square to proclaim their peculiar end-of-day gospel. They wore gold-colored ritual sashes and curled up in a semicircle.

“It seems that the day of the Last Judgment is approaching”, said a young minister. “But the greatest savior, our teacher, is here on earth.”

One or two passers-by stared at the grim scene. However, most of the few people on the street passed quickly.

None of this was as random as it seemed.

Happy Science is a huge and powerful company which claims to have millions of adherents and tens of thousands of headquarters with missionaries around the world. They are characterized by their discretion as well as being hostile towards the media and have developed a structure around a tiered membership system and pay-for-progress, and are sometimes defined as Tokyo’s response to Scientology.

“For many,” wrote the Japan Times in 2009, “Happy Science suspiciously smells of worship.”

The coronavirus pandemic has proven to be a perfect vehicle for apocalyptic themes and esoteric religious doctrines. The multiple texts of that movement are full of UFOs, lost continents, and demonic wars; And now they detail the supernatural and extraterrestrial origins of the virus.

In addition to the new DVDs, CDs, and books for sale, Happy Science offers “spiritual vaccines” (For a fee, worshipers can be blessed with a ritual prayer to prevent and cure disease.)

In Times Square, the minister concluded his speech with a special charm. He raised his arms and waved them back and forth, screaming as he advanced. Her flock cheered as they waved homemade banners.

In one it read: “Happy Science knows the truth!”

The star at the center of the Happy Science universe is a former Wall Street runner named Ryuho Okawa, whose followers, incredibly, they consider him the incarnation of a supreme being from Venus. In addition, he also claims that he channels the spirits of hundreds of characters, living and dead, such as Freddie Mercury, Barack Obama, and Steve Jobs. Okawa almost never makes appearances in the media and, through assistants, rejected requests to be interviewed.

Before his flamboyant reinvention, Okawa was born as Takashi Nakagawa in 1956, on the southern island of Shikoku in Japan. During the postwar decades, Japan experienced the rise of new and novel forms of religion that combined New Age texts with ancient Japanese traditions. In that period of spiritual searching, Okawa came of age.

He attended the University of Tokyo and seemed ready to become a businessman. In the early 1980s, he began working at one of the largest commercial firms in the country, and said he spent a year working at its Manhattan offices.

But Okawa began to take an interest in another career.

Around that time, He came to believe that he was in contact with sages of the past like Buddha and Jesus. They told him that he had been chosen to spiritually redeem a world that had gone to ruin. Who was he to say no?

“It is up to me,” he later wrote, “to gather all the peoples of the world in this new faith.”

Okawa returned to Tokyo, where he took advantage of the city’s burgeoning metaphysical scene and began to gain followers. Taking advantage of the economic anxiety of the early 1990s, He published several books with titles such as “The Terrible Revelations of Nostradamus” and “The Great Warnings of Allah”.

The books were great successes. And, as he became more influential, his stories became increasingly dazzling. At first, Okawa was only a channel for remote spirits. Then he became a reincarnated Buddha. Finally he proclaimed himself as the supreme deity of this world. And, remarkably, his followers agreed.

But, not far from the surface, always there was a dark side.

In the mid-1990s, Happy Science’s rivalry with another end of the world group, called Aum Shinrikyo, flared up. That sect tried to assassinate Okawa and then launched an attack on the Tokyo subway with sarin gas, causing thirteen deaths. and wounded thousands of people.

Although other enterprising messiahs began to fall, Okawa persisted. Happy Science has opened private schools in Japan, and in 2009 dabbled in politics with a right-wing platform that has had limited success in local elections.

Okawa has continued to produce books, which now number more than 2,000 titles, most of which are conference transcripts. A film division also develops anime feature films.

Meanwhile, Happy Science has left many members unhappy. Opponents accuse the group of forging a system that amounts to a pyramid scheme. Much to Okawa’s embarrassment, his own son Hiroshi (who was once seen as his successor) is now one of Happy Science’s harshest critics.

In a message, Hiroshi Okawa said of his father: “He claims to have received the ‘messages from God,’ but he lies to his followers relentlessly. “

And added: “I think what my father does is complete nonsense.”

Happy Science’s claims that it has 11 million members also seem unlikely. When Okawa’s first wife Kyoko left the group in 2011, she estimated the actual membership to be 30,000.

For his part, Okawa has declared that those members of his family are demonic. Since then he remarried.

Due to the problems they face at home, adherents of Happy Science have set their sights on the United States, where they have had a positive, but modest reception. In 2008, Happy Science bought a house in Manhattan and, after renovating it, installed its headquarters in North America there, moving its operations from a small office that was located in New Jersey. For the grand opening, Okawa flew with his entourage and held an inaugural conference that filled the shrine and overflowed a room.

The building is in a shady alley in Tribeca, and its location, between espresso cafes and designer clothing stores, generates some inconsistency. Videos of Okawa’s lectures are played on a large screen facing the street.

One afternoon before the emergency shutdown in New York, Yushi Hagimoto, the city’s chief minister, sat in the lobby ordering the movement’s items. Shining amulets and jewelry were for sale. A golden statue of El Cantare, a supreme deity whose face is inspired by Okawa’s, was on the central altar.

According to Happy Science, the virus was created as a biological weapon by the Chinese government in Wuhan, and then spread by a UFO to punish the Communists for their ungodly ways. And it has spread to other lands that lack true faith.

This material was quickly published in three pamphlets in Japanese and this month has been translated into English as “Spiritual Reading of Novel Coronavirus Infection Originated in China”.

But there is hope for the faithful, say the followers. Along with the book series, they now sell Okawa conference coronavirus-themed DVDs and CDs; the sound of your voice is intended to maintain the power of immune stimulation.

Okawa also presented the sacred text of a new ritual aimed at miraculously curing the disease. It is done privately in the temples, in exchange for donations. Japanese ads list the prices of virus-related blessings, which start at $ 100 and cost more than $ 400.

Many members of the Tribeca congregation have requested the coronavirus prayer.

“It’s incredible,” said Hagimoto. “We are seeing how people heal themselves.”

(c) The New York Times 2020