TOKYO - Lights go off. White smoke rises on stage. A round-faced, chubby man in a dark business suit appears in a spotlight before thousands of admirers. He claims he's Japan's messiah, the reincarnation of Buddha.
The man portrays the Japanese as a chosen people destined to destroy the United States and the Soviet Union and make China "a slave."
Not too long before this recent speech in Yokohama, Ryuho Okawa was widely dismissed as just another evangelist on the fringes of a work-driven nation starved for spiritual identity.
Lately, however, he has begun to alarm many Japanese with his ultra-nationalist preaching and his bullying response to a skeptical news media. What's more, his group's membership is swelling.
At Okawa's 35th birthday celebration in July, for which 50,000 supporters gathered, he claimed that membership in his five-year-old Institute for Research in Human Happiness has grown to 2 million.
By the turn of the century, Okawa declared, he will have converted all 123 million Japanese to help create his "utopia."
In his book "Nostradamus: Fearful Prophecies," Okawa asserts that only the Japanese Leviathan will survive the imminent end of the world after destroying the U.S. and the Soviet Union:
"In the 21st century, there will be no enemies for Leviathan. It will slash throats of the old eagle and the exhausted red bear, and laugh at the aging Europe. It will use China as a slave and Korea as a prostitute."
Elsewhere in the book, he mocks American "civilization, which produced nothing more than weapons, cars, Coca Cola and hamburgers."
Okawa's ideas have been viewed as fascist or even reminiscent of Japan's militarism of the 1930s, when the government portrayed its aggression in Asia as a "co-prosperity sphere" imposed by a nation born to rule.
"It's rather scary and reminds me of the rise of Nazism," says Hiromi Shimada, assistant professor of literature at Nihon Women's University.
Many were alarmed last month at a demonstration of Okawa's resolve.
A weekly magazine, Friday, had quoted an ex-leader of another new religion as saying Okawa had suffered from depression. So Okawa's followers flooded Kodansha Ltd., the magazine's publisher, with hate calls and facsimile messages for days, virtually blocking business.
Okawa's group then sued Kodansha, Friday and several writers, demanding $11 million in compensation for "disgracing Okawa." Supporters of Okawa have demanded the magazine be banned.
"I felt this kind of action to be extreme and violent and that it endangered the media's freedom of speech," said Takeshi Maezawa, who writes on media issues for the Yomiuri newspaper.
Though some people question Okawa's sanity, others say he is just a very smart businessman.
"It is well-planned and organized, and very much manipulated," said Shigeru Nishiyama, a religion expert at Toyo University.
Many taxis in Tokyo's metropolitan area carry the group's promotional brochures, while major bookstores have big Okawa sections. Television commercials advertise his books.
Annual revenues are about $45 million, most of it from donations, according to Teikoku Data Bank, a research company.
Group spokesmen admit that up to 90 percent of their members do nothing more than subscribe to a monthly magazine, "Science of Happiness," for $100 a year. But they say as many as 200,000 people have become "true members." Critics put that number as low as 20,000.
To become a true member, one has to read 10 of Okawa's books and pass exams on them. The conservative, achievement-oriented approach is an eerie echo of Japan's educational and economic system, right down to Okawa's headquarters on the fourth floor of a 30-story high-rise in central Tokyo.
The movement is the largest of several "new religions" to crop up in Japan in recent years. With total membership in the millions, the cults often employ mystic rituals, but none is believed as nationalistic as Okawa's.
Researchers say 40 to 60 percent of new religion members are in their 20s and many are trying to fill a spiritual void left by Japan's single-minded postwar drive for economic strength.
Others are turning to new religions as a kind of how-to course in worldly achievement.
Born in 1956, Okawa studied law at Tokyo University. He gave up his hope of becoming a lawyer or a government official after failing his exams and joined a major trading firm, he said in "The Laws of the Sun," one of his best sellers.
In 1986, he started the group on the advice of many other spirits, including Jesus Christ and Japan's sun goddess, Okawa said.
His gospel consists of ideas from a patchwork of established religions and historical figures, among them Jesus Christ, Moses, Confucius, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. Okawa considers himself the reincarnation of some of them.
"I came here as more than the Messiah," he says in another book. "This universe, this world were based on my words and my teachings."