Yuko Higuchi recently quit her high-powered job at an international investment company to work in Tokyo for Kofuku-no-Kagaku, a fast-growing Japanese religion also known as the Institute for Research in Human Happiness.
"I was interested in some sort of movement to improve the world, but couldn't find a suitable one," the 35-year-old Higuchi said. In her view, Buddhism and Shinto, Japan's oldest religions, are spiritually exhausted.
"Buddhist temples . . . are for sightseeing. They have no commitment to the modern world, and their teachings are outdated. As for Shinto, I couldn't find any reasonable explanation for what it does. It was just ritual and not applicable outside Japan."
Higuchi's views are widespread in Japan these days.
A growing number of Japanese - many of them urbanites in their 30s and 40s - are seeking spiritual haven in what is called the "New Religion" movement, an amalgam of faiths formed this century, and in "new New Religions" such as Kofuku-no-Kagaku that have sprung up since the 1980s.
Followers of these avant-garde movements claim they are on a search for meaning and transcendence in a world dominated by conflict and alienation. But the quest has also spawned controversial - and perhaps sinister - groups that have cast a shadow across Japan's social landscape.
Consider the Tokyo subway-system gassing in March.
Aum Shinrikyo, a secretive Japanese religion formed in the early 1980s, is the leading suspect in that incident, which killed 12 and sickened thousands, and a series of other gas attacks in Japan. The group has denied involvement.
For Japanese citizens repulsed by the demanding yogic practices and cultish atmosphere of groups like Aum Shinrikyo, yet left spiritually hungry by Buddhism and Shinto, new movements such as Kofuku-no-Kagaku represent alluring options.
In a country of 125 million, 70 percent profess no religious membership. Yet 10 percent to 20 percent of the population is active in some new religion, said Nobutaka Inoue, a professor of Kokugakuin University.
"The biggest change that the new religions introduced was to make (the spiritual) world accessible to the average person instead of knowledge belonging to a religious elite," he said.
ROOTED IN REALITY
One way new religions have done that is by responding to changing social conditions in Japan.
Demographic shifts stemming from rapid economic growth and urbanization dealt a serious blow to Shinto and Buddhist practice. While relatively few Japanese are drawn to the daily practice of Buddhism, by force of habit they tend to rely on Buddhist rituals that memorialize the dead and on Shinto for wedding ceremonies.
Many new religions marry the promise of spiritual fulfillment with high-tech wizardry and mass marketing, an attractive draw for a post-war generation weaned on technology.
Kofuku-no-Kagaku - which claims 9 million members and has U.S. centers in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Honolulu, - sells magazines, books and videos with a list of titles that expands monthly.
A glimpse of an event sponsored by Kofuku-no-Kagaku underscores its broad appeal to young and middle-age Japanese.
Last July, Kofuku-no-Kagaku's founder, Ryuho Okawa, 38, addressed 50,000 followers at the Tokyo Dome at a $50-per-ticket birthday celebration in his honor.
Events included original music, video and theater, all of it relayed across Japan via satellite.
Okawa appeared near the end of the show, dressed in Incan attire with a feather headpiece and rising from a mock flying saucer.
His message was an attractive one for a nation suffering grave economic problems and still sorting out the legacy of its role in World War II.
Incorporating elements of Buddhism, Christianity, Western occultism and world mythology, Kofuku-no-Kagaku claims its mission is to unify all existing religions and ultimately create a Utopia or a "Buddhaland."
The current cornerstone of that mission is a campaign to eradicate pornography - or "spiritual pollution" - from Japanese society.
The group's English slogan is "Stop The Hair Nude," a reference to nude photos that show pubic hair and are known as "hair nude" pictures in Japan.
Late last year, 60,000 Kofuku-no-Kagaku followers marched against pornography.
Kuniko Numata, a 45-year-old restaurateur, joined Kofuku-no-Kagaku after reading some books by Okawa.
"I read about Swedenborg and Nichiren," said Numata, referring to the 13th-century priest who established the Nichiren Buddhist sect. ". . . His (Okawa's) thoughts resonated with me."
Her family's traditional religion, the mystical Shingon Buddhist sect, "was full of contradictions, and I wanted answers," Numata added.
"But all I got was theory."
A NATION OF SKEPTICS
Despite Kofuku-no-Kagaku's growing popularity, it seeks even greater recognition in a society that remains, at root, skeptical of religion and quick to accuse religious organizations of harboring money-making desires or clinging to pre-World War II values.
"To be religious in Japan is still synonymous with being weak or strange," says Kokyo Murakami, of the government's religious-affairs division.
Okawa, a Tokyo University law-school graduate who also studied international finance at New York University, quit a job in the business world to establish Kofuku-no-Kagaku after claiming a revelation that his mission is to save humankind.
Okawa, whose real name is Takeshi Nakagawa, is revered as a living deity, the reincarnation of Buddha himself.
His wife Kyoko, also a Tokyo University graduate, claims knowledge of past lives too, including that of Florence Nightingale.
Members view Kofuku-no-Kagaku as a form of Buddhism, with the doctrines of karma and reincarnation central to its belief system.
Present conditions can be explained in terms of past lives, and everyone is entirely responsible for who he or she is in the present, adherents believe.
Thus, most physical handicaps are attributed to deeds committed in former lives.
The religion also has an unusual view of poverty.
There are rituals such as the "Supplication for Economic Prosperity," based on the idea that people are poor because they lack the spirit of offering.