On January 6, just hours before white supremacists and QAnon conspiracy theorists invaded the United States Capitol building, a protest was unfolding a continent away. An estimated 1,000 people gathered in Hibiya Park that night in Tokyo’s central Chiyoda Ward, near the moat of the Imperial Palace and just blocks from Japan’s own national legislature.
The demonstrators were neither violent nor American, but in footage posted on social media, they are seen shouting “fight for Trump” and holding signs urging people to “Keep America Great.” As they were ushered along by police escorts, dozens waved American flags, and a handful carried Rising Sun flags, the chosen banner of Japanese nationalists and, to many, a symbol of the country’s violent imperial history. “Stop the steal” slogans were also present, accompanied by chants to “stop the CCP” — the Chinese Communist Party.
To make sense of the protest and an accompanying rise in pro-Trump rhetoric in Japan since the election, some publications have reported that QAnon has taken hold in the country. Imposing such an American frame, however, overlooks the dynamics on the ground. The “Support Trump from Japan” march was remarkable not because of its ties to QAnon or its size, but because it was one of four pro-Trump rallies organized in the weeks after the election by a fringe religion that has little name recognition outside of Japan.
Kofuku-no-Kagaku, often translated as Happy Science, has been called “Japan’s strangest cult” by Western news outlets, who point to the antics of its charismatic leader, its UFO conspiracy theories, and its claims last spring that it could defeat Covid-19 with “spiritual vaccines.” While these oddities have captured the attention of journalists, they distract from what’s really concerning about the group: its far-right political ambitions and tactical use of social media. “Framing them as the wacky cult from Japan I don’t think is particularly useful,” said Erica Baffelli, a scholar of Japanese new religions. “Neither,” she added, “is making them out as unique.”
A detailed review of the group’s social media channels in the wake of these protests, as well as interviews with scholars, journalists, and a former chairman of the group’s political party, show that Happy Science has established growing ties to conservative leaders in the U.S. What previous reporting missed is that Happy Science, following a strategy established by other fringe religions, has also built a social media apparatus to import harmful disinformation peddled by the American far-right and circulate it in Japan in service of its own political agenda.
The Happy Science Group encompasses the titular religion, the publishing house IRH Press, Happy Science University, a movie production company headlined by a converted starlet, and its political wing, the Happiness Realization Party (HRP). Taking a page out of the playbook of the Chinese pro-Trump religious group Falun Gong, Happy Science also operates a handful of political news accounts on YouTube. While the religion claims to have 11 million members in Japan, experts estimate the true number is a small fraction of that. But the group’s political content reaches far beyond its own ranks, and for months before and after the 2020 presidential election, it broadcast misinformation to at least hundreds of thousands of YouTube users in Japanese.
The most explicitly political Happy Science YouTube channel is The Fact, which presents a mix of news reels and talk show segments to its roughly 170,000 subscribers. A rotating cast of pundits sit down with HRP Chairperson Eiichi Satomura on a library studio set, lending an air of credibility to what are at times sensationalist and inaccurate discussions of international politics.
Launched in 2013, The Fact’s most widely viewed videos in recent months have been about the U.S. presidential election, including one segment called “Who planned the fraudulent election?” and another that promotes the widely debunked claim that the voting software company Dominion altered voting tallies. Some of these conspiracies were filtered through Robert Eldridge, a former U.S. Marine Corps official who was dismissed by the Pentagon in 2015 after surveillance footage from an American marine base in Okinawa was leaked by a Japanese nationalist group on YouTube.
In the weeks leading up to the election, The Fact republished an American documentary with Japanese subtitles that pushes unfounded theories purportedly tying Hunter Biden’s finances to the Chinese state. Originally produced by the conservative media company Blaze Media, much of its debunked commentary is narrated by Peter Schweizer, a notable conservative writer, who speaks over stock footage and an ominous soundtrack. That same month, Steve Bannon, an ousted Trump administration official and close associate of Schweizer, was also briefly interviewed on The Fact.
In a statement to Rest of World, Happy Science international spokesperson Taku Igata said that the organization is skeptical of media portrayals of the 2020 U.S. presidential election but has accepted the results. These videos, however, continue to appear on the group’s channels and attract new viewers.
Alongside The Fact, the most popular Happy Science offering on YouTube is The Wisdom Channel, which pushes out political monologues from the HRP’s director of foreign affairs, Yukihisa Oikawa, to over 450,000 subscribers. In the vlog-style videos, Oikawa sits on camera next to a small TV monitor that rotates through a slideshow featuring screenshots of news clippings and point-by-point rebuttals of mainstream media narratives. While both channels frequently violate YouTube’s policy on election-related misinformation, which bans false claims about the U.S. presidential outcome, some Happy Science videos on these topics are still being monetized on the platform. YouTube did not respond to several requests for comment.
Most of the commenters on these videos show no obvious interest in Happy Science’s spiritual teachings, but since the organization regards its political beliefs as an extension of religious doctrine, that may be of little concern. “The Happy Science leader’s political opinion is an order from God,” Yoshiro Fujikura, an independent journalist and cult-focused blogger who has been covering Happy Science since 2009, told Rest of World over email. “Social networking is mission work.”
Because the Happy Science Group has a history of filing libel charges against major Japanese publishers and rebutting international press coverage — it recently issued a statement titled “VICE, a public nuisance” — there are many as-of-yet unanswered questions about its evolution over the past few decades. Among them is why the group developed a newfound interest in American electoral politics. Before it ran a U.S.-oriented YouTube content machine, Happy Science was a print-first media operation focused mainly on Japan. What, then, does it stand to gain from getting into the pro-Trump disinformation business?
Videos on The Fact’s YouTube channel are branded in the top right corner with the Happy Science logo, the overlapping initials of Ryuho Okawa — the religion’s founder, CEO, and deity. Okawa is the chosen name of Takashi Nakagawa, who was born in a rural town on the island of Shikoku, which has since become a pilgrimage site for believers. Now in his ’60s, when he does appear in public, he often wears a pastel two-piece suit and an ornate celestial stole. His self-described spiritual awakening began in the mid-1980s, while he was a salaryman at a trading firm based in Tokyo. In 1986, he quit that job to start a religious study group dedicated to building a utopian society.
Okawa’s methodology is a bizarre mix of séance and historical fiction. Happy Science has long been known for its so-called “spiritual interviews,” in which Okawa channels the spirits of famous figures and has them speak through him — often in Japanese. Videos and firsthand accounts of these interviews depict the histrionic leader taking on the personas of long-dead celebrities, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Jesus Christ, and Margaret Thatcher, who share their takes on the societal ills of contemporary Japan. In 2016, Okawa set up a “dialogue” between George Washington and Donald Trump, serving as the mouthpiece for both men as they revealed that, in a past life, Trump had actually been the first American president. Once transcribed, these interviews are sold on e-commerce sites such as Amazon Japan and Rakuten.
Happy Science’s media ambitions go far beyond simply preaching Okawa’s teachings — publishing is also a key source of revenue and a means of injecting the group’s political beliefs into the mainstream. “The main weapon of Kofuku-no-Kagaku is the publishing house,” said Baffelli, describing how Happy Science books are mixed into the self-help and religion sections of bookstores, including Kinokuniya, Japan’s largest chain. The focus on book sales also illuminates another core part of the group’s belief system: “To Happy Science, happiness also means material happiness,” explained Baffelli. “There is this embrace of capitalist society — wealthiness as a sign of spiritual advancement.”
Okawa’s writing captured the imagination of many young people during the height of Japan’s 1980s economic boom. By the next decade, Happy Science was drawing thousands of devotees and potential converts to recruitment events in stadiums. But the gatherings largely went underground after March 20, 1995, when members of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas into several passenger cars in the Tokyo subway system, killing 13 people and injuring over 5,000 more. Aum, like Happy Science, was among Japan’s shinshukyo, or “new religions,” a catch-all term for modern spiritual groups that have mostly gained popularity in the post–World War II era.
While previously dismissed by many people as fringe or inconsequential, the subway attack cast these groups in a much darker light, showing that they could become vectors of domestic terrorism. Along with other shinshukyo, Happy Science retreated from public life, though it continued to publish spiritual interviews and its monthly political magazine, The Liberty. Over the following decade, even as home computers and the internet spread across Japan, the organization and its publications stayed mostly offline out of fear of attracting the attention of a critical press.
That began to change in 2009, with the first convention of the Happiness Realization Party. Okawa’s decision to launch a political party followed in the footsteps of Soka Gakkai, an older and more established Buddhist new religion. After decades of slowly appealing to the mainstream, in 1999 Soka Gakkai’s independent political wing had grown powerful enough to be folded into a coalition with the Liberal-Democratic Party, the conservative party now headed by Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Happy Science’s haphazard attempt to replicate that success did not go as hoped: In its first year of nationwide campaigning, the HRP won zero seats in the national legislature, despite placing candidates in over 300 districts.
From the outset, the HRP was a black sheep on the political right. In the days before the party’s inaugural press conference, its offices faxed a copy of Okawa’s “spiritual interview” with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to the nation’s major newspapers, in which he predicted that North Korea would soon invade Japan. The warning went unheeded, and mostly tabloid journalists showed up to the press conference, according to political scientist and researcher Axel Klein, who was in the audience that day.
While the HRP platform hits many of the same notes as other parties on the far-right — a hard anti-China stance that routinely crosses into overt Sinophobia, a pledge to remilitarize Japan through constitutional revision, and denials of Japan’s wartime atrocities — it diverges from other groups in one key respect. Many of the country’s far-right groups have historical roots in state-sponsored Shintoism, which regards the emperor as a deity, but today, those parties publicly support a constitutional separation of religion and state. The HRP, however, loudly insists that Okawa is, in fact, a deity. This alienates the HRP from its most obvious political allies. “The weight of the Happiness Realization Party in electoral politics is almost nonexistent,” said Daiki Shibuichi, a scholar of Japanese far-right political parties.
There’s no single reason behind Happy Science’s decision to start pushing pro-Trump content on social media. After its failed political bids, however, the group likely took inspiration from the successes of Falun Gong. The new religion was founded in China in the 1980s, but its leadership resettled in upstate New York a few years later, after receiving threats from the Chinese government. A blend of qigong practice and moral philosophy, Falun Gong was, until recently, most known (and mocked) in the United States as the cult responsible for the bombastic traveling dance troupe Shen Yun, a vehicle for anti-CCP propaganda.
But since 2016, its media arm, which includes the news site The Epoch Times, has become one of the most fervent promoters of pro-Trump political misinformation. The group reportedly spent millions of dollars on Trump-friendly Facebook and YouTube ads in the run-up to the 2020 election. Its digital presence has earned Falun Gong powerful friends in far-right circles and took The Epoch Times from obscurity to a growing national newspaper and noted force of influence on the American electorate.
There is no evidence of direct collaboration between Falun Gong and Happy Science, but researchers say Happy Science has borrowed media strategies from other fringe religions, and both organizations have used social media to expand their reach and appeal to Trump sympathizers. Their affinity with Trump is about more than just a shared interest in conspiracy theories — the former president’s views on China also overlap with their own.
For Falun Gong, this anti-CCP animosity originates in its perceived persecution at the hands of the state. For Happy Science, the reasoning is slightly more existential. “Happy Science’s anti-China policy is not only a political position but rooted in religious teaching because they think of communism as denying all religious faith,” said Norichika Horie, a professor of religious studies at the University of Tokyo. “They think of it as a cosmic battle between light and darkness.”
Having failed to drum up seats in the national legislature, it seems likely that Happy Science has turned to Trumpism as additional backing for its belief system. In a “spiritual interview” with Trump published two months before the 2020 election, Okawa attributes this quote to his absent interviewee, “The first priority for me is to be reelected and to take down Mr. Xi Jinping within two years.”
“Frankly speaking, I myself was surprised to see that so many Japanese people had an interest in the ‘Stop the Steal’ movement and the U.S. presidential election,” Hiroaki Aeba told Rest of World in an interview over Zoom, speaking against the virtual backdrop of a snow-capped Mount Fuji. Aeba, who often goes by Jay, is the chairman of the Japanese Conservative Union (JCU), currently one of Japan’s most outspoken organizations in its support of the U.S. Republican Party.
Just weeks after protestors rallied in Hibiya Park, Aeba spoke at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, ground zero for establishment conservative activists and candidates looking to tap into the event’s powerful donor pool and voting base. Aeba was the sole Japanese speaker on this year’s lineup, which included headliner Donald Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. But it was not Aeba’s first lap around the conservative circuit: He attended CPAC for the first time in 2011, under his given name, Jikido, and has spoken at the event nearly every year since 2016.
In his 2019 address, Aeba took the stage wearing his signature red tie and pointed to the National Rifle Association flag behind him. After explaining it was a symbol of “liberty,” Aeba revealed he would be launching his own cryptocurrency under the same name. The announcement was met with applause. None of the official biographies from these CPAC appearances make any reference, however, to Aeba’s past political life as the first chairman of the Happiness Realization Party.
Despite spending two decades rising through the Happy Science ranks, Aeba’s time as HRP’s first party leader was brief, lasting just several weeks during its tumultuous launch in 2009. After leaving the HRP in 2015, he launched an affiliate CPAC conference in Tokyo, based on the strength of his relationship with American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp, who has frequently made public appearances with Aeba, and shares the same concern over “Chinese expansionism.” In the first year of CPAC Japan, Steve Bannon was the keynote speaker.
Aeba is quick to disassociate himself and the JCU from Happy Science today, saying that he has “no contact and no relations with them at all.” The sentiment appears to be mutual: In April 2020, two Japanese magazines reported that Aeba had raised nearly $9 million to create his Liberty cryptocurrency, courting investors with a pamphlet that featured a photo of the JCU chairman and Trump. According to those articles, it’s unclear what became of the $9 million in funding, which led to a rift within the organization, reported The Daily Beast. Days later, the Happy Science press office released a statement distancing itself from Aeba.
Still, the ideological similarities between the JCU and HRP are striking, down to a shared fear of the CCP’s geopolitical reach and a willingness to bolster Trump as a proxy actor for its own political goals. “Aeba is similar to Okawa; his [ideas] even look like copies,” said Fujikura, the independent journalist.
Aeba is one example of how the HRP’s failure to build electoral support in Japan has propelled Happy Science and its graduates to look for power abroad. His inroads with CPAC and key conservative figures like Steve Bannon and Matt Schlapp have allowed a worldview and agenda shaped in part by Happy Science to gain some foothold in the U.S. Whether that can be converted into measurable political influence on home soil is not clear. “Far-right organizations internationally would be able to maintain friendly relationships, but, in my view, pursuing a common agenda is going to be difficult,” said Shibuichi, the extremism scholar.
By most accounts, Aeba still remains on the margins of domestic politics. But as the growth of extremist groups like QAnon in the U.S. have demonstrated, it’s worth thinking twice about the potential impact of a fringe belief system in Japan before dismissing it outright, especially when the group in question has a growing reach on social media.
In recent months, the Japanese Conservative Union has been building its own independent following on YouTube and racking up hundreds of thousands of views by featuring livestreamed lectures by Aeba. The most popular broadcast, from the week after the Capitol insurrection, currently has over one million views and promotes misinformation about the election result. Aeba said that increasing the number of “online salons” he hosts is one of his goals for the organization. To this end, he seems to be busy developing his own brand while cultivating a small but committed faction of Japanese social media users invested in his vision of a trans-Pacific far-right.
There’s no need to look further than The Epoch Times to see that Aeba has spent years setting the foundation for this project. In June 2019, the publication’s digital talk show “American Thought Leaders” hosted a sit-down interview with Aeba. The conversation touched on China’s human rights abuses against Uyghurs and Tibetans as well as the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, and ended with an olive branch to the American right and The Epoch Times audience. “What I would like to emphasize is that, when I first joined the JCU, it was just me, and in a way, a lonely activity for me,” Aeba said. “But I gained American conservative friends, and now we can work together, just like family, just like friends, really like a team.”