As an historical general election looms on 31 August, Japan's long-suffering electorate face a clear choice: vote for the conservative party that has virtually monopolised power since 1955, or opt for its more liberal but untested rival which promises reform.
For those with a taste for the apocalyptic, however, there is always the Happiness Realisation Party.
Offering what it calls a "third choice", the HRP has an eye-catching manifesto: multiply Japan's population by two-and-a-half to 300 million, overtake America to become the planet's leading power, pre-emptively strike North Korea and rearm for war with China. If elected, the party's MPs will 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 this 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," Mr Kim sneers in the clip, referring to the so-called "pacifist" clause – Article 9 – of the 1947 document, written under US 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 Mr Kim. "And North Korea will be number two." Neither the ruling Liberal Democrats (LDP) nor their likely successors, the Democrats (DPJ), 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 probably the world's most reclusive leader, the answer is simple: the Happies apparently have a hotline directly to his subconscious.
A book released this week, The Guardian Spirit of Kim Jong-il Speaks by Happiness founder Ryuho Okawa, explains that the voice of Mr Kim's guardian angel warned him of the North's plans. Master Okawa also tunes in to the thoughts of Japan's wartime monarch, Emperor Hirohito and his deceased predecessors.
Being able to communicate with the dead is but one string to Master Okawa's bow. A reincarnation of Buddha, the party's website 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 religion in 1986 Master Okawa wrote books in which he channelled the spirits of Mohamed, 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, re-arm and take over Asia.
Master Okawa, 53, a finance graduate of New York's City University, has reportedly written 500 books. His wife, Kyoko, officially the leader of the Happiness Realisation Party – 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 Japanese press has largely ignored this exotic third choice. For many here, the Happies smell suspiciously like a cult, but the party itself is certainly taking the election seriously. In a rare interview with the respected magazine Bungei Shunju this month, Master Okawa explained that the party has fielded candidates in every electoral district in the country – more than the ruling LDP. "Organisationally, 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 replies: "Yes, it's true. But it's up to people to decide whether to believe it or not."
The Happies claim to have sold 11 million copies of their bible, Shoshin Hogo (The Dharma of the Right Mind) in Japan since 1986, and opened 200 local temples. Master Okawa's books, mixing new age philosophy with extreme neo-liberal views, have sold millions more, reportedly providing the funding for their campaign. Startlingly, Master Okawa claims that 100 MPs in the Japanese parliament also support their beliefs.
Followers say they are attracted to Master Okawa's support for a strong, resolute nation after enduring nearly two decades of economic and social problems that have sapped Japan's confidence. "Japan is pitiful today," says Hirok Hirota, 52, a Happy Science member who works as a nurse in Tokyo. "We can't keep depending on the US and the rest of the world. We have to stand up for ourselves."
Those views, and the Happies' programme of tough love and self-help, echo the Christian fundamentalist movement in the US, points out Tomohiro Machiyama, a journalist who was once sued by Happy Science for criticising 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."
Translating those beliefs into political power has proved easier said than done. Tokyo voters shunned the Happies' candidates in this month's municipal election, which ended LDP rule in the city and set the DPJ up for a historic national win next month.
"Parties that are too openly backed by a religious organisation 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 has Buddhist roots, is a rare exception.
Tokyoites had their fill of apocalyptic cults in the 1990s when Aum Shinrikyo – also led by a guru who could communicate 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.
Mr Machiyama sees obvious parallels with the Happies. "They both attract people who consider themselves elites," he said. "Aum followers were highly educated but they were social losers. They wondered 'Why can't I get ahead?'"
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 Ms Egawa.Reuse content