The lineup of the Conservative Political Action Conference this week includes political heavyweights like former President Donald Trump, Cancun-loving Sen. Ted Cruz, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It also includes the political head of a Japanese religious cult that promotes nationalism, xenophobia and the belief that its leader is the reincarnation of an alien from Venus who created life on earth millions of years ago.
On Friday afternoon at the Hyatt Regency Orlando, Hiroaki “Jay” Aeba, a prominent Japanese conservative, will address CPAC about the threat China poses to the U.S., taking a prime spot in the lineup just after Donald Trump Jr.
Aeba is no stranger to CPAC. In fact, 2021 marks the tenth anniversary of his first visit to the Republican lovefest.
His speaker bio on the CPAC website notes that Aeba is the chairman of the Japanese Conservative Union (JCU), a right-wing political organization, and that he helped found CPAC Japan, which has been running for the last four years in Tokyo.
What isn’t mentioned is the central role Aeba plays in a Japanese cult called Happy Science, whose leader believes he is the Messiah and sells “miracle cures” for COVID-19.
“Happy Science is a Japanese cult run by a man who claims to be the incarnation of multiple Gods while pretending to channel the psychic spirits of anyone from Quetzalcoatl to Bashar al-Assad to Natalie Portman,” Sarah Hightower, a researcher and expert on Japanese cults, told VICE News.
While he has been a prominent member of the Happy Science cult from the beginning, Aeba has worked over the past decade on building close ties with prominent U.S. conservative figures and creating Japan’s Happiness Realization Party (HRP), the cult’s political wing that focuses on ultranationalism and increasing Japan’s population by making child-rearing easier for Japanese women.
In the 12 years since it was formed, the HRP has failed to get a single candidate elected to Japan’s parliament. But in recent years, under Aeba’s leadership, the group has gained more political legitimacy back home by aligning itself with right-wing U.S. figures like Steve Bannon and Matt Schlapp.
By giving Aeba a platform, CPAC and the Republican Party is showing once again that it is willing to accept and embrace dangerous fringe movements, like QAnon and the Falun Gong-backed Epoch Times, a pro-Trump newspaper that spread disinformation and has become a firm favorite in MAGA world.
“Look at things like The Family, QAnon or even Epoch Times,” Hightower said. “The GOP are willing to openly and flagrantly cooperate with groups many people would call ‘cults.’”
According to the movement’s own websites, Happy Science is “Japan's biggest and the most influential religion, and it is rapidly growing on a worldwide scale.” The group claims it has 11 million followers and thousands of missionary outposts around the world, but former members have cast doubt on those figures.
Happy Science was founded in October 1986 by Ryuho Okawa, a former Wall Street trader who claims to be the reincarnated form of Buddha, who himself was the reincarnated form of El Cantare, a god from Venus who created life on earth millions of years ago. Happy Science was officially recognized as a religious group in Japan in 1991, quickly gained a huge following, and made Okawa a very rich man. One estimate from 1991 put the group’s annual revenues at around $45 million.
Okawa claims that he can channel the spirits of famous people — both alive and dead. In 2019, the Happy Science branch in London hosted a séance to hear Margaret Thatcher’s thoughts on Brexit. Okawa has written over 500 books filled with outlandish claims about UFOs, demonic warfare, and most recently, coronavirus and how it originated on another planet.
Just like Scientology in the U.S., a focus on making money was baked into Happy Science from the start. Along with buying books, DVDs, and CDs, followers have to pay to advance within the group.
The group has been selling “miracle cures” for COVID-19 for the past year — which are essentially just blessings — and even when it was forced to shut down its two New York branches during lockdown, Happy Science continued the grift by selling COVID-19 cures remotely.
If you couldn’t afford the “cures’ — which cost up to $400 — the groups also sold COVID-themed DVDs and CDs of Okawa lecturing that the cult claims will boost immunity from the virus.
But money was just part of the plan, and Okawa has always had much larger ambitions to turn his burgeoning religious movement into a political one.
Even before Happy Science branched out into politics, Okawa openly expressed ultranationalistic views, spreading anti-Korean and anti-Chinese rhetoric, and engaging in historical denial of the Imperial Japanese military’s system of colonial sex slavery.
“Okawa's never been particularly shy about his ambitions or his nationalist beliefs,” Hightower said. ” “He wants to dominate. He wants to be a major player on the world political stage. So it really only makes sense to start making these inroads and back in Japan, Okawa can point to anything HRP does in America as proof of some sort of political legitimacy.”
Aeba, who was a board member of Happy Science until 2015, became central to Okawa’s political ambitions, and it was he who was sent to CPAC in 2011 to forge closer ties with conservative U.S. lawmakers who Okawa wanted to emulate.
“You have many superstars who can attract the audience by their speech,” Aeba told The Atlantic at CPAC in 2012. “We don’t have stars in Japanese politics. When our politicians speak, people feel tired and bored.”
And even though Aeba will be speaking at CPAC this year, the movement’s efforts have mostly failed to have any impact at home.
CPAC didn’t respond to VICE News’ questions about Aeba’s links to the Happy Science cult. Aeba himself didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
This year, CPAC will be dominated by the presence of Trump, and his quest to maintain control of the Republican Party in the wake of his election loss.
But the GOP is also grappling with its embrace of QAnon and other more extreme ideologies within its ranks. Experts say that by giving Aeba a platform to speak, the Republican Party is signaling just where its loyalties lie.
“CPAC is at the forefront of a reactionary global network — demonstrated once again by Jay Aeba being invited to speak,” Joe Mulhall, a senior researcher with U.K.-based advocacy group Hope Not Hate, told VICE News. “That CPAC continues to associate with Jay Aeba demonstrates clearly what values they are trying to promote, and ally with, around the world.”