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TIM LARIMER TokyoAh, summer in Japan. folks drenched by the June rains look forward to a brief respite before the monsoons. In a few days it will be time for the Tanabata festival, when children tie colorful origami to bamboo branches and float them down rivers and streams. Later this summer the most popular sporting event of the year, the national high school baseball tournament, gets under way with the first crack of the bat.

Or will it? Put those dreamy thoughts on hold. Pack away the bats and balls. Crumple the origami. This is 1999. Anybody in Japan who hasn't been sleepwalking for the past five years is well aware that Nostradamus, the long-dead French astrologer, predicted that the world would end in 1999's seventh month. Wake up, people, it's Apocalypse Next Week!

Yes, this sounds far-fetched. But a surprising number of Japanese are taking the warning seriously. Depending on which Nostradamian faction you believe, in just a matter of days Japan--and, in some scenarios, other parts of the world--will be bombarded by a giant asteroid, destroyed by errant nuclear missiles, used as an impact zone for the creaky Russian space station Mir, blown to bits by crashing satellites armed with nuclear devices, washed away by the mother of all tsunamis, whipsawed by a devastating typhoon, submerged by monsoon rains that will make Noah's flood look like a drizzle, leveled by an earthquake, smothered by lava from a volcanic eruption at Mount Fuji, invaded by aliens in spaceships, suffocated by a giant toxic cloud or targeted by North Korean rockets. The list includes pretty much everything but killer bees and Godzilla.

Akiko Arakawa, for one, is plenty worried. The 41-year-old typist and Website designer is planning for the worst, packing away a tent, a water purifier and a survival guide at her hideaway in Hirosaki at the northern tip of Japan. She is convinced that Nostradamus' 16th century prophecy means the earth's pole will shift and cause several, simultaneous cataclysmic events. She warns anyone who will listen to prepare for the chaos by building boats and buying camping equipment. On one of the many Nostradamus Websites proliferating in Japan, she wrote that she cannot imagine how his prophecy could not come true. That, she opined, would be the mystery.

There's never been a better time to worry about the end of world. The coming conclusion to the millennium is inspiring apocalyptic visions everywhere. Some concerned Americans, for example, are already hunkering down in remote sites, stocking up with canned goods and plenty of ammunition, just in case. Even many solidly rational folks are fearful that the Y2K computer bug could wreck much of modern civilization. But few places are as jittery as Japan. Fears about the end of the world aren't fringe; they're mainstream. And, oddly, they center on the visions of Nostradamus, who based his cryptic warnings on the Bible. No matter that Japan, a relatively non-religious nation, doesn't even follow the calendar, based on Jesus' birth, that informed Nostradamus. In official Japan, this isn't 1999; it's year 11.

But this is a freaky year, and apparently anything goes. Of Nostradamus' writings, 16 words in one of the oblique four-line verses he published in 1555 have resonated throughout Japan. The year 1999, seven months, from the sky there will come a great king of terror, he wrote. No one really knows what he meant, which only adds to the intrigue. But for believers, the reference to the seventh month is disturbingly clear. In other words, this may be the last magazine you ever read.

First, let's back up a bit. For four centuries, few Japanese were even aware of Nostradamus. True, his predictions occasionally surfaced in the West: adherents have credited him with forecasting, albeit indirectly, everything from the bombing of Hiroshima to the Mount Pinatubo eruption to the Pentium-chip flaw. But Japan got into the act only in the late 1960s, when a relatively unknown journalist named Ben Goto took up the cause. Goto, who covered Japan's royal family, became intrigued with Nostradamus while studying French. Watching the Apollo moon landing in 1969, he was struck with an epiphany: Didn't he read that Nostradamus had predicted man would walk on the moon? Goto decided to do more research into this 16th century visionary. Four years later, he published the first book about Nostradamus that anyone in Japan ever paid attention to.

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The book was well-timed. Japan was in the throes of an economic downturn, similar to today's, after a decade of dizzying growth. The global oil crisis threatened energy supplies in Japan, which relies on petroleum from the Middle East. The cold war exacerbated a general sense of edginess in Japan about real-life cataclysmic events like earthquakes and tidal waves. And the atom bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh in many citizens' minds. I wanted to warn people, says Goto, who is now 70. I was afraid humans would become extinct because of radiation or a nuclear winter. His publication of Nostradamus' prophecies struck a nerve. Goto tapped into Japan's deep insecurity, a sense of vulnerability about living in a troubled world, dependent on outsiders it doesn't understand. Goto's book was a best-seller. A phenomenon was born.

At that point Japan's publicity machine, which can churn out fads faster than Nintendo creates Pokemon characters, shifted into high gear. Almost immediately a small industry of Goto imitators and Goto detractors sprang up. Media companies churned out Nostradamus movies, books and comics. Charlatans adopted his apocalyptic visions in new religions aimed at a population that, since the end of World War II, has been hungry for spiritual guidance. Goto himself followed up with nine more books; his works have now sold a combined 5.8 million copies.

The Nostradamus fad might have been just that, a short-lived blip that would evaporate when the Next Big Thing came along. And it might have been dismissed as nothing more than a few whackos' nutty obsession with doomsday. But a lot of un-nutty Japanese take it seriously, and its influence has persisted for nearly three decades. The most alarming development occurred when certain cults, including Shoko Asahara's Aum Shinrikyo, got in the act. Aum, which allegedly masterminded the deadly sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway four years ago, developed its own interpretation of the Nostradamus prophecies, which served to attract followers already bitten by the Nostradamus bug. Other groups did likewise, while also providing avenues for surviving doomsday. Writers like Goto fanned a sense of fear, says Yoshihiko Otsuki, a Waseda University physics professor. The books sell, but the writers don't have any solutions. So the cults step in with the 'answers' and attract followers.

These days, Nostradamus has become such an ingrained part of Japanese pop culture that most people are well-versed in his doomsday scenario. Even many skeptics pause to consider his predictions when confronted with real-world dangers. Ever since Pyongyang sent a missile flying over Japan last August, North Korea has been viewed as the most plausible source of apocalyptic terror. The naval battle between the two Koreas in the Yellow Sea in mid-June only agitated the nervous Nostradamians. My mother thinks it's all a joke, says Yuka Inoue, a college freshman in Tokyo. But when she hears about North Korea, even she gets nervous about July. And if it weren't Korea, something else--Kosovo, dioxin in European chickens, the weakness of the yen, Martina Hingis' loss at Wimbledon--would suffice among the faithful as evidence that Nostradamus was onto something.

Nostradamus Fever in Japan tends to skew toward young people, like 18-year-old Inoue. A 1998 survey of 5,000 college students found that nearly all had heard of Nostradamus and his prophecy and that more than 20% thought an end-of-the-world scenario was possible. Many still do. Inoue and some friends even organized a farewell party of sorts in Tokyo's trendy Shibuya ward in May. We wanted to feel as if we had accomplished something before the world ends, she says. The goal, says Inoue, was to create fashions that we want to be trendy. (Even for Japan, these would be some of the shortest-lived fads on record.) She promoted beach clothes, cosmetics and a drug that promises to enlarge a woman's bust. Here it's hard to tell whether Inoue is really a believer or just using Nostradamus to boost a career in marketing. And her explanation suggests how fact and fantasy can coexist in today's Japan. My friends and I create an atmosphere where you can't say it's ridiculous, she says. We tell people about the missiles from North Korea and people have to believe us. By convincing other people, we convince ourselves that it's true. Got that?

Seiichiro Nishimoto doesn't need convincing. He has outfitted his home in Habikino, a suburb of Osaka, with a personal bomb shelter. It has 30-cm-thick concrete walls, reinforced steel escape hatches, a hand-cranked battery-operated generator and a ventilation system that pumps in air while filtering out radioactive elements and biological and chemical contaminants. He is selling the shelters, fully installed, at $82,000 a pop to those who share his apocalyptic fears. I believe there will be wars, earthquakes and floods, says Nishimoto, who converted to Christianity more than 40 years ago and takes his cue from the New Testament's book of Revelation. The destruction of the environment, the ozone hole, dioxin--these are signs the earth cannot go on like this forever. He denies that he is trying to profit from Armageddon. As he puts it: What good would all that yen do him anyway? I'm trying to educate, he says. The Japanese people have become numb living in postwar peace. No one is ready! They have no idea about crisis management.

Not far away, at the base of a mountain in Ikeda, near Nagoya, Yoshimoto Tanahashi's Order of Peace is trying to pray away the threats. Every day, at least 50 pilgrims meet to chant and sway their bodies to help protect Japan from what Tanahashi believes is the most likely doomsday scenario: a massive flood that will leave two-thirds of the archipelago nation under water. He claims he has a map showing which land masses will be saved, but he isn't sharing the information. (His religious compound, by the way, sits on high ground.) The prediction allows for several possibilities: a tsunami, melting polar ice caps caused by global warming, or even 40 days and 40 nights of old-fashioned biblical downpour.

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Tanahashi's Order of Peace takes its doctrine from an obscure American named Edgar Cayce, who, before he died in 1945, claimed to have communicated with Nostradamus while under hypnosis. Of course, if the calamity doesn't occur, Tanahashi can claim credit. But he says he is uneasy. He thinks he has enough supporters to save Japan, but not the whole world. One person with the correct spiritual powers can stop rain, wind and fire, Tanahashi says. To save Japan from total destruction, we must have 50 people every day. If we could get 1,000, we could pray for the whole world. How did he arrive at the 50:1 formula? The gods revealed it to me, he reports.

If the doomsday predictions seem familiar, it's no surprise. Besides the Aum Shinrikyo group, cults elsewhere have predicted, incorrectly (so far), the world's end. In Texas, the Branch Davidians' forecast of a fiery apocalypse came tragically true, at least for them, in 1993 when their compound erupted under fire from U.S. marshals. Two years ago, members of the Heaven's Gate cult anticipating the arrival of UFOs committed mass suicide in California. Members of the Order of the Solar Temple, another doomsday cult, died in an apparent series of murders and suicides beginning in 1994 in Canada and Western Europe.

In France, Paco Rabanne's book on native son Nostradamus has topped the bestseller lists, and the fashion designer has announced that he plans to move forward his haute couture collection because he believes the Mir space station will destroy Paris on Aug. 11. (Leave it to the French to be late.) Others are sounding the alarm, too. An Indian magazine predicted in April that the world would end in May, coinciding with meteorological warnings of a cyclone. That was enough to send 35,000 migrant workers at a ship-breaking yard in Alang, Gujarat fleeing home to their villages. In New Delhi, prominent astrologer Lachhman Das Madan says the world will experience all sorts of disasters during the rest of this year, although it won't actually end. But he foresees a major catastrophe for Japan in 2000. A bad phase, he predicts, could lead to a big fire or earthquake early next year. They're in trouble in Japan.

The Japanese certainly know that. In the past two decades Nostradamus Fever has spawned countless cults, the latest manifestation of Japan's often frantic search for spirituality in the modern world. In the immediate postwar era, many eccentric faiths took hold, including the electricity religion whose god was Thomas Edison. Faith is a particularly complex question in Japan. Many people are leery of religion, in part because, in the years before World War II, militaristic nationalists manipulated Shinto beliefs by deifying the emperor as a way to generate support for the war machine. Today, although people routinely visit shrines or temples on holidays, they do so mostly for recreation or good luck. Only about 20% of Japanese say they actually practice a faith, according to Nobutaka Inoue, a professor of sociology at Tokyo's Kokugakuin University. When asked in a 1998 survey to rank their trust in 17 institutions--including the military, police, education, the United Nations--organized religion came in dead last. (Even the much-maligned media scored higher.) As traditional religion fails, New Age sects are stepping in. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines do not function as places for counseling, says Inoue. People with problems end up at a new religion group where the teacher or guru has all the answers.

Japan is witnessing a proliferation of odd groups: communes, UFO religions, global peace movements. One pacifist organization is plastering Japanese cities with signs that read, in English and Japanese, may peace prevail on earth. There is even an evangelical Christian outfit led by a converted yakuza gang member. Groups predicting great crises keep appearing, observes Inoue. When the time for the crisis passes, the members drop out, but there are always new groups to join. And many, including Aum, focus on the infamous 16th century French astrologer. New religions in Japan pick up on Nostradamus because it is already established as popular, says Robert Kisala, an American professor of religious studies at Nagoya's Nanzan University. Popularity feeds off itself.

Another reason Japan has been receptive to Nostradamus' visions is the country's fascination with the paranormal: ESP, UFOs, ghosts, fortune tellers. Arakawa, the doomsday survivalist, claims she gleaned insight from space aliens that she has met. There are many Japanese who make similar claims: about one-fourth of the world's alleged UFO sightings have occurred in this industrialized nation.

Nostradamus himself juggled science and the occult. A well-educated physician, he first gained fame in France for treating victims of the plague. But it was his reputation as a soothsayer that won him an appointment to the court of King Charles IX and that, centuries later, made him an international icon. He died in 1566--in July, apparently a bad month all around--just as he predicted he would. He kept his prophecies intentionally vague so as not to incur the wrath of the Church during the Inquisition, and that has left them open to a wide range of interpretations. That obliqueness has also helped interpreters like Ben Goto make the French astrologer appear to be speaking directly to people in distant times and distant lands like Japan.

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In predicting doom, Nostradamus offers a sense of inevitability that somehow appeals to Japanese sensibilities. Interest in Nostradamus is a reflection of ambiguous feelings about Japan's future, says Inoue, the sociology professor. Japanese fear that global actions could affect and damage them in a very serious way. Moreover, the very idea of an apocalyptic event is credible in Japan because, well, bad things do happen. Endless natural disasters loom just offshore or underground: earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, typhoons. TV network NHK added to the jitters earlier this year when it aired a documentary about the potential for an eruption of Mount Fuji. And of course there are the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The idea that a society could be wiped out in the blink of an eye seems intimately plausible. People are reminded constantly that disaster is imminent: through signs instructing them where to go in the event of an emergency or reminders on vending machines about what to do when an earthquake strikes.

Ben Goto's interpretation of Nostradamus has been gnawing away at Japan's psyche for years. Asked about Nostradamus, many Japanese will say they are at once frightened and excited by the prospect of imminent doom. This is especially true of young people, who grew up during a period of affluence but now approach adulthood in an apparently rudderless nation that seems adrift. Since there's nothing better to expect in the future, they want to demolish everything and start from ground zero, says Hiroshi Yamamoto, a science fiction writer who is a harsh critic of Goto. They think it's the only way to find a meaningful existence.

Nostradamus Fever could be dissected and deconstructed until, well, the end of time. But he remains the biggest celebrity these days in a country that venerates the famous. Besides the books and film adaptations, the obsession with Nostradamus' writings has fueled countless debates on countless TV shows featuring countless experts (including one who claims to speak the Venusian language and is preparing for an invasion of earth's planetary neighbors). One of the most popular Nostradamus experts is Waseda professor Otsuki, who has carved out a secondary, more lucrative career as Japan's leading Nostradamus naysayer. Like any other July in Japan, there will be heavy rains, typhoons, maybe an earthquake or two, Otsuki says. But after July, he predicts, there will be an August. Then a September. And an October. The professor, who is represented by a talent agent and who recently began endorsing a brand of sensible shoes, regularly chastises his fellow Japanese for falling for what he considers nothing more than mumbo jumbo. As Otsuki puts it: Japanese don't think about these things very rationally.

Japan's most popular TV variety show, Denpa Shonen, which features regular folks making fools of themselves coping with absurd physical and mental challenges, has jumped on the Nostradamus bandwagon. The program is currently following two strangers thrown together to dig themselves a bomb shelter as July approaches. Will they make it? Will they fall in love while trying to save their skins? Stay tuned to see if they can snatch survival from the jaws of Armageddon, which by the way, just happens to be the title of the No. 1 film at the Japanese box office this year.

If only life were a cartoon. Japan's favorite children's animated character, the blue, earless robotic cat Doraemon, gets in on the act in his most recent movie. When two little boys become lost in space, Doraemon and friends zip off to the rescue. During the action, the little cat squares off against the evil space captain Angolmois, who plans to destroy the earth. Angolmois is the name that Nostradamus gave to the antecedent of the great king (or missile, or satellite, or asteroid, or spaceship) that is supposed to descend upon the earth this July. For the kids, at least, there's a happy ending: the world is saved. Perhaps Doraemon is on to something. Maybe it's safe to prepare the origami for the Tanabata festival and dust off those baseball mitts after all.

With reporting by Sachiko Sakamaki/Tokyo, Maseeh Rahman/New Delhi and Patricia Strathern/Paris
Predictions They Wished They Had Never Made

William Miller
U.S. evangelist told 50,000 followers that Christ would return in 1843. When that didn't happen, he blamed faulty math and pinpointed Oct. 22, 1844, persuading adherents to unload all property and possessions

Sun Myung Moon
Korean Unification Church leader prophesied that a fuzzy, feel-good Kingdom of Heaven would materialize in 1967

Jim Jones
After relocating his flock to Jonestown, Guyana, the doomsday reverend persuaded 900-plus followers to down poisoned Kool-Aid in 1978

Moses David
The Children of God evangelist predicted that the Battle of Armageddon would take place in 1986, with Russia defeating the United States and setting up a global communist dictatorship

David Koresh
Gun-toting ex-rock singer forecast that the Battle of Armageddon would begin at his self-styled Ranch Apocalypse in Waco, Texas. It did, in a blaze of gunfire in 1993 between his Branch Davidians and government agents

Marshall Herff Applewhite
Heaven's Gate leader told his techno-religious cult in March 1997 that the end was near and the only way they could survive was by committing suicide and hitching a ride on an alien spaceship

Chen Heng-ming
Stetson-wearing pastor from Taiwan predicted God would make a cameo appearance on TV channel 18 in March 1998, shortly before the end of the world

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