World to end in July

Nostradamus Fever Grips Japan

Associated Press/May 11, 1999
By Joji Sakurai

Tokyo -- Every week, millions of Japanese TV viewers tune in to watch a couple of men building a bunker for the end of the world. It's a race against time. They have to finish before July.

As the end of the century nears, Japan has come under an odd spell -- the apocalyptic preachings of the 16th century soothsayer Nostradamus.

Bookshelves are lined with Nostradamus spinoffs. Celebrities comment earnestly on his predictions. The Internet is awash with thousands of Japanese Web sites devoted to the French prophet of doom.

"Will mankind be extinguished in 1999?" one typical Web site says. "This is not an issue to be taken lightly."

Nostradamus, whose prophecies made him so famous in his lifetime that he came under the patronage of Catherine de Medicis, has been a household name in Japan for over two decades.

And he's always been big during times of crisis.

During the oil shock of the 1970s, a Japanese author penned the best-selling book that first introduced Nostradamus' prophecies to a mass audience in Japan. It sold more than 2 million copies.

Another wave of interest in Nostradamus broke out during the 1990 Persian Gulf War, which spawned a cottage industry in World War III predictions.

But the current gloom of Japan's recession and jitters about the international situation -- from the war in Kosovo to missile tests by North Korea -- have created the most virulent Nostradamus boom yet, experts say.

"It's excessive," said Teigo Yoshida, a professor of cultural anthropology at Japan's prestigious Tokyo University. "In times of social uncertainty, these theories gain popularity."

As evidence of Nostradamus' popularity, two dozen books on him or his predictions were published in Japan last year. Eleven more have been released so far this year.

Timing, of course, has given Nostradamus a strong boost.

"There has been a big surge in the popularity of Nostradamus with the last year of the millennium," said Fumiko Takahashi, a spokeswoman for the Japan's Publishers Association.

Nostradamus predicted millennium doom, writing that "the great king of terror will fall from the sky in the seventh month of the year 1999."

Nostradamus' prophecies, which were written in verse and collected in a book called "Centuries," are extremely cryptic and open to a wide range of interpretations.

But that hasn't prevented Nostradamus buffs from making some very precise inferences.

In a book published in February, author Akio Cho even purports to have discovered "through scientific research" the precise hour and date of the great cataclysm: 5 p.m., July 24, 1999.

Few people are seriously preparing for the end -- to most Japanese, the boom is more an entertaining distraction than anything else.

But a recent poll conducted by Japan's Kokugakuin University found 20 percent of the people responding give some credence to the Nostradamus prophecies.

And the trend does have its hardcore believers, and a darker side.

Many of the beliefs espoused by Japan's Aum Shinri Kyo "Supreme Truth" cult -- which killed 13 people in a 1995 subway gas attack -- appear to have been inspired by Nostradamus' writings.

The cult, which has been increasing in popularity lately even though most of its leaders have been arrested, is preparing for an Armageddon that it claims will come in early September.

Other religious cults in Japan have borrowed ideas from the Nostradamus prophecies to attract followers.

Yoshida, the anthropologist, said Japan is fertile ground for Nostradamus because the occult has a powerful hold on many aspects of everyday Japanese life.

Fortune teller stands line the streets in busy shopping districts, and the Chinese zodiac is used to set the dates for everything from weddings to elections.

"More and more Japanese are turning to superstition," he said. "People's anxieties are pushing them to search for answers in the supernatural."

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