TOKYO — In the beginning, there was an idea.
Academics in the United States and Europe were reconsidering religion, examining it like a dusty crucifix in the clinical light of the late 20th century. Faith, they decided, was outdated.
Japanese scholars agreed, questioning religion's relevance and its side effects. They looked around the world and saw a bloody tangle of disputes, some centuries old: Bosnia, Belfast, the Middle East. Then in 1995, Tokyo got its own taste of religious violence when a cult staged a terrorist attack, killing five.
It was time, Japanese thinkers announced, to leave religion behind.
"There was an antipathy against religion," explains Susumo Shimazono, Tokyo University religion professor. "But the idea of private belief that sustains private life and ethics became important."
That idea struck a popular chord. In exploring the concept of individually based faith, people in this high-tech, seemingly secular country are redefining what it means to be religious. What happens here, observers say, might provide a road map for faith in the next millennium.
When scholars originally declared that religion was headed for the history books, they hadn't allowed for people like Mami Suzuki, a Tokyo secretary searching for more spirituality in her life. "I felt empty all the time," she says.
They didn't foresee the resurgence of Russia's Orthodox Church, the warm reception Cubans gave the pope, or strong religious activity in richer countries.
Some scholars recanted. In Japan they adjusted. "Organized religion was still unpopular," says Professor Shimazono. "But this was only half the story. There was a sense that Japanese culture lacked something spiritual." Now, ordinary people like Ms. Suzuki are proving that a world without religion is not a world without faith.
It's a breezy day on Odaiba, a man-made island in Tokyo Bay. Gulls arc in a sky the color of old blue jeans, the air is fresh and briny, but Suzuki is inside a convention center at a seminar on seishin sekai.
The words mean "spiritual world," and the movement is a dynamic part of this new spiritual exploration. It's based on the concept, popularized by new-age writings, that God is within us all. It appeals to Suzuki because she can pursue these ideas on her own, without having to hew to the dictates of a church.
That independence is key, says William Bloom, a London-based author of new-age books. "It's natural to want to get a deeper sense of who you are," he says. "Disciplinarian religions ... tell you what to believe and when. But in the information age, people are liberated to pursue this instinct. As industrial society wobbles in Japan, people say, 'What are the genuine values? There's too much information around for me to swallow ancestor worship! I'll read these books and go to these workshops.' "
Which is exactly what Suzuki did. She became interested in seishin sekai after her divorce three years ago. She read Shirley MacLaine's new-age work "Out on a Limb," then went to a seminar held by its translator, Koya Yamakawa. There, they just talked: Why were they born? What was their purpose? In talking and meditating, Suzuki became aware of what she calls "an intelligence." "Now I see God in small things every day," she explains, sitting outside the meeting hall, slim and serious in jeans and a T-shirt. Inside, Mr. Yamakawa, lean and smiling in a baseball cap that reads "relax," watches 150 men and women of all ages sing "hallelujahs." "When we say 'God,' people mean different things," he says, "but we all believe in something bigger than ourselves."
Oddly, Suzuki says she's not religious. In fact, 78 percent of Japanese told surveyors the same thing this year. But research also shows that more than half pray at the family altar and visit a shrine on New Year's, and 74 percent perform ritual ceremonies at family graves.
The disconnect between words and action might stem from the largely ceremonial role of the country's two major creeds, Buddhism and Shinto. (Buddhism is used for funerals. Weddings and festivals as well as nature worship are usually Shinto.) Neither plays much of a role in daily life, creating something of a spiritual vacuum.
The disconnect makes it hard to gauge the scope of religious activity, particularly with the push toward individually based faith. Figures show a decline in religious groups since 1990, but anecdotal evidence reveals a burgeoning interest in spirituality.
Perhaps the most striking sign of this is growing membership in Aum Shinri Kyo, the apocalyptic cult responsible for gassing Tokyo's subways, now estimated at 5,500.
Traditional faiths are also benefiting. Enrollment at the International Buddhist School in Chiba prefecture has tripled in recent years. And though Christianity attracts only 1 percent of Japanese, a coalition of Christian groups recently held a week-long revival in Tokyo, their largest ever.
But most of the spiritual interest expresses itself through seishin sekai themes in pop culture. Manga, or comic books, often explore the motif of the sacred in every rock, plant, and person. Magazine articles abound. Aromatherapy boutiques and crystals are popular.
Bookstores greatly expanded seishin sekai sections after James Redfield's "The Celestine Prophecy," translated by Yamakawa, sold 1 million copies. And Yamakawa alone gives at least three seminars a month, nationwide.
Why the interest in spirituality now? Many observers say current economic uncertainty drives people to seek spiritual support. A longer-term perspective would consider a postwar breakdown in family and community that has left many feeling rootless and adrift.
But there's a simpler explanation that has its roots in the late 1800s, when Japan opened to the West. The new theories of a Frenchman named Auguste Comte, the father of modern sociology, strongly influenced the elites who were plotting the course of modern Japan. Comte believed civilizations went through three stages that culminated in an era of reason and science.
But now that Japan has become a land of "smart" buildings and ubiquitous cell-phones, many people are asking themselves: "Is this all there is?" "Simply put, people have a need for meaning," says Mary Evelyn Tucker, a religion professor at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. "Modernization and secularization aren't going to satisfy larger, deeper longings."
Fulfilling those longings through individually based faith is part of new-age thought in North America and Europe, too, but Japan's religious culture makes it more amenable to the concept, giving the movement here greater potential. There is no dominating faith. Historically, Japanese have had little respect for dogma. Faith here is syncretic - a combination of sometimes contradictory beliefs - and malleable. Buddhism, imported from China and based on a reverence for all living things, became the religion of samurai, the warrior class. Other Buddhist tenets fell by the wayside. There is no belief here in reincarnation or different levels of reward after death. Instead, all people become Buddhas after death - "God" exists in everyone.
This echoes seishin sekai, as does the Shinto belief that gods exist in nature. The resonance between old beliefs and new is another reason seishin sekai has captured popular imagination. Christianity, introduced by Jesuits in the 16th century, also got a tweaking. After Japan ended its isolation in the 1800s, Christianity revived under the banner of a "non-church" movement that decried the organizational structure of Western churches.
"A sense that God has to be understood at Mass on Sunday is not part of this ethos," says Professor Tucker.
Certainly that's a large part of its appeal for Yamakawa, who also says he's not religious. A former bureaucrat at the powerful Ministry of Finance, he opted out of Japan's elite to translate. His journey began in the early 1980s, when he attended a self-awareness seminar and, for the first time, realized he'd never thought about his beliefs.
Like Suzuki, Yamakawa says he found seishin sekai the most accessible faith. New age had borrowed elements of Asian mysticism like yoga and meditation and now they were returning to Asia, reinvented and renewed.
And while seishin sekai seems new, Yamakawa argues that it's a facet of something universal and eternal. "Spirituality is always here," he says. "Two thousand years ago Jesus Christ talked about spirituality in his language, in his time. Seishin sekai is about the same spirituality in a different world that requires a different language. That essence stays the same."