TOKYO -- Many people look for answers in the stars. But in Japan these days, some folks are divining their future from a plate of sushi. Or an electrical appliance. Or sumo underwear.
Traditional methods of fortunetelling have long been a staple in Japan, where the fate-fretful go to great pains to schedule weddings -- and sometimes even elections -- on properly auspicious days.
But some new, often whimsical styles are enjoying a boom in popularity on the Internet.
The new creations are usually a mix of popular psychology and broad, vague predictions about what might lie ahead. Judging by how frequently they are creeping into conversations, the nouveau horoscopes have hit a weak spot.
"When I have vague anxieties, I feel relieved by reading or taking the advice of fortunetelling," said Chie Sasaki, a 31-year-old office worker. "It's like talking to a friend."
There are good reasons for the Japanese to be feeling a little uncertain. The economy is in recession, unemployment is at a record high, and violent crime is increasing.
But the most popular new kinds of fortunetelling are intended more to provide distraction rather than direction.
On one Web site, visitors are presented with a selection of several types of sushi. You choose five, and the combination is used to interpret your personality and how you should approach your life and relationships.
"You are an Abalone Person!" the site declared in response to one combination. "Abalone people will not be able to avoid trouble early in the year. Impatience is your enemy."
Just how sushi toppings and fate might be intertwined isn't explained.
Divination Web sites
Other sites instruct visitors to choose from different kinds of animals, bugs or flowers. One uses birth dates to categorize people as electrical appliances, which are said to exemplify attributes such as kindness or diligence.
Another site splits up users into various kinds of underwear, including the kind that sumo wrestlers wear, and predicts how the upcoming day will be. It has had 320,000 hits since June 2000.
Then there's the site that relies on the "Doppelganger Alter Ego" method, a particularly esoteric concept that predicts futures based on supposed body doubles living elsewhere in obscurity.
"I don't know where they came up with it, but it's funny, and fun to play around with," said Hiromi Tojo, a 25-year-old office worker.
The end of the year is always a good time for the fortunetelling business in Japan.
Over the New Year's holidays, millions of Japanese visit their local Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples to buy good luck charms and slips of paper forecasting their luck for the year ahead.
Bookstore shelves are heavy with calendars offering daily fortunes based on several varieties of Chinese fortunetelling, which rival the Western zodiac as the most popular kind of horoscope here.