(Kyodo News Service, February 23, 2000)
TOKYO, Feb. 23 (Kyodo) - Police have questioned a senior member of the Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo cult on suspicion the group defrauded thousands of followers by predicting nonexistent illnesses through ''readings'' of the soles of their feet, police sources said Wednesday.
The member in question is the director of ''Ningen Yuin'' (Human Healing Clinic), a cult facility in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, the sources said.
The member, who holds a medical doctor's license, served until last year as a member of the board of the certified religious group, they said, adding he had been in charge of questionable ''religious training'' at the Atami facility over the past several years.
Police raided the group's facilities twice in December and have questioned a member in charge of accounting and some other members. The latest questioning was the first by police of a senior group member, the sources said.
A number of people who had their soles read by the group's founder, Hogen Fukunaga, and other members had been ordered to take part in training sessions at the Atami facility, which usually lasted four nights and five days, during which the participants were virtually not allowed to sleep, the sources said.
They were required to pay a few million yen in cash in advance to take part in such sessions.
When their physical and mental fatigue peaked during the sessions, the group forcibly persuaded them to pay a few more million yen to purchase articles such as a hanging scroll, the sources said.
Fukunaga, 54, announced his resignation as chief and named a new leadership in January, an act seen as an attempt to deflect public hostility against the group.
But Fukunaga said at the time the group ''will continue to be run based on 'tensei' (the voice of the heaven),'' which group members believe only Fukunaga can hear, indicating he intends to continue running the organization.
Fifteen people filed a 61 million yen damages suit in early January against Fukunaga and the group, arguing it got the plaintiffs to pay between 700,000 yen and 10 million yen each to buy articles or participate in training from 1994 to 1999 under fraudulent pretexts.
(Kyodo News Service, January 15, 2000)
TOKYO, Jan. 15 (Kyodo) - Hogen Fukunaga, head of the Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo religious group, named a new leadership lineup Saturday, nine days after announcing that he would resign as chief and sack senior members amid allegations the group has defrauded thousands of followers.
Speaking at a news conference at a group facility in Tokyo's Shibuya, Fukunaga, 54, named Ichiro Takeda, 50, as his successor and also appointed 14 others to senior positions in the group.
But Fukunaga said the group ''will continue to be run based on the voice of the heaven,'' which group members believe only Fukunaga can hear, indicating he intends to continue running the organization.
The change in the leadership lineup is seen as an attempt to deflect public hostility, with the group under investigation on suspicion of defrauding followers with fake diagnoses of illnesses. Fukunaga announced his resignation Jan. 6.
Fukunaga and other group members are suspected of swindling large sums of money out of thousands of people by predicting nonexistent illnesses in ''readings'' of the soles of their feet and then claiming offerings would avert them.
Investigators raided the group's facilities twice last month.
Takeda told the news conference he wants ''to democratically run the religious group by mutual consent between executives.'' But he said he would ''faithfully keep the voice of the heaven.'' Meanwhile, 15 people filed a 61 million yen damages suit early this month against Fukunaga and the group, arguing it got the plaintiffs to pay between 700,000 yen and 10 million yen each to buy articles or participate in training from 1994 to 1999 under fraudulent pretexts.
by Richard Lloyd Parry ("The Indipendent", January 6, 2000)
At the moment it all began, says Kenji Sakurai, there seemed nothing strange at all about sitting in a room with a group of strangers while they read his destiny in the soles of his feet. Mr Sakurai is an accountant with a small office in central Tokyo; as he tells his story, he grasps one of his feet and raises it above the table as if in emphasis. It looks like a very ordinary foot, small and neat, conservatively clad in a salaryman's grey socks. But on that day, the time of Mr Sakurai's unhappiness two years ago, it had a troubling story to tell.
"I took off my socks and they looked at my soles and began talking," says Mr Sakurai. "At first I really didn't believe it 100 per cent." The examination took only ten minutes, but the feet revealed their secrets almost immediately. According to the chief foot examiner, the subject's stomach was "emitting a yellow signal" an observation which rang true with Mr Sakurai, who had been suffering from unpleasant bellyache. On his left sole was a red spot, a sign according to the expert, that the 33-year-old would never enjoy happiness in marriage. And sure enough, since moving to Tokyo, he had searched in vain for a girlfriend.
The foot readers seemed to know everything about Mr Sakurai his failing eyesight, the distant relative who hanged herself. "Nothing seemed to be working out for me in those days, and I expected failure from everything," he remembers. "They said to me: 'You have great potential, but you are not fulfilling it.' One by one, he pointed out all the things that I was worrying about I couldn't help but believe."
But the foot readers had a solution to Kenji Sakurai's problems; as he pulled his socks back on, they explained what he needed to do. A few days later, thoroughly convinced, he made a post office transfer of 2.25 million yen, about £13,400, to the foot-reading organisation, a religious group called Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo. With that he became a small part of history, one of 30,000 victims of one of Japan's most remarkable frauds, a story of cruel exploitation, astonishing gullibility, and feet.
Weird and predatory cults are nothing new in Japan, and the last few weeks have seen a rash of stories about them. In November, it was a group calling itself Life Space, whose bearded guru claimed to be able to heal the terminally ill by patting them on the head. Police raided a hotel near Tokyo where they found one of his elderly patients. The cultists insisted that the man was meditating; an autopsy revealed that his mummified body had been dead for months.
A week ago, Fumihiro Joyu, one of the leaders of the Aum Shinri Kyo sect, was released from prison, raising fears that the cult may be revived, five years after poisoning thousands of commuters with sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway. The influence of more mainstream religious groups also causes concern. Last year Soka Gakkai, a powerful Buddhist organisation which indignantly resists the label "cult", alarmed many Japanese when its political party joined Japan's ruling coalition.
There are 2,000 officially registered religious groups in Japan, many of them with bizarre practices, alarming beliefs and large memberships. But for sheer fraudulence, there is none to match Ho-no-Hana and its charismatic founder, Hogen Fukunaga. Unlike other Japanese religious leaders, Mr Fukunaga has none of the usual trappings of oriental religion. Shoko Asahara, the Aum Shinri Kyo leader, presently on trial for multiple murder, is an archetypal bearded, half-blind, roly-poly. Mr Fukunaga, by contrast, is six foot three, and wears expensive suits, with his hair greased back above his brows. If Shoko Asahara's image drew in spiritually shipwrecked young people, Fukunaga's appearance suggested someone with far broader, and in many ways more Japanese, appeal the confident face of the successful businessman.
Until founding Ho-no-Hana, he was, by all accounts, quite the opposite. Born in April 1945, in the depths of Japan's wartime despair, he studied electrical engineering part time, and founded his own electrical machinery company in the Seventies. According to Japanese newspapers, the firm went bankrupt in 1979, and Mr Fukunaga was expelled from another religious group after allegations of financial funny business. Around the same time, his luck improved when it was revealed to him that he had been chosen as the "envoy of heaven", a successor to Jesus Christ and the Buddha. In 1980, Ho-no-Hana was established.
Undoubtedly, the large number of religious groups in Japan says much about the country's spiritual predicament in the age of unbelief, but it also reveals a great deal about its tax laws. In principle, groups which are registered as "religious corporations" pay no tax, a boon to men like Mr Fukunaga whose material ambitions are not always matched by their entrepreneurial acumen. Ho-no-Hana was officially registered as a religion in 1987 in the city of Fuji, close to the sacred mountain of the same name, an ancient magnet for visionaries, truth-seekers and frauds. The cult's headquarters is called Tensei-mura, or "Heaven's Voice Village". While his other business wheezes supermarkets, karaoke bars failed, Mr Fukunaga the guru enjoyed remarkable success.
The secret of any business is to identify early on your target consumers, a task which Ho-no-Hana achieved with cruel brilliance. From his home in Tokyo's expensive Shoto district, Mr Fukunaga produced a series of books outlining his vision, a vague mixture of Christianity and Buddhism. Each one of us, he explained, has a flow of energy which travels from the head down the spine, but in many people it has been interrupted, causing a range of troubles from bankruptcy, through broken families to cancer. The solution, he argues, is simple: people must learn how to "take off their minds".
The literature was sprinkled with photographs of meetings which Fukunaga had engineered over the years with humanitarian celebrities such as Mother Teresa, Mikhail Gorbachev and the Indian guru Sai Baba. Ho-no-Hana followers targeted the elderly and the bereaved, people who had recently divorced and those with delinquent children. They lingered outside hospitals and hospices, approaching patients and their relatives. "These were people who'd undergone surgery for cancer, and were afraid of a recurrence, people who have contemplated suicide, people whose children have physical or behavioural problems," says Hidenori Kamai, a lawyer representing victims of the cult. "Then there were those who just can't get on with other people, who worry that there is something wrong with their own personality. For some people, that can be a terrible, crippling thing."
It was into this last category that Mr Sakurai (not his real name) fell. After a few years in a dead-end marketing job, he used an inheritance to set up his own accountancy firm, but neither business, nor his personal life prospered. One day, an acquaintance gave him one of Mr Fukunaga's books, characteristically entitled How Can You Call Yourself Human If You Haven't Saved 5.5 Billion Yen?. "Reading it, I realised that my way of thinking had been so negative, and that I had to change," he says. "It talked a lot about 'taking off your mind', but it didn't explain how to do it." The acquaintance, it turned out, was a member of Ho-no-Hana, and it was he who took Mr Sakurai to the "sole of the foot diagnosis" session. Looking back now, it was such a simple fraud: the personal details about Mr Sakurai the loveless life, poor eyesight, stomach ache came not from his feet but from conversations he had had with his friend.
In the beginning, the foot examinations were carried out by the guru himself but, as the cult prospered, senior cultists began to perform them on his behalf. After the diagnosis, came the remedy a training course to be carried out at Fuji at which participants would learn how to "take off their minds". "The money they demanded for this varied, up to three million yen (£18,000)," says Mr Kamai the lawyer. " One man came to see Fukunaga in a frenzy of fear that he was HIV positive. The guru examined his feet and told him that, yes, he did indeed have Aids. Another woman was warned that if she did not undertake the course, her depressive daughter would commit suicide.
"They'd say things like, 'Your life will be short', or 'You'll commit suicide', or 'Your debts will double in five years and you'll have a nervous breakdown', says Mr Kamai. "People were told that if they didn't raise the money in 48 hours it would be too late, and that they mustn't talk to any members of their family about it." Mr Sakurai's training sessions turned out to consist of three days of exercise and the yelling of slogans, without sleep or proper food. Participants were forbidden to talk to one another or make any contact with the outside world. On the last day, Fukunaga himself appeared and laid his hands on the blindfolded subjects. After that, hallucinating with exhaustion, the trainees were taken aside individually and offered "sacred scrolls", and new and more specialised courses for finding a spouse or to bring blessings to descendants, each of them costing several million yen.
Since the days of Chaucer's medieval Pardoner, sick and unhappy people have been parted from their money in the name of religion, but the scale of Ho-no-Hana's fraud may be unprecedented. More than 1,100 people are presently suing the cult, for a total of £32m. Lawyers like Mr Kamai estimate that there are another 30,000 victims out there, either too ashamed to step forward or else quite happy with the return they have received on their money. If the claims already made are typical, then Mr Fukunaga and his cohorts could have rung up as much as £800m.
They are unlikely to receive much more. Last month, the police raided Heaven's Voice Village, and a large-scale criminal investigation is in train alongside the many civil suits. Proving fraud may not be so easy. As the guru himself pointed out in a recent television interview, "Although we asked them to take part in our practices, they themselves actually made the decision to do so." Either way, the story has been splashed all over the Japanese media, and it will be a long time before anyone willingly takes off their socks for Hogen Fukunaga.
The question that remains is why so many people, wealthy and educated, were willing to part so easily with so much money for such miserable lies. Perhaps the vast sums handed over by Fukunaga's victims were themselves the reasons for its success. "These are people who are used to spending money to solve their troubles, for whom spending money makes them feel better in itself," says Hiroshi Yamaguchi, another lawyer who is taking on the cult. Was Ho-no-Hana just another religious fraud? Or was it a new kind of consumerism, the ultimate in retail therapy?
("Asahi Shimbun", January 7, 2000)
FUJI, Shizuoka Prefecture-The head of a religious organization that was searched by police last month on suspicion of defrauding followers of money said Thursday that he will step down.
Hogen Fukunaga, 54, leader of Ho no Hana Sanpogyo, made the announcement at the organization's New Year's ceremony.
He also said he will dismiss six other executives from their posts.
Fukunaga added, however, that he will remain as ``the only symbol who conveys the voices of heaven.''
Those who filed lawsuits against Ho no Hana Sanpogyo said Fukunaga's plan to resign was part of an effort to preserve the organization.
Masaki Kito, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said: ``If Fukunaga does not step down but stays on as leader, the religious organization will suffer serious damage and could collapse when he is compelled to answer police questioning. In order to avoid that situation,Fukunaga announced his resignation.''
A police officer who asked not to be identified said, ``Even if Fukunaga steps down, he still remains the actual leader of the organization.''
After delivering a speech at the New Year's ceremony at the organization's head office, Fukunaga answered reporters' questions and said: ``On Jan. 1, I heard several voices from heaven. One of them said I will step down to go on a pilgrimage to carry these messages from heaven throughout the country.''
He added, ``Heaven will later decide my successor.''
Fukunaga emphasized that Ho no Hana Sanpogyo will continue to exist, and said, ``The activities of the organization will be conducted under the instructions of the voices from heaven.''
As for his own role, Fukunaga said: ``No one can judge me. My role of conveying the voices from heaven will be unchanged.''
He also said the six executives who are to be dismissed had given the public the wrong message about the organization, and some will receive additional punishment. He did not specify what that punishment would be.
Asked if he planned to flee, Fukunaga said he could not do so because police had seized his passport.
To another reporter who asked if his resignation was a means of avoiding a police investigation, he said, ``It is not necessary for me to escape.''
Former followers of Ho no Hana Sanpogyo are seeking 5.4 billion yen in compensation for money they had paid to the organization.
("Mainichi Shimbun", January 7, 2000)
FUJI, Shizuoka - Hogen Fukunaga, the head of the Ho no hana Sanpogyo foot-reading cult based here, announced on Thursday that he would resign the top post of the organization and dismiss all of its executives.
Asked about his announcement to resign, the representative post of Ho no hana, Fukunaga said, "The voice from the heaven indicated on New Year's Day (that he should resign)," adding that he wanted to amend misunderstandings (about the cult by resigning).
In December, National Police Agency officials raided the Ho no hana headquarters in Fuji on suspicion of fraud. The cult allegedly has demanded that followers pay huge amounts of money to buy hanging scrolls and as fees for religious seminars.
(Kyodo News Service, January 6, 2000)
SHIZUOKA, Japan, Jan. 6 (Kyodo) - The leader of the ''Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo'' religious group, which is under investigation for defrauding followers with fake diagnoses of illnesses, said Thursday he is stepping down.
Hogen Fukunaga, 54, told a news conference at the group's head office in Fuji, Shizuoka Prefecture, that he heard ''a voice from heaven'' on New Year's Day telling him to step down.
But Fukanaga said he would continue to be involved in the group. He did not name a successor.
Police raided facilities belonging to the group in December on suspicion of fraud.
Fukunaga and senior group members are suspected of swindling large sums of money out of thousands of people by predicting nonexistent illnesses from readings of the soles of their feet and claiming offerings would avert them.
Fukunaga also told reporters he would expel four senior members for causing ''misunderstanding'' of the group.
Asked what action he expected police to take in the fraud allegations, he said, ''If everything is done without mercy, then it's the end of the world.''
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