Even as police arrested the founder and senior officials of the Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo religious group on suspicion of swindling former followers out of a huge sum of money, one former follower said he hoped the police investigation would fully expose the organization's "malicious nature" to the public.
Ho-no-Hana is thought to have coerced more than 30,000 people into undergoing its dubious training sessions by subjecting them to "sole-of-the-foot diagnoses" and telling them the sessions would prevent them from becoming cancer victims. "I cannot forgive Ho-no-Hana, a group that always tries to take advantage of people's weakness," said a 65-year-old self-employed Ishikawa Prefecture man as he sat upright in front of the portrait of his son who died at the age of 30.
In June 1994, the son, a company employee, had been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer at the age of 29. He underwent surgery and was able to return home, but he was hospitalized again in January 1995.
Two months later, the son suddenly told his father that he wanted to take part in a Ho-no-Hana training session.
Although the son had not been told that his condition was terminal, his girlfriend, who had read the books of Ho-no-Hana founder Hogen Fukunaga, apparently convinced him to do so, the 65-year-old man said.
Grasping onto any hope for a cure for his son, the man went on a 30-kilometer drive at night to meet with two senior members of a local Ho-no-Hana branch.
As soon as they gave the man a sole-of-the-foot diagnosis, they frowningly told him that his was the sole of a man "who is trampling on his son." They then reportedly told him that things would be all right if his family participated in a five-day training session.
At that time, the man understood "all right" as meaning that the training session would cure his son's cancer.
Against his son's doctors' strong objections, the son left the hospital and went with his parents to Vox Dei (voice of God) village, Ho-no-Hana's headquarters located in Fuji, Shizuoka Prefecture. The family paid 5.84 million yen in training fees to the religious group. During their visit to the village, the son suffered several severe stomachaches.
Three days after they returned home, the family received a call from the branch's head, telling them to go to a certain hotel. When the parents showed up at the hotel with their dying son, they were welcomed by 50 to 60 Ho-no-Hana members.
The branch head had the son stand in front of the crowd and said, "This person's terminal cancer has been cured."
The announcement was greeted by applause, but it came as a blow to the parents, as they had not told their son about his cancer. "It was not cancer at all," the upset father shouted in vain. It seemed to him that his son had become terribly crestfallen.
After the gathering, the family was urged to purchase expensive items such as hanging scrolls at a total cost of 13 million yen. The price tag was hefty enough to shock the parents, but they ended up buying them in an attempt to save their son, even emptying a savings account to raise the money.
Their efforts, however, did nothing to improve their son's condition. Ten days after the training session, the son collapsed, saying that he could hold out no longer, and was hospitalized again. Two months later, he was dead. His parting words to his parents were, "The training could not change anything."
Ho-no-Hana has continued to tell the public that its sole-of-the-foot diagnoses reveal the state of a person's health and fortune through the color and condition of the sole, and even the length of the toes.
In many cases following a diagnosis, potential followers would be told things like their soles were so dirty they would suffer from cancer, or that they would commit suicide within a certain period of time.
Then they would be persuaded to take part in five-day training sessions after being told that things would be all right after the training. The group is said to have usually received 1.25 million yen to 2.25 million yen per person in training fees.
The training itself, conducted in the group's Vox Dei headquarters, required participants to recite the Ho-no-Hana's "Nanakangyo" behavior guides for hours on end. They were instructed to hand-copy a sutra titled Hannyatengyo, which the religious group invented by changing five parts of the well-known Hannyashingyo sutra.
Participants were allowed to sleep a total of only about 10 hours and eat four or five meals in five days of training.
On the final day of the session, when participants were in an extreme state of mind, Fukunaga and other senior officials would hold a "judgment meeting."
During the meeting, followers were required to intently recite from the "Nanakangyo" guides while the group officials allegedly hurled verbal abuse at them, egging them on to chant with desperation. After pronouncing the group a "failure" twice, officials then announced that the followers passed the test.
Officials of the Agency of Cultural Affairs say they are considering asking for court-ordered dissolution of the Ho no Hana Sanpogyo foot cult, whose founder Hogen Fukunaga, 55, and 11 senior members were arrested Tuesday, accused of bilking followers.
The cult leaders are accused of having swindled 25 million yen from five people as fees for attendance at cult seminars and other cult-related charges. Police suspect the totals of money taken in and people swindled are much higher.
The culture agency is considering the ban on the cult because it has become clear that its leaders used the Ho no Hana chain of command to conduct systematic fraud.
The cult has claimed to be capable of diagnosing illnesses by examining the soles of people's feet. It was established around 1980 by Fukunaga and was registered as a religious organization by the Shizuoka prefectural government in 1987. The Cultural Affairs Agency became responsible for religious organizations through a 1996 amendment of the law governing them.
The revised law stipulates that a religious group may be ordered to disband when it is found to have engaged in illegal acts that endangered public welfare, or in acts that departed drastically from the objectives of a religious organization.
Religious organizations ordered to disband are ineligible for tax breaks and their property can be disposed of. Propagation would not be banned, however.
Agency officials say they feel that conditions for dissolving the cult would be met if the leaders of Ho no Hana are found to have been involved in the case.
Some officials are cautious, however, saying that Ho no Hana Sanpogyo still has many followers. They say the cult's seminars and sales of religious items should be examined to confirm whether they are construed as fraud.
Sources close to the cult say that changed its approach in attracting new followers around 1996, concentrating on existing followers.
Before, it frightened people into joining by claiming they would suffer or become ill if they did not attend cult seminars and buy cult items.
Twelve top members of a "sole searching" cult with a penchant for podiatry predictions and a founder boasting a self-professed ability to hear "The Voice of Heaven," were arrested for fraud in Tokyo on Tuesday, police said. Police decreed as fraudulent claims by Hogen Fukunaga, founder and guru of the controversial cult Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo, that he alone was capable of hearing "The Voice of Heaven" - and should be paid for the privilege of passing the messages on.
Flamboyant Fukunaga, 55, was arrested for fraud, together with a 11 other high-ranking members of the cult, perhaps best known for its promises to cure people's ills by reading the soles of their feet.
Fukunaga admits to having given the "Voice of Heaven" to the five people he is accused of defrauding, but denies the charges facing him.
"I admit I passed on 'The Voice of Heaven' to the five people, but I can't recollect the details of 'The Voice of Heaven,' " Fukunaga said.
Police said that from December 1994 to August 1996, the 12 cult leaders promised five ill people that they could heal their ailments in return for cash payments, which eventually amounted to 25.02 million yen. The cult received the money ostensibly as payment for faith healing.
Cult bigwigs "read" the soles of the feet of the five, telling one that they would "develop cancer if you don't do anything about it," while another was informed that "you'll get better as long as you listen to 'The Voice of Heaven.' "
Police said that the cult lured its five victims into following its religious activities by adopting a name and hiding its status as a religious corporation. In addition, investigators add that Fukunaga has gone on record as saying "it's acceptable to lie when it comes to getting at people."
A book supposedly written by Fukunaga and often used to lure new members was actually penned by a ghostwriter, investigators said.
Ho-no-Hana's sole readings earned the cult bundles. For the decade ending 1998, believers footed over 87 billion yen in cash, most of which was to have their soles bared. Of the 87 billion yen that filled cult coffers, 70 billion yen was garnered through such methods as payments for training, or sale of Ho-no-Hana brand products such as hanging scrolls. The remaining cash was picked up through the cult's publications and restaurants that it operated.
Fukunaga founded Ho-no-Hana in January 1980, preaching that he was the world's final savior after Jesus Christ and the Buddha.
The Shizuoka Prefectural Government recognized the cult as a religious corporation in 1987. Ho-no-Hana has set up 14 bases across the nation and counts over 30,000 participants in its training sessions.
TOKYO, May 10 (Kyodo) - The Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo cult has fabricated rings it claims to have been given by Pope John Paul II to its leader Hogen Fukunaga and sold them to followers between 100,000 yen and 300,000 yen a piece, police sources say.
Fukunaga, who relinquished his official position as leader of the foot-reading cult in January, was arrested Tuesday on charges of defrauding the cult's followers.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), which has been probing a barrage of fraudulent charges filed against the cult and Fukunaga, has opened a new investigation into the ring affair, MPD sources said.
According to the MPD and other sources, the ring episode stems from a visit Fukunaga made to the Vatican in September 1995.
Fukunaga had an audience with Pope John Paul at St. Peter's Cathedral during the trip and received a papal blessing on a diamond ring brought by a business associate who traveled with Fukunaga.
On his way back to Japan, Fukunaga sold the papal blessed ring to a traveling companion and bought another ring, a $2,000 gold band set with a cross, during a stop in New Delhi, police sources said.
Soon afterward, Ho-no-Hana advertised in an in-house newsletter that the pope had presented three sets of rings to Fukunaga and began selling them to its followers -- 300,000 yen for a gold band, 200,000 yen for a silver, and 100,000 yen for a bronze.
The person who bought the papal-blessed ring from Fukunaga and was present at the papal audience has told police investigators the cult ''fabricated everything.''
The police suspects that Ho-no-Hana had the gold ring Fukunaga bought in New Delhi copied in Japan and sold them to its followers.
Apart from Fukunaga, 11 senior Ho-no-Hana members were arrested Tuesday on suspicion swindling five followers out of a total of 25 million yen between 1994 and 1996, as ''fees'' for curing illnesses of the victims and their family members.
Fukunaga claims he can diagnose diseases by reading foot soles.
TOKYO, May 9 (Reuters) - In a fresh move to crack down on fringe religious groups suspected of illegal activities, Japanese police on Tuesday arrested leaders of a ``foot cult'' that diagnosed followers' ills by examining the soles of their feet.
Tokyo police said they arrested Hogen Fukunaga, founder of the Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo (Flower of Law and Three Law Practice), and 10 top followers on suspicion of defrauding five people, including three housewives, of 25 million yen ($230,000) in the mid-1990s.
Police said Fukunaga and his top followers, whose headquarters are at the foot of Mount Fuji, have no licence to practise medicine but said they could diagnose the health condition and predict the future of individuals by examining their feet.
``If you do nothing, you will get cancer. If you follow the voice of heaven, you will get well,'' a police spokesman quoted Fukunaga as telling the five people before taking their money.
Fukunaga, 55, has said he is the world's last saviour and that he hears the voice of heaven. He has also predicted human beings will disappear from the earth on January 6, 2001.
Followers were told to buy religious goods and enter expensive training programmes to ensure they were cured.
Media reports said the cult was believed to have defrauded some 30,000 followers of 81 billion yen since 1987, when it was officially recognised as a religious group.
Last month, a Japanese court ordered the cult and Fukunaga to pay 227.2 million yen to 27 former followers.
Separately, more than 1,000 other former followers have sued the cult, demanding it pay some five billion yen in damages.
Japanese authorities have recently been cracking down on fringe religious groups suspected of illegal practices, amid fears that membership of anti-social religious groups is rising.
The doomsday Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth Sect), accused of a fatal 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 and injured thousands, was placed under surveillance by the government in February under new laws.
Cult leader Shoko Asahara, currently on trial for his alleged role in the cult's crimes, preached that the world was ending and that the cult must arm itself to prepare for various calamities.
A recent newspaper poll showed that eight in 10 Japanese citizens still harboured worries about the doomsday cult.
Since the deadly gassing, Japan, which regards itself as one of the safest countries in the world, has witnessed a string of crimes linked to fringe cults.
Last November, police found the mummified body of a 66-year-old follower of the Life Space cult in a hotel.
At that time, his family claimed he was still alive and being treated for a brain haemorrhage with pats on the head from guru Koji Takahashi, who was later arrested and charged with murder.
The founder of foot-reading cult Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo, Hogen Fukunaga, is expected to face the music Tuesday as a police crackdown on the group nears its conclusion, investigative sources have said. It is believed that police are ready to summon self-proclaimed oracle Fukunaga, 55, and about a dozen cult executives for grilling over the alleged swindling of 20 million yen from three housewives during a seven-month period from November 1994.
Police have been carrying out corroborative investigations on Ho-no-Hana for over three years and calculate that the cult amassed over 80 billion yen from its followers.
The law?Õs operations included massive raids last December on the grandiose cult headquarters in Fuji, Shizuoka Prefecture. Investigators believe they have enough evidence to make the cult foot the bill for its allegedly illegal moneymaking operations.
On April 28, the Fukuoka District Court condemned the cult for engaging in illegal moneymaking activity, and ordered it to pay over 220 million yen in damages to 12 former followers.
But two days later, Fukunaga told a gathering of some 600 cult members in Tokyo that the decision is "no concern of heaven. Courts cannot overrule heaven."
The housewives, who had various domestic and health problems when they contacted the cult, sued Fukunaga and others for fraud. They argued that the cult members used the foot reading and "heavenly voice" oracle to convince them to fork over millions of yen to escape their misfortunes or avoid serious illnesses.
Out of anxiety, the three women bought expensive lucky charms such as scrolls, and attended training sessions held in the cult's headquarters and other facilities, as instructed by members.
Investigators estimate that the foot-readers have amassed over 80 billion yen in donations by employing similar ploys on nearly 30,000 people.
The money was reportedly used to enlarge the cult's gaudy facilities and to finance Fukunaga's "courtesy calls" on international luminaries, including Pope John Paul II and the late Mother Theresa.
Fukunaga has also been accused in court of using donations to finance lavish spending for private use.
Police this morning arrested Hogen Fukunaga, the 55-year-old founder and former head of the Ho no Hana Sanpogyo foot cult, and 10 of his lieutenants for scamming millions of yen from new recruits.
Fukunaga denied the allegations, police officials said.
Police say they have evidence that Fukunaga and the others swindled 25 million yen from five people and that the actual total is probably far higher. Police said they would arrest another cultist later.
The five people say they were victimized by Fukunaga and others between December 1994 and August 1996.
Police this morning also searched 18 cult-related locations for evidence.
The arrests follow police searches of cult facilities in December.
Police aim to prove eventually that 12 senior members, including Fukunaga, bilked at least 20 people out of more than 100 million yen.
The money was paid as fees for seminars that the cult asserted would cure illnesses of those attending, based on examinations of the soles of their feet.
The cult leaders have denied all the allegations. They held key positions in Ho no Hana Sanpogyo's headquarters in Fuji, Shizuoka Prefecture, and its regional offices nationwide.
Although the cult leaders were not licensed physicians, they conducted ``sole diagnoses'' on a number of people who had expressed interest in the philosophies set out in Fukunaga's publications, sources said. The ``customers, '' including those involved in the accusations leading to today's arrests, were then coerced into attending a five-day seminar, for which they paid, after being told they risked death by cancer.
Those attending were told that a ``voice of heaven,'' audible only to Fukunaga, advised that they would not be at risk of cancer if they purchased hanging scrolls and other expensive cult items, the sources said.
In December, police found manuals and other documents that had been used to recruit cult followers. They have since interviewed more than 100 followers and people who attended cult seminars.
The guidance for recruiting suggested that cult leaders could lie to lure new members.
Investigators believe the cult has taken in about 87 billion yen from 22,000 people since 1987.
The group's founder, whose real name is Teruyoshi Fukunaga, began proselytizing in 1980.
TOKYO, May 8 (Reuters) - Japanese police have issued arrest warrants for the leaders of the ``foot'' cult suspected of charging huge fees to diagnose ailments by examining the soles of people's feet, Kyodo news agency reported on Monday.
Believers were told to buy religious goods and have expensive training to ensure they were cured.
Police have issued arrest warrants for the leader Teruyoshi Fukunaga, 55, and several other leaders of the cult, Kyodo said.
Last month, courts ordered the Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo cult and Fukunaga to pay 227.2 million yen ($2.09 million) to 27 followers.
More than 1,000 other followers have sued the cult -- whose name means Flower of Law and Three Law Practice -- for around five billion yen in damages.
Police said Fukunaga and his disciples, whose headquarters are at the foot of Mount Fuji, have no licence to practise medicine but say they can diagnose people's health and predict their future by examining their feet.
Last November, police found the mummified body of a 66-year-old follower of the Life Space cult in a hotel. His family claimed he was still alive and being treated for a brain haemorrhage by getting pats on the head from guru Koji Takahashi, who was later arrested and charged with murder.
Police raids on that cult's buildings found children who had apparently been kept from school and fed only once a day.
In 1995, a nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinri Kyo, or Supreme Truth, cult killed 12 people and injured thousands.
The ``voice of heaven'' that drove followers to part with huge donations to Ho no Hana Sanpogyo was apparently a committee effort, according to sources familiar with the investigation of the cult's activities.
Cult leaders had denied they made fraudulent claims to get money from donors, the sources said Sunday. The basic line was that they could receive hanging scrolls and other religious bric-a-brac imbued with a ``voice of heaven'' heard only by Hogen Fukunaga, founder of the cult.
Investigators have determined since, however, that the messages were drawn up by high-ranking cultists at occasional cult policy meetings.
Tokyo Metropolitan Police and Shizuoka Prefectural Police investigators said Fukunaga and other top cult officials would be questioned early this week. They hope to learn more about the funds the cult collected and how they were obtained.
The cult is said to have drawn much of its income from fees for reading the destinies of people by ``reading'' the soles of their feet.
Separately, investigators have obtained cult documents warning followers to watch their language when recruiting. The documents were apparently prepared around April 1996 when the huge sums the cult was collecting began to emerge as a public concern.
The document warned that such pitch phrases as ``your cancer will be cured'' or ``your illness will definitely be cured'' could lead the cult to be held accountable in court and should be avoided.
The statement warned against absolute phrases as ``humanity will definitely be destroyed.'' Instead, members were advised to be vague, as in, ``if the conditions are right, it could lead to destruction.''
TOKYO, May 7 (Kyodo) - The Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo religious group paid several million yen to a then member of the Fuji city assembly in Shizuoka Prefecture in 1986, one year before the prefectural government certified it as an authorized religious corporation, cult sources said Saturday.
The assembly member, Matsuo Oishi, 63, who later became the assembly's chairman, was asked by the Fuji-based cult to help with procedural matters in registering as an authorized religious body, and consulted prefectural government officials on the matter in advance, the sources said.
Oishi admitted to having received cash in December 1986 and April 1987, but told Kyodo News the cult offered the money as political funding to help his campaign in nationwide local elections in 1987. He declined to clarify how much he received.
Police suspect the cash was handed to Oishi for his assistance in obtaining religious corporation status in March 1987, and have begun questioning him.
The status confers on its holder such benefits as preferential tax treatment.
Ho-no-Hana is suspected of defrauding thousands of followers by predicting nonexistent illnesses through ''readings'' of the soles of their feet.
Under the Religious Juridical Persons Law, groups can apply for religious corporation status by submitting documents to the Cultural Affairs Agency or a prefectural government, explaining details such as the number of followers.
Agency sources said it is extremely unusual for a person other than a religious group member or official proxy to consult a government body on the registration procedure.
The agency will begin investigating the case, the sources said.
According to cult sources, Oishi received a request from the cult in the summer of 1986, in which it asked him for help in acquiring religious corporation certification from the Shizuoka prefectural government.
He received the request through an acquaintance working at a construction company, they said.
Oishi said he visited the prefectural government office several times with a Ho-no-Hana official that year.
The former assemblyman said he could not have pressured the Shizuoka prefectural government as examinations of religious bodies are based solely on submitted papers. Oishi also said he had no knowledge of the cult's teachings at that time.
During a police raid on Ho-no-Hana facilities last December on suspicion of fraud, Oishi's house was also searched.
Oishi was first elected to the Fuji municipal assembly in 1975 and served six terms as an assemblyman, but lost his seat in an election last year.
Shizuoka prefectural government officials said they granted religious corporation status to Ho-no-Hana after examining its activities for several months and that the entire procedure was conducted properly.
Ho-no-Hana officials said they applied for religious corporation status with aid from a construction company and that they do not remember paying money to an assembly member to win certification.
TOKYO, May 6 (Kyodo) - The Metropolitan Police Department and Shizuoka prefectural police are set to grill Hogen Fukunaga, founder of the Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo religious group, about suspected fraud cases, investigative sources said Saturday.
The sources said police, confident of establishing a case against them, have decided to search and question Fukunaga, who is said to have been behind the group's management since 1998 when it was certified by the Shizuoka prefectural government as a religious corporation.
Fukunaga and senior cult members are suspected of swindling three women out of a total of 22 million yen by reading the soles of their feet between November 1994 and June 1995, ostensibly to help cure illnesses of their family members, the sources said.
According to investigations, the group, based in Fuji, Shizuoka Prefecture in central Japan, is suspected to have swindled about 100 billion yen as ''training fees'' from thousands of followers.
Last December, police raided the cult's facilities, confiscated documents and questioned group members.
The Metropolitan Police Department plans to charge at least 10 members of the Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo religious group, including its founder and former leader Hogen Fukunaga, with swindling about 20 former followers out of more than 100 million yen, The Yomiuri Shimbun learned Thursday.
Police expect to launch a full-scale investigation into the group after they get a green light from prosecutors early next week.
Police searched offices and facilities linked to the group in December, looking for evidence that Fukunaga and senior Ho-no-Hana members bilked three people out of about 22 million yen with false claims that they could have their ailments cured by undergoing five-day training sessions and purchasing expensive talismans such as hanging scrolls.
The group leaders made sham diagnoses of serious ailments by inspecting the soles of the three people's feet, according to police.
Police said a careful inspection of items such as account books seized in the searches revealed that Ho-no-Hana had gleaned more than 80 billion yen from training sessions, in which about 30,000 followers participated, and the sale of talismans.
Police also learned through questioning former followers and people linked to the group that Fukunaga instructed his staff to lie to lure participants to training sessions.
FUKUOKA, May 1 (Kyodo) - The Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo religious group filed an appeal with the Fukuoka High Court on Monday over last week's ruling by a lower court ordering it to pay 227.2 million yen in damages to 27 people it swindled.
The Fukuoka District Court on Friday ordered the cult and its founder Hogen Fukunaga to pay the amount for conning the 27 plaintiffs out of money paid for purportedly curing false illnesses.
''We do not agree with the first ruling so we want to battle it out at an appeal hearing,'' a Ho-no-Hana official said.
The group, based in Fuji, Shizuoka Prefecture, also filed an application with the Fukuoka District Court for cancellation of the provisional execution of the court's ruling.
Presiding Judge Motoaki Kimura said in handing down the ruling Friday that the conduct of Fukunaga and the cult members is illegal.
The judge said Fukunaga and senior cult members forced the plaintiffs to pay huge amounts of cash by falsely diagnosing serious ailments such as cancer based on inspections of the soles of their feet and claiming that payments of millions of yen would cure them.
The plaintiffs had demanded 236.9 million yen in damages.
Some 1,100 people nationwide have filed similar suits against Ho-no-Hana at seven district courts, seeking a total of 5.2 billion yen in damages. Friday's ruling was the first in these cases.
The group was founded by Fukunaga, 55, around 1980. In 1987, it was recognized by the Shizuoka prefectural government as a religious group eligible for preferential tax treatment.
Ho-no-Hana has an estimated 2,000 regular followers. It is said to have collected some 100 billion yen from believers.
Police have questioned a senior member of the group as part of their investigations of suspected fraud.
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