In Japan, Spirituality Search can Lead to Cults

1,100 former followers of a guru known as The Voice of Heaven have filed lawsuits claiming damages totaling $546 million.

Chicago Tribune/January 05, 2001
By Uli Schmetzer

Karazu, Japan The cure came to Tsuneo Kikuchi in the form of a dapper, silver-haired messiah--"His Holiness" Hogen Fukunaga, who promised Kikuchi long life and a place among the chosen when "the world falls apart." In the guru's private chamber, an austere room with a ceiling of painted stars, Fukunaga, known to his followers as the Voice of Heaven, ordered Kikuchi to take off his socks so he could examine his feet. "Your little toe is too short," the Voice of Heaven said. "It means your foot is out of balance. It means you have a health problem. Now let me check if the powers of heaven are flowing."

The kind of metaphysics preached by Fukunaga, 55, has attracted millions of Japanese, many disillusioned by the decline of Japan's economy and the social displacement that has followed. Sociologists say many questionable spiritual organizations are operating in the vacuum created by a protracted recession that has eroded the confidence of this work-oriented society. For generations, many Japanese workers believed that their future in their nation's hierarchical corporate system was guaranteed and that their jobs would last forever.

These assumptions have been shattered. Unemployment and economic uncertainty have created feelings of betrayal and insecurity that have led large numbers of Japanese on a search for spiritual guidance. In some cases, the search has led to membership in a cult.

"In Japan moral precepts have collapsed," said Masahiko Nakamura, a psychology professor at Ehime University. "Parents have lost authority. Teachers cannot control their students. Older people have naught to cling to. Nothing has replaced the old spiritual education since the war, and no one has taught us about God or the power behind mankind. The Japanese are lost. We don't have the Christian belief that God is watching over us," he said.

The search for a new credo and an alternative to corporate cradle-to-grave security has spawned a bevy of individuals peddling their own weird brands of salvation. These spiritual gurus run organizations structured on the corporate system of strict hierarchy. Most seem determined to export their credos to branch offices abroad. The worst of these organizations are the doomsday cults. Secretive and often brutal in preventing desertions, they prophesy Armageddon or promote a "new world order."

The public was reminded just how dangerous some of these groups can be when a Tokyo court last year sentenced to death two members of the Aum Shinri Kyo for their role in planting sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995 and cyanide in public toilets a year earlier.

The most notorious of the doomsday gurus is Shoko Asahara, 44, now on trial for murder in the subway attack. The incident allegedly was part of a plan to destroy the "old world" and make room for a new creation--populated by Asahara's disciples.

Police were told Asahara was trained by the Agon-shu sect. Fifty members of the Unification Church sect allegedly joined Aum, including arms dealer Kiyohide Hayakawa. Another cult, Sukyo Mahikari, sees Japan as the cradle of a new world order.

Yoshikazu Okada, who reinvented himself as "Savior of Mankind," founded the group. Today it has branches worldwide, including in the U.S. Okada was exposed before his death in 1974 as the lieutenant colonel in the Japanese Imperial Army who devised the strategy for the so-called Rape of Nanking, in which Japanese troops allegedly murdered 300,000 Chinese and raped 20,000 women after conquering the Chinese city in 1937. In an effort to crack down on sects, Japanese police in November charged Koji Takahashi, founder of the Life Space Cult, with the murder of a 66-year-old follower. When the member suffered a brain hemorrhage, the guru tried to cure him by beating on the patient's head. During a raid on Takahashi's Tokyo headquarters, police found young children who had been kept out of school and being fed only once a day. Meanwhile, Fukunaga has been charged with fraud and illegally practicing medicine.

Kikuchi recalls that Fukunaga circled him, touched his head a few times and finally said: "Your energy is stagnant. Only 30 percent flows, 70 percent is stationary. It means something bad can happen to you anytime unless you follow our instructions." All Kikuchi, 69, had been looking for was a cure for his high blood pressure.

Yet he was impressed, not so much by the pledge of long life or the diagnosis but by the photos in the guru's outer office. They appeared to show Fukunaga shaking hands with world figures including President Clinton, Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa and Mikhail Gorbachev. What happened during the next 12 months to Kikuchi is not unusual for victims of neo-religious cults and sects anywhere in the world. He lost his self-respect and some $150,000 to the Ho-No-Hana Sanpopogyo--Way of the Flower/Three-Teachings cult.

The so-called foot cult was founded by Fukunaga, who wears $5,000 suits and custom-made Italian shoes. His wife, according to senior cult members, regularly spent $6,000 to $7,000 a month shopping. Before he was allowed to see Fukunaga, Kikuchi was taken to an automatic teller machine near the cult's Tokyo office and told to withdraw $1,800 for a personal audience.

Kikuchi was a man of means. He owned several restaurants in this small coastal town 50 miles south of Tokyo. Today he claims he was coerced during a number of visits by cult officials to shell out another $22,000 for a five-day training seminar at the cult's sprawling headquarters below Mt. Fuji.

The purpose, he said, was to "purify" his mind and body. "I was a fool," said a rueful Kikuchi. "I paid all that money to be brainwashed and tortured. The instructors kept 28 of us awake day and night, making us repeat Buddhist mantras, making us write mantras into a 100-page notebook and chorus for hours the guru's seven commandments and the slogan: `I am happy and healthy, I'm happy and healthy...' " Any lack of enthusiasm was punished with latrine cleaning At the end of the seminar, tired, groggy and ready to accept or do anything, the trainees were asked to state if their minds had been liberated. Kikuchi said he felt no different.

"So they retrained me twice and all the other trainees started screaming and yelling at me until I admitted I now felt different. They are very determined people and made me sign a piece of paper pledging to recruit someone else within 72 hours. I would have signed anything," he said. He recruited his wife. She paid another $22,000 and recruited their daughter-in-law who in turn recruited her husband, who, in desperation to find a recruit, offered as trainees his three children ages 9, 11 and 13. "It didn't stop there," Kikuchi said. "They told me to join a private school at 7 million yen [$6,900] per adult. But we had become suspicious by then. The Voice of Heaven never told us anything about the future. All he ever said was: `Who can you bring to us next?'

"Before he went to the seminar my son was in debt already for $100,000. But the Voice of Heaven told him he would recover everything if he joined. Today my son is broke and I am poor," Kikuchi said.

Two years ago Kikuchi and a group of other former followers sued His Holiness. Their suit is one of hundreds waiting to be litigated. In May, police arrested the guru and 11 of his senior associates. Prosecutors charged them with practicing medicine without a license. Investigators said that over the past decade the cult accumulated cash and assets worth $870 million from 30,000 members who paid consultation fees and bought fake remedies and icons peddled as cures for anything and everything. So far 1,100 former followers have filed lawsuits claiming damages totaling $546 million. A court in central Fukuoka district already has awarded one group damages totaling $227,000. Fukunaga might yet face manslaughter charges in the deaths of four recruits who died during rigorous initiation rites at Mt. Fuji.

Legal experts say Japan's criminal justice system is ill equipped to combat the cult phenomenon. "The biggest question is on what basis will the authorities decide whether this is fraud," said Takashi Hirohashi, editor of the monthly New Religions magazine. Following his arrest, Fukunaga exploited this dilemma. He simply told investigators he could no longer remember what the divine voice had told him. Worse, he said, he wasn't receiving any more instructions.

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