Funny money stories uncovered in Japan

Boston Globe/July 6, 1989
By Colin Nickerson

Yokohama, Japan -- The mystery begins at the Yokohama All Seiso scrap yard, where last Friday a crane operator named Yoshikazu Mori was trying to smash a steel safe into chunks of metal for recycling.

Mori's crane hoisted the refrigerator-sized strongbox high into the air, then let it drop. The safe was well constructed, and it took several long drops followed by a smash with a power shovel before the door burst open and three cloth bundles flew out.

The bundles contained a fortune, and not a small one either: 170 million yen -- about $1.2 million at present (1989) exchange rates -- all in large- denomination bills printed in the early 1970s.

"It was very surprising," said Mori, who, like any good Japanese, immediately reported the discovery.

Police investigators quickly determined that the safe containing the huge sum was one of 100 sold to the Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist sect claiming more than 7 million adherents.

The Soka Gakkai has close ties to Japan's second-largest opposition party, the Komeito, or "Clean Government" party, several of whose members have been implicated in the Recruit influence peddling scandal. The scandal involves the questionable campaign donations made to powerful political figures by the Recruit Company, a Tokyo-based communications conglomerate.

Police also learned that the discarded safe was brought to the scrap yard on June 29 by a truck belonging to the delivery fleet of the Seikyo Shimbun, a daily newspaper published by the Buddhist group.

Then, on Monday, the former financial manager of the Soka Gakkai came forward with a bizarre tale to tell.

Haruo Nakanishi, who also is the former publisher of the sect newspaper, claimed that the money was his and his alone. The safe had been stored in an underground basement of the Seikyo Shimbun and he had simply "forgotten" it when he retired earlier this year.

And where had $1.2 million worth of 10,000 yen notes come from?

From the sale of cheap souvenir cups on the grounds of a Buddhist temple, the bespectacled, 60-year-old religious official told Japanese reporters at a press conference earlier this week.

Nakanishi maintained that he had operated a souvenir stand at Daisekiji Temple for three years beginning in 1970. The gilt cups sold for around 400 yen apiece, or about $2.85 at today's exchange rate.

Police, factoring in the estimated wholesale price of the cups and other business expenses faced by a typical vendor, calculated that Nakanishi would have had to sell 2,000 of the souvenirs a day, 365 days a year, to earn the sum found in the safe.

"Profits were unexpectedly big," allowed Nakanishi. "Since there was nothing I wanted to do with the money, I placed it in a safe . . . and forgot about it."

Japanese police are normally a circumspect lot. But they openly describe Nakanishi's story as "unlikely."

Said one investigator: "People do not make huge fortunes selling fake gold cups from a single temple stall. There are inconsistencies in his account."

Other questions are raised by the cash itself: the wrappers around several thick sheafs of bills bore the imprint of the Finance Ministry, meaning the money had never been in circulation after leaving the issuing bank. The press has speculated that the money may be part of some sort of political slush fund maintained by the conservative Buddhist sect.

A spokesman for the Sokka Gakkai said yesterday the sect would have "absolutely no comment" on the matter.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.