Hogen Fukunaga, the flamboyant founder of the Ho-no-Hana Sanpogyo religious group, insisted Thursday that his foot-reading cult is "indispensable" to the world during the first hearing of his trial on fraud charges.
The 55-year-old self-styled oracle, whose real name is Teruyoshi Fukunaga, pleaded not guilty on charges of swindling some 150 million yen from 31 people over the period from 1994 through 1997 during the hearing held at the Tokyo District Court.
Fukunaga and nine others, including a current cult executive, Akemi Maezawa, 36, defrauded the victims by examining the soles of their feet and telling them that they would contract cancer unless they underwent expensive Ho-no-Hana training sessions, the indictment said.
The founder and three others are facing fraud charges, while the rest are accused of conspiring with Fukunaga to perpetrate the crime.
Asked by Presiding Judge Toshio Nagai to identify himself at the start of Wednesday morning's hearing, Fukunaga replied, "I'm a man of religion who is standing aloof from any religious denominations."
During his not-guilty plea, Fukunaga said that he has always followed a path given to him by the "voice of heaven" to save others.
"The voice of heaven has never told me to earn bundles by swindling people. I have never been involved in the things described in the indictment," Fukunaga said.
However, the Ho-no-Hana founder said in a handwritten statement submitted to the court that he caused some "misunderstandings" to occur by using "exaggerated terms" and that the cult's executives "went a bit too far" in managing the group.
"As a former [Ho-no-Hana] representative, I take responsibility for creating a sensation," Fukunaga said in the statement. "However, all I, an ascetic, can do is to follow the voice of heaven. Ho-no-Hana is indispensable to the world."
Other defendants, however, did not share Fukunaga's buoyant mood, as some of them admitted that they committed fraud.
Prosecutors estimate that the foot-readers have amassed over 95 billion yen in "donations" and "training fees" from around 30,000 people since 1987, when the cult gained a nationwide recognition.
Fukunaga, who also claimed to be the world's final savior following Jesus Christ and Buddha, had stepped down as the cult leader before his arrest in May this year, but is believed to be passing messages from the "voice of heaven" to cult followers through lawyers.