Following the furor surrounding AUM Shinrikyo, another religious organization, Ho No Hana Sanpogyo, is coming under the legal-suit cosh. Ho No Hana is being sued by people demanding the return of exorbitant fees they paid to take part in religious rites that were supposed to relieve them from earthly troubles.
Beginning with the cases of former Ho No Hana followers who claim they were swindled out of millions of yen in practice fees, the Metropolitan Police Department plans to investigate the Fuji, Shizuoka Prefecture - based organization on charges of fraud, officials said.
Lawyers representing those victims say that at least 1,100 people are filing compensation lawsuits with demands totaling 5.5 billion yen, money that they claim was pocketed by Ho No Hana.
Typically, the group first encourages members to listen to people's personal troubles and then advises them to take part in rites, which carry fees, to help solve the problems.
Hogen Fukunaga, the head of Ho No Hana, justifies charging fees by saying in a statement to the courts that "funds paid by followers are a contribution to heaven."
While those involved in the suits claim that they were forced to pay up, Fukunaga denies that Ho No Hana members made people part with their cash. "Although we asked them to take part in our practices, they themselves actually made the decision to do so," he said.
Yet Fukunaga explanation contradicts the plaintiffs stories.
In one case, a middle-aged woman was a victim.
When her daughter suffered from insomnia associated to job problems and took some days off work in June this year, she told Ho No Hana members of the situation. The mother and daughter were immediately summoned to the organization's office in Tokyo's Shibuya, where they met Fukunaga. After looking at the soles of the daughter's feet in a so-called "sole examination," Fukunaga recommended that she take part in Ho No Hana practices, and members told her mother to pay 18 million yen in fees for practices and a scroll.
The mother had previously taken part in the group's sessions, but didn't volunteer to join a religious session of listening to the "voice of heaven" - as related by Fukunaga. Fukunaga blamed her daughter's problems on this failure.
"Because you didn't listen to the voice of heaven, your daughter received punishment from heaven. Are you really her mother?" Fukunaga asked the mother, lawyers said.
The mother ended up withdrawing her savings and borrowing money from financial institutions to pay the fees. Another case also involves fees for rites and a scroll. In October 1992, a man in his 60s contacted a Ho No Hana office when he was afraid that he might have contracted the HIV virus after discovering rashes on his body. At the Shibuya office, Fukunaga told him, "When you see a doctor now, he would say you are an AIDS patient."
Then Fukunaga examined his soles, and said, "Your life is bad in the past, present and the future." Following the recommendations of Ho No Hana members, he paid 610,000 yen to take part in a session to aid his situation in Shizuoka Prefecture.
After the ritual, Fukunaga told the man that he couldn't find the AIDS virus in him anymore. So members demanded the man buy a scroll as a home treasure, and he paid 3.3 million yen.
The man then filed a suit with the Shizuoka District Court, demanding the organization return some 5 million yen.
In 1990, the wife of a doctor in Fukuoka was upset because she had no children who could take over her husband's hospital. After she sent a postcard, which she found inserted in a copy of Fukunaga's book that she had read, to Ho No Hana, members told her to partake in their activities. In April that year, she paid 154,000 yen for a two-day event organized by the group in Fuji. Fukunaga conveyed the "voice of heaven" to her, saying, "Because of your ancestors' trouble, your family is also in trouble." In the usual way, members then told her to take part in a five-day practice, which would cost 1.1 million yen.
When she hesitated, a member said, "Are you going to go against the will of heaven?"
After that, she had to pay 4.55 million yen. The Fukuoka District Court is hearing her lawsuit, which demands the return of 5.8 million yen from Ho No Hana.