The leader of the Ho-no-Hana Sanpogyo religious group, whose offices and facilities were searched by police Wednesday on suspicion of fraud, publicized his meetings with prominent figures such as U.S. President Bill Clinton and former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev to attract followers, it was learned Thursday.
According to former members of the group, Hogen Fukunaga, 54, kicked off his publicity campaign in February 1995, when he met with Gorbachev. He also met with Pope John Paul II, Mother Theresa, Indian religious leader Sai Baba and Clinton on separate occasions.
Ho-no-Hana Sanpogyo published stories about Fukunaga's meetings in magazines and group newsletters.
Investigators suspect the publicity campaigns are an example of the group's fraudulent tactics as one former group member said he had joined the group because he felt he could trust someone who was connected with such prominent figures.
An acquaintance of Fukunaga who often arranged the group leader's meetings quoted Fukunaga as once telling him, "I enjoy meeting with international figures and leaders simply because I want to enrich my knowledge."
In September 1995, the acquaintance asked a friend scheduled to meet with the pope to introduce Fukunaga to the religious leader. During the meeting, Fukunaga presented the pope with two rings purchased in Rome beforehand and asked the pope to wear one of them while he wore the other. According to the acquaintance, Fukunaga looked very pleased during the meeting.
Ho-no-Hana Sanpogyo played up the meeting and published a false story that was carried with a photograph of the meeting. "The pope presented two rings, giving one to our leader while wearing the other as an expression of solidarity in efforts to achieve world peace," the story read. "Our leader then heard the voice of God say that the spirit of Jesus Christ's salvation dwells in the ring."
Following the publication of a similar story in its newsletter, Sakura Shimbun, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Japan lodged a protest against the group, claiming that the pope had simply been photographed with Fukunaga and did not have any connection to him.
"Although their meeting was intended as a photo opportunity, (Fukunaga) fabricated a story that was circulated for publicity," the acquaintance said.
According to former group members, such publicity attracted many followers.
"I thought Fukunaga was really great because he had met with great men such as Gorbachev," a former member in his 20s said. On Wednesday, a team of investigators, including those from the Metropolitan Police Department and Shizuoka prefectural police, searched the group's offices and facilities in Tokyo and eight prefectures on suspicion that Fukunaga and senior members defrauded at least three homemakers of a total of about 22 million yen by falsely claiming that enrolling in Ho-no-Hana Sanpogyo training courses and purchasing the group's ornaments would cure their illnesses.