Japanese foot-reading cult guru gets 12 years for mass fraud

Tokyo, Japan - The founder of a Japanese cult that offered to read people's feet was sentenced to 12 years in prison for cheating believers out of cash by convincing them they suffered diseases.

The Tokyo District Court ruled that Ho-no-Hana Sanpogyo sect guru Hogen Fukunaga, whose real name is Teruyoshi Fukunaga, had defrauded 31 believers of a combined 149 million yen (1.3 million dollars) between 1994 and 1997.

He conspired with senior disciples to "diagnose" problems of new adherents, mostly middle-aged housewives, by reading the soles of their feet and then urging them to attend costly seminars to cure their supposed ailments such as cancer, the ruling said Friday.

The now-bankrupt cult used to have thousands of followers.

"He satisfied his desire for money in the name of religion," chief judge Tsutomu Aoyagi said, noting Fukunaga had made a fortune and lived in a luxury condominium.

Fukunaga, who founded the cult in 1980 and was arrested in 2000, "wielded absolute power at the top of the sect and was the ringleader who actively promoted organized fraud," Jiji Press news agency quoted the judge as saying.

The judge said Fukunaga, who is now 60, claimed to hear "voices from heaven."

"It is obvious that seminars at the sect cannot heal illness or solve problems," Aoyagi said.

"Ho-no-Hana" roughly translates as the flower of the law. "Sanpogyo" means the practice of three laws.

Japan has seen a succession of cults with sometimes eccentric rituals gain popular followings. The most notorious is the Aum doomsday cult which spread nerve gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 12 people and injuring 5,500.