When the Cult Leader Hoists a White Flag: The Shinsekai Case
The Lawyers’ Group Against the Shinsekai Group
Masaki Kito, head lawyer
Takashi Yamaguchi, Deputy Director of the Secretariat, lawyer
We would like to share with you an interesting case report concerning the cultic group known as Shinsekai, which means God World in Japanese. Toru Saito was the founder and leader of the Shinsekai group, an offshoot of the Church of World Messianity. Toru Saito was on trial, along with his lieutenants Takashi Sano, Fumitoshi Asahara, Yoshiko Asahara, and Akie Yoshida (maiden name, Sugimoto), for organized fraud. Akie Yoshida had been sentenced earlier to imprisonment with labor for 3 years; on April 16, 2012, her sentence had been suspended for 5 years.
The Shinsekai case is interesting in at least two aspects:
First, although the Yokohama District Court recognized that the Shinsekai group’s solicitations for donations and other financial compensation were indeed of a religious nature, it ruled that those solicitations still constituted organized fraud. The court sentenced the leader and four group members to prison terms.
Second, although the leader had in fact had become a fugitive who had evaded arrest before he was finally arrested, the other defendants all argued their innocence on the ground that they were true believers and, because theirs was a religious faith, that they in fact held the conviction that the supernatural powers they professed were real. But after the leader was arrested, all the defendants, including the leader, pleaded guilty to fraud (apparently the leader wanted an early release on bail and a lighter sentence). After the leader was arrested, the group paid everything the plaintiffs/victims were seeking in the civil trial, including the lawyer’s fees; and then they announced that the Shinsekai group would be dissolving and the leader would retire. (The group had actually filed for dissolution of the corporations that constituted the Shinsekai group on December 31, 2011, months before the Yokohama District Court handed down its verdict in the case in May of 2012.) None of the lawyers who had been working on this case, who had much experience in handling cases against cults, had ever before seen a cult leader plead guilty to fraud; make compensation voluntarily, although with some reluctance; and then dissolve the group with a public announcement.
The Yokohama District Court found Toru Saito and his four accomplices guilty of organized fraud on May 1, 2012, and sentenced them as follows:
Defendant Toru Saito is hereby sentenced to imprisonment with labor for 5 years; defendants Takashi Sano and Fumitoshi Asahara are hereby sentenced to imprisonment with labor for 2 years and 6 months; and defendant Yoshiko Asahara is hereby sentenced to imprisonment with labor for 2 years and 6 months. Of the total number of days the defendants were held under presentencing detention, 90 days shall be deducted from the said period of imprisonment for each of the four defendants. Suspension of 5 years from the date of the definitive judgment is granted to defendant Takashi Sano, and suspension of 4 years from the date of the definitive judgment is granted to defendants Fumitoshi Asahara and Yoshiko Asahara.1
The court ruling, as stated following, clearly describes the religious nature and the modus operandi of the Shinsekai group, and the roles of each defendant. However, we do not mention the medical neglect within the group that resulted in several deaths, because those deaths were never investigated or prosecuted. Although we have used the word plea in this paper, the Japanese criminal justice system lacks the concept of the guilty plea, so even when the defendant admits guilt, the trial must be conducted in order for the court to hand down a guilty sentence. Thus, the court still conducted the trial on the fact-finding phase. We have bolded various portions of the court’s judgment for emphasis.
The case herein is of organized fraud, wherein defendant Saito, the chief executive of Shinsekai Ltd., a company whose objective is to swindle money from its clients under the pretext of invocatory and other fees, has swindled the total of 11,900,000 yen in cash from three victims in conspiracy with Yoshida, then the executive manager of E2 Ltd., one of Shinsekai’s affiliated companies, by telling lies suggesting that the victims’ troubles and worries would be solved through intercessory prayers and other spiritual interventions. In addition, defendant Saito, together with defendant Sano, who had been in the position of overall management of business operations of Entrance Akasaka Ltd., and defendants Fumitoshi and Yoshiko, who had been the representative directors of Entrance Akasaka Ltd., conspired and swindled the total of 1,500,000 yen in cash from two victims in the same scheme as above. The Shinsekai assemblage was a group of many commercial organizations—e.g., Entrance Akasaka and E2, with Shinsekai Ltd. in charge, having a common registered objective of performing fortune telling and onomancy (“divination by the letters of a name” [Webster’s]. In reality, as explained below, the group had been carrying out some kind of religious practices under the direction of defendant Saito. In the Shinsekai group, members had read and followed a book titled Shinsho (God’s Writings), written by defendant Saito, the founder of the religion, as their code of conduct. This book explicitly states that divine spiritual light emitted by God has the potency to cure diseases and illness considered in modern medicine to be incurable or unidentified, and that God’s miracles will manifest if one deals with God by offering labor and money. Being under contract with Shinsekai Ltd., the affiliated companies such as Entrance Akasaka and E2 had been paying 30% to 50%, depending on the time involved, of their sale of services—e.g., the invocatory service and mediation/transfer of divine spiritual light—as royalties. In the Shinsekai group, this mediation/transfer of divine spiritual light was the main product for sale, and defendant Saito also devised additional schemes to earn even larger sums of money from clients through divine spiritual readings. As a part of these schemes, defendant Saito appointed defendant Sano as the first spiritual diviner and then also appointed executive managers of affiliated companies of the group, one after another, as spiritual diviners. Thus, defendant Saito made them practice the spiritual readings and increase their sales dramatically. In particular, at Entrance Akasaka, defendant Sano and defendant Fumitoshi served as instructors of the Divine Spiritual Power Cultivation Seminar for executive managers and employees of affiliated companies of the group. The group had advertised that individuals could obtain the divine spiritual power if they completed several sessions of the seminar.
The typical modus operandi of the Shinsekai group was to recruit mainly women in their thirties and forties to their retail outlets called salons with such words as “Why don’t you try out our healing service?” while the group concealed its religious nature. At these salons, the recruited clients were required to take the relatively low-priced service of mediation/transfer of divine spiritual light repeatedly; meanwhile, through follow-up conversations called follow, the clients were led to believe that the divine spiritual light had the potency to cure any disease/illness and to increase one’s fortune, and that very bad things would occur if one did not keep receiving the light. Then, the group led the clients to expensive divine spiritual readings, invocation services, and other related charges, and so on by asserting that such readings and invocation services practiced by spiritual diviners could identify and solve the causes of the clients’ troubles ad worries, such as illness and slumping businesses; they made the clients pay large amounts of cash as offerings to God’s alter. In principle, the criminal acts in the case herein had been conducted as in the modus operandi described above.
Defendant Toru Saito was a director of Shinsekai Ltd. and was in the position to manage and control overall activities of the Shinsekai group that had E2 (E-square) Ltd., Entrance Akasaka Ltd., and other affiliated companies under its umbrella. Defendant Takashi Sano was in the position of managing the overall operations of the Entrance group, which consisted of Entrance Akasaka Ltd. and two other affiliated companies. Defendant Fumitoshi Asahara (hereinafter referred to as defendant Fumitoshi) and defendant Yoshiko Asahara (hereinafter referred to as defendant Yoshiko) were in the position, as its representative directors, of managing the overall operations of Entrance Akasaka Ltd. They had been conducting divine spiritual readings, the invocatory, and other related services as spiritual diviners with divine psychic power. The Shinsekai group was a religious front for a large number of people who shared a common objective of fraudulently obtaining money from clients under the pretext of an invocatory service and related fees; they achieved this goal by asserting that their spiritual diviners could define the causes of clients’ slumping business, illness, and other troubles and worries, and that they could without exception relieve the clients from such troubles and worries, while these spiritual diviners in fact did not have such abilities. Under the command and supervision of defendant Toru Saito, officers and workers of the companies under the Shinsekai group had been sharing tasks of recruiting clients, receiving and hosting clients, and providing spiritual readings by diviners and invocatory servicing; thus, they had been repeating activities to swindle money from clients under the pretexts of invocatory service and related fees.
1. Defendant Saito, in conspiracy with Akie Yoshida, also known as Akie Sugimoto (hereinafter referred to as Yoshida), who was a director of the above-said E2 Ltd. and others, pretended as if Yoshida had the abilities to define causes of clients’ slumping business, illness, and other troubles and worries, and to relieve the clients from such troubles and worries without exception, although she did not have such abilities and schemed to swindle money from [victim A] and two other clients of E2 Ltd. who consulted with the group regarding the sluggishness of their corporate businesses. Thus, defendant Saito, on 13 occasions at four locations, including the retail outlet of E2 Ltd. at 8-5-28-#1305 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo, between approximately April 15, 2004 and December 3, 2005, told lies to the clients and made them mistakenly believe that their troubles and worries were acts of residual ghosts and ancestors’ spirits so that the defendants could solve their by offering prayers through the diviners. Defendant Saito received 11,900,000 yen total in cash from [victim A] and two others under the pretexts of invocatory service and related fees in seven separate payments made between approximately May 19, 2004 and December 11, 2005 at two locations, including the above-mentioned premise of E2 Ltd., as detailed in the List of Probative Facts of the Crimes.
2. The four defendants schemed in conspiracy to swindle money from two clients of Entrance Akasaka, including [victim B], who had been suffering uterine fibroids; they pretended as if they had abilities to define causes of the clients’ troubles and worries such as illness, and to relieve the clients from such troubles and worries without exception, although they did not have such abilities. Thus, the defendants, on four occasions at two locations, including the headquarters of Entrance Akasaka at Storia Shinagawa #2801, 2-16-8 Konan, Minato-ku, Tokyo, between approximately May 21, 2006 and August 30 in the same year, lied and made the clients mistakenly believe that their uterine fibroids had been caused by toxins that originated from medication, and that they would be cured if they offered a one-million-yen prayer. The defendants received 1,500,000 yen total in cash from [victim B] and another client under the pretexts of invocatory service fees in three separate payments made between approximately May 29, 2006 and September 16 in the same year at two locations, including their retail outlet of Entrance Akasaka at Prudential Tower Residence #3705, 2-13-14 Nagata-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, as detailed in the List of Probative Facts of the Crimes 2.
Each of these acts was carried out as a part of the organization’s conduct and was performed by the organization to practice criminal fraud to deceive people into transferring their properties to them.
The 5-year sentence was lenient because the prosecutor was asking for 10 years, but the court considered the fact that Toru Saito had paid approximately 600 million yen (about 8 million US dollars) as compensation for the damages. Still, Toru Saito appealed, seeking a suspended sentence. However, on Dec 7, 2012, the Tokyo High Court denied his request for a suspended sentence but reduced his sentence to 4 years and 6 months in prison as a response to his additional payment of approximately 600 million yen after the sentencing.
The Shinsekai leader has admitted guilt, perpetrators have been punished, the money has been recovered, and the group has been dissolved. But all is not well. Although it seems that the outcome was a complete victory for the plaintiffs, this case demonstrates the limits and the challenges one may encounter in pursuing cases against cults.
First, the road to prosecution was not an easy path. The police began the investigation of this group in 2007, and it was not until March of 2011 that they finally began arresting the suspects. This delay was the result of reluctance by the Yokohama Prosecutor’s office, and that reluctance prevented the expansion of the investigations. We (the attorneys) and the victims in this case owe much to the young, zealous, and brave prosecutor in charge of the investigation, who was newly appointed to the case and who had the courage and zeal to risk her career and go after the verdict. The issue of religion caused both the police and the prosecutor to be hesitant about aggressively prosecuting the case. This restrained response by the authorities against crimes of a religious nature or in religious disguise is always the challenge in handling cases against such groups and probably will remain so in the future.
Second, the Shinsekai group is reputed to have collected more than 18 billion yen. Even to call the amount specified in the indictment in this case the “tip of the iceberg” would be an understatement. Accordingly, the sentence was too lenient. The public’s fear of a perpetrator’s actions cannot be atoned for by the perpetrator’s mere payment of money in compensation; and the court treated this case as an “ordinary” fraud case, failing to note the severe mental and emotional damages the group inflicted on the victims through its creation of spiritual fear in them. Different prosecutors than those already mentioned above represented the victims in the trial. We must say that the prosecutors who handled the trial should have made more effort to substantiate the mental and the emotional damages the victims incurred. We strongly urged that the prosecutors appeal the lenient sentence, but our request was denied.
Unfortunately, many other groups like the Shinsekai group are victimizing citizens. In our opinion, the most notorious of all these is the Unification Church, which thus far has successfully evaded criminal prosecution on the charges of fraud, although many successful civil cases have been filed against the Unification Church; and it also has been convicted on charges of violation of the Act on Specified Commercial Transactions. We must now strive to implement our success and the lessons we learned in the Shinsekai case to counter similar cases.
 Yokohama District Court, Judgment, May 1, 2012.
About the Authors
Masaki Kito, Esq, is a founding partner of Link Law Office Kito and Partners in Tokyo, established in 2001. He has been an advocate for the victims of various cultic groups for over 20 years in Tokyo. He is the vice chairperson of the Consumer Affairs Committee of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA) and the chairperson of the Consumer Affairs Committee of Daini Tokyo Bar Association (DTBA). He is a member of the National Network of Lawyers against Spiritual Sales, Legal Team Representing Victims of Aum Shinrikyo, and the Japan Society for Cult Prevention and Recovery (JSCPR). He is one of the leading public commentators on cults in Japan, making frequent appearances in the various media, including TV and radio programs on NHK (Japan’s national public station) and commercial stations, major newspapers, and magazines. He is also renowned as a specialist of the broader range of consumer affairs and also a specialist of issues concerning the Internet. As an expert, he is frequently invited to meetings and study sessions hosted by diet members of both majority and minority parties (Liberal Democratic Party and The Democratic Party of Japan).
Takashi Yamaguchi, Esq, is a member of the Tokyo Bar Association and practices law at Link Law Office, founded by Masaki Kito. He represents victims of cultic groups, such as Unification Church, Home of Heart, etc., in and out of court. He is a member of the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales and is also a board member of The Japan Society for Cult Prevention and Recovery (JSCPR).