Usui in Context: The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923
By Janet Dagley Dagley, Editor
As we all send healing energy as well as financial help to the suffering people of Haiti in the wake of this week's devastating 7.0 earthquake, we are reminded of the story of another earthquake, in another time and another place, in which the founder of Reiki and his students did their best to help the desperate victims.
From the Mikao Usui memorial stone (translated by Hyakuten Inamoto):
"In September of (1923), there was a great earthquake and a conflagration broke out. Everywhere there were groans of pain from the wounded. Sensei (teacher), feeling pity for them, went out every morning to go around the town, and he cured and saved an innumerable number of people. This is just a broad outline of his relief activities during such an emergency."
Right there, written in stone, we have evidence that two of the most widespread myths about Reiki -- never do it in an emergency, never do it for free -- are just that: myths.
The earthquake was the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which destroyed Tokyo, the port city of Yokohama, and the surrounding prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa, and Shizuoka. At 8.3 on the Richter scale, it was more than 10 times as powerful as the Haiti quake, and it was almost immediately followed by firestorms and a typhoon. It left more than 100,000 dead, and it changed the course not only of Japanese history, but of many people's lives, including Usui's.
The 1923 quake was also one of the first natural disasters to be documented by photography in a rapidly globalizing world, as numerous photographs available online illustrate. The devastation and desperation then were much the same as today, only in black and white instead of high-definition color. For example, here is the Tokyo metropolitan police station after the earthquake:
Here is a collection of photos of the earthquake aftermath. (Warning: the bodies of victims are visible in many images because they were everywhere.)
There's another connection between Reiki and the Kanto earthquake, aside from the energetic first aid Usui provided: the man who led the rescue and reconstruction effort was Usui's former boss, Goto Shinpei (or Shimpei in some transliterations):
Goto Shinpei (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Goto Shinpei was, among other things, "the seventh mayor of Tokyo, the first Chief Scout of Japan, the first director of NHK (the Japanese Broadcasting Company), the third principal of Takushoku University, and the Home Minister and Foreign Minister of Japan." Before that, he had a couple of foreign appointments, including director of the South Manchurian Railway and director of civilian affairs in Japanese-occupied Taiwan. In addition to all that, he was a doctor and head of a medical school (finally -- someone in Reiki history who actually was a doctor!)
And for a time, according to some Reiki historians, Mikao Usui was Goto Shinpei's personal secretary. We don't know exactly when that was, but it must have been before the earthquake, since by then Usui was in business for himself, teaching the practice we now know as Reiki.
Two years after the earthquake, Usui's dojo had so many students that he had to move to a larger location. And just over a year after that, in March, 1926, Usui died on a teaching trip.
As he dealt with the earthquake's immediate aftermath, Goto Shinpei realized that Japan needed not only a way to deal with the short-term crisis, but plan for long term to make the reconstructed Tokyo and other cities better able to withstand future temblors. His reconstruction plan called for many parks and wider roads. Although only part of his plan was implemented, today Goto Shinpei is credited with designing modern Tokyo and preparing Japan for many earthquakes to come.
Usui in Context is an ongoing series. Prior articles in the series include:
August 15, 1865
Christianity in Mid-19th-Century Japan