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Friday, August 14, 2009

August 15, 1865

144 years ago. . .

Mikao Usui, founder of the system of Reiki (source: Wikimedia Commons)

(Editor's note: This is the first in a continuing series, Mikao Usui: In Context.)

On August 15, 1865, Reiki founder Mikao Usui was born in a village in Gifu Prefecture, Japan, to a hatamoto (samurai in the direct service of the shogun) family.

This year, we've decided to mark the occasion by taking a glimpse into the world Mikao Usui was born into. The 1860s were a time of tremendous change in Japan, a country that had changed very, very little in the preceding 265 years, when it was essentially isolated from the rest of the world.

We could go on and on and give you thousands of words on the subject of that pivotal time and place, but instead we're going to let the pictures tell the story. All these images are in the public domain and no longer subject to copyright, so if you're a Reiki teacher, you might want to use some of them in your classes or even your manuals.

Here are some samurai, all dressed up in their finest for the camera, in 1868:

Notice that they all are wearing not one but two swords, as well as distinctive hairstyles with shaved pates and topknots, whether in Japanese or Western attire.

We couldn't find any images of his particular village at that time, but thanks to pioneering photographer Felice Beato (and to Wikipedia), we do have some images of the Japanese countryside.

Here's a ford across a river:

And a stop along the Tokkaido road:

As well as a panoramic image of Tokyo (then called Edo or Yedo) in 1865:

Those are the estates of the feudal lords, all of whom were required to have part-time residences in the capital.

These days, the entire panorama is covered with skyscrapers:

(source: Stephen Cannon via Flikr)

A dozen years before Usui was born, a fleet of foreign ships led by U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry arrived at Yokohama Harbor, and for the first time since the beginning of the 17th Century, they landed on the Japanese mainland:

(source: Brown University) Click here for full-size image.

Here's a depiction of Perry's arrival from the Japanese point of view:

(source: Library of Congress)

For most of the Tokugawa Shogunate period, (1603-1868) from 1641 until Commodore Perry's arrival, the only foreigners allowed in Japan were Dutch traders, and they were limited to the tiny island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki. Japanese citizens were not allowed to leave the country, and any foreigners who reached Japan were executed or not allowed to leave.

Perry's arrival marked the beginning of the Bakumatsu, a period of transition that saw the end of the shogun's rule and the end of Japan's isolation.

Usui was three years old when the shogunate fell and the 15-year-old Meiji emperor took over:

The Emperor Meiji, in 1873.
(Photo by Uchida Kuichi. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

And by the time Usui was in his teens, the samurai class had been abolished and the former samurai were no longer allowed to carry swords or wear topknots. Japan still had a very structured society: the children of farmers became farmers, the children of merchants became merchants, and so on, so the children of Usui's generation born into samurai families found themselves with no clear path to follow when they came of age. Maybe that's why Usui changed jobs as many as 30 times during his lifetime (according to Hyakuten Inamoto). "That was very unusual," Inamoto said during a 2008 talk in New York City. "In Japan, we don’t change jobs. He was a spiritual seeker, always seeking the purpose of life."

We're glad he kept on seeking until he discovered and developed what we now know as Reiki. We wouldn't exactly call it the purpose of life, but this practice does make life more enjoyable in the good times, and more endurable when times are tough. Reiki certainly seems to have been the purpose of Mikao Usui's life.

For more photographs of Japan during the Bakumatsu-Meiji period, check out the Nagasaki University Library Collection.


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