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Friday, September 11, 2009

Usui in Context: Christianity in mid-19th Century Japan

Dear readers,

Welcome to the second installment in our new series, Mikao Usui: In Context. When we published the first installment last month on the anniversary of Usui's birth, we hadn't planned to make it a series. But since so many readers have been asking for more of the same, and since our research has led us to some fascinating finds, we've decided to do an ongoing series on Japanese history and culture during Usui's lifetime (1865-1926).

Mikao Usui, of course, founded the practice now known around the world as Reiki back in the 1920s. Hawayo Takata, the Japanese-American woman who brought Reiki from Japan to the rest of the world, never met Usui, but studied with one of his students, Chujiro Hayashi. Over the years many Reiki students were taught that Usui was, among other things, a medical doctor, a university president, and a Christian. In recent decades, researchers have found that he was neither a doctor nor a university president, and he was Buddhist (although there is disagreement on what sect and whether he was a layman, or lay monk). Usui's memorial stone, erected by some of his students a year after his death in 1927, mentions that he had studied books from several religious traditions (including Christian scriptures, according to one translation). But some contemporary Reiki teachers claim that it was not possible for Usui to have known anything about Christianity, since it was officially outlawed in Japan for 284 years, from 1587 until 1871. But unofficially, Christianity -- sometimes disguised as or melded with Buddhism, Shinto, and Shugendo -- continued to be practiced in secret until it was safe for Christians, or as they were called in Japanese, Kirishitans, to reveal themselves once more. It turns out that the "revelation of believers" was a key event in Japanese history, and it happened long before the official ban was lifted: in April, 1865, just months before Usui was born.

For decades, Reiki students were told that the founder of our practice, Mikao Usui, was a Christian. Later, we discovered he was a Buddhist. But is it possible that he was both? Could he have been a secret Christian (Kakure Kirishitan), or at least familiar with Christian teachings? If that were the case, then the Catholic Church may have denounced one of its own when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned Reiki earlier this year. While we can never know for certain, it does seem clear that even if Usui hadn't been an ardent and persistent spiritual seeker, he would likely have encountered Christianity, forbidden though it was.

Although some historians believe that Christianity came to Japan as early as the year 199, it is generally thought to have been brought to Japan in 1548 by the Portuguese, who also introduced another foreign element: gunpowder. At first, it was thought to be a religion from India, since the Portuguese missionaries had come via the Indian city of Goa along with some of their Indian converts.

16th Century Japanese Christians in Portuguese attire

Celebrating a Christian Mass in Japan - 16th/17th Century

By 1579, there were an estimated 130,000 Christians in Japan, including dozens of daimyos (feudal lords). But in 1587, the first ban against Christianity was issued, and 10 years later, 26 Christians were executed by crucifixion (a common form of punishment in Japan at that time). Other executions followed during the next few years as Japan was unified under Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose clan would rule until 1868.

Ieyasu also issued ironclad orders cutting Japan off from all other countries, the only exception being Dutch traders, who were allowed only on a small manmade island in Nagasaki bay:

Dejima Island (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Japan's remaining Christians went underground in 1630, and their secret practice continued for generations. Meanwhile, they were outwardly Buddhist. They had little choice: after Ieyasu declared Buddhism the state religion, everyone in Japan was legally required to register with a Buddhist temple annually. In order for Japanese Christians to keep their practice (and themselves) alive, they had to disguise it. Over the generations, it evolved, taking on more of the outward appearance of Buddhism.

And here is a Buddha statue with a secret crucifix on its back:

Photo by Chris 73. Some rights reserved.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

After Japan was opened to the rest of the world upon the arrival in 1853 of the "black ships," Western settlements, including churches, were established at Yokohama and Nagasaki. The Oura Cathedral, completed in 1864, is Japan's oldest church and the only western building designated a national treasure:

Old postcard image of Oura Church

One day shortly after the Oura Church opened its doors, a group of peasants showed up on its steps and revealed themselves as Christians. In the weeks and months that followed, tens of thousands of others followed. Today that historic spot is marked by a statue of Mary -- but not Kannon -- although it does bear some resemblance to the Maria Kannon statue:

It's no surprise that such a dramatic story has itself been dramatized, first in the novel Silence by Shusaku Endo, and, coming in 2010, a Martin Scorsese movie based on that book.

Stay tuned for further installments in our series, Mikao Usui: In Context. And look for the rest of this week's edition of The Reiki Digest on Saturday.


Anonymous James Deacon said...

Fore more info around this topic, see: REIKI HISTORY AND REIKI MYTH:
Another look at some elements of the 'new' History of Reiki...


9:08 AM  
Blogger Janet Dagley Dagley said...

Thanks, James! And thanks for all the research you've done. Here's a clickable link to REIKI HISTORY AND REIKI MYTH.

9:33 AM  

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