You are on page 1of 6

Places and roles of women in modern Japanese religions: a case study from Tenrik yo Sarah-Andrea Morrigan Ocean Seminary

College abstract: Tenrikyo, one of the oldest and most well-known of so-called new religi ous movements (NRMs) in Japan, emerged from a rural village of Nara, Japan, found ed by a woman of an agricultural household, Nakayama Miki. Often NRMs, both in t he East and the West, are thought of as a product of modernity and peoples attemp ts at realigning their faiths to the changing realities of the new world. I init ially theorized that Tenrikyo, which draws its teachings from a set of scripture s authored by a woman in a Miko-like shamanic state, venerates the foundress Nak ayama as the Oyasama, or the Most Honourable Parent, and worships an androgynous, monotheistic deity who is referred to as the Oyagamisama (Most Honourable ParentGod) and the Tsuki-hi (Moon-Sun or also could be Months-and-Days) would inevitably em brace a social structure that may be termed feminist and even potentially positi ve towards gender and sexual minorities. In reality, my research into Tenrikyos t eaching materials revealed a Church that is not only rigidly sexist but also a car ry-over of a feudalistic social value system. In this paper I outline the teachi ngs of Tenrikyo and actual practices thereof, and point out to the disparities b etween the ideals and the realities in a religion. Additionally, this paper exam ines the underlying assumptions often held by Euro-American researchers about As ian religions. keywords: Japan, new religions, Sect Shinto, Tenrikyo, Japanese, women in Japane se religions, marriage and family in Tenrikyo, homosexuality and Tenrikyo It has been often assumed that Japans religious development in modern history is unique. To western observers, indeed Japan seems like a smrgsbord of various sects existing between institutionalized yet largely irrelevant and fossilized religi ons of Shinto and Buddhism, to both of which most ordinary Japanese would pay oc casional attentions either to pray for a good luck, or to take care of certain l ife-cycle rituals. In learning about the diversity of religious expressions in m odern Japan, one could often be awe-struck by sheer availability of religious op tions. This trend has intensified during the decades following the end of World War II through the 1990s, the period of time often called the rush hour of the go ds in Japan[1], in which Japan has seen the rise of the influential Soka Gakkai, encountered street proselytizers of various sect affiliations near train station s, and finally shocked by the mass murders committed by some members of Aum Shin rikyo. Yet, in strict senses of the word, very few of such Japanese NRMs are new religion s invented out of thin air. Indeed, most NRMs in Japan are classified as Shintobased sects, Buddhist-based sects, and Christian-based sects. Most NRMs in Japan fall under two historical groups, one that arose during the late 19th century w hen Japan not only experienced a major political change from the reign of the To kugawa Shogunate to that of the Emperor Meiji and his European-style government, but also a sudden and rapid introduction to the opening-up-to-the-civilization af ter some two centuries of near-complete isolation from the rest of the world. Th e other cluster of NRMs arose shortly before WWII or after the end of the war. W hile an established sociological understanding of religious fervour in Japan mig ht attribute these emergence of sects as peoples response to social instability, namely poverty, illness and strife[2], it is more importantly, a reflect[ion of] the process of religious change, incorporating elements of the older religions with responses to modernity.[3] In this sense, the over-proliferation of NRMs in Japa n may be analogous to the existence of thousands of Protestant denominations and independent Catholic churches in North America. Lucinda Joy Peach, in her survey of Japanese NRMs, writes that contemporary Japan

ese women are drawn to the new religions in far greater numbers than to traditio nal religions, and the majority membership of new religious groups is female. (Pe ach 106.) While this may be an over-generalization, and also it is important to note that the majority membership of Christian churches is also female (and isnt it also true in North America and Western Europe that women are more likely to a ttend church services?), Peach makes an important reference to Japans ancient his tory. As she notes, in prior to the introduction of Buddhism and Confucianism to Japan, indigenous Japanese religions held feminine deities in high regard and s hamanesses and priestesses held great power. While Peach may connect the present state of Japanese NRMs to the nations old roots, Helen Hardacre links womens pheno menal participation in NRMs to a changing attitudes of women in modern society. I n either way, a typical western observer not familiar with Japanese cultural his tory risks over-romanticising Japanese religions as something a Christian, white society could not be. However, a deeper look into Japanese NRMs would reveal ho w deeply ingrained the patriarchal and even feudalistic social attitudes are in these communities, even if their teachings may have been quite radical at the ti me of their original appearance. Becoming institutionalized and run by leaders w ho may even be in their 90s whose fathers also were leaders of the religious com munity.[4] This practice of dynastic succession in church presidency, reminiscen t of a feudal era, is criticized by the president of Misato Branch Church: [Unlik e in Christianity where ministers are required to be conversant in their Scriptu res,] as I consider the situation within Tenrikyo, the position of presidency is given too easily only because of ones birth [as the eldest son of the existing p resident, even though he knows very little about Tenrikyos Scriptures or doctrine s], and that makes me think of a caste system in feudal periods this is so far de viated from the Prototypal Way of the Oyasama.[5] Tenrikyos origin and teachings Generally classified as a Sect Shinto, Tenrikyo (The Teachings of Heavenly Intell igence) was founded in what is today the city of Tenri, Nara Prefecture. Accordin g to the official Church statement, Tenrikyo came into existence on October 26, 1 838, when God the Parent, Tenri-O-no-Mikoto, became revealed through Oyasama, Mi ki Nakayama, to save all humankind. God the Parent is the original and true Pare nt who not only created humankind but has nurtured and protected human beings ev er since. God the Parent created humankind so that by seeing us live the Joyous Life, God c ould share in our joy. The living of the Joyous Life is, therefore, the purpose of our existence. Since God the Parent is our Parent, we are all Gods children, a nd thus we should realize that we are all brothers and sisters.[6] Tenrikyo, at its founding, was predominantly a peasants religious movement, with a strong shamanic nature. The teachings of Tenrikyo focused on this worlds proble ms rather than the esoteric and metaphysical, spoke out against the rich and pow erful, advocated for social reform, relief for the poor, equality of all humanit y and equality of men and women. Tenrikyo differed from the typical feudal relig ious establishment by addressing to meet the temporal needs of the peasants, and by drawing support primarily from the lower social strata.[7] With a peasant woman as the foundress and the chief medium of the God the Parent , and its doctrinal emphasis on social justice, it is tempting to make an assump tion that Tenrikyo is not unlike some liberal Protestant churches in North Ameri ca where feminist theology wields a significant influence and women are working in all levels of church leadership. This illusion, however, is broken when one m akes a closer survey of Tenrikyos implementation and interpretation of its teachi ngs. In search for women leadership in Tenrikyo, I have initially looked for cle rgy rosters and centralized church directories. The principal clergy of Tenrikyo is the Church President (Kyokaicho) in each of its Grand Churches (Dai Kyokai) and smaller Branch Churches (Bun Kyokai). Most churches with a website show that their congregations are led by a male president, even though his wife appears t

o be held in high regard. I have not found any sign of a church led by a female president, or any visible presence of a movement advocating for a greater inclus ion of women in Tenrikyos ecclesiastical leadership. Yet, women are not entirely barred from participation in worship. Women of Tenrikyo belong to the Tenrikyo W omens Association, which conducts various activities on its own, including an ann ual pilgrimage and general meeting.[8] The training course for ministers is open to both men and women. Most importantly, the centre of Tenrikyos worship, the li turgical dances (o-kagura-mai and teodori) are always conducted with three male dancers and three female dancers, as well as six male musicians and three female musicians.[9] In short, Tenrikyo does not exclude women nor can a normative Ten rikyo exist without women; however, this is manifested through a clear division of gender roles and expectations that are enforced through church activities and worship. Various church activities require women to take conventionally female roles. For example, Tenrikyo prescribes which musical instruments (the narimono) are to be played only by men and which are to be played only by women. Beyond worship rituals, the substance of a religion is in teachings that guides adherents to live out their faith principles. For this, I have looked into a Ten rikyo advice website written by the Rev. Tsukamoto Nobuo, the president of Abega wa Branch Church in Shizuoka Prefecture. The website addresses a fairly typical range of real-life questions expected of a pastoral clergyperson, concerning suc h topics as child-rearing, marriage and family, facing death, illness, domestic violence, and divorce, as well as homosexuality and transvestic fetishism. Conce rning how Tenrikyos current doctrine and practice understand women and their role s, I shall simply quote from some of these topics (translation mine): Question: Must I be married? Answer: When God thought of starting this universe, God first created the heaven and earth, the sun and the moon, and a husband and a wife so that God could see the humans live in a joyous life. According to this divine will, this world can not exist without a husband and a wife. Accordingly, remaining single would be a life contrary to Gods will. Nowadays the world has become so diversified that ev en a woman can live alone so many women no longer think about marriage, but a ma n and a woman are supposed to be united in marriage, love each other, make babie s, work diligently for the prosperity of their offspring, leave this world, and then after a certain time will return to this world again in reincarnation. This is the destiny of human beings. Therefore, it is wise not to violate Gods decree s on purpose. [10] Question: I am gay. Does Tenrikyo permit homosexuality? Answer [summarized]: Everyone is different. There are lesbians, there are gays, there are asexuals and sex addicts. It is up to each person to decide what is no rmal and what is abnormal. However, what we must think about is the lopsided sex uality. If the world is full of gays and lesbians, eventually the family system will collapse and the humankind will go extinct. What do you think about this? I t is Gods desire to partake in our joyous life, therefore God created humans. So it is not Gods desire for us to walk toward extinction. As such, a lifestyle that does not contribute to the prosperity of our offspring would be something that must be denounced. Let me ask you this way: for the humans to survive for a long time we must produce offspring. Do you really think that it is okay that you al one can [selfishly] break that law of the universe? Some homosexuals say that Go d might have made them for a reason, but our bodies and our lives are on loan fr om God and we only possess freedom to control our minds yet, there are certain ru les with God, and every words and deeds are recorded in the heaven to be settled later what we see in this world, thus, is a result of our past lives, and theref ore you are a homosexual because you led a life in your past life that resulted in homosexuality. In this sense, it was not God who made you gay but you made yo urself into a homosexual I am not a homosexual so I cannot speak for you, but in

this world there are married couples who may not have sex habitually but nonethe less made babies as their duties, and even some women who were raped but decided to stay pregnant and give birth to a baby therefore I suggest that you do not se e a member of the opposite sex solely as an object of sexual attraction, but rat her as a life partner with whom you share the joy of your life and support each other in order to live a long life. [11] Quite contrary to a stereotypical expectation westerners may have of a religion started by a female foundress, the responses sound awfully similar to some of th e sexist and anti-gay arguments presented by the Christian right-wing. This seem ing discrepancy is understandable if Tenrikyo is understood in its cultural cont ext, instead of trying to force white Euro-American societal norms on a predomin antly Japanese, agrarian and blue-collar religion. As with almost all religions, there is a difference between the theory of Tenrikyo and its realities. Social conventions of Tenrikyo are likely to have been informed and influenced by the s ociocultural norms of Japan in the sects formational time (which was decidedly pa triarchal) than by its Scriptures. To add to injury, the status of Tenrikyo as a persecuted sect until the end of WWII meant church leaders lacked in-depth theo logical and ministerial trainings. An interesting topic of possible exploration is a comparison study of Tenrikyo communities in Brazil and the United States, w ith the Tenrikyo churches in Japan. Since Tenrikyo was brought to the Americas w ith the Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century, it is likely that a Tenri kyo congregation in the new world is greatly acculturated and assimilated into a more westernized culture and its social norms. Does Tenrikyo possess any potential for a feminist readaptation? Is Tenrikyo then essentially off-limits to women who are not into following the conservative gender roles, as well as to lesbians and gender non-conforming peop le? Can Tenrikyo explore another way, not so that it can merely conform to a wes ternized world, but to reclaim the origin of Tenrikyo that can better honour its feminine presence? One of the foundational concepts in Tenrikyos doctrines is the Prototypal Way, or Hinagata no Michi. It is said that Nakayama Miki referred to as the Oyasama (The Most Honourable Parent) lived a life on earth that is a prototype of the heavenl y way. This is quite consistent with the traditionalist understanding of an idea lized human life as a representation of the celestial, divine reality. As a Hina gata, she was the prototypal model of living on the path of single-hearted salvat ion. [12] So it helps to take a look at her life. Kaneko Juri writes, The foundress herself did not have an ideal family, from a human or worldly perspective. Miki married into the prosperous Nakayama family, and there, blessed with a good relationship with her mother-in-law (Mikis aunt on her fathers side of the family), she assumed control of the family as a hardworking wife, but she also faced adversities, such as her husband Zenbeis problems with women and the misconduct of her only son, Shuji, as well as his leg ailment. For this reason harmony between husband and wife was undoubtedly an important concern throughout Mikis life. Unlike in the samurai class, in farming communitie s at that time the bride did not have a minor status in the familyas long as she was a healthy brideand, in fact, the foundress was entrusted with the family affairs of the Nakayamas and had already assumed control of the family at the age of fifteen. After Miki became the Shrine of God in 1838, Zenbei was unable to divorce Miki, not because he was cowardly, but rather, because the foundress was already the center of the Nakayama family and had assumed a powerful role in the family.[13] The femininity the Oyasama embodied was not that of a Japanese aristocracy in wh ich weakness, daintiness and cuteness are valued. Hers was the down-to-earth str

ength of a farm lady, who actively led and managed the Nakayama family. Likewise , the Ofudesaki, the foundational holy text of Tenrikyo, was written in colloqui al language and primarily using hiragana (on the other hands Buddhist sutras are written in kanji), which was considered a feminine form of writing at the time. As the vessel of God, she mediated the androgynous God the Parent by the name o f Tenri-O-no-Mikoto (the Esteemed Sovereign of the Heavenly Intelligence), whose p rime dictate was joyousness. Additionally, the Oyasama discerned a vocation for a shamaness (Miko) in one of her daughters, and admonished her to remain single so she may serve without entanglement with family obligations. Kaneko deduces, Th is can be interpreted to mean that not only is unmarried status advocated simply as a requirement to be a miko, but that being single has rewarding implications for becoming a highly virtuous individual. Although her family circumstances le d to her preaching of the teaching of harmony between husband and wife, she did not necessarily proclaim that ordinary married life and the creation of children was the proper path for all people. [14] As with Christianity, it is likely that a more patriarchal elements crept into Tenrikyo as it established itself as an officially recognized Sect Shinto denomination and surviving the trying periods of the early 20th century, including two major wars, several catastrophic natura l disasters, and economic collapses following the Great Depression and World War II. In this sense, Tenrikyo possesses potentials for a transformation if the im petus for such a change comes from within. This may take forms of a renewed emph asis on Tenrikyos Shinto-shamanic roots, in which single women are respected as t he mediators between the heaven and the earth, or take forms of an all-female Br anch Church that is newly established so that women can take on active leadershi p roles without having to challenge the dynastic presidency in existing Grand an d Branch Churches.

Tenrikyo provides an interesting case study in how a religion may be influenced deeper by prevailing cultural norms of its origin even if the originators might have been radicals at the time. When original idealism gives way to a survival i nstinct, an obsession for growth and maintenance of power, a church inevitably l oses its countercultural and radical edges and assimilates itself into a predomi nant cultural norm. This is not limited to Tenrikyo, or just in Japan. 1. Garran, R. (1996, Sep 28.) Japans rush hour of the gods. The Australian Magazi ne. 1996. Retrieved from, accessed 7 Dec 2010. 2. (2010, May 28.) New religious sect: Hong Kong Shinji Shumeikai. . Retrieved from, accessed 7 Dec 2010. 3. Peach, LJ. (2002.) Women and world religions. 106. 4. For instance, the president of Chuwa Grand Church in Yamato Takada, Nara, Jap an, the Rev. Ueda Hirakazu, is the fourth-generation head of the church, who has become the fourth president of this church in 1952 at the age of 31 and still s erves as the president at the age of 90. Cursory looks into various Grand Church and Branch Church websites show that this is a rather common practice in Tenrik yo. ( 5. Ueda, Y. (2005, Feb 5.) Image of the Oyasama sequestered in the Uchigura. g after Oyasamas Prototype. . Retrieved from http://ww 8.htm, accessed 4 Dec 2010. 6. Tenrikyo Internet Committee. (2010.) Information about Tenrikyo. Retrieved fr om, accessed 5 Dec 2010. 7. Ceng, CN. (2001.) An analysis of new religions and their trends. Religious St udies (Sichuan University Press) 2001:2. Retrieved from jxyj/2001/2/art16.htm, accessed 5 Dec 2010; Huang, XC. (2007.) Ten religions of the world. Retrieved from, acces sed 5 Dec 2010. 8. 9. 10.

11. Summarized from responses on, http://ww, 12. Kaneko, J. (2003.) Can Tenriky transcend the modern family? From a humanistic understanding of Hinagata and narratives of foster care activities. Japanese Jo urnal of Religious Studies 30:3-4, 247 13. ibid. 246. 14. ibid. 250.