Question No. 7: How are Tenrikyo churches organized and how did this system come to be?

Q: In an article describing the centennial of the mission headquarters in South Korea, the Shinbashira is quoted as saying, “The mission headquarters must act as the core that helps tend to and foster followers, allowing them to assemble, unite their minds, and inspire one another irrespective of the fact that they happen to be affiliated with different church lineages” (emphasis added).I can only imagine this “church lineages” is referring to the way Tenrikyo churches are organized, but could you elaborate on this and explain how the mission headquarters fits into this organizational structure? How did this type of organization originate?

submitted by Wrinkled Rose (real name withheld)

A: I figured it was only a matter of time I would get a question regarding Tenrikyo’s organizational structure.

Geez, where do I start? Maybe with a condensed history lesson on how these church lineages came to be.

History of ecclesiastical organization in Tenrikyo

Many “church lineages” (keito) have their roots in what were called ko [講]. Although “ko” has been translated into English in a variety of ways, both in Tenrikyo literature and elsewhere1, I think I’ll call them “(religious) confraternities” here.

Like other religions that emerged in late 19th century Japan, Tenrikyo originally organized themselves into these religious confraternities, which were the dominant form of lay organization extant since at least the 15th century. Duncan Williams has pointed out that there were least three major types: ones that organized themselves around

  1. the worship of particular deities,
  2. style of religious practices, or
  3. pilgrimage sites.2

Some confraternities of other religious traditions were also variously organized according members’ occupation, gender, and age. According to The Life of Oyasama, although Oyasama had encouraged followers to form confraternities dedicated to her teachings in the early 1860s, the first of these groups did not come into existence until 1878.3

Here we must be aware here that at this point in Tenrikyo history, the faith was not recognized as a tradition that could practice freely under the legal framework of the times. For this reason, one Tenrikyo writer has noted, “Unlike the hōon-kō [報恩講] of Jōdo Shinshū or the miyaza [宮座] of local shrines, Tenrikyo’s kō were rarely involved in the administration of community matters and, more often than not, they were excluded from the local community.”4

Yet the formation of confraternities soon picked up as years went by. The Life of Oyasama notes that by 1881, 21 groups had been established. Most of these early confraternities were communities of followers from particular villages and areas.

Some of these groups were forerunners of current grand churches, including Meishin-gumi (forerunner of Senba Daikyokai), Shinjin-gumi (forerunner of Nishi Daikyokai), and Shin’yu-gumi (forerunner of Shikishima Daikyokai).

These confraternities were loosely connected with one another and some attempted to shield themselves from the law (due to their illegal status) by associating themselves with other religious traditions (i.e., the Awa Shinjin-gumi associated itself with the Shinto Shusei-ha, a movement founded by Nitta Kuniteru) or ethical movements (i.e., the Meisei-sha, as described here, and others associated itself with the Shingaku movement, founded by Ishida Baigan).

Following gaining legal sanction as a sixth rank church (buzoku roku-to kyokai) of the Shinto Honkyoku in 1886, Tenrikyo gained permission from Tokyo Prefecture to establish their Church Headquarters on April 10, 1888.

After Tenrikyo Church Headquarters gained permission to relocate to Jiba on July 22, 1888, several existing confraternities applied to become branch churches (bunkyokai [分教会]) of the Tenrikyo Church.

Two branch churches (chokuzoku kyokai or “directly supervised churches” of Tenrikyo Church Headquarters) were officially founded in 1888: Koriyama and Yamana.

Several other branches were founded in 1889, which included Ashitsu, Azuma, Heishin, Kawaramachi, Muya, Senba, and Takayasu. This year also saw the founding of “sub-branch” churches5 such as Koga (under Kawaramachi), Nihonbashi (under Azuma), and Shimagahara (under Koriyama).

Since active propagation in the name of Tenrikyo was (and still) seen as an ideal expression of devotion and gratitude to the God, members of existing branch churches who had attracted a following of their own were encouraged to establish affiliate sub-branch churches.

This soon led to the formation of what has been described as a “tree-structure” church hierarchy where patterns of conversion existing between members were institutionalized along generational lineages of branch churches that led to the headquarters, which functioned as the trunk or root. (See the diagram at the bottom of this explanation to get a basic visual idea.)

In other words, sub-branch churches would continue to be supervised by the very branch churches to which their founding ministers belonged. Successful sub-branches would in turn have a number of their own branch churches. Some sub-branch churches that were successful and grew large enough in size in subsequent years were able to become “directly supervised churches” themselves.6 (Shimagahara became the first sub-branch church to become a “directly supervised church” in 1898.)

Just to give an idea of how quickly Tenrikyo grew in just five years, in 1891, there were only 32 branches of Church Headquarters (including sub-branches). In 1896, there were 1,292 churches in every prefecture in Japan with the exception of Okinawa.

From 1888 to 1908, Tenrikyo had the following hierarchical system of branch churches (from largest to smallest):

  • bunkyokai,
  • shikyokai [支教会],
  • shucchosho [出張所], and
  • fukyo-jimu toriatsukaisho [布教事務取扱所] (shortened to fukyosho in 1895.

In 1893, the criteria for a place of worship to be a bunkyokai was a minimum of 2000 member households; the minimum for a shikyokai was 600; a shucchosho 300; and a fukyosho 150.

Another type of social unit, called a shudansho [集談所], while not formally registered with Tenrikyo Church Headquarters or prefectural authorities, was significant in that it only required authorization from law enforcement officials to allow followers to gather for sermons and practice rituals.7 Kochi Daikyokai happens to be a very prominent church that marked its beginning in such a manner.8

Following Tenrikyo’s attainment of sectarian independence from Shinto in 1908, the organizational system was restructured through the introduction of new criteria and nomenclature:

  • daikyokai [大教会], a church with a minimum of 10,000 member households;
  • a kyokai had a minimum of 5000 member households;
  • a bunkyokai 2000;
  • a shikyokai 500;
  • senkyosho [宣教所] 100.

A variation of this system existed until 1941.

Tenrikyo’s ecclesiastical organization today

Presently, the Tenrikyo ecclesiastical organization has been simplified into a system of

  • daikyokai (“grand churches”),
  • bunkyokai (“branch churches”),
  • and fukyosho (“fellowships” or “mission stations“).

While there are a few exceptions, a daikyokai is required to fulfill the minimum of 50 or more branch churches.

All 159 grand churches at present are “chokuzoku kyokai,” “directly supervised churches” of Tenrikyo Church Headquarters. There are 84 branch churches and eight overseas churches (which include the five Dendocho or “mission headquarters”) that also fall under this category of “directly supervised churches.”

A branch church (called kyokai or simply “church” in the case of a church outside Japan) is required at its founding to have over 15 member Yoboku, or recipients of the Sazuke of whom five must be graduates of the first half of the Head Minister Qualification Course (who are otherwise known as kyoto [教人]).

There are currently 16,582 branch churches in Japan and 308 overseas churches, all “affiliate churches” that belong to one of the “directly supervised church lineages” (one of the lineages of 159 grand churches, 84 branch churches, three overseas churches or five mission headquarters).

The only criterion for the establishment of a fukyosho (“fellowship” or “mission station”) is that its head is a Yoboku. There are presently 18,707 of them in existence according to the August 2009 issue of Michi no tomo, but I can’t really guarantee the veracity of these numbers. (How do you keep track of 18,000+ fukyosho, anyway?)

Some may see 16,582 churches in Japan and 308 overseas as being a lot, but one must take into consideration the following:

  1. As noted above, it takes only 15 people (enough to fulfill the six dancer positions and nine musical instruments required for a full performance of the Tenrikyo Service) who have received the sacrament of the Sazuke (and five of them need to be kyoto) to establish a church. (I wonder if is possible to say this is a more formal version of a minyan in the Jewish tradition?)
  2. There are a number of (branch) churches in existence that are referred as jijo kyokai—a non-functioning or an insufficiently functioning church—which, just as its English translation implies, is a church that is insufficiently functioning in the sense that (1) there are not enough members to conduct a church service; (2) there is no standing head minister; and in the most extreme cases (3) the church no longer has a building to call its home. I have heard estimates that claim that up to a third of all Tenrikyo churches are “insufficiently functioning.” The closing of churches is quite rare. Most are relocated or have their symbols of worship kept at another church rather than closed altogether.9
  3. In some cases, overseas churches did not need to fulfill the requirement of having 15 Yoboku when they were founded. I remember an extreme case of a church being founded just on the condition a missionary happened to come upon a building that was deemed suitable for enshrinement.

How does a mission headquarters fit into all of this?

As for what the role of a “mission headquarters” (Dendocho) is, it is more or less an administrative arm of Tenrikyo Church Headquarters in five selected overseas dioceses:

Their foremost responsibility is the same one that churches are charged with, to “perform the rites prescribed by the Headquarters, propagate the doctrine, and train followers in the faith.”10

Mission headquarters are also charged with the responsibility of promoting missionary work and preside over administrative affairs regarding churches and mission stations/fellowships located in their respective dioceses.11

Several countries and regions that have a smaller Tenrikyo presence have what are called “shucchosho” or (mission) centers: Columbia, Europe (Antony, France), Hong Kong, Mexico, New York, Oceania (Brisbane, Australia), the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.

Two other countries have what are called “renrakusho” (literally, “contact offices”): Nepal and the U.K. (the latter is otherwise known as U.K. Centre).

*Note: This post has been revised since its original publication.


  • Hatakama, Kazuhiro. 2002. “Society and Tenrikyō During the Meiji Period.” Tenri Journal of Religion 30 (March 2002), pp. 83–103.
  • Tenri Daigaku Oyasato Kenkyūsho, ed. 1997. Kaitei Tenrikyō jiten. Tenri: Tenrikyō Dōyūsha.
  • Tenrikyo Church Headquarters. 1976. Anecdotes of Oyasama, the Foundress of Tenrikyo. Tenri: Tenrikyo Church Headquarters.
  • _________. 1996 [1967]. The Life of Oyasama, Foundress of Tenrikyo (third edition). Tenri: Tenrikyo Church Headquarters.
  • Tenrikyo Overseas Department. 2003. The Constitution of Tenrikyo (third edition). Tenri: Tenrikyo Overseas Department.
  • Williams, Duncan Ryūken. 2000. Re-presenting Zen: A Study of Sōtō Zen During the Edo Period. Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University.

Further reading

Entries in Fukaya, Yoshikazu. 2009. Words of the Path: A Guide to Tenrikyo Terms and Expressions (Translation of Omichi no kotoba, 1977):

  • “Churches and mission stations (kyokai to fukyosho),” pp. 170–171 (online version, which includes the next entry, “Truth of a church name,” pp. 171–172)
  • “Parent churches and subordinate churches (jokyu kyokai, bunai kyokai),” pp. 175–177 (online version)
  • “Dioceses and districts (kyoku, shibu),” pp. 186–188 (online version)


  1. “Ko” has been translated in Tenrikyo literature as “fraternity” (i.e., Anecdotes of Oyasama, p. 37), “fellowship” (i.e., The Life of Oyasama, p. 106), and “brotherhood” (Mikagura-uta 5:10). I’ve seen it translated in religious studies literature on Japan as “religious associations,” “lay believers’ associations” and “confraternities.”
  2. Williams 2000, p. 84. It is possible to argue that Tenrikyo confraternities overlapped with all three of these categories—they were groups dedicated to the worship of 1. Tenri-O-no-Mikoto, 2. the performance/dancing of the Tsutome (Tenrikyo Service), and 3. making pilgrimages to Jiba.
  3.  The Life of Oyasama, p. 106.
  4. Hatakama 2002, p. 90.
  5. In Japanese, bunai or buka kyokai. The official translation of bunai kyokai, is, unfortunately, “subordinate church(es),” a term which I abhor to the core of my very being. My petition to change this term in the latest Tenrikyo English publication was unsuccessful to say the least. I would accept “subordinate church” a proper translation of the heavily disparaging “buka kyokai” but not so with the more neutral “bunai kyokai.” I would go with “affiliate church” as a more palatable alternative.
  6. Not all affiliate churches that became “directly supervised churches” became so simply because they were judged to have grown large enough in size. Some exceptions that come to mind are current non-grand church “directly supervised churches” that were originally affiliate churches of a particular established grand church lineage that was torn asunder by claims the head minister was divinely inspired.
  7. Tenrikyo jiten 412–413.
  8. See The Footsteps of Our Predecessors, Part 7: An Apology
  9. Update, February 2012: The Tenrikyo Mission Department recently issued a directive requiring the symbols of worship of churches that have not had a residing minister for more than 10 years to be returned, effectively closing the churches in question.
  10. The Constitution of Tenrikyo, Chapter VI, Article 38.
  11. Tenrikyo jiten, p. 576.