The following excerpt is from Omichi no joshiki [Tenrikyo Fundamentals] (pp. 97–102) by Koji Sato 佐藤浩司, professor at Tenri University and instructor at Tenri Seminary. Note: This translation is a provisional one at the moment and may require further revision.
Japan presently prides at being the nation with the longest average lifespan in the world. The increasing survival rate from tuberculosis after World War II and the decrease in infant mortality are considered contributing factors to this statistic.
In the past, childbearing was considered a woman’s most important duty. During this age when it was not rare for a woman to lose her life during childbirth, it was not easy to rear an infant into adulthood without incident.
This was especially so when the mother could not produce any breast milk after childbirth. During an age when the consumption of animal milk such as from goats or cows was not common practice and powdered milk was yet to be invented, the best one could do in this situation was to feed an infant the starchy water from rinsed rice.
While there were mothers who could not produce any breast milk, there were mothers who had more breast milk to spare. This is where the practice of wetnursing, or entrusting infants in the care of women who had enough milk to share, came about.
Before She became the “Shrine of Tsukihi,” Oyasama also once took a neighbor’s son into Her care. It is a well-known story how the boy infant later contracted smallpox, motivating Oyasama to pray to the gods and to offer Her life and that of Her children in his place so he could saved.
Anecdotes of Oyasama has a story about Shina Okamoto from Nagahara Village, Yamato Province (presently a section of Tenri City) who took an infant to nurse in her care. This happened in 1881 when Shina was 26 years old. A mother who did not have any breast milk came with her newborn son and requested Shina to care for him in her place.
Shina and her husband Zenroku (the future first minister of Asahi Grand Church) were blessed with seven children. However, five of their children either died in infancy or a result of a miscarriage, leaving only their eldest son Eitaro and their youngest daughter Kan. It may have been because that Shina lost her children in this way and had milk to spare that she was often approached to nurse the children of others.
When she was approached this time, Shina declined since she had no more breast milk to give. Yet the parents persisted, “But please, couldn’t you somehow. . .?”
At a loss as to what to do, Shina then replied, “Then let me first ask Oyasama,” and immediately left for the Residence. When she inquired Oyasama about the situation, Oyasama said:
“No matter how much money you may have, or how much rice you may have in the storehouse, it cannot be given to an infant. There is no greater salvation than to care for and raise another person’s child.”
Shina then told Oyasama that she did not any more milk and inquired, “Should I accept to take care for the child even then?” Oyasama then said:
“If you just have the sincere mind to take care of the child, because God’s gifts are free and unlimited, God will work to provide all that is needed. You need not worry.”
The Okamoto household was not able to raise a son into adulthood to take over as heir for many generations, and instead adopted sons through marriage. They rejoiced when Eitaro became the first eldest son to survive infancy in recent memory, believing it was due to their faith in the path. However, as I described above, Zenroku’s and Shina’s children since then did not survive infancy and Eitaro, whom they placed all their hopes in, had to be saved from a life-threatening fever in 1879.
So when Shina was pressed to care for another’s child in this way, she undertook the task as her own matter. Resolving that she would rely on God, she said, “I will take care of your child.”
Anecdotes describe the subsequent events as follows:
The child was brought from Shoji Village at once. Shina was astonished when he saw him. He must have been fed only on rice water and sugar water. He had been one month premature, and was now a little more than three months old, skinny, without the strength even to cry, just barely able to whimper.
Shina embraced the child and tried to nurse him, but milk would not flow so soon. The child became peevish and bit her nipple. She was worried for a while because she did not know what to do.
This continued for two or three days, and then, marvelously, her milk began to flow. Thanks to her milk the child grew stronger day by day and became quite healthy. Later Shina took this robust child to the Residence. Oyasama embraced him and rewarded Shina with these words:
“Shina, you have done a good thing.”
In the world there are children, for various reasons, who cannot be raised by their birth parents. Foster-care and overseas adoption systems have been established in both the West and Japan to care for these children. Churches of this path have taken upon this task to implement the teaching of “all human beings are brothers and sisters.”
Also, Tenrikyo Church Headquarters established the Tenri Yotokuin (children’s home) in 1910. At its opening, the first Shinbashira, Shinnosuke Nakayama, composed the following poem as directions to those who would be caring after the children:
“Have the same mind in approaching the children of others and your own children. Raise them all as children of the path.”
I feel we ought to take into account the preciousness of raising the children of others and Oyasama’s words that described this task as a “great salvation.”
- Next installment in this series: A Single Vegetable Leaf
*Note: This post has been revised since its original publication.