The Footsteps of Our Predecessors 9

The following is a translation of Part 9 of the series “Senjin no sokuseki” (Footsteps of Our Predecessors) from the September 2003 (No. 417) issue of Taimo, pp. 34–35. Note: This is a tentative translation may require further polishing and revision.

Part 9: Oyasama’s Cough

Shirobei Umetani worked as a plasterer in Osaka. He converted to the faith after returning to Jiba for the first time on February 20, 1881, and became a devoted follower. On May 14 of the same year, he received permission to form a confraternity of about 60 followers, which was named “Meishin-gumi.”

In November 1882, construction on Oyasama’s Resting House began. This building was to become Oyasama’s new living quarters. Until the Resting House was completed, Oyasama lived in the South Gatehouse of the Residence.

The raising of the ridge-beam took place in May the following year. Upon hearing of this, Shirobei made an earnest request to be allowed to contribute his hinokishin to the construction project. The promised day came, which was likely in June. Shirobei turned down work orders from his valued customers and hopped off to cross the Jusan Pass from Osaka into Yamato Province with his workbox on his shoulder.

Meishin-gumi had by then gained many new followers and his position as the head of the confraternity made him a very busy man. Moreover, he gained a reliable reputation for his work as a plasterer, and was in great demand. Yet for Shirobei, anything for Oyasama’s sake took precedence over everything else. Shirobei apologized to his customers and followers with uneasiness in his heart each time he left Osaka.

When he reached the Residence, he immediately went to the construction site to do hinokishin. Yet, for some reason, he found that the work had not yet progressed to the point where his services could be applied. He carried the workbox he brought with him back again over the 40-kilometer-road (25 miles) to Osaka.

It was perhaps five days later when he returned to the Residence again. Although he thought he allowed enough time to pass, the construction still had not progressed.

He waited another five days or so before he excitedly rushed back to Jiba once more for a third time. This time, the foundation of the walls had been completed. Wall clay had also been set aside in preparation. Shirobei poured all his heart into his hinokishin, with an amount of care and workmanship as he had never done before.

After his work was done for the day, he ate dinner in the kitchen. He decided to stay at the Residence during the period in which plastering was needed.

As he licked his lips after the delicious meal and planned in his mind the places he was to apply plaster the next day, he heard a voice from the corner of the kitchen whispering his name. Curious, he cocked his ears to listen.

“You know, Umetani-san is here because he can’t find work in Osaka and has to come all the way here to Yamato to do so.”

“Is that right? Must be true! If he were an accomplished craftsman, he wouldn’t bother to come here to just to please his fancy, would he?”

Shirobei shot a glance toward the voices and lowered his gaze. He clearly felt a degree of contempt in their words. He began to boil inside with anger, thinking: “I came here to do hinokishin, despite my busy schedule after apologizing to my followers and customers. To say that I’m only here to please my fancy—I’ve never been so insulted!”

Bitterness rose to the edge of his throat, but he was able to keep it in check. He made a decision to leave for Osaka, thinking, “I’ll never come to such a place again!”

Late that night, after checking to see that everyone in the Residence was fast asleep, he hastily gathered his tools. Carrying his workbox on his shoulder, he tiptoed to the gate of the Residence and silently shoved the doors open. Just as he stepped outside….


He heard a cough coming from the South Gatehouse. As he turned around, he heard it once more:

(Cough, cough)

Though Shirobei tried to press ahead, his feet were rooted to the ground. An image of Oyasama’s smiling face flashed before his eyes. Shirobei silently went back inside and tiptoed back to the room where he was staying. He went to bed, pretending as nothing had happened.

The next morning, Oyasama gave Shirobei in the following instruction:

“Is God or man to be the object? Keep in mind that God is to be the object.”

Reference: Yamamoto Junji 山本順司. Shizukanaru hono’o 『静かなる炎』 .

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

Supplemental information

Rev. Shirobei Umetani 梅谷四郎兵衞 (1847–1919) later went on to become the first head minister of Senba Bunkyokai 船場分教会 (branch church) in 1889. Now known as Tenrikyo Senba Daikyokai 天理教船場大教会 (grand church), it currently oversees 168 bunkyokai (“branch churches”) and 185 fukyosho (“fellowships” or “mission stations”), including Meishin Brasil and Meishin America Church in New York.


I was very close to making a drastic revision in translating Oyasama’s words “Kami ga medo ka, hito ga medo ka,” but I avoided the temptation for now.

Yet something tells me that there must be a better way of rendering these words in English. Maybe: “What is the motive behind your faith: God or your fellow human beings?” Or “What is your objective: to bring satisfaction to God or your fellow human beings?”

The main issue here is how to translate the word “medo“: is it better rendered reason, cause, motivation, purpose, or aim? It is also worthy of note that “medo” is the also the symbol of worship that is placed in a church shrine altar.

Further suggested reading

  • Refer to Anecdotes of Oyasama 123 “Is Man the Object?” (pp. 101–102) for an alternate telling of the above episode.
  • Takano, Tomoji. Disciples of Oyasama, Foundress of Tenrikyo, pp. 96–100.

For more stories on Rev. Shirobei Umetani in Anecdotes of Oyasama, refer to:

See also