The following is a translation of Part 26 of the series “Senjin no sokuseki” (Footsteps of Our Predecessors) from the February 2005 (No. 434) issue of Taimo, pp. 34–35. This translation is a provisional one at the moment and may require further revision.
Part 26: Like Sliding On Water
In 1879, Umejiro Izutsu, a cotton salesman from Honden 本田, Osaka, converted from Omine Shugendo to become a fervent devotee of the path when his newborn daughter Tane was blessed with a recovery from illness. Oyasama bestowed his confraternity with the name “Shinmei-gumi” and many followers would gather at the confraternity assembly hall located in Honden.
Between 30 to 50 followers would gather every night to worship and dance the Twelve Songs. Their devotion was so great that the tatami mats wore out and needed to be replaced in three months.
The Shinmei-gumi was known as “Shinmei, the dancing confraternity,” and its members were extremely devoted toward performing the o-tefuri or Service Dance. They would pray for the recovery of those who were ill by assembling the required number of performers and bringing the necessary instruments and ritual implements.
After undergoing cold water ablutions, they would dance three “sittings” of the Service (Tsutome) at the bedside of the ill person in the morning, afternoon, and night for three days. After each “sitting,” the performers would hold a discussion amongst themselves (“We made a mistake on this verse on Song such-and-such. What kind of divine intention does it reflect?”), make a collective resolution to God, convey this to the ill person’s family, and perform cold water ablutions once again before repeating the performance of the Service.
Many of the performers earnestly offered to have their lives shortened so others would be saved. Thanks to their efforts, even people who were gravely ill received God’s immaculate protection.
The Ajikawa River flowed immediately near Honden and ships of all sizes came from all over the country bringing products from each province. Thus, it was a major center lined with businesses that distributed commodities of all types.
It was natural that many Shinmei-gumi members ran their own businesses. Starting with the cotton salesman Umejiro, the owners of businesses various types—dyers, lumber salesmen, fishmongers, shippers, indigo (ai-zome) producers and sake barrel manufacturers—were among the confraternity’s core membership.
These members would frequently leave their stores to walk about and engage in o-tasuke (salvation work) and sometimes suddenly left without coming back for two or three days. Those left behind to tend the businesses would be troubled at this and when they sent someone to call these owners back, the Shinmei-gumi devotees would say: “Right now, a person’s life is hanging in the balance. Business can wait until later.”
Because members had abandoned their private and household affairs in order to stake their lives in order to perform the Service and save others, their practices were always dead serious. Anyone who made a single mistake in the regular Service was not allowed to dance during a Service dedicated to pray for someone’s health.
Yet anyone, even a child whose dancing was considered flawless could participate in the Service. Also, because the members did not want the vibrations from the stamping of their feet to affect the ill person they were praying for, no matter how joyfully they danced, their movements were so smooth and flowing that it was as if they danced while sliding on water.
Reference: Shinmei Ashitsu no michi, volume one.
- Next installment in this series: 27. Applause in a Prison Cell
*Note: This post has been revised since its original publication.
Umejiro Izutsu 井筒梅治郎 (1838–1896) would later become the first head minister of Ashitsu Bunkyokai 芦津分教会 (branch church) in 1890. Now known as Tenrikyo Ashitsu Daikyokai 天理教芦津大教会 (grand church), it currently oversees 241 branch churches and 282 fukyosho (“fellowships” or “mission stations”), including Shinmei Shin’ei Kyokai 真明新榮教会 and Shinmei Shoka Kyokai 真明彰化教会 in Taiwan.
First, a note on the translation. I know it is described above that the Shinmei-gumi performers would dance the Service at the “bedside” of an ill person, we need to keep in mind there were no beds in Japan in those days, just futon mattresses lain on tatami mats. I didn’t want to use the word futonside.
It amazes me how fervently some of these early followers practiced and performed the o-tefuri/Teodori Dance. It must be noted this story describes a time before the sacrament of the Sazuke was widely available to potential missionaries. One can almost make the case that the ease of administering the Sazuke up to six times a day versus performing nine full Services for three days has made Tenrikyo followers lazy in a sense. (Now don’t get me wrong here, Tenrikyo became a national force to be reckoned with in Japan only when the sacrament of the Sazuke became widely available in the first decade after Oyasama’s withdrawal from physical life.)
Yet I am aware of churches that still perform the Service including the Twelve Songs on a daily basis (although the magic number seems to be up to six times a day as opposed to nine). I remember once trying to dance the Service up to the Twelve Songs on my own praying for someone far away and I kept screwing the songs up. One tends to dance better with others and with the musical instruments. But those early Shinmei-gumi members were truly dedicated and disciplined; they were light years ahead of where the majority of the Tenrikyo congregation is at present.
Further suggested reading
- Refer to Anecdotes of Oyasama 76, “Peonies in Full Bloom” (p. 66), and 165, “Buy Dearly” (p. 132) for more stories involving Rev. Umejiro Izutsu.
- No. 108 “The Roads to the Summit are Many” (pp. 91–93) describes an episode where the Shinmei-gumi Confraternity is spared from a fire.