Excerpts from Miki Nakayama and discriminated peoples

I realize it has been a reeaaallly long time since I posted anything or made any updates to this website. I offer my apologies.

I stumbled upon a translation I did some time ago that I felt could be useful to researchers of Tenrikyo and burakumin in general. I am unsure if this post will lead to more activity on this website down the road or not.

Excerpts from 中山みきと被差別民衆・天理教教祖の歩んだ道 Nakayama Miki to sabetsu minshū: Tenrikyō kyōso no ayunda michi (Miki Nakayama and discriminated peoples: the path embarked by Tenrikyo’s founder) by 池田士郎 Shiro Ikeda.

  • About the author: Shiro Ikeda was an associate professor at Tenri University at the time of publication.
  • About this book: A survey of the socio-cultural context in which Oyasama lived and its implications for reassessing the meaning of her “Hinagata” (Divine Model) with a particular focus on the cultural meaning of both poverty and spirit possession and their connection with historically discriminated peoples in pre-modern Japan.
  • About the topic: Although details are sketchy, Tenrikyo’s relationship with burakumin (people from discriminated communities) seems to be one that has been fraught with difficulties. It may be assumed that the majority of burakumin that lived within modern-day Tenri City did not convert to Oyasama’s new faith. Someone from Tenrikyo Church Headquarters once made remarks that were considered defamatory of burakumin, leading to an official apology and the creation of the Tenrikyō Keihatsu Iin-kai (Committee for Promotion of Integration) to deal with ignorance about the discrimination burakumin encounter and increase the level of sensitivity within the Tenrikyo community toward this issue.

<beginning of translation, pp. 99–108>

That Oyasama proactively sought to associate with burakumin has been passed down in the traditional stories of these communities. For instance, a Haru N. from the aforementioned district G spoke to me about the reminiscences of her grandmother Rino as follows:

My grandmother Rino was born in Keio 1 (1865). When my grandmother was a little girl, she and the other children from the community passed through the “Kokanbo” (currently near the west school building of Tenri High School) and went to play at the home of Kyoso-san (Oyasama) in Shoyashiki. An old woman with pure white hair with a gentle expression would say, “Thank you for coming,” patted the children on the head, and gave them balls made of thread. My grandmother held onto this memory for the rest of her life. She must have looked favorably upon Kyoso-san, because even though many people of our village said that Kyoso-san was possessed by a fox, one time, she said, “It is only natural for Tenri-san (Tenrikyo) to have grown so large.” My grandmother passed away in 1941 at the age of 78.

According to this tale, in the early years of the Meiji period, burakumin children would visit Oyasama in Shoyashiki Village. At the time, it is said that Oyasama sat straight all day in a room with a raised floor located in a building called the Place for the Service and spoke about God’s teachings to people who came. If one reads this tale straightforwardly, one ought to think that these children did not only enter the premises of the Nakayama house, but also entered Oyasama’s room where she patted them on the head. Yet, according to the customs of Yamato, this was unthinkable.

Mr. Shin’ichi M., who lives in a discriminated community in Ando-cho, where tributaries of the Yamato River converge, spoke of his memories of the mid-Taisho period as follows:

When it was time to transport the grain rent to the landowner’s home in the main village, the burakumin tenant farmers would hand over the rice to a servant at the house gate and bow to the landowner who would be at the house entrance recording our rent in his accounting books. I have heard that during the Meiji period, we weren’t even allowed to enter the gate.

Provided with such a backdrop, we can better understand the attitude in which Oyasama approached people from discriminated communities. Further, in district K of Tenri City where the Furu and Hase rivers converge, Mr. Yoneji Y. shared with me the tale below which he heard from his grandmother Kimi:

My grandmother Kimi was born in a community in Ide-cho located north of Kizu in Ansei 5 (1858). She married into the Y. household when she was 16 (in 1874). According to what my grandmother told me, old lady Miki of Tenrikyo would come to our village almost every month to talk to people but no one would listen to her. Also, our household was one of the richer ones even though we were burakumin. We had about 40 rice paddies. Old lady Miki would never come into such a house such as ours. She would only enter the homes of the poor ones. The people of our village said that she was possessed by a fox. When old lady Miki was taken by the police in Ichinomoto, I have heard that she did not eat the food the police offered her for even a week or up to 10 days. But it is said that she still spoke in a vigorous voice. We would die if we didn’t eat for just three days. So people talked about how a fox must have helped old lady Miki. My grandmother passed away in September 1949 at the age of 91.

This story teaches us that Oyasama did not only associate with discriminated people but was also quite proactive in reaching out to them herself. Stories of how Oyasama actually visited discriminated communities have been handed down in the same district K has come from different sources. One of these is from Mrs. Haruko M., who shared with me the story below when she reminisced about her late husband:

I was born in March 1914 in K-cho, Gosho. I lived in K-cho until I was 20, when I married and went to Osaka. After the war I remarried my late husband who was from district K and we lived in Tabe-cho, Tenri City.

When we got married, there was nothing but rice paddies all around, but after a while a magnificent followers dormitory was built. About this time, my now late husband said: “Old lady Miki long ago used to come to our village and wander around. So it’s amazing to see how much success she’s had since then.” [By the way, the late Yonekichi was born in district K in 1904 and passed away in 1994 when he was 90.]

Another story is from Mr. M. Yoshikazu, who heard this from his aunt from his father’s side:

I was born in this village in July 1915. I heard from Aunty Kohagi, the little sister of my father Takeichi, that old lady Miki came all the time. When a small child was crying and reaching for a bell she was carrying, she gave it to the baby without the slightest regret.

While these two stories are only fragmentary, they convey to us today hints that Oyasama visited discriminated communities. Furthermore, the second story that mentions a bell must have been confused with a story of a Buddhist monk who carries such bells when asking for alms. Yet one can faintly detect in this reports of how Oyasama gave away her possessions without the slightest regret.

I collected hints of similar stories of how Oyasama proactively entered discriminated communities when doing interviews in one particular community in Ando-cho downstream from the Yamato River. Mr. Ryu U., who lived there, spoke of a story he heard from the old timers of his village:

White-haired old lady Miki was walking on a road near here and someone asked her, “Why do have such divine powers?” She answered: “Long ago, I saved a white fox. That fox later possessed me and gave me these divine powers.”

Setting aside the content of this story, in 1862 Oyasama did go to Ando Village for o-tasuke” (salvation work) to help a person gravely ill after childbirth. This was the first time that she proactively went to do o-tasuke, which means it was the first instance of missionary work in Tenrikyo. Oyasama made a visit to Ando Village in each of the next three years. In the third year, she stayed in east Ando Village for roughly 40 days. The discriminated community of east Ando Village was but a stone’s throw away, so it would not be strange to suggest she walked in the community asking around if there was anyone who was suffering.

Stories such as these that illuminate Oyasama’s footsteps have been handed down in areas above Tatsuta such as Tatsutagawa and even to district W in Heguri-cho just down the Jusan Pass. The late Sueichi Y. told me:

This was back when I was still a kid so it must have been 1945 or so. There were many people coming down the Jusan Pass from Osaka. The old timers of the village told me at the time they were Tenrikyo followers. I don’t clearly remember who it was, but someone mentioned that long ago, the founder of Tenrikyo used the restroom when she passed through this village. Since we were discriminated against because we were called “Eta,” meaning “an abundance of defilement,” I can never forget hearing that the founder used the restroom of an Eta house.

In July 1872, Oyasama had headed to the home of Ichibei Matsuo in Wakai Village, which is located in the same district, to engage in o-tasuke. She stayed at the Matsuo home for three days to cure the Matsuo’s son from an illness. It is believed that during this time she also visited the home of another person who fervently embraced the faith together with the Matsuos, Kyujiro Nakao in Koshikizuka Village. The possibility for Oyasama to have passed through the discriminated community that lies right in the middle of these two villages is quite high, so the story that she used the restroom along the way is not as far-fetched as it may initially seem.

Incidentally, when taking into account the stories from discriminated communities that help illuminate Oyasama’s footsteps, one cannot ignore the fact that she was detained no less than 17 times in prisons throughout Nara Prefecture. I discuss the historical record later in Chapter Five of this book. Here, I wish to look at how this information was passed down in discriminated communities.

The site of the present Nara Women’s University was once the residence of the Nara magistrate. The magistrate’s office was immediately located in the northeast. The magistrate’s office then later became a prison after the Meiji period. It is widely known that people from the nearby discriminated community used to serve as jailers. In the Meiji period, however, occupations that dealt with penal institutions and law enforcement such as prison guards and police officers no longer came to be imposed on burakumin and they instead were employed as staff. In any case, burakumin were often relegated to low-ranking staff positions. It is through such a connection that faint reports on how Oyasama spent her detainments now exist as stories in district H in Nara City. Mrs. Akino M., who lived in this area, told me:

I was born in 1916 near Hikone in Shiga Prefecture. My mother would go to pray at a Tenrikyo church in a nearby village. So she took me to the Tenrikyo church once or twice but I didn’t know any details about it. I married my now late husband when I was 25 (1931) and I came to live in this village. My husband Rihei was born in 1908 and passed away in 1983. Not long after we got married, he once told me: “Tenri-san is a thankful faith. The founder of Tenrikyo was taken to the penitentiary many times, but she wouldn’t touch the food there. They say a fox brought her food. So, even though normally one would become weak from not eating, she didn’t become weak at all. Tenri-san is a faith of new miracles.”

In this story the prison is referred to a penitentiary but setting terminology aside, it correctly reports how Oyasama did not touch the meals at all during her detainments. Furthermore, just like the story offered by the aforementioned Mr. Yoneji Y., it offers the suggestion that Oyasama did not weaken because a fox had brought her food without people noticing. That Oyasama’s demeanor during her detainments caused people at the time to be filled with wonder still can be deduced from these stories today.

Also, Mrs. Misayo M. from district H told me:

I was born in this village in 1922. Although I’m married now and live in a home on one of the main streets, long ago my family was extremely poor. My father was a day laborer and engaged in manual labor in the mountains while my mother made clog insoles from bamboo leaves. The people of my village worked their best just to live day-to-day and had no interest in other religions. But when I was a child, I have heard people saying “Yashiki o harote” (get rid of your homes)1 about Tenrikyo. The only thing I remember hearing about the founder was that “She was an admirable person who, as a woman, stuck it out to the very end.”

Concerning the fragmentary comment that “She was an admirable person who, as a woman, stuck it out to the very end,” one can imagine that it tells us that although the government authorities threw Oyasama into prison many times over with the rationale she was “bewitching people”2 and attracting them through sorcery, irrespective of the fact that she was a woman, she persisted in teaching God’s teachings without budging an inch. In this sense, it is an impressive story.

One important aspect I felt while walking around to hear stories about Oyasama that exist in the discriminated communities is that there was a difference inside and outside these burakumin communities in how the implication that Oyasama was “possessed by a fox” was received. The phrase “possessed by a fox” was frequently used in an awed manner when describing how astonishing it was for Oyasama not to grow weak even after not eating or the astonishing divine powers that allowed her to heal disease.

In other words, the phrase had a positive implication regarding Oyasama’s supernatural abilities whereas outside the discriminated community, the same phrase was frequently had a negative implication simply associated with an abominable spirit who brought on misfortune. At this point in time, it is difficult to assert the cause for this difference. Nevertheless, it is intriguing when one superimposes new interpretations of burakumin history and the notion that these discriminated peoples identify themselves with people with unusual talents (people who have specialized skills) with the fact that stories of Oyasama have been preserved so long among believers of True Pure Land, a different religious tradition.

Yet on the flip side of this affinity which the burakumin have toward Oyasama there is also a disposition toward discrimination shown by the villagers who rejected her. I imagine among the clues which may account for this has to do with the social implications regarding the concept of “impurity” that is associated with disease. Above all, I wonder if it can be said that the concept of impurity attached to Hansen’s disease and how it was concretely involved in social relations most clearly demonstrates the difference between their disposition of either affinity or discrimination toward Oyasama.

Translation notes

  1. This was obviously meant to ridicule the opening line of the first section of Tenrikyo’s liturgy, “Ashiki o harote” (cast away ills/evils). See Songs for the Kagura on Tenrikyo Resource
  2. See The Life of Oyasama, p. 172.