Moto ichi-nichi: The importance of conversion stories in Tenrikyo 1

I happened to find a hard copy of the final project for an Anthropology 152 class from 12 years ago (July 2003). Although there are some areas that should be rewritten, I nevertheless decided to type it out and post it here on with only a few cosmetic changes.


In the Japanese new religion Tenrikyo, a person’s moto ichi-nichi (day of origin of one’s family history of faith) has begun to take on growing significance as more and more members no longer make a conscious decision to convert but are instead born into the religion. With this in mind, I have interviewed my mother about how Tenrikyo was introduced to the Hiraga family. I will look at issues that surrounded my grandmother’s decision to convert and how the rest of the family followed suit. I hope my family’s early history of faith will illuminate concepts such as divine guidance and how they are associated with the significance attributed to a person’s moto ichi-nichi in Tenrikyo. However, before I describe my family’s moto ichi-nichi, I will give a short introduction outlining the historical founding of Tenrikyo and the discourse of ‘idealized’ accounts of Tenrikyo conversions.

The Founding and Institutionalization of Tenrikyo

Tenrikyo is regarded to have been founded by Miki Nakayama (1798–1887) on 10/26/1838. The account of Tenrikyo’s founding itself has been considered a conversion story by religious study scholar Susumu Shimazono.1

Miki was the wife of a primary landowner of Shoyashiki Village in Yamato Province (now Tenri City in Nara Prefecture). The leg ailment of her oldest son Shuji led the Nakayama family to Ichibei, a local ascetic Shugendo priest. The healing ritual (yose-kaji) that was performed usually has the priest call upon the spirit of deity causing the illness to descend upon a young female medium and learn of the means to have the spirit consoled to have a successful healing. At the yose-kaji on 10/23/1838, the usual medium could not be found, and Miki took her place. Miki was then possessed by the kami Tenri-O-no-Mikoto, who proclaimed through Miki’s lips to be the original and true kami that created human beings.2

Tenrikyo considers its foundation date as the day Miki’s husband Zenbei consented to have her become the “living Shrine” of Tenri-O-no-Mikoto (Oyagami-sama, God the Parent). Thereafter, following the orders of this kami, the Nakayama family plunged into the depths of poverty as Miki gave away the family wealth through acts of charity to initiate the “path of single-hearted salvation.” Miki began offering the obiya-yurushi (Grant of Safe Childbirth) in 1854 that promised young mothers an easy delivery which eschewed the traditional childbirth practices such as the 75-day confinement after birth and the wearing of maternity sashes (obiya). Miki slowly gained the reputation of being a ‘living kami’ of safe childbirth who would also cure illnesses such as smallpox. Toward the end of her life, Miki gained many devotees through healing the sick and the newly established Meiji government saw Miki’s movement as a threat to their authority. Thus she was arrested no less than 17 times by the Nara police.

Shortly after Miki Nakayama’s death, her followers were able to receive official recognition by the Shinto Central Bureau in 1888. Soon, followers who burned with the conviction they were being protected by God the Parent and the “everliving truth” of Miki Nakayama (called Oyasama or venerable parent), began to spread her message of salvation as far and wide as they could. Many miraculous accounts of cured illnesses were attributed to missionaries who administered the Sazuke, a healing prayer. The new religion began to spread like wildfire among people who were sick but could not afford medical treatment in Japan during the Meiji and Taisho eras. Tenrikyo was institutionalized under the guidance of spiritual heir Izo Iburi and Miki’s grandson Shinnosuke Nakayama. Through it received sectarian independence in 1908, Tenrikyo would not be completely free from the imposition of State Shinto doctrines until the end of World War II.

‘Idealized’ Accounts of Tenrikyo Conversions

After World War II, Tenrikyo began to restore the spirit of the original teachings of Miki Nakayama, free from nationalistic Shinto colorations for the first time. Tenrikyo Church Headquarters first published the Tenrikyo kyoten (The Doctrine of Tenrikyo) in 1949, and the Tenrikyo kyosoden, an official hagiography of Miki Nakayama in 1956. 1976 saw the publishing of the Tenrikyo kyosoden itsuwa-hen (Anecdotes of Oyasama, the Foundress of Tenrikyo). These latter two were the first two Tenrikyo publications that included what I call ‘idealized’ accounts of Tenrikyo conversions. I would like to describe here the conversion story of Izo Iburi, the carpenter who would eventually succeed Miki as a spiritual leader since it reveals a pattern that is to be seen with other moto ichi-nichi accounts.

Izo initially sought Miki’s help for his wife Sato who suffered from the aftereffects of her second miscarriage in 5/1864. Though Izo employed the help of doctors, Sato’s condition only grew worse. Once he heard about the blessings granted by ‘a kami in Shoyashiki,’ he departed from his home in Ichinomoto and traveled south to inquire at the Residence (yashiki), or the Nakayama household which was considered to be the Jiba, humankind’s spiritual homeland.

It has been widely documented that Miki awaited for Izo’s arrival with great anticipation. Before Izo reached his destination, Miki had uttered the following prediction, “A carpenter will appear, will appear.”3 Upon receiving several packets of sacred barley flour for his wife from Miki’s daughter Kokan, Izo returned home and Sato removed her abdominal sash and consumed the flour and was on her way to a swift recovery.

Because Izo lost his first wife Natsu to post-delivery complications4, one can imagine the extent and depth of his gratitude for Sato’s recovery. Izo instantly became an ardent follower and with the suggestion from Sato that he build a place for worship for Miki’s fast-growing following, he devoted his efforts toward constructing the Tsutome basho (Place for the Service), which would be used as Tenrikyo’s first sanctuary until 1913. Izo’s contributions was indeed very significant at this point, as it is reflected in the fact that the construction of the Tsutome basho is documented in Song Three of the liturgical text Mikagura-uta and many carpentry metaphors appear throughout Tenrikyo’s scriptures (Song Eight and Twelve, Ofudesaki 3:56–7, 128–32). But Izo’s commitment would not end at building the sanctuary; it would continue throughout the rest of his life.

I consider the conversion of Izo Iburi as the foremost ‘ideal’ conversion account in Tenrikyo. In it we see the model way a person is to respond to the gracious blessings of God the Parent; one repays their gratitude by committing to help the movement in some manner for an entire lifetime.

The various accounts of other well-known ministers in Tenrikyo in Anecdotes of Oyasama all follow a similar pattern. A person is cured of an illness and they resolve to dedicate their whole lives to the Tenrikyo faith. Consider the conversion of Rin Masui, who would become the only female Honbu-in executive official in the early days of the Tenrikyo institution. She had lost her eyesight due to glaucoma and was miraculously cured by chanting “Tenri-O-no-Mikoto” while facing Jiba. When Rin visited Jiba for the first time, she is said to have received the following words:

“Sah, sah, your soul has an innen (causality). When it is the divine will to use a person in God’s service, God will draw that person to this Residence by any means. Be thankful and follow the path joyfully, no matter what you may encounter. Persons who are destined to be used as instruments in God’s service will be drawn to this Residence even by means of physical pain. Because I must draw you even by means of giving you suffering, what I do is different depending on the person. It is natural that there is difference…. You could not see because it was as if God’s hands were in front of your eyes. Sah, she says she cannot see ahead. When the hands are removed you can see at once. You can see, can’t you? Sah, sah, take heart, take heart. You will not have any hardships, even if you wish to undergo hardships. It is all up to the individual’s mind.”5

Miki Nakayama’s words as conveyed to Rin here touches upon the concept of divine guidance, that illnesses are the means God the Parent uses to attract followers to the faith for their service. Also, the guidance may take any shape or form (“What I do is different depending on the person”). Finally, another significant message that is stated here is to “Be thankful and follow the path joyfully, no matter what you may encounter.” One of the qualities my mother has shown throughout her life that I have always admired is the optimism she exudes in difficult situations. Tenrikyo continually attempts to foster this optimism in its followers.

Another significant concept is that of innen, or causality. Tenrikyo believes in the cycle of reincarnation and that in the many rebirths people have experienced, have accumulated various forms of karma, both good and bad. Such karma is called innen in Tenrikyo. This concept is also described in the following:

“God says, ‘Showing innen to parents, God waits for children to appear.’ Do you understand? Therefore, virtue is more deeply planted in the second generation than in the first one, and deeper still in the third than in the second. By becoming ever deeper, it will become virtue which lasts forever. It depends on the mind of a man whether it lasts for one generation only, or for two or three generations, or forever. By the continuation of this virtue even a bad innen becomes a good one.”6

Here we can see that Tenrikyo values a faith that lasts through future generations. Therefore, moto ichi-nichi accounts become all the more significant as they help connect “people of the second and later generations, people who were members of the group from birth” whose “experience of salvation was necessarily something weaker” as compared with the first who “experienced salvation from concrete suffering.”7 It is also stressed here that with each passing generation, the benefits of having faith in Tenrikyo and adopting the proper daily attitude will bring about greater blessings.

The conversion accounts of typical followers attempt to follow the pattern of the ‘ideal’ versions they may be familiar with, but we see this is not necessarily the case. Most actual accounts are not as sudden as in the ‘ideal’ cases found in Tenrikyo publications, but follow a more gradual process instead. My family’s moto ichi-nichi account is an example that follows this gradual model of conversion.

(To be continued)


  1. Shimazono, Susumu. “Conversion Stories and their Popularization in Japan’s New Religions.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 13/2–3 (June-September 1986), 159–175.
  2. The Life of Oyasama, p. 1.
  3. The Life of Oyasama, p. 40.
  4. Tenrikyo Doyusha, ed. 1997. Ten no jogi: Honseki, Iburi Izo no shogai, p. 17.
  5. Anecdotes 36, Anecdotes of Oyasama, p. 31.
  6. Anecdotes 90, Anecdotes of Oyasama, p. 76.
  7. Shimazono, Susumu. “The Living Kami Idea in the New Religions of Japan” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 6/3 (September 1979), 389–412.