Moto ichi-nichi: The importance of conversion stories in Tenrikyo 2

The Moto Ichi-Nichi of the Hiraga Family

In 1938, my mother’s youngest brother at the time, Tsumoru (three years old), contracted meningitis. At the time my grandfather Misao Hiraga was a Singer sewing machine salesman and an elected official of the local village assembly. The youngest child of two of his peers also had contracted the disease. However, in the case of Tsumoru, the doctor expressed his deep regret and said the boy’s life could not be saved.

My grandfather became frantic and had his subordinates look for a Tenrikyo church. He had once overheard how Tenrikyo built their congregation from faith healings that saved people who were considered by doctors to have incurable and fatal diseases. In his desperation to save his son’s life, grandfather Misao turned to a religion that was considered to be of dubious character and an aberrant faith (jakyo), especially in Hiroshima, which was a stronghold of Jodo Shinshu. At this time, the Hiraga family were closely associated with the local Jodo Shinshu temple.

When grandfather Misao’s attention was brought to a Tenrikyo church on the main street (hondori) in town, he showed reluctance to go. He was afraid of the possibility of being seen and asked that another church be found, one in the back alleys away from the main street. When they found Tenrikyo Kunihiro Senkyosho (propagation office), which was across from a pawn shop in the back alleys and had its minister, an old woman with a bent back to come save Tsumoru, it was too late. Rev. Tsuru Watanabe was not able to arrive in time. Tsumoru had died.

Rev. Watanabe attempted to console the family. She said, “Take this opportunity to learn about what Tenrikyo teaches.”

“I have no time to hear such trifles!” my grandfather responded.

“Please have faith in Tenrikyo,” Rev. Watanabe pleaded.

“How can I have faith when my son has died?” My grandfather and the rest of the Hiraga family refused to listen to the old minister.

Already, my family’s account differs from the ideal pattern of Tenrikyo conversion stories. There was no initial blessings, no catalyst to bring about any form of commitment to Tenrikyo. My mother has theorized that if Tsumoru had been saved, my grandfather would have responded by becoming a minister and founding a Tenrikyo church of his own. However, that was not the case.

Rev. Watanabe kept coming to the Hiraga household regularly, despite the many times she was urged not to. Even my mother as a child would share her parents’ contempt for this persistent old minister as she would bring food offerings from her church. As World War II began and wore on, Singer sewing machines could no longer be imported into the country. My grandfather turned to farming to support his growing family. He was the only person in town who owned a milk cow. He would also become involved in teaching and training soldiers in Hiroshima city. During this time, Rev. Watanabe would come and follow my grandmother Shizuko to the fields, massaging her shoulders and kindly speaking about the Tenrikyo teachings, especially teachings concerning the concept of innen.

Near the end of the war, there was a serious crisis in the Hiraga family. Eldest sister, Chizuko, who was grandfather’s pride, was abducted by a cult leader. This man forced my aunt to stay at his side, threatening to kill the entire Hiraga family if she tried to escape. My aunt resigned herself to this and my grandfather’s repeated attempts to bring her home would prove fruitless. He expressed his frustration at my grandmother and blamed her for Chizuko’s situation, that she had not provided my aunt a proper upbringing. Upon hearing these words, my grandmother was about to race to the train tracks to kill herself, but my mother was able to stop her. With this crisis, my grandmother also began in secret her daily worship at Kunihiro Senkyosho. She was filled with hear as her husband Misao was prepared to kill aunt Chizuko and slit his own belly in order to eliminate the “shame of the Hiraga family” and how his “love for Chizuko.”

Before he could carry this out, my grandfather was killed in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped on the city in August 1945. By this time, the Hiraga family was helped by Rev. Watanabe in many ways and was indebted to her. Rev. Watanabe requested my grandmother to accompany her son who was discharged from the army to Tenrikyo Church Headquarters where he was to be sanctioned as the next head minister of Kunihiro Senkyosho. Grandmother Shizuko accepted the request and accompanied this young minister to Tenri, and it was her first time she went anywhere north of Okayama Prefecture.

My grandmother later conveyed to my mother that upon seeing the Main Sanctuary of Tenrikyo Church Headquarters, that despite of the reputation of Tenrikyo being an aberrant religion, she felt that there had to be something significant in the teachings that brought the followers to build such a structure. The corridors of the Main Sanctuary are over 800 meters long and must have been one of the largest wooden structures in Japan at the time.

Soon after grandmother Shizuko’s return to Saijo, Hiroshima, my mother went to Tenri as a student of the three-month Shuyoka, or Spiritual Development Course when she was 17 years old. Not only did they lie about my mother’s age (Shuyoka was only open to people 18 and older) but they hid the fact of entering Shuyoka to older brother Tetsuo. My uncle was still ambivalent in his attitude towards Tenrikyo, and my grandmother and mother had told him she was going to visit her aunt in Onomichi.

At the end of the course, my mother wrote a heartfelt letter to her brother, apologizing for the lie and asking him to come for her and take her home. She suggested he at least take a look at the Main Sanctuary, as he was a carpenter by trade. Uncle Tetsuo immediately arrived in his work clothes, initially adamant that he was there only to take his sister home and was not in the mood to listen to any talk about the teachings. Yet Rev. Yamauchi, the head minister of the church that supervised Kunihiro Senkyosho, was able to coax uncle Tetsuo into attending a lecture on Tenrikyo (Besseki). Uncle Tetsuo had realized he had hated Tenrikyo without knowing what its teachings were, and through the lectures he gained an admiration for the religion and quickly surpassed my mother in his devotion and dedication. It was only a matter of time for the rest of the family to follow in his footsteps.

Issues Surrounding Shizuko Hiraga’s Conversion to Tenrikyo

Though Tsumoru’s illness had initially introduced Tenrikyo to the Hiraga family, the pivotal episode that had led to my grandmother’s conversion was the incident involving my aunt Chizuko. Tenrikyo had provided a worldview that helped explain why such an incident occurred. She eventually attributed this to the following two incidents.

At Chizuko’s birth, since boys were so valued in Japan at the time, when my grandfather learned the child was a girl, he had said, “A girl? I don’t want her,” and abruptly left. He did not even bother to name her. (Chizuko was named so by another relative.)

At another time, when my grandmother Shizuko felt dissatisfied with her marriage, she once had thought, “If I didn’t have this baby girl, I could just leave my husband without any regrets. If only the baby had not been born.” When baby Chizuko, who had been sleeping so peacefully until that moment, suddenly cried out, my grandmother immediately repented thinking such a thing.

Yet my grandmother felt that since both my grandparents had “killed” Chizuko in their minds when she was a babe, it was only fitting in her mind that when my aunt approached a marriageable age, she would become entangled in an affair that would drive her parents to the edge of despair and worry them to death. This is a sign of my grandmother applying the teaching of innen to her own situation. Eventually my aunt would be brought back home and is now a fervent believer who makes frequent pilgrimages to Jiba.

In this way and throughout my grandmother’s lifetime, the Tenrikyo teachings functioned as a comforting agent. Even when she suffered the deaths of her sons Mitsuhiko and Tetsuo that both could be traced to radiation poisoning, she felt that her conversion to Tenrikyo benefited her family. Though people around her may have interpreted her situation as regretful that she had to experience the loss of two sons when they were at the prime of their lives, in her eyes, she indicated that she could feel the negative innen of the Hiraga family slowly being canceled out and beginning to build in a positive direction. This echoes the earlier passage from Anecdotes of Oyasama that “By the continuation of this virtue even a bad innen becomes a good one.”1


Though I have only given one example, the account of my family’s gradual process of conversion, I still feel that it highlights many points important to conversion stories in general. Tenrikyo even considers illnesses and difficult situations to be “flowers of the path” (mijo ya jijo wa michi no hana). A whole chapter in The Doctrine of Tenrikyo (which has a total of ten chapters) is dedicated to the theme of divine guidance. Tenrikyo scriptures also read, “Illness and pain of whatever kind do not exist. They are none other than the hastening and guidance of God” (Ofudesaki 2:7).

The extent to which such a teaching is used as a comforting agent is clearly evident in a recent letter I received from a particular minister in Japan. His wife was diagnosed with lung cancer, but he expressed his gratitude and joy at being provided an important opportunity for him, his wife, and their family to connect closer with the thoughts of God. Such optimism is simply unthinkable, remarkable, and unheard of in everyday life.

In any case, moto ichi-nichi accounts have an important role to play in Tenrikyo as people are further removed from the episodes that have led them or their families to adopt the faith. They help memorialize both the blessings of God the Parent that were experienced at such times and highlight the type of family innen that will potentially lead to future suffering if it is not severed through a family’s devotion. Practitioners are encouraged to believe that even the timing of the occurrence of illnesses and troubles are determined by the compassion of God. Finally, remembering one’s moto ichi-nichi is also considered to be vital in maintaining the ideal state of mind in Tenrikyo: joy. A recent sermon at the Church Headquarters highlights this.

“We all must have that day of origin (moto ichi-nichi) when we were drawn to join the faith through the divine care of a major difficulty we experienced as an illness that could not be cured by conventional means. The wonderful salvation we experienced then becomes the joy that continues with us to the present.”2

*Interview with Sumako Forbes conducted on June 13, 2003.


  1. Anecdotes 90.
  2. Mihama Yoshiaki. “Kono yo osameru shinjitsu no michi o tanoshimi-gokoro de akaruku toro.” Michi no tomo May 2003, p. 25.