NAKAYAMA MIKI (1798–1887) was the founder of Tenrikyō ("The Teaching of Divine Wisdom"), which is one of Japan's best known "new religions" (shin shūkyō ), with over two million members at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Miki's story is important not only for understanding Tenrikyō, but also for understanding what is novel about the many new religious movements that arose and flourished in Japan since the end of the nineteenth century.
The church's sacred biographies present a sanctified image of Miki as a shrine of God who was also a divine model for all who sought salvation. She was born into a wealthy farming family in the small village of Sanmaiden in what is now Nara prefecture on April 18, 1798. As a child she showed a remarkable generosity of spirit as well as unusual devotion to the nembutsu faith of Pure Land (Jôdo) Buddhism. Miki was a spiritual seeker whose quest for the truth almost led her to become a Buddhist nun.
In 1810, however, her family forced her to marry Zenbei Nakayama (1788–1853), the eldest son of the prosperous village chief of Shoyashiki village, now known as Tenri City near Nara, Tenrikyō's headquarters. According to Miki's revelations, Shoyashiki was also the sacred center where humanity was first created (jiba ) by God. She was put in charge of Nakayama family affairs at the age of sixteen. She became a paragon of virtue through obedience and hard work—the "good wife and wise mother" according to the contemporary Confucian feminine ideal.
Nevertheless, Miki endured intense personal suffering. Her mother-in-law constantly bullied her, while her husband Zenbei led a dissolute life that almost led to her death when his lover Okano, the family maid, tried to poison her. In 1828 yet another tragedy occurred when a neighbor's child she was caring for became ill with smallpox. Miki vowed to the gods that she would sacrifice her own life as well as her children's to save him. Indeed, two of her own children died after the neighbor's child miraculously recovered.
Miki's turning point occurred on October 23, 1838, when she was forty years old. Life was uncertain after one of the worst famines to affect Japan in the nineteenth century, followed by an unsuccessful political revolt by the samurai Ōshio Heihachirō. Miki, who was physically and emotionally drained after the birth of her last child, Kokan, faced further misery when her eldest son Shūji (1821–1881) was afflicted with unbearable pain in his left leg. His condition gradually worsened in spite of consultations with physicians. As a last resort, a mountain ascetic (yamabushi) was called to perform an exorcism (yosekaji) on Shūji. The normal procedure for an exorcism required the ascetic to recite incantations that forced the evil spirit to enter a female medium. There it would announce its identity and its reasons for afflicting the child. In Shūji's case, however, something extraordinary happened. Because the ascetic's normal medium was not available, he asked Miki to serve in her stead. When Miki went into a trance, however, instead of an evil spirit, an august voice spoke through her, saying, "I am the general of heaven. I am the true and original God.… I have descended from heaven to save all human beings, and I want Miki to be the shrine of God." Despite initial opposition, Miki's family acceded to the god's demand, and Miki embarked on her career as a living kami (ikigami), or deity. In 1841 her god, whom she addressed as Tenri-Ô-no-Mikoto, commanded her to live a life of poverty as the first stage of her mission to relieve human suffering. She gave the family treasures to those in need, even going so far as to tear down the Nakayama mansion. After Zenbei died in 1853, she began to proclaim her new faith by reciting the simple prayer Namu Tenri-Ō-no-Mikoto ("Honor to the Lord of Divine Wisdom") on the street corners of Osaka. She also began to attract many converts because of her miraculous healing powers, especially her ability to grant a painless passage through childbirth (obiya yurushi). In 1863 she met Izō Iburi, a master carpenter who became her most devoted disciple and built the first worship hall on the Nakayama estate. Following the roof raising, however, an incident at a local shrine led to Miki's disciples being arrested for disturbing the peace. This episode began a long period of persecution by the Shintō priests, Buddhist authorities, and local police who feared the new religion.
From 1866 to 1882, Miki wrote down the two major scriptures of Tenrikyō containing the revelations of God, the Ofudesaki (The tip of the divine writing brush), and the Mikagura Uta (The songs of the Tsutome service), followed by a third scripture known as Osashizu (Divine instructions). Osashizu was written down by Izō as Miki's spiritual intermediary after her death. Miki also taught a ritual dance called Teodori, which is still performed as a regular part of Tenrikyō services.
Miki's revelations and her sacred dance were intended to convey the central doctrines of Tenrikyō. Miki believed that voluntary poverty is necessary to achieve salvation, and that true happiness is found only through consecrated labor when a devotee acts with no thought of reward. Unhappiness is caused by dust settling on the heart from past evil karma. A joyful life (yōki gurashi) can be attained by having true faith in God the parent (oyagami), who has the power to sweep away the evil dust. The laughter, songs, and Teodori dance are concrete realizations of this joy in ritual form. Miki ardently believed that the entire world could be renewed (yo naoshi) by following her method of salvation. Although her son Shūji won official recognition from the Shintō authorities in 1867, government persecution of Tenrikyō continued throughout the Meiji period (1868–1912). The Meiji authorities tried to stamp out "evil religions" in order to promote "enlightenment and progress" (bunmei kaika ) through modern rational principles. They also saw Tenrikyō, which was popular among the peasantry, as a direct threat to Shintō and its nationalistic faith in the emperor. Miki was arrested over eighteen times for her heretical beliefs until her death in 1887 at the age of eighty-nine.
Miki's biography is significant to contemporary students of religion for three reasons. First, it shows the typical features associated with the rise of Japanese new religions. Tenrikyō arose outside the priestly establishment in a time of social unrest. It is also a syncretic mix of Shintō, Buddhist and folk religious elements that reflects the religious dynamism of Japanese religions. Moreover, Miki's belief system is typical in its claim to reveal a previously hidden truth from a hitherto unknown god for the spiritual benefit of humankind and the renewal of the world (yo naoshi).
Second, Tenrikyō, like many other new religions, was founded by a charismatic woman who fit the ancient Japanese pattern of the female shamanic medium (miko ). Shimazono Susumu has noted, however, that Nakayama Miki and other charismatic founders like her displayed a new trait. Rather than simply filling the traditional role of a spirit medium as an assistant to a Buddhist ascetic, Miki acted on her own behalf throughout her life. After her death, she still continued to serve as a mouthpiece for God through her male assistant Izō. Moreover, the kami who possessed Miki was not an ordinary malevolent fox or snake spirit but an all-powerful and benevolent parent god. Tenri-Ō-no-Mikoto not only created the world and humanity but was also a caring deity promising universal salvation. Miki also differed from the traditional spirit medium in another respect, according to Shimazono. As a "shrine of God," Miki was a vehicle for the divine in every aspect of her life, not only when she was in a trance state. She thus became a model of human fellowship with the divine for the faithful to emulate. Founders who were living kami like Miki played an important role in emerging nineteenth-century Japanese religious movements.
Third, several scholars have called attention to Miki's special role as a savior of poor and oppressed women. Traditional Buddhist teachings denigrated women as polluted and spiritually inferior beings. Tenri-Ō-no-Mikoto, however, taught that men and women are spiritual equals. Indeed, the god's other names, "parent god" (oyagami) and Sun-Moon (tsuki-hi), convey Miki's revelation that the sacred is both male and female. Miki also taught women that childbirth is not polluting, but rather a joyful experience protected by God's power—a controversial teaching given the old restrictive Japanese customs surrounding childbirth.
Ellwood, Robert S. Tenrikyo: A Pilgrimage Faith: The Structure and Meanings of a Modern Japanese Religion. Nara, Japan, 1982.
Gössmann, Elizabeth. Frauen und Neue Religionen: Die Religionsgründerinnen Nakayama Miki und Deguchi Nao. Vienna, 1989.
Kasahara Kazuo, ed. A History of Japanese Religion. Tokyo, 2001.
Morishita, Saburo Shawn. Teodori: Cosmological Building and Social Consolidation in a Ritual Dance. Rome, 2001.
Nakayama Miki. Ofudesaki: The Tip of the Writing Brush. 6th ed. Tenri, Japan, 1993.
Nakayama Yoshikazu. My Oyasama. 2 vols. Nara, Japan, 1984–1986.
Reader, Ian. Religion in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu, 1991.
Shimazono Susumu. "The Living Kami Idea in the New Religions of Japan." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 6 (1979): 389–409.
Shimazono Susumu. "Charisma and the Evolution of Religious Consciousness: The Rise of the Early New Religions of Japan." Annual Review of the Social Sciences of Religions 6 (1982): 153–176.
Van Straelen, Henry. The Religion of Divine Wisdom: Japan's Most Powerful Religious Movement. Tokyo, 1954.
Yamashita Akiko. "Tenrin-Ō and Henjō-nansi: Two Women Founders of New Religions." Japanese Religions 16 (1990): 1–23.
Mark W. MacWilliams (2005)