Shinichiro Imaoka

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Shinichiro Imaoka

Shinichiro Imaoka (1881-1988) was a living legend in Japan who influenced the development of progressive and liberal religion.

Shinichiro Imaoka lived so long and was involved in so many different phases of Japan's emergence in modern life that it was difficult to comprehend his contributions and impossible to compare him with others. At well over 100 years of age he was still healthy, vigorous, and actively influencing educators, progressive religionists, and the general public.

His parents were farmers and Shin Buddhists of Matsue. Born on September 16, 1881, he was named Nobuichiro Imaoka (an unusual rendering of the characters of his name). His signature as the last secretary for the Japan Unitarian Mission was "N. Imaoka." The pronunciation of his personal name was changed to Shinichiro (a more usual rendering) for the convenience of others.

Studying under the famous Professor Aneskai in the department of religious studies at Tokyo Imperial University, he was influenced by the ethics of the New Testament, Quaker mysticism, and the writings of Dean William Inge. He was a member of the second graduating class of Todai in 1906. He then went to Kobe in 1906 as pastor of a Congregational church. A spiritual crisis occurred; he could not convert others from their faith to Christianity. His own theology was found heterodox by an ordination committee, and he resigned and went back to Tokyo. As a part of the youth group of Reverend Danjo Ebina, he met and married Utayo Fukuda in 1907. Her life was not less remarkable than her husband's. She was to walk a path of independence in business and science unique for her times. She received two imperial awards for accomplishments in the telecommunications industry. She died in 1978.

In 1910 Imaoka-sensei met Torajiro Okada, a seiza (a form of Zen sitting) master, and began a lifelong practice. Every day Imaoka sat for at least 15 minutes (Buddhists sitting with him often found him a living Buddha, Shintoists a kami).

Imaoka pursued further theological studies, attending Harvard University in the United States for four years. After returning to Japan, Imaoka lectured from 1919 to 1936 at Nihon University on the history of religions and the outline of Christianity. In 1925 when he accepted the principalship of Seisoku High School, Seisoku already had a distinguished past. But within 15 years Imaoka had helped turn it into a symbol of academic excellence in private education for all of Japan. In 1940 his school and the academic community honored him for his contribution to education. In 1949 Seisoku followed his leadership and decided to base all the school's activities on the principles of free religion. On the 25th anniversary of his principalship in 1950 the emperor honored him with a blue ribbon award for his service to education, and in 1965 he received the fourth order of merit with the sacred treasure. If any knew beyond his own family, none of his congregation knew in 1980, nor even the scholarly community. Only when his son, daughter, and daughter-in-law begged their father that his life story be shared did these details begin to come out. Imaoka remained at Seisoku High School until 1973.

For 60 years Imaoka worked behind the scenes as an organizer of conferences for religious dialogue, understanding, and mutual cooperation including in 1928 the Great Conference of Japanese Religion, in 1931 the Japan Religious Peace Conference, and in 1963 the Parliament of Religions in Tokyo at the centenary of the birth of Vivekananda. He was one of the founders of the Japan Free Religious Association in 1948 along with Kishimoto and Reverend Akashi Sr., a Japanese Universalist.

For over 70 years Imaoka was a minister. After the dispersal of Japanese Unitarianism into society around 1923 the gathering for spiritual practice or study on Sundays had to be begun again in 1948. Kiitsu Kyokai, the Tokyo Unitarian Church, or more properly the Unity Church, was something new; it was a fellowship for the practice and study of free religion. Its organization made it impossible for it to be anything more than a small gathering.

Imaoka came to teach that free religion was something more than any particular religion. Free religion was not limited to organized religion and has drawn Japanese who were members of the Japanese Unitarian Association to go beyond Unitarianism. Religion was in all of life, including culture, economics, politics, and art. Yet, free religion has its expression in the connectedness of church as community. As Emerson said, there was no fundamental distinction between church and world. All of life was interdependent.

This quiet work was recognized in several ways. In 1972 Meadville Theological Seminary granted him a Doctor of Divinity degree. In 1979 the World Conference on Religion and Peace recognized his leadership with a distinguished founders award, and in 1981 the International Association for Religious Freedom at its congress in Holland presented to his son and daughter-in-law an award for his outstanding contribution to interfaith understanding and cooperation.

In 1985 the Japanese nation was hearing his talks on radio and television. The Japan Free Religious Association published 109 of more than 150 surviving essays. A paperback version emphasizing free religion contained 37 essays. Several Japanese professors began interviewing Imaoka on a continuing basis. Thus, this apostle for free religion will not be forgotten. Imaoka died of pneumonia on April 11, 1988, at the age of 106 years.

Further Reading

There is only one book in English on the life and teachings of Shinichiro Imaoka, George M. Williams, Liberal Religious Reformation in Japan (1984). A book of Imaoka's own writings Jinsel Hyakunen (Tokyo, 1981) includes four essays in English. The title translates to Writings for 100 Years.