Japan as a land of many religions

Deguchi Onisaburo: a media savvy evangelist in the market of religious ideas


PROPHET MOTIVE: Deguchi Onisaburo, Oomoto, and the Rise of New Religions in Imperial Japan, by Nancy K. Stalker. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007, 265 pp., $49 (cloth)

Reviewed by Florian Coulmas Japan has sometimes been called an irreligious country, but students of religion know that this is only because Western notions of religiosity do not necessarily apply to Japan, and because the Christian mission has been remarkably unsuccessful in this country. How important a role religion plays in Japanese life is perhaps best attested by the many religious movements that came into being in addition to Buddhism, Shintoism and Christianity, the three creeds officially recognized by the Meiji government in the late 19th century as part of its modernization efforts. They are collectively known as “new religions” and have at times attracted a numerous following, especially during hard times.

Many of these religious movements were founded by charismatic leaders who appealed to people suffering from economic hardship and the uneasiness brought about by rapid social change in the wake of modernization and Westernization. One of them was Deguchi Onisaburo (1871-1948).

In the book under review, Nancy K. Stalker describes Onisaburo’s rise from peasant boy to founder of a highly successful syncretistic sect that came to be known as Oomoto. What she tells is the remarkable story of an energetic individual whose manifold talents allowed the religious movement he cofounded to flourish and develop into a force of national import.

Trained as a Shinto priest, Onisaburo infused Oomoto’s belief system with popular religious elements and political ideals, often transgressing the delicate line the government had drawn between State Shinto, not designated as a religion to accommodate Western demands for the separation of church and state, on one hand, and cult, on the other.

While Onisaburo’s idea of Oomoto as a religion-national community had tremendous popular appeal, it frequently brought him into conflict with the government, which in 1921 decided to suppress the movement for fear of losing control over the popular mind. This could not quell the further expansion of the sect, which because of its opposition to State Shinto and the propagation of “traditional” Japanese values as the proper base for the Japanese nation in the modern world, continued to be regarded with suspicion by the government.

In 1935, the police destroyed Oomoto’s headquarters in Kameoka and arrested Onisaburo and other members of the sect. Onisaburo survived his imprisonment and, after World War II, restored the Oomoto organization. It is still a thriving religious movement today.

Stalker’s analysis of Oomoto’s success is original and makes for good reading. Using concepts developed by economist Joseph Schumpeter, she describes Onisaburo as a “religious entrepreneur,” convincingly challenging the notion that charisma and commerce are incompatible.

Onisaburo, as she portrays him, was a complex and intriguing personality who was keenly aware of social developments around him and concerned about Japan’s place in an uncertain world. In spite of the importance he attached to Japanese traditional values, his designs were not parochial, but had an international dimension. He promoted international ecumenical interaction, traveling to China and Mongolia, and was an early supporter of the Esperanto movement. As elsewhere, the artificially constructed language that would facilitate international communication was met with suspicion on the part of the government and with the scorn of nationalists. Yet, it proved to be very popular in Japan. In 1926, Oomoto began to publish a journal in Esperanto to target an international audience.

With the suppression of the sect in 1935, all Esperanto activity was halted, but it was resumed after the war. To this day, Oomoto’s home page includes a version in Esperanto ( www.oomoto.or.jp/Esperanto/index-es.html ) and the sect is a load-bearing pillar of the artificial language movement.

The story of Oomoto and its most important spiritual leader as told in this book sheds much light on the problematic relationship between the Japanese state and religion during the first half of the 20th century and draws a fascinating picture of a media-savvy evangelist who entered the market of religious ideas with considerable success. Repeatedly coming into conflict with the government, Onisaburo embodied an important aspect of modern Japan’s uneasy course from state control to freedom in religious affairs.

To date, there are not many monograph-length accounts of Deguchi Onisaburo in the English language. Stalker’s book closes this gap.

Florian Coulmas is director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo and author of “Population Decline and Aging in Japan.”