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  • Prophet Motive: Deguchi Onisaburō, Oomoto, and the Rise of New Religions in Imperial Japan
  • T. James Kodera (bio)
Prophet Motive: Deguchi Onisaburō, Oomoto, and the Rise of New Religions in Imperial Japan. By Nancy K. Stalker. University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2008. x, 265 pages. $49.00.

This large and dense study of Deguchi Onisaburō (1871–1948), in the context of the early years of modern Japan, stands prominently in the English-language scholarship on Japanese religions of the last three decades. In this [End Page 421] work, based on her Ph.D. dissertation in history at Stanford University, the author claims to have pursued a "historical, rather than religious, understanding" (p. 5) of the cofounder—with Nao, his mother-in-law—of the Ōmoto sect. Her qualifications are unnecessary, for an academic study of religion always involves serious historical inquiry, in addition to comparative, theological, sociological, and anthropological considerations, as does this study. Stalker's monograph adds to the already impressive list of publications on the "new religions" of Japan by the University of Hawai'i Press, including those by Shawn McHale, Mark Mullins, John Nelson, Ian Reader, Janine Anderson Sawada, and Karen Smyers.

"New religions" of Japan is, as Stalker correctly argues, a "chronological category" dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. While the movements are late, few arose without deference to earlier Japanese traditions. Many harken back to, indeed are based upon, Shintō and Nichiren Buddhism. They evolve out of charismatic individuals, often women of poor, rural, peasant backgrounds, succeeded and legitimized by men of uncommon political and entrepreneurial acumen. They espouse Japan's uniqueness as "divine" with a special mission not only for Japan but for the rest of the world, with Japan at the cosmic center, destined to fulfill its messianic role. These movements advance their creed, at once spiritual and political, with an unabashed critique of the status quo and of foreign intervention as inimical to Japan's best interest. They also characteristically promise immediate and earthly benefits as rewards for the adherents' ardent practice of their faith.

The origin and development of Ōmotokyō illustrate all these characteristics of Japan's "new religions." In 1892, at age 55, Nao Deguchi was possessed by Ushitora no Konjin, the "original and true" kami who had been silent for 3,000 years but who had now come back at last to reign over the whole world against the forces of beasts (p. 37). The once-feared kami was believed to reside in the northeastern parts (ushitora) of Japan. Ayabe, a small village in the Tanba region of Kyoto Prefecture where Nao had been born, certainly qualifies as the original abode of this Shintō deity, as she had claimed. Because of her ecstatic proselytizing, hardships (including imprisonment) fell upon Nao. Unperturbed, she continued her prophetic predictions, including a war against imperial China, all foretelling a radical cleansing and reordering (yonaoshi) of the world and forecasting a new millennium. Nao's ecstatic, charismatic experience was waiting for someone to give it shape and voice. The decisive catalyst was her encounter in 1898 with Ueda Kisaburō, who later became Deguchi Onisaburō upon marrying Nao's youngest daughter and heir, Sumiko, thus joining Deguchi Nao's family. Kisaburō, too, had a life-altering spiritual experience atop Mount Takakuma outside of Anao, another village in the Tanba region, and, following a grave illness which rendered him unable to speak, renounced all worldly [End Page 422] preoccupations to devote his life to the spirit world as a savior. A revelation directed Kisaburō to meet someone who was waiting for him. He set out on his journey, "dressed peculiarly in an old cape and haori jacket, carrying a basket and a child's parasol, with his teeth lacquered black in the manner of a married woman" (p. 35). Kisaburō's female dress suggests that, in many cultures but especially Japanese and Korean, spirit possession not only transcends gender distinctions but awakens the female nature. This is why an overwhelming majority of the founders of "new religions" are of the female gender. Men who joined the movements assumed female characteristics. It is important to note that the spirit that possesses women and...


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pp. 421-425
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