In 1865, on August 15, Mikao Usui came onto our world in the Japanese village of Yago in the Gifu prefecture. His ancestors had been living in that region for 11 generations and his family was belonging to the Tendai sect that lived according to Esoteric Buddhism. At the age of four, Mikao Usui was sent to one of the Tendai monasteries where he received his primary education where he appeared to be a highly gifted and bright student.
He was growing up at a time that Japanese society experienced dramatic changes. From 1641 onward, so far before Usui was born, all Europeans and other foreigners, with the exception of the Dutch, were expelled from the country and those who had permits to stay, could only do so in special trading centers around Nagasaki. The Christian faith was banned in Japan and the Japanese people needed to at Shinto temples. Japan remained isolated from the west until the 1850s and it wasn’t until 1873 that the country lifted the ban on Christianity.
During the period 1860s – 1890s, Japan transformed from a feudal society system to an industrialized country. Japan, as always, was looking for a good spiritual direction for the nation’s people as well. The Meiji Emperor regime started to overthrow the Shoguns and all Japans feudal states were placed under the direct control of Japan’s central government that was relocated to Tokyo.
Under the new Meiji Emperor regime, many of the “old feudal ideas” were discarded to be replaced by “modern” ideas.” However, when it concerned the spiritual underpinnings of the Japanese people, they were encouraged to cherish and reinvigorate the traditional paths of Buddhism and Shinto and to embrace new ideas and philosophies that could be incorporated into these traditional paths easily while simultaneously holding firm and to and cherishing the core of the old traditions.
Mikao Usui was a good student who eventually earned a doctorate degree in literature. He was speaking several languages in a fluent way and was well-versed in western philosophy, medicine, and theology. Like so many of his intellectual peers of that time, he became highly fascinated with “new science” that came from western societies. In those days, we saw a frenzy for the transformation of daily occidental life into a more westernized civilization. In practically all sectors of political and social life, men who had knowledge of modern western science received promotions to esteemed and high positions.
The father of Usui, Uzaemon, admired the new regime and became an avid follower as he adopted these progressive political opinions and views. Usui was respecting his father greatly and he became influenced by his father’s excitement about these “western ways.” Usui did some traveling and is believed to have studied western science and medicine. Additionally, he became friends with some Christian missionaries that had studied medicine at Yale and Harvard.
When Japan opened its doors again to the western world, the first to arrive were the Catholic and Protestant missionaries. There were three main districts where they established their practices. One of these districts was Yokohama where operations were directed by Rev. John Ballagh. From this post, they began their important medical work influenced by their knowledge of what Western medical science was all about. These frontrunner missionaries turned into influential leaders and in 1873, they founded the first Christian church in Japan.
Simultaneously, a Japanese by the name of Neesima returned from overseas travel in America where he had become a Christian. In the year 1876, Neesima established the Christian Doshi-sha school right in the heart of the center of Japan’s Buddhism for centuries, the city of Kyoto. The Doshi-sha school soon was to become a theological seminary which used “United in Ideal” as their slogan. During the second half of the 1880s, the seminary introduced the concept of “liberal theology” in Japan and was inviting American Unitarian Missions to teach at the school. The school then became an important focal point for Christian missionaries as the taught classes about liberal Christian ideas and philosophies.
They stood open to the ideas and philosophy of Darwinism and his scientific views and ideas about life. Because Usui had enjoyed extensive education in science and theology, it is highly likely that he attended these seminars or he might even have been invited to speak, particularly seen in the light that he was befriended with some of these missionaries. It is clear from Usui’s personal notes, however, that he wasn’t an admirer of Christianity and that he was skeptical of the Christian doctrine.
Throughout his early adulthood, Usui was living in Kyoto together with his great wife Sadako Suzuki as well as their two children, son Fuji and a daughter of who the name is unknown. Usui was also a businessman who had some degree of success. Like all businessmen, he went through some time of difficulty, but his positive outlook and his strong determination made him overcome the difficulties. Usui continued to study and later got involved in an important spiritual group by the name of “Rei Jyutsu Kai.” The spiritual group was headquartered in the foothills of one of Japan’s holy mountain, Kurama-yama, located just north of the city of Kyoto. On that holy mountain, we can find the famous Buddhist temple, Kurama-dera, that features a great statue of Amida Buddha.
In those days, the temple that was built in 770 AD, was belonging to the Tendai sect. The temple had long been recognized as an important site that’s honored in several famous Japanese sages and many Emperors visited the temple to pray. The Kurama Temple, as well as the surrounding area, are protected and kept in their original natural state and the mountain itself functions as the spiritual symbol of the temple.