Typing “Onisaburo Deguchi” on an online search engine tells us that he was a spiritual leader of the Oomoto – a religious movement in Japan that garnered a massive following during the period between WW1 and WW2 and became a model for several other religions in the country. But who really was Onisaburo Deguchi, and how did he become one of the most followed spiritual leaders in the 20th century? Let’s find out!
Onisaburo Deguchi opened his eyes to the world on 21 August 1871, in Kyoto Prefecture’s Kameoka City. His parents named him Kisaburo Ueda. Born into a family of farmers, Deguchi had to drop out of elementary school to give his parents a hand at the farm. However, he had a passion for learning and did not let his circumstances waver his determination. So, despite dropping out, he continued studying at home while he farmed and raised cattle.
Spiritual Training on Mount Takakuma
Even when he was young, Deguchi displayed exceptional physical abilities, and so, he was recognized as a prodigy from early on. He had already studied Honda Chikaatsu’s “Spirit Studies” when he met Honda’s disciple Nagasawa Katsutate in Shizuoka. In the second lunar month of 1989, Deguchi underwent a week of spiritual training under Nagawasa Katsutate on the sacred Takakuma Mountain to learn to mediate spirit possession. During that one week, he meticulously dived into and studied various branches of the spiritual world, acquiring an in-depth knowledge of clairvoyance, telepathy, mind-reading, and clairaudience. It was during the same period that he realized his great mission of bringing salvation to the world.
Encounter with Nao Deguchi
After receiving divine order to “Travel towards the northwest”, Onisaburo set out for Ayabe City in 1898, where he met Nao Deguchi, the foundress of the Japanese religion Oomoto. Nao claimed to be an oracle of God who received divine instructions. She foretold the destruction of the world and the arrival of a messiah following her first divine revelation in 1892. Despite being a peasant woman, she attracted an early following due to her mysterious healing powers.
Before long, Onisaburo joined forces with the foundress to preach Oomoto’s diving teachings to people. In 1900, he tied the knot with Nao’s fifth and youngest daughter Sumiko, who would later become the second spiritual leader of Oomoto. After his marriage, he adopted the name Deguchi Onisaburō and began promoting the work of Oomoto along with Nao as the co-founder of the syncretic faith.
Writing the Famous Tales of the Spirit World
In 1908, together with Nao, he founded the Dai Nihon Shūseikai, which became the Taihonkyō in 1913 and the Kodo Omoto in 1916. To help humans use religion and science properly to reconstruct their souls and bring about humanity’s salvation, Onisaburo wrote the Reikai Monogatari (Tales of the Spirit World) in 1921. The 81-volume set expounds on numerous Oomoto principles, established from the Foundress’ written oracles, through several theologically permeated stories. It also covers Onisaburo’s alleged travels into the spiritual planes of existence and relates the history of the spiritual world. According to Onisaburo, Reikai Monogatari was a guide for humanity to pass into eternity as it presented a design for humans to construct paradise on Earth.
Integrating Esperanto into the Oomoto
Onisaburo went to great lengths to make the religion preached by Nao welcoming to the masses. In one such attempt, he learned the international language Esperanto in 1923 and adopted it into the Oomoto. In 1924, he was invited by retired naval captain Yutaro Yano and his associates within the Black Dragon Society on a trip to Mongolia. Onisaburo agreed and set out to Mongolia, leading a group of Oomoto disciples, including the future Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba.
In 1925, Oomoto began to lead the way for the union of humanity as Onisaburo took the initiative and inaugurated the World Religious Federation. He also established the Universal Love and Brotherhood Association (ULBA) which helped unite humanity beyond the barriers of race, religion, and ethnic groups. Under Onisaburo’s leadership, Oomoto joined forces with other spiritual movements around the globe, such as Weisse Fahne (White Flag) in Germany, Cao Dai in Vietnam, and the Universal White Brotherhood in Bulgaria. Onisaburo’s efforts laid the foundation for Oomot’s international interfaith activities that continue to this day.
Clashes with the Government
Onisaburo was the one who systematized the doctrine of Oomoto, and thus, the religion was an amalgam of Nao’s divine writings and Onisaburo’s spiritual techniques. He managed to attract more than two million followers in the 1930s, but as his popularity grew, so did the government’s hostility, which arrested him on two separate occasions, once in 1921 and again in 1935. Following his second arrest, he was detained for almost six and a half years. The government also destroyed several Oomoto temples and buildings in Ayabe, where the sect’s headquarters were located. After his release in 1942, he initiated the revival of the religious movement in 1946 under the name Aizen-en (Garden of Divine Love).
Despite being the spiritual leader of a religious movement, Onisaburo led quite an exuberant life. He was often seen clad in richly colored and textured costumes, which he had designed himself. He also took great delight in dressing up like a shaman or taking up appearances of female deities. He identified himself as the leader who would establish a new order in the world and even claimed to be an incarnation of Maitreya Buddha at varying points of his life. His eclectic lifestyle was considered outrageous by many of his peers.
Onisaburo put great emphasis on the maxim that art and religion are one and the same and believed that one must love nature for its intimate connection with art. Onisaburo’s legacy contains a wealthy body of artistic works in many disciplines, including calligraphy, poetry, and literature. He also dabbled in ceramic pottery, cinema, songwriting, and sculpting, leaving behind countless items, which are now treasured by art connoisseurs.
Among his works, the ones that stand out and garner the most attention are his 3000 glittering handmade tea bowls. Onisaburo poured all his energy in his later life into those tea bowls, glazing them with vivid colors reminiscent of the French impressionist paintings. In 1949, they were officially named the Scintillaing Bowls. Later, they became the central spectacle for an internationally acclaimed art exhibit entitled “The Art of Onisaburo Deguchi and His School”, which toured thirteen cities in North American and European countries.
Onisaburo Deguchi closed his eyes and crossed the great divide on 19 January 1948, at the age of seventy-eight.
Onisaburo Deguchi is remembered as a genial patriarch of a religious movement otherwise run by the women of the Deguchi family. The significance of his work is measured by the number of other religions of Japan that owe their ideological inspiration to Oomoto. Though he left the world almost a century ago, his legacy continues through his preachings and countless art pieces.