To celebrate the August 15 birthday of Reiki healing founder Mikao Usui, I asked U.K. Reiki master Colin Powell to share his research into the details of Usui sensei’s life.
by Colin Powell
Although Mikao Usui, the founder of Usui Reiki Ryoho, died less than 100 years ago in 1926, there are surprisingly few documented facts about him as a person.
This may be due in part to the many records that were lost during World War II, together with the fact that most of the people who knew him or were taught by him are either unknown or are no longer alive.
Some of Usui’s descendants who have been tracked down in Japan are either unwilling to speak about him or admit to knowing virtually nothing about him!
Unfortunately, many myths and speculations have grown up around his life to fill this void. Some of these unsubstantiated stories are passed on as fact. In this article, I attempt to present credible information, using contemporary or near-contemporary documentary evidence and sources within Japan, supported by more than one source whenever possible.
Separating Reiki history from Reiki fiction
The main source of information about Mikao Usui is a huge memorial stone erected by some of his students on the family grave plot in February 1927. However, even the information obtained from this monument is subject to interpretation. The stone is inscribed in Old Japanese, which has to be translated into Modern Japanese before being translated into other languages.
Mikao Usui was born in Taniai village (now part of Miyama village) in Yamagata county, Gifu Prefecture, on 15th August 1865, into a family whose ancestors were Samurai, of the Chiba clan. Usui’s father was called Taneuji, and was also known as Uzaemon. His mother was from the Kawai family.1
Japanese Reiki master Hiroshi Doi visited the village with a group of Reiki practitioners in 2000 and spoke to an elderly villager.2 According to this woman, Mikao, who was also sometimes known as Gyohan (possibly his Buddhist name), had two younger brothers, Sanya and Kunji. Sanya became a doctor in Tokyo and Kunji became a policeman in Gifu Prefecture.
Mikao also had an older sister, Tsuru. In 1923, the four siblings donated a Torii Gateway to the Amataka Shrine in the village. The woman mentioned that Mikao left the village at an early age and did not return very often.2
The memorial stone and various grave markers on the Usui Family plot indicate that Mikao Usui was married to Sadako, from the Suzuki family, and that the couple had two children. According to the old villager, their son Fuji became a teacher at Tokyo University and died on July 10th 1946, at age 39. Their daughter Toshiko died at 21 on September 23rd 1935.3
Mikao Usui, the student
As a child, Mikao Usui showed a great aptitude for hard work and study. According to the memorial, his abilities were far superior to those of his friends. He loved to read as a child, and continued to study on his own even as a grown man.
Usui’s interests ranged from biographies, history, medicine, psychology and theology (including Buddhist and Christian) to astrology, incantations (such as for removing sickness), physiognomy (face reading), shinsen no jitsu* (God Hermit Technique) and divination. His studies also took him abroad to Europe, America and China.4
The memorial describes Usui’s nature as gentle, humble and prudent and says he tended to show his true feelings. He was quite a large man who always had a smile on his face1 (except when having his photograph taken, it seems!)
As an adult, Usui had a variety of occupations, including public servant, office worker, industrialist, reporter, missionary, supervisor of convicts, and politician’s secretary.5,6,7 (Usui was secretary to Shinpei Goto, a railroad director who later became mayor of Tokyo and who was responsible for the Shokosha Watch company being renamed “Citizen,” in the hope that one day all citizens would be able to afford a watch.8)
Despite Usui’s knowledge and ability, the unusually large variety of jobs he held suggests a restlessness in his nature. Although he was not always successful in life and was often quite poor, Usui was determined not to let these setbacks worry him, and he threw himself more deeply into his studies.1,7
Given the extent of his studies, Mikao Usui may well have formed his own perspective on deep philosophical questions such as Why are we here? and What is the purpose of Life?, but if he did, there is very little documentation that he taught his theories or ideas until very late in life.
There are stories purportedly from people who knew and studied with Mikao Usui from around 1915, including a group of Buddhist nuns, which indicate he originally taught a spiritual system to help students reach enlightenment. Supposedly this system included some healing practices.
However, some of those sources are contradictory and there is at this time no hard evidence to back up those claims.9 For example, the existence of the nuns was never corroborated by a third party. However, an article written in 1928 by Shou Matsui, a student of Chujiro Hayashi, says, “It has been more than 10 years since Reiki Ryoho was founded.”10 That statement suggests Usui might have started teaching earlier than the commonly accepted 1922.
Mikao Usui, the teacher
The first documented evidence of Usui’s teachings comes from the memorial stone, which describes his period of fasting on Mount Kurama, near Kyoto (photo at right), during which he experienced a “great Reiki” around his head,1,4,11 or a shock in the centre of his head5,7 (depending on the translation accessed), an effect of which was that he obtained a Reiki Ryoho (Reiki healing method).
After practicing the method on himself and his family with much success, Usui opened a dojo (training hall) in Aoyama, Harajuku, Tokyo in April 1922, and began teaching people and offering healing sessions. Usui was so popular that people traveled great distances to receive his guidance and healing. The memorial states that there was often a long line of shoes outside (people took off their shoes before entering).1,4,11
Usui was a progressive thinker in a very traditional society. He made a bold decision to teach his practice to the public, rather than keeping it as a family secret or just for a close-knit group of people as was traditional in healing systems and martial arts.
In Usui’s Kokai Denju (thoughts on the teachings), which appears in a handbook of the Usui Reiki Ryoho, he says:
In times like these, the happiness of humanity is based on working together and the desire for social progress. This is why I would never allow anyone to possess it [Reiki Ryoho] just for himself!
Our Reiki Ryoho is something absolutely original and cannot be compared with any other [spiritual] path in the world.
This is why I would like to make this method [freely] available to the public for the well-being of humanity. Each of us has the potential of being given a gift by the divine [Reiju can be translated as Divine Gift], which results in body and soul becoming unified. In this way [through Reiki practice] a great many people will experience the blessing of the divine.12
Usui’s fame spreads
A devastating earthquake hit the Kanto district In September 1923. The crisis was worsened by large fires which started from the wood-burning hibachi stoves that were destroyed in the quake. There were many injured and homeless people, and Mikao Usui took some of his students to “reach out their hands of love to suffering people.”1,3
Usui became even more popular after this charitable effort, and moved to a larger building in Nakano, just outside Tokyo.1,4,11 Around 1925, he was visited by a group of naval officers.13 Among the officers was Chujiro Hayashi, who became a master student of Usui and the teacher of Hawayo Takata, Chiyoko Yamaguchi, and many others.
Usui’s system became very popular with the armed forces, and particularly the Imperial Navy, because they were looking for traditional ways of healing that did not require large stocks of equipment and drugs to be taken on board ship, where space was at a premium.7 Later that year several more naval officers arrived, including Rear Admirals Jusaburo Ushida and Kanichi Taketomi.13 Taketomi took over the running of the dojo, which eventually became the headquarters of the Usui Reiki Ryoho Gakkai.
Usui sensei began to receive requests from all over Japan to teach his Reiki Ryoho. In response, he traveled to Kure and Hiroshima, then Saga and Fukuyama, where at the age of 60, he died of a stroke on March 9, 1926.1,4,11 According to his memorial, Usui taught over 2000 people to practice his Reiki Ryoho, and trained 20 teachers.
In spite of the popularity of Mikao Usui and his Reiki Ryoho in the 1920s, both he and his method were virtually unknown in Japan after World War II. Those who practised Usui Reiki Ryoho after World War II either did so in secret, as the Gakkai practised, because of their military connections,** or in secluded villages, as Chiyoko Yamaguchi practised. Due to this isolation, Usui’s students had no knowledge that Hawayo Takata’s teaching in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean had led to Reiki being practiced worldwide.
Usui and Christianity
In the years after Hawayo Takata and her Reiki master Chujiro Hayashi brought Reiki practice to Hawaii, Mrs. Takata described Mikao Usui as a “full-fledged [sic] Christian minister” and also “Principal of the Doshisha Universtity in Kyoto,”14 a Christian institution.
Usui’s Christianity was accepted without question for more than half a century. However, as Western Reiki practitioners began connecting with Japanese practitioners of the Usui and Usui/Hayashi lineages in the 1990s, many Western Reiki teachers rejected out-of-hand the possibility that Mikao Usui might have been a Christian or even influenced by Christian teachings.
As noted above, Usui’s memorial stone states that Usui studied the theology of many religions. Although Christianity was repressed for many years in Japan, during the period when Japan was shut off from most of the world, Christianity continued to be practised by Secret Christians (Kakure Kirishitan).
By the time Usui was born, Japan had been opened up again and Christianity was flourishing once more, with many Japanese interested to learn about this once forbidden religion.15 The Japanese are known for their liberal attitude toward religious beliefs and practices, to the extent that the total number of people practicing various religions in Japan is greater than the total Japanese population.16 As one source states:
“…it is common in Japan for a person to have Shinto ceremonies shortly after they are born and at certain ages (3, 5 and 7 years old) throughout their childhood, have a Christian wedding when they get married and have a Buddhist funeral after they die. It is also relatively common for individuals to be unaware of what Buddhist sect they and their family belong to until after a close relative dies and they need to contact a temple to summon the priests.”16
All of the above cautions against assuming Usui was exclusively Buddhist on the basis that his grave marker and memorial are in a Buddhist Pure Land cemetery. There may be an element of truth in what Mrs. Takata taught about Usui. There are so many details of Mikao Usui’s life and practice on which we do not have certainty, and perhaps never will.
All Reiki practitioners owe a debt of gratitude to Hawayo Takata for keeping Reiki practice alive, to Chujiro Hayashi for agreeing to teach Mrs. Takata and for supporting her in bringing the practice to the world outside Japan, and of course to Mikao Usui, without whom there simply would be no Usui Reiki Ryoho.
Addendum from Colin Powell:
Following the publication of my article, I decided to do a little more research of my own, concerning the statement by Hawayo Takata that Mikao Usui was a Principal of Doshisha University (a Christian Institution). After looking through a list of all the past-Presidents (President rather than Principal appears to be the title used by the University) of Doshisha University, which is available on line, and not seeing Mikao Usui mentioned, I emailed the office of the University and asked them whether they had any record of Mikao Usui as a member of staff (Principal or teacher) at Doshisha University. Here is their reply:
Dear Mr. Colin Powell,
Thank you for your e-mail.
In response to your question of Mikao Usui, we have contacted several sections in charge of these matters at our university. According to them, they have been receiving e-mails regarding Mikao Usui once every couple of years, but unfortunately, he has never belonged to Doshisha University in the past.
Thank you for your kind understanding, and we wish you the best of luck on your research.
Office of International Affairs
*God Hermit Technique appears to be an attempt at a literal translation, but shinsen no jitsu has links with a traditional form of Anma (a precursor of Shiatsu) called Anmajutsu where shinsen (an alternative romaji spelling to jinsen) is described as one of several techniques used, involving vibration both with and without actual movement.17 It is also described in a book called Sei-Ki: Life in Resonance, The Secret Art of Shiatsu, by Akinobu Kishi and Alice Whieldon as a “Self-healing art of Eastern philosophy.” The latter seems to be more meaningful and in-keeping with Usui’s interests.
** When the Americans occupied Japan after World War II, they suppressed traditional Japanese Healing Arts and any societies that were military or nationalistic in nature. The Gakkai were teaching a healing art based on traditional Japanese Hand Healing, teate, and it had been organised mainly by military officers who were quite nationalistic (perhaps one of the reasons Chujiro Hayashi left18). Therefore if they wanted to continue practising and teaching, it was prudent to do so in secret so as not to fall foul of the American authorities. Some traditional healing methods did get re-instated after a while, but Reiki did not, at least not whilst the Americans remained in Japan.
1. Hiroshi Doi – Memorial Stone translation, Iyashino Gendai Reiki-ho (Modern Reiki Method for Healing), Fraser Journal Publishing, 2000
2. Rick Rivard, Tom Rigler and others visited Taniai village, with Hiroshi Doi, as part of the Usui Reiki Ryoho International conference in 2000, https://www.threshold.ca/reiki/TaniaiVillage.html (accessed August 9, 2012)
3. Rick Rivard, Threshold Reiki website, photos and inscription translations of the Usui family grave markers. https://www.threshold.ca/reiki/usui_marker.html (accessed August 9, 2012)
4. Rick Rivard, Threshold Reiki website, Memorial Stone translation. https://www.threshold.ca/reiki/usui_memorial_translation.html (accessed August 12, 2015)
5. Hiroshi Doi, Iyashino Gendai Reiki-ho (Modern Reiki Method for Healing), Fraser Journal Publishing, 2000
6. Toshitaka Mochizuki, Le Reiki japonais, Ed. Niando, 2009 (a French translation of his Japanese book, Iyashino Te – Cho Kanton)
7. Tadao Yamaguchi, Light on the Origins of Reiki, Lotus Press, 2007
8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Got%C5%8D_Shinpei (Accessed August 10, 2012)
9. Dave King, referenced on https://www.aetw.org/reiki_usui_do.htm
(accessed August 9, 2012) and Chris Marsh, referenced on https://www.aetw.org/reiki_usui_teate.htm (accessed August 9, 2012)
10. Translation of March 4, 1928 Sunday Mainichi article, in Frank Petter and Tadao Yamaguchi’s The Hayashi Reiki Manual, Lotus Press, 2003
11. Hyakuten Inamoto, Memorial Stone Translation. https://reiki.whatitallbelike.com/?page_id=83 (accessed August 10, 2012)
12. “Why I teach this method publicly: explanation by the founder Usui Mikao” quoted from the Usui Reiki Ryoho Hikkei (Usui Reiki Healing Society Handbook), in Reiki- the Legacy of Dr. Usui by Frank Arjava Petter, Shangri-La, 1998.
13. https://threshold.ca/reiki/Usui-Do.html (accessed August 9, 2012)
14. From a transcript of the tape ‘Hawayo Takata Speaks Volume 1,” published by John Harvey Gray.
15. Usui in Context: Christianity in mid-19th Century Japan: https://reikidigest.blogspot.co.uk/2009/09/usui-in-context-christianity-in-mid.html (accessed August 10, 2012)
16. https://godknowswhat.wordpress.com/2009/09/09/japans-pick-and-mix-religions/ (accessed August 10, 2012)
17. https://www.amatsu-ireland.com/publications/SEITEI/Seitai%20Module%200-2007-Pre%20Mod%201.pdf (accessed August 10, 2012)
18. https://www.aetw.org/reiki_history_tl.html (accessed August 10, 2012)
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