30 Nov

Today, I’m going to tell you about my visit to Oomoto’s Osaka branch to sit in on an Esperanto class. Okay, so that probably makes little to no sense to you readers, so give me a moment to explain:

Although I’ve already talked about Oomoto in this blog, here’s a quick history. Oomoto is a sect of Shintoism that came to be in the turbulent late 1800s/early 1900s. It began when Deguchi Nao, a woman with an exceptionally difficult life, was suddenly possessed by the god Ushitora no Konjin, who claimed he would be the one to restore the world. After some time, her frequent outbursts landed her in jail, where she requested the god to please find a better way to get his point across. At this point, he commanded her to take up a nail and compelled her to write on the walls. This was somewhat of a surprise, considering Deguchi was illiterate. In any case, over the course of her life Deguchi wrote a huge number of pages, all in hirigana, a phonetic script.

As the religion took hold, another person came onto the stage: Deguchi’s son-in-law, Onisaburo. He took a very entrepreneurial approach to the religion, and brought it large amounts of success–so large, in fact, that the religion was shut down by the government twice (and violently so).

Omoto’s teachings center on peace and understanding between cultures and religions, and the traditional arts. Of course, the thing I find most interesting about Omoto (aside from the fact that it reminds me so much of my own faith, Quakerism), is that they are a strong proponent of Esperanto. Esperanto is a language that was created by Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, from what is now Poland. Because it is a constructed language, it has no political borders or cultural allegiance, and so can be used to facilitate international relations and understanding.

As it so happens, there is an Omoto branch nearby, and I managed to get in contact with the international relations director, who was also an Esperanto teacher. After a lot of back-and-forth involving rules and regulations and group affiliation issues, I finally got permission from my program director to visit.

After some interesting transit adventures, I walked down an old street full of crowded buildings and found myself at the gate of a very large one, Omoto’s Osaka headquarters. I went in, took off my shoes, and introduced myself to the first person I could find, who took me down a hall into a Japanese-style part of the building. My contact, Tanaka-san, and another man were waiting in a small conference room with sweets, takoyaki (fried octopus balls), and coffee.

At first it was really awkward–I had never met Tanaka-san before, so I had to ask who was who, and then I think neither of us knew what to say. Tanaka told me a bit more about Omoto, mixing English and Japanese, and then brought me out to their main sanctuary (not sure what the right word is for it). It was absolutely beautiful: here it is set up for the class.

Since I was early, they showed me a video of their history in Japanese (did not understand it, but I picked up on a few things I had learned before). Then, as people were trickling in for the Esperanto class, I was introduced. The members had some questions for me, and then I got to ask questions to them. I didn’t quite know where to start, and although I found a few to ask I couldn’t quite understand their answers. Somewhat of a bummer, because from what I could tell they were really interesting. But I did get to take a picture of us all together, which was nice. Everyone was super friendly.

In any case, class started. I think my presence got the teacher kind of off-topic, because he started talking about how different cultures deal with names (like how in Russia you are “son-of-so-and-so”) and how different cultures write. He also spent some time explaining to the class why Japanese was so darned difficult for people like me (by giving examples of how totally random kanji readings can be). Even though we never quite got to the point of the class, the students seemed to be enjoying themselves anyhow, because they were learning new things about different cultures.

After the class, I got to talk a little bit more with the students. They were all really friendly. Culture note: there’s a generation of 40+ women in Osaka called Osaka Obaa-san (“Osaka Grandmas”) who are very different from other people you meet. They’re super friendly, very outspoken, love to gossip, and sometimes they dye their hair weird colors like purple, just because they can. Another thing they do is hit people. I have a friend staying with one such Obaa-san, and as he explains it, this lady just smacks him out of affection (arm, back of the head, etc.) when he does something silly, something smart, something nice, etc. It’s just one of those things… but in Japan, a culture where people don’t seem to touch very much, this is quite a lot of contact, even though it comes through in a kind of violent way.

Anyway, the point I’m getting to here is that at least one (I suspect more) of the women in the class fell into this category, and I got hit on the arm quite a few times. I had warning and so I knew it was a positive thing–otherwise I would have been surprised. And honestly, it was heartwarming just to have someone take the effort to reach out and touch me, in a place where other people tend to keep their distance.

Overall, it was a really interesting experience. It didn’t go quite how I expected it to, and in a lot of places I was worried I said the wrong thing, because I still haven’t learned how to be properly polite in formal situations like these. However, everyone was really nice and open and I felt really welcome. I’ve been wanting to learn more about Omoto ever since I learned about it back at my home university, so I’m really glad I got the opportunity. It’s a really nice community–perhaps when I am better with Japanese I can go back and learn more.


Note: I pulled a lot of the background information out of my somewhat sketchy memory, so do forgive me if there are any small errors.

Another note: If you are interested in Oomoto (especially Onisaburo’s hijinks), I recommend to you Nancy Stalker’s Prophet Motive. Not only does it have an extremely clever name, but it’s well-written and super interesting.


2 Responses to “大本って、何??”

  1. Asuson@lclark.edu November 30, 2010 at 11:47 am #

    Wow, That is so cool that you got to have that kind of experience. Something like The Osaka Grandmas is one of the main reasons I chose to come to Osaka in the first place :), but sadly I still feel that people are being really distant. Spunky blue haired obaasans for the win!
    Esperanto too should really catch on, quite a shame it hasn’t. Hope you are having fun!

  2. Carole Deily December 4, 2010 at 3:58 pm #

    I love that you are curious and adventurous enough to investigate this. The rewards of meeting these people alone makes it worthwhile, and understanding and explaining their beliefs seems like ground-breaking research. Good for you!

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