Making Footprints Not Blueprints

S07 Bonus Episode - The Japanese Yuniterian [sic] tradition . . . or the dove that ventured outside

December 15, 2023 Andrew James Brown/Caute Season 7
Making Footprints Not Blueprints
S07 Bonus Episode - The Japanese Yuniterian [sic] tradition . . . or the dove that ventured outside
Show Notes Transcript

The full text of this podcast can be found in the transcript of this edition or at the following link:

Please feel to post any comments you have about this episode there.

The Cambridge Unitarian Church's Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation can be found at this link:

To find out more about Seiza Meditation (Quiet Sitting) click on the following link:

To find out more about Imaoka Shin'ichirō and "free-religion" (jiyū shūkyō, or a "creative, free spirituality") click on the following link:

"New Heaven", written by Andrew J. Brown and played by Chris Ingham (piano), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Russ Morgan (drums) and Andrew J. Brown (double bass) 

Thanks for listening. Just to note that all the texts of these podcasts are available on my blog. You'll also find there a brief biography, info about my career as a musician, & some photography. Feel free to drop by & say hello. Email: caute.brown[at]

As many of you know I hugely admire the work of Imaoka Shin’ichirō because I think it offers us a model for how radically to reimagine the liberal, Unitarian tradition so that it can become a genuinely creative, free-spirituality suitable for our own era, something that Imaoka-sensei called jiyū shūkyō (自由宗教 free-religion). But I realise that to some people this can look as if I am introducing something alien into play, but a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke called, “Taube, die draußen blieb”, “Dove that ventured outside,” can help reveal that this is not true because, in fact, something is being returned to us, albeit subtly transformed and newly freighted.  

So, here is the poem in the translation by Stephen Mitchell:

Dove that ventured outside,      flying far from the dovecote:
housed and protected again,      one with the day, the night,
knows what serenity is,      for she has felt her wings
pass through all distance and fear      in the course of her wanderings.

The doves that remained at home,      never exposed to loss,
innocent and secure,      cannot know tenderness;
only the won-back heart      can ever be satisfied: free,
through all it has given up,      to rejoice in its mastery.

Being arches itself      over the vast abyss.
Ah, the ball that we dared,      that we hurled into infinite space,
doesn't it fill our hands      differently upon its return:
heavier by the weight      of where it has been.

This poem helped me better to understand why I think it is the case that the Japanese Yuniterian [sic] tradition presents us with rich spiritual possibilities that have remained absent from many British and American Unitarian expressions. To show you why this is the case I need to tell you a hyper-compressed history of the Unitarian mission to Japan.

The story begins in London, when during his stay in England from 1884 to 1886, Yano Fumio (Ryūkei; 1850-1931) — a novelist, journalist and politician who was the editor in chief of the daily newspaper Yūbin hōchi shinbun — was apparently introduced to Unitarianism by Tokugawa Yoshiakira (1863-1908), who already lived in London. Here’s what the historian Michel Mohr tells us then happened:

“Yano’s encounter with this religious approach prompted his advocacy of Unitarianism as having an enormous potential for uplifting Japan. In the October 9, 1886 issue of his own paper he even proposed to adopt Unitarianism as the ‘State religion’ (kokkyō). The idea defended in this series of articles was that Unitarianism is a moral religion exceptionally well suited for modernizing Japan, because of its rationality. Yano’s enthusiasm led him to formally ask the British and Foreign Unitarian Association (hereafter British association) to send a representative to Japan. After having debated the feasibility of sending a missionary, the British association reached the conclusion that the financial burden would exceed its capacity and it rather chose to support Japanese students willing to study in Great Britain. As a result of this decision, the British side asked its sister organization in the United States, the American Unitarian Association (AUA), to send its own representative. Having formally agreed to consider the question, in November 1887 the AUA sent Arthur May Knapp (1841–1921) to explore the Japanese ‘field’ and its potential.”

But, despite the initial intention of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) only to send fieldworkers rather than missionaries to Japan, and thereby allowing the Japanese to take the basic ideas of the Unitarian movement and to develop them in ways appropriate to the Japanese context, over the next thirty years it became increasingly apparent that as the Japanese Yuniterian (ユニテリアン) movement developed, American denominational leaders back in US began to get seriously concerned at what was happening. Two things in particular really disturbed them.

The first was the Japanese Yuniterians’ realisation that inherent to the basic Unitarian approach, especially as it had been expressed in the Transcendentalist movement through people such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, offered them the opportunity to begin to develop a more universalistic spirituality that went significantly beyond the liberal Christianity upheld by most American and, indeed, British Unitarians of the time. This meant that very early on, the Japanese Yuniterians were creatively engaging and collaborating with non-Christian groups such as liberal Buddhists and New Buddhists, as well as progressive Shintoists and Confucianists. This radical move beyond Christianity was perceived by key American Unitarian denominational leaders to be a step too far. 

The second thing that disturbed them were the increasing connections being made between Japanese Yuniterians and political and social-activist groups concerned to organise mutual societies, effectively trade unions, which aimed at improving the dreadful conditions of workers as Japan’s industrial base rapidly developed. Again this stance was perceived by the American denominational leadership to be a step too far. This increasingly became the case as the fear of socialism grew in the US following the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Now, to return to Rilke’s metaphor, it is clear that key figures in the AUA were horrified that the well-protected, comfortable, conservative, liberal Christian, New England, Unitarian dove they’d sent over to Japan in 1887 had not only bred successfully, but it and its children had dared to venture outside. In consequence, and omitting all detail of what is a fascinating story, by 1922, the AUA decided to pull out of Japan completely, even selling the fine headquarters building in Tokyo they had built (see photo at the head of this post).

This action quite simply destroyed the original American built Unitarian dovecote and the flock of Japanese Yuniterian doves it contained were forced permanently to fly away into the everyday world of a rapidly modernising Japan where many of them become influential politicians, writers, business leaders or, like Imaoka-sensei, educators.

But despite their great loss, it was something which ensured that the Japanese Yuniterian movement quickly had to learn just how important it was for the sacred and the secular to be held together in “kyōkai”, that is to say in the kind of cooperative community that could be found in all places where genuine learning occurred, whether that was in churches, temples, schools, the arts, literature, and also politics and economics. They came to feel that through learning and growth together, in a unifying community, kiitsu kyōkai is created as a unity of the religious and the secular. Just to remind you, Kiitsu Kyōkai literally means the “returning to one community” or the “unity fellowship,” a name which has often been translated as the “Unitarian Church.”

During their wanderings between 1922 and 1945 their wings assuredly passed through all distance and fear and, during the course of this perilous flight, in turn, one of those Yuniterian doves who ventured outside, Imaoka-sensei, was helped to know a new kind of spiritual serenity, tenderness and breadth of vision. His being had, indeed, been hurled over the vast abyss and travelled through infinite space but, in 1948, the moment finally came when he was able to restart, in an extremely modest way, a new spiritual community which he called the Kiitsu Kyōkai. It was a community that he regarded “as a continuation of the former Unitarian Church but with a significant transformation . . . something more than just a sect of Christianity . . .which asserts a pure and free religion (自由純粋な超宗派的宗教) that is non-sectarian (超宗派), which goes beyond denominational bounds, taking a step further than just being a liberal Christianity against orthodox Christianity.” Part of this transformation included, as some of you already know, the simple, daily practice of Seiza meditation, which simply means “quiet sitting.” And so began Imaoka-sensei’s remarkable post-Second World War exploration and promotion of a creative, free-spirituality, what he called, jiyū shūkyō (自由宗教).

But with Imaoka-sensei’s death in 1988, the last of the Japanese Yuniterian doves that ventured outside in 1922 was finally gone, and the small community, the Tokyo Kiitsu Kyōkai, that had gathered around him quickly dwindled away. But, fortunately for me, and I hope for you too, before he died, Imaoka-sensei gifted his American friend, Professor George M. Williams with a couple of, at the time, unhatched Japanese dove’s eggs, thus beginning to reverse the direction of the original Unitarian journey from America to Japan.

George’s incubatory care of one of those precious eggs, in the form of personal interviews and other archive material, ensured that it eventually hatched in the form of his 2019 book about Imaoka-sensei called, “Cosmic Sage: IMAOKA Shin’ichirō: Prophet of Free Religion,” and it was this fledgling Japanese Yuniterian dove which one day, two years ago, finally landed on my doorstep in the UK, the country from where its ancestor was first dispatched 140 odd years ago. The moment I picked it up, I could tell instantly that this dove of Unitarian heritage was astonishingly heavier by the weight of where it had been, and this inspired me to begin to see if I could help hatch the other egg given to George, namely Imaoka-sensei’s book of essays published in 1981 in celebration of his 100th birthday. I’m pleased to say that the translation work is proceeding well and it’s moment of hatching is coming closer by the day.

George’s book and the newly translated essays reveal that in daring to venture outside the European and North American dovecote, the Japanese Yuniterians uncovered incredibly rich and creative possibilities in the Unitarian tradition that the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century British and American Unitarian tradition simply could not see and which, I strongly feel, it has still has not been able to see.

But it is my fervent belief that the fledgling Japanese Yuniterian doves who have almost miraculously flown back into the hands of George and me, weighing heavier than their forebear that left us 140 years ago, will help us to change this situation, and so help our own communities to give birth to a living, creative, free-spirituality relevant to our own age and time.