The global phenomenon of Reiki originated in Japan, where today few know it. But there would be no Reiki without Usui.
by Massimo Introvigne
Reiki is a global phenomenon, with more than one million practitioners around the world. However, although it originated in Japan, it was almost forgotten there after World War II, after legal restrictions on spiritual healing had made its practice difficult. Justin Stein, in a recent article in “Japanese Religions,” reported that Reiki slowly came back to Japan from the United States recently, as part of the phenomenon of the “Japanese New Age.” However, still today, the name “Reiki” does not ring a bell among many educated Japanese, including those with an interest in spirituality.
I shortly visited Tokyo this month for a symposium on a different matter and expressed an interest to visit the grave of Reiki’s founder, Mikao Usui (1865–1926). Several local scholars and journalists familiar with religion and spirituality had never heard of Reiki. When I explained what it was all about, they confused it with “jorei,” the healing through the spiritual light practiced by the new religious movement Sekai Kyusei-kyo. This is, by the way, not surprising, since the monumental doctoral dissertation on Reiki published in 2016 as a book by Dutch scholar Jojan Jonker reports that the founder of Sekai Kyusei-kyo, Mokichi Okada (1882–1955) met Usui and was familiar with his techniques (“Reiki: The Transmigration of a Spiritual Healing Practice,” Zurich: LIT Verlag, 2016, p. 256).
Happily, a Reiki master based in Geneva, Switzerland, called Dorna Revie published detailed instructions on how to find Usui’s grave, with a step-by-step photographic guide on where to go and when to turn. While a normal GPS may not take you there, Revie’s pictorial GPS did.
Usui died of a stroke in Fukuyama on March 9, 1926. His body was cremated, and the ashes were taken to the cemetery of the Saihoji Temple in Tokyo’s Suginami quarter. It is located in an area hosting several temples, which has been described as a small Kyoto within Tokyo. The Saihoji Temple dates back to 1617, but it was moved to where it is now in 1920 due to the expansion of the Japanese Rail’s Chuo Line. It was largely destroyed by fire in 1945 and rebuilt.
Although not as impressive as other temples in the same area, Saihoji has its quiet beauty, although (at least when I visited in early October) unfortunately it hosts a high concentration of mosquitoes. Seeing foreign visitors, temple workers immediately understand they are there for Usui’s grave and explain where it is, although Dorna Revie’s text would allow to find it even in absence of oral directions.
Saihoji is a Pure Land Buddhist temple, which supports the idea that Usui belonged to this school of Buddhism, although some biographers insisted he was part of the more esoteric Tendai school. Where one is buried in Japan is not necessarily a statement about affiliation. However, several relatives of Usui are also buried in Saihoji’s cemetery, lending credibility to the hypothesis of a family affiliation with Pure Land.
While the grave is simple enough, there is a large memorial stone inaugurated on February 2, 1927, and placed there by the Usui Reiki Ryoho Gakkai, the association Usui founded. It is about ten feet tall and four feet wide. The long inscription is a key source for Usui’s biography. Full English translations are available on the Web through several Reiki websites (e.g., here).
The inscription stated that “after Dr. Usui’s passing, Reiki will continue to spread far and wide.”
It did beyond all expectations, mostly thanks to the fact that Chuyiro Hayashi (1880–1940), who was probably the last disciple Usui trained, met in 1935 in Japan a visiting American-Japanese lady from Hawaii, Hawayo Takata (1900–1980). Hayashi trained Takata both in Japan and in Hawaii, where he stayed for five months between 1937 and 1938. It was Takata who initiated the phenomenal diffusion of Reiki in the Western world.
When he met Takata, Hayashi had left the Usui Reiki Ryoho Gakkai for various divergences with its leaders, in 1931. Reiki was never a “movement,” and certainly not a “religion,” and nobody could really control it. Although the Usui Reiki Ryoho Gakkai still exists, it is a small organization, unknown to most Japanese. It took considerable efforts by some Western practitioners interested in the history of Reiki to locate it and reestablish contact. This does not make Usui unimportant, though. Although the West, rather than Japan, eventually became the promised land of Reiki, there would be no Reiki at all without Usui and his teachings.