Prophet Motive: Deguchi Onisaburo, Oomoto, and the Rise of New Religions in Imperial Japan
280pp. November 2007
Prophet Motive: Deguchi Onisaburo, Oomoto, and the Rise of New Religions in Imperial Japan
Author: Stalker, Nancy K.;
From the 1910s to the mid-1930s, the flamboyant and gifted spiritualist Deguchi Onisaburô (1871–1948) transformed his mother-in-law’s small, rural religious following into a massive movement, eclectic in content and international in scope. Through a potent blend of traditional folk beliefs and practices like divination, exorcism, and millenarianism, an ambitious political agenda, and skillful use of new forms of visual and mass media, he attracted millions to Oomoto, his Shintoist new religion. Despite its condemnation as a heterodox sect by state authorities and the mainstream media, Oomoto quickly became the fastest-growing religion in Japan of the time.

In telling the story of Onisaburô and Oomoto, Nancy Stalker not only gives us the first full account in English of the rise of a heterodox movement in imperial Japan, but also provides new perspectives on the importance of "charismatic entrepreneurship" in the success of new religions around the world. She makes the case that these religions often respond to global developments and tensions (imperialism, urbanization, consumerism, the diffusion of mass media) in similar ways. They require entrepreneurial marketing and management skills alongside their spiritual authority if their groups are to survive encroachments by the state and achieve national/international stature. Their drive to realize and extend their religious view of the world ideally stems from a "prophet" rather than "profit" motive, but their activity nevertheless relies on success in the modern capitalist, commercial world.

Unlike many studies of Japanese religion during this period, Prophet Motive works to dispel the notion that prewar Shinto was monolithically supportive of state initiatives and ideology.

29 illus.

"Stalker does something rare for a study of a Japanese new religion: she provides an in-depth historical account with insightful theoretical suggestions for understanding other new religions and new religious leaders both in and beyond Japan. . . . Prophet Motive is unquestionably an excellent monograph and one of the best historical studies on a Japanese new religion in English. It offers an account that helps us to reassess not only our image of religion in Imperial Japan, but also how we understand religious leadership. The book merits in-depth discussion among historians and scholars of new religious movements." —Journal of the American Academy of Religion (spring 2009)

"Stalker’s richly detailed monograph, which is not intended to be a biography of Onisaburo, not only captures the essential elements of his remarkable life and ties them together in a coherent way, it also presents a challenging framework for considering new religions. . . . A stimulating and thought-provoking work." —Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (35:2, 2008)

"Too often Japan’s modern history is told as one of an emergent monolithic imperial state, while religion, if at all considered, is relegated to a supporting role often characterized with pathos. In Stalker’s resplendent and evocative telling, we are introduced to the colorful and moving history of the prominent and popular New Religion Oomoto and its charismatic leader Deguchi Onisaburô. This is a history detailed with skilled research and unstinting critical acumen that deals seriously with religion, with politics, with historical dynamics, and deftly weaves these threads, maintaining the full complexity of their interactions. Stalker’s discussions of spiritualism, proselytization and internationalization, linked to debates over modernity, world expositions and new media such as cinema, go on to break new ground in a tour de force of scholarship. This compelling work raises the bar for works on religion, history and modernity and should be standard reading for years to come." —James Ketelaar, University of Chicago

"Nancy Stalker’s study of Deguchi Onisaburô and the Japanese new religion Oomoto sheds new light on issues of religious leadership, charisma and entrepreneurship. In analysing how one seminal new religion expanded in early twentieth-century Japan, she focuses on what she terms Onisaburô’s ‘charismatic entrepreneurship’ to demonstrate the close links between innovative leadership and religious success. In so doing she contributes significantly to the study of new religions by demonstrating the importance of entrepreneurial leadership and the close and essential links between religion and economics. . . . By widening her focus to the Japanese new religions in general, Stalker shows Onisaburô to be one of the most important figures in Japanese religious history. His activities, such as his espousal of art, internationalism and peace messages, have served as a virtual blueprint of activity for many subsequent Japanese religious leaders. She demonstrates further the significance of Oomoto as one of the most seminal new religions of the twentieth century." —Ian Reader, University of Manchester

"In this multi-faceted study of one of the most colorful characters in twentieth-century Japan, Nancy Stalker shows how a fledgling religious movement can grow through the media-savvy skills of its charismatic leader. Deftly situating Onisaburô’s flamboyant promotional efforts in both domestic and international contexts, Stalker bridges common historiographical divides between religion and politics, state orthodoxy and populist opposition, Meiji history and Taisho culture. According to Stalker’s analysis, Onisaburô practiced a ‘charismatic entrepreneurship’ found in successful evangelists worldwide while setting a course for subsequent new religions in Japan. A provocative, colorful study of one man’s strategies for proselytizing in the global marketplace of religion, Prophet Motive highlights the fluid boundaries between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ in Japan and throughout the world." —Sarah Thal, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Author: Stalker, Nancy K.;
Nancy K. Stalker is assistant professor in the departments of Asian studies and history at the University of Texas at Austin.
Read the introduction (PDF).


Chapter 1 Deguchi Onisaburô: Early Life to Oomoto Leadership

Chapter 2 Neo-Nativism: Oomoto Views on Mythology, Governance, and Agrarianism

Chapter 3 Taishô Spiritualism

Chapter 4 Exhibitionist Tendencies: Visual Technologies of Proselytization

Chapter 5 Paradoxical Internationalism? Oomoto in the World

Chapter 6 A Patriotic Turn and the Second Suppression

Conclusion: State, Religion, and Tradition in Imperial Japan


Selected Bibliography