“The Purpose of Tokyo Kiitsu Kyōkai” by Imaoka Shin’ichirō (1881-1988) — A English translation published to celebrate the occasion of the 75th Anniversary of the first service in 1948

Today, the 23rd of October 2023, is the 75th Anniversary of the first service of Imaoka Shin’ichirō-sensei’s (1881-1988) Tokyo Kiitsu Kyōkai (東京帰一教会), which was often translated as the Tokyo Unitarian Church (see picture to the right).

Alas, the Tokyo community did not survive Imaoka-sensei’s death, aged 106, in 1988. However, thanks to the dedicated work and commitment of Professor George M. Williams, Imaoka-sensei’s belief that it was possible for there to exist a genuine creative, free-religion or spirituality (“jiyū shūkyō” 自由宗教) has not died but has been passed on to people such as me. 

It is not an exaggeration to say that discovering Imaoka-sensei’s vision and work through George has saved my own ministry and given me genuine hope that there is a way to articulate a creative, free-religion or spirituality suitable for the twenty-first-century. Should you be minded, if you look back through my posts over the past year (2023) you’ll find many mentions and explorations of his thinking, but a good place to start seeing where this has all led would be at this link

Anyway, over the last six months, along with George, a few Japanese friends, and the assistance (in the first instance of ChatGPT4), I have begun the long process of translating Imaoka-sensei’s extant essays into English. It will, of course, take a while to get those essays into a super-decent state but, given today’s anniversary, it seems worthwhile offering you the following, reasonably good initial draft of an essay from September 1950 in which Imaoka-sensei first outlines what he thinks is the purpose of the Tokyo Kiitsu Kyōkai. Naturally, his ideas developed, deepened and broadened over the next 38 years, but this first iteration of what it was all about remains, to me at least, an inspiring document. When I first read it, slowly, slowly, slowly, as the translation was made, I was genuinely thrilled . . . “Now, this, just this, is the kind of church I would like to be involved with” were the words that kept tripping off my tongue as I went along. 

In the hope that a few of you will be equally delighted, here is a 75th Anniversary gift for you all. The hyper-text links I have added here to help readers are, of course, my own.



The Purpose of Tokyo Kiitsu Kyōkai by Imaoka Shin’ichirō (1881-1988)
First published in September of Showa 25 [1950] in “Creation” [創造], Issue No. 1

It is not possible to state precisely when the Tokyo Kiitsu Kyōkai (東京帰一教会) was established. The first Sunday meeting was held in October of Shōwa 23 (1948), but it did not suddenly come into existence at that time. Since then, nearly two years have passed, yet there are still some aspects that remain unclear. Therefore, it is difficult to provide a simple explanation of its character, but as one of the individuals involved, I would like to attempt a brief explanation based on my perspective.

Firstly, the name 帰一 (Kiitsu) is translated into English as “Unity,” and it does not exclude the meaning of  “Unitarian” (ユニテリアン). However, it’s clear that it’s not “Unitarian” in opposition to “Trinitarian.” Recent Unitarian movements in the United States have undergone significant changes, becoming not only liberal Christianity but also a movement beyond Christianity. In that sense, I believe our Kiitsu Kyōkai [i.e. Unity Fellowship] can also be considered Unitarian.

The Unitarian movement (ユニテリアン運動 yuniterian undō) in Japan had been quite active during the Meiji and Taisho eras but gradually declined due to various circumstances, although it didn’t completely vanish. To be precise, it can be said that the movement still continues today, albeit weakly. I feel this way as one of those who participated in the movement. Therefore, when I established the Kiitsu Kyōkai, my primary consideration was the revival of the Unitarian movement. However, I thought that a mere revival, that is, a mere reproduction of the old Unitarian Church ( ユニテリアン教会 yuniterian kyōkai) , would be meaningless. I regarded the Kiitsu Kyōkai as a continuation of the former Unitarian Church but with a significant transformation. In other words, I believed that the Kiitsu Kyōkai should be something more than just a sect of Christianity. To put it another way, it 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. However, when I mention going beyond denominational bounds, this might be criticized as being abstract, conceptual, and utterly lacking in realism. If the Kiitsu Kyōkai were to become something like that, it would be contrary to our expectations. Beyond or trans-denominational simply means not being overly attached to established religions like Buddhism or Christianity. In our belief, it’s not that Buddhism or Christianity exists first and then we come after. On the contrary, we exist first, and only then comes Buddhism or Christianity. Hence, our religion shouldn’t be a ready-made Buddhism or Christianity, but a made-to-order religion that truly responds to our needs. A so-called ideal religion crafted by gathering the best parts from all religions might also be termed as trans-denominational. But still, this would be a ready-made religion and is certainly not our religion. So, the trans-denominational religion we envision is the exact opposite of an abstract conceptual one; rather, it represents the most personal, realistic, and tangible form of faith. And if a personal religion that best responds to our needs happens to be Buddhism or Christianity, then naturally, we would become Buddhists or Christians. However, there are many in the world who can’t be satisfied with ready-made, established religions. In essence, our assertion of being trans-denominational is not about rejecting established religions, but solely about being faithful to our genuine demands. In other words, it’s the same as when Shinran Shonin said that the teachings of Amida are for Shinran alone.

However, there might be some who worry that if each individual’s religion becomes so varied, forming a religious community would be impossible. But such a worry is groundless. Just as a true cooperative community (真の共同社会) can be organized only by the gathering of individuals with distinct personalities and characters, a true church can be organized only by those who truly possess a personal and autonomous religion. 

Thus, even though it is referred to as trans-denominational, in reality, it doesn’t transcend denominations absolutely. To be precise, it ends up creating a new denomination called trans-denominational, However, the nature of this denomination certainly differs greatly from the usual sense of the word “denomination” (宗派). 

To be truly individualistic and free, and at the same time to be truly collective and social is, in other words, to be democratic (民主主義的). And this democracy must be consistent not only in terms of faith content but also in the aspect of church politics. Therefore, we advocate for “Congregationalism” (会衆主義) and layman-ism (平教徒主義). Worship and sermons are entrusted to volunteers from among the members. Consequently, at our Sunday gatherings, it is not guaranteed that we will always have eloquent sermons from great speakers. Nevertheless, we believe that the church does not belong to the pastor but to its members and, therefore, we highly value the mutual encouragement and assistance of all members. In this respect, one might say our church is in the style of the Quakers (クエーカー). 

Another significant aspect of our religion being democratic is our belief that salvation is both personal and social. We don’t believe that a society is saved by the gathering of saved individuals; rather, we believe that individual salvation and societal salvation are two sides of the same coin. I want to believe that until all living beings attain Buddhahood, Hōzō Bosatsu (法蔵菩薩) [Bodhisattva Dharmakara, i.e. the name of Amida Buddha whilst he was still a Bodhisattva] himself cannot attain Buddhahood. Therefore, in a sense, Hōzō Bosatsu has not yet attained Buddhahood. Hōzō Bosatsu can never attain Buddhahood just for himself; his attainment is simultaneous with that of all living beings. I believe this is also the meaning behind the Catholic Church’s claim that there is no salvation outside the church. In this regard, I deeply resonate with the Community Church movement in the United States, initiated by Dr. J. H. Holmes. For a while before we named our church Kiitsu Kyōkai it was called “The Community Church of Tokyo” (東京市民教会 lit. “Tokyo Citizens Church”). 

With this perspective in mind, there is profound significance in the fact that during the Meiji and Taisho eras, Abe Isoo-shi (安部磯雄氏), the central figure of the Unitarian movement in Japan, was a leader of the social movement in Japan. Suzuki Bunji-shi (鈴木文治氏) started the labour union movement (労働組合運動) while serving as the secretary of the Japan Unitarian Association (日本ユニテリアン協会). Furthermore, Nagai Ryūtarō-shi (永井柳太郎氏) and Uchizaki Sakusaburō-shi (内崎作三郎氏), who both studied at the Unitarian seminary in Oxford [Manchester College, now Harris Manchester College], subsequently made significant strides in Japanese politics. If one were to point out any shortcomings in the Unitarian movement of these esteemed predecessors, it might be that it leant too much towards the political and social aspects, leaving the religious aspect somewhat diluted. During the Meiji and Taisho eras, in essence, the Unitarian movement had more significance as an enlightenment movement within the wider religious realm rather than as a religious movement itself. And, even today, enlightenment movements are necessary because the dispelling of superstitions, the encouragement of harmony between science and religion, and the promotion of cultural and peace movements, remain of paramount importance. However, the aspiration of our Kiitsu Kyōkai is to move one step beyond our former high point by fully committing to a free, pure, democratic, and universal religious faith. This faith serves as our driving force to address and solve all issues related to culture, politics, economy, society, etc. While we greatly value intelligence, our church, being a religious organization, must not transform into a mere debating hall for intellectuals. Our church should be a microcosm of the ideal society. It must embrace scholars and the uneducated, business people, labourers, civil servants, students, men, women, the elderly, and the young. My secret wish is for individuals like Shōtoku Taishi (聖徳太子 Prince Shōtoku) or [Albert] Schweitzer to emerge from our community.