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“Singable, Danceable Mikagura-uta” by Rev. Marlon Okazaki

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Rev. Marlon Okazaki of Tenrikyo Southern Pacific Church has kindly given his permission to post an edited version of the presentation he gave at last year’s Tenrikyo Hawaii Convention 2011. We recently just passed the one-year mark since its occurrence (May 28th–30th, 2011).

The title of the presentation is “Singable, Danceable Mikagura-uta (SDM)The meaning, purpose, and history behind SDM and the near future view of SDM and its challenges.”

I want to sincerely thank everyone on the Tenrikyo Hawaii Convention steering committee and all in the Overseas Department that made this event possible—you would not believe all the hard work over the past 3 years, and the frenetic pace and all the group e-mails that have been sent in the past month: 100s, maybe 1000s. I also want to recognize the stick-to-itiveness of David Inouye, the coordinator of this Service Session, and the whole steering committee who kept it all together. Let us give them all a hand. I’d like to begin my talk now.

Aloha! For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the husband of the former Miss Hiroko Omukai, a rising star of the Overseas Department, whom I stole 10 years ago. Sorry, Rev. Iburi.

Now, I’m the head minister of a small church located in the Spanish speaking barrio of East L.A., the Southern Pacific Church. As a Tenrikyo minister, I just want to say that I love my God, I love my job, I love my life and I love my wife. And in case my wife ever reads the transcripts, not necessarily in that order.

My wife Hiroko and I had planned on attending this convention together. It was supposed to be part of our 10-year wedding anniversary this year, but she’s 8 months pregnant now, with our 4th child, a girl finally, so she unfortunately, she could not be here today with me in paradise, this is paradise on earth, Hawaii. But I’m sure she’s here in spirit. Thank you for letting me come to Hawaii by myself, honey. I hope her spirit heard that.

Being a Tenrikyo Minister

But anyways, getting back to my job as a minister. I love my job. And according to a Time magazine article of Nov. 15, 2007, did you know that the profession with the highest happiness ratio in America was “clergy,” being a minister. I was pleasantly surprised, but somehow it made sense to me. But on average, clergy only make $40,000 a year.

And in my experience, and I don’t know about you bishops, but we Tenrikyo ministers in the trenches, are really bringing that income curve down.

In America, church ministers on average, are happier than teachers, firefighters, police, architects. Surprisingly to me, travel agents were high on the list too—no. 4 or 5 on the list—go figure. I think it has to do something with the joy derived from helping people. So if you want to be happy in your career, the short answer is, become a minister. Or at least help other people in whatever you do.

So for you young people or not-so-young people who are thinking of a possible career in the ministry, I say to you, “Go for it.” You will not regret it. It ain’t an easy job, but Oyasama will be pleased and the rewards are great, well, at least according to Time magazine.

Our Bishops

My church is about 10 blocks from America Dendocho. We got a new bishop last year. Please stand up. Bishop Alexander Fukaya, named after Alexander the Great. He is the first ever U.S. natural-born Tenrikyo bishop in America. Bishop Alex, did you know that you can be president someday? Just make sure you keep a copy of your birth certificate. It may come in handy someday. Bishop Alex, he’s an okay bishop. No really, I love our new bishop. Thank you for joining us.

I love your bishop too, Bishop Hamada, please stand, actually, I love you more, because you are going to let me sleep at your house next week at Hawaii Dendocho, right? Thank you. Yoroshiku ne.

No really, the reason I love these two bishops is that they seem to understand and are enabling us, our English-speaking generation, to take charge and form our own destinies. This is our path, this is our faith, of which we are proud, and we have no one else to blame if we don’t make it succeed in our respective countries. It is now our turn to step up or shut up. And I am so happy to see the young people in Tenrikyo Hawaii stepping up. I applaud you. Do we take this challenge or do we let history slide past us and leave it to the next “younger” generation. This is the critical question.

Remembering Rev. Jiro Morishita

Now, I would like to invoke the memory of our dear friend, who is no longer with us, and an early pioneer of the SDM project, the late Rev. Jiro Morishita. For those of you who knew him, you know that Jiro was a trailblazer and I, for one, was always confident in follow his trail.

However, we no longer have the luxury of just following. We must now take the lead. We must continue where he left off and blaze our own trails. With that said, does his trail still exist? Yes, it does. Can we still see it? Yes, we can. We will find it wherever we, the Tenrikyo faithful, continue to invoke his memory and his mission to make these wonderful teachings of Oyasama more accessible to English speakers. And I am pleased to see that many of us are answering this call. Jiro, I know you are here with in spirit, and we will continue your mission. I thank you.

As Jiro was a senior member of the translation committee when I first joined in 1994, it was critical for me to get Rev. Jiro’s blessing for this English SDM project. Most other people were very enthusiastic about the project; however, Jiro was the person most singularly against it. When I first brought this up to him, Jiro said:

“Marlon, I just don’t think we need this. Many of my local non-Japanese church members don’t understand any Japanese, and yet they are fully content and spirited in singing and dancing the Service in Japanese, and they feel refreshed and enthused in doing it. ‘Yoro shu sha no sakai shirisetsu mimamasedo….’ They don’t get it right, but it helps them anyways and they are totally fine with it in Japanese. No problems.”

Well, I had nothing to say to against that. His members were fine with it as is and it was helping them. But still, I asked him to just try it out. Jiro reluctantly agreed.

The next time he drove back to L.A. from the Fresno Center, of which he was still the head, about a 4 to 5 hour drive, 3 hours the way Jiro drove, he decided to practice the English SDM Yorozuyo, and I don’t recommend this, while he was driving by himself. About half way home, he realized that he had committed to memory all of the English Yorozuyo song.

He came to me pretty excited, well, as excited as Jiro gets, and said, “Marlon, I think this will work. Let’s get going on this.” I think Jiro was my first convert.

Historical background, SDM

In any case, what I want to say it that although I may be preaching to most of the choir today, if there are still some of you who are against this project, know that this English SDM will never be forced upon you or anyone and that its ultimate aim is to have more people in the world be able to understand Oyasama’s teachings through the Mikagura-uta and Otefuri, as they dance it without error, and ultimately be able to dance it as was taught by Oyasama. This SDM may not be for you, you may not need it, but please don’t try to stop others who may need it.

Question: How many of you here today were at the Tenri Forum in 2006? Please raise your hands. Cool, wasn’t it. You all remember my talk?

Yeah, well I don’t. Because of my limited brain capacity, it is FIFO for me, “First in, First out.” Before I can get another thought in my small brain, I got to let go of something.

Anyways, I do remember one thing about that day. It was totally unplanned and unrehearsed, and with the approval of no one, I introduced the English SDM to the audience by dancing the first 2 lines of Yorozuyo. Before I did so, I looked at Rev. Terada, and other Church Headquarters bigwigs in the audience, just as I’m now looking at Rev. Iburi, Rev. Moroi, Rev. Nagao, and the bishops, and I hope I don’t leave any other important people out, but if you’re important, you know who you are, so no worries, right? and I said,

“I don’t know if Church Headquarters will get mad at me for doing this, but… I don’t care.”

And I did it. I was kind of like, “Yeah… Go ahead, make my day… fire me.” But luckily for me, everything turned out okay and they still allowed me to keep my day job as a minister.

But look at how far we have come in just 5 years. Today, all of you plainly and openly witnessed for the first time, a public demonstration of the English SDM in this form. 17 years after the start of this project, we have come so far, but yet we still have so far to go.

In fact, when all of you either go back to your homes, or go to Waikiki beach or Hananuma Bay, or spend the rest of the week in paradise, the dedicated members of the SDM translation group will be holding a week-long translation conference at Hawaii Dendocho. This time we plan to review Song Nine and Song Ten.

I would now like to give you a little historical background on this SDM project. Our project officially started in July of 1994, when I returned from 10 years in Japan to become a head minister in L.A. However, ours was not the first attempt at this.

In 1933, a Rev. Iwai at Church Headquarters made a record of the Mikagura-uta being sung in English, with the full accompaniment of all the service instruments on the RCA label. In the early 1960s, Mr. Hal Wilcox did a version, and in the early 70s I believe, a Prof. Uehara of Indiana University did one. In the 80s, Max Soyama did one too. These previous attempts were all commendable, and some of them sung quite well, but all the attempts before Rev. Max Soyama’s did not attempt to match the words with the hand movements.

Then, in 1994 came our SDM project. With this present project we have been able to attain a near 99% matching ratio in the critical word and hand movement correlation, to match Oyasama’s songs of “truth” to the “truth” of the hand movements, with the exception of the “throw” movement, which is “thought” to not have any particular significance.

First of all, you are all probably wondering what qualifies me to talk about this subject. Actually, I think that I am the last person who should be talking about or doing anything concerned with the Mikagura-uta or Otefuri. I’d like to explain why by giving you a little background about myself and this project.

Personal experience with the Service and the beginning of SDM

I am a Sansei (3rd-generation) Japanese-American born and raised in East L.A. Although I grew up in a church and did the Service almost everyday (cough), until age 17, when I escaped for, I mean, left for college. However, as many Sanseis, I understood very little Japanese, so I had no idea of what I was doing during the Otefuri, the Service Dance. After graduating from college on the East Coast I then moved to Japan to work in Tokyo. So in a sense, I was successful in escaping from Tenrikyo and the Service for about a decade. However, during that time, I did study Japanese.

Still, until I completed the 3-month, Spiritual Development Course in Jiba (Shuyoka), at age 26, in 1989, I did not know how to do the Otefuri—maybe Seated Service and some of Yorozuyo—but that was it. I didn’t understand the Otefuri and in fact, I hated it with a passion. I thought it was a waste of time because I did not understand the Japanese Mikagura-uta and personally, I just didn’t like doing things I didn’t understand.

I was the worst Otefuri student in Shuyoka. I would actually fall asleep while doing the Otefuri during practice. But somehow, after a month and a half of Shuyoka, and I don’t know why, but I began to attempt to understand the words and hand movements of the Otefuri. From then, my transformation began. I guess that through my 10 years of Japanese language study, I finally began to see the connection between the words and hand movements and thus, the truth of the Mikagura-uta songs and the Service Dance. But still, I was not proficient in dancing the Twelve Songs.

Then, I did the Head Minister Qualification Course (Kentei Koshu) in the same year and learned a little more. Then, while I was still in Kentei Koshu, I was asked to make an English Otefuri guidebook by Rev. Terada, the Translation Section Chief at the time. I told him I was the wrong person to ask.

I told him I still do not know how to do the Otefuri, and until recently, I hated it. He told me, “Marlon, you are the perfect person, because I want you to make a guidebook for people who don’t like or don’t know how to do the Otefuri.” I accepted. I had initially told Rev. Terada, it would take be about 3 months to make a book. But it eventually took me a year and this is what resulted. They are only $10 a copy, but I understand that they are sold out at America and Hawaii Dendocho, so if you have an extra copy, you might be able to sell it at a profit on ebay.

It still amazes me to this day, how the person who probably hated the Otefuri the most, gets chosen to make a book on how to do the Otefuri. God works in wondrous ways.

What amazes me more is how many times while dancing the Otefuri, the Mikagura-uta moved me to tears and gave me God’s message, when I needed that message the most. But again, I understood Oyasama’s message through the Mikagura-uta only because I had first studied Japanese for 10 years. Timing is everything.

I sometimes wondered, would I have ever come to embrace the Mikagura-uta as important, if I never knew Japanese. And my answer is, probably not. I am just not that diligent of a person.

Then, in 1993–94, while serving as a missionary near Tokyo, I was dancing the Twelve Songs on a regular basis, praying for blessings for people. One day, during a return to Jiba, I visited Rev. Kuniharu Shimizu, chief of the America Section I 1 at that time. We got to talking about the Otefuri and I mentioned to him, “How wonderful it would be if someday, someone could translate a singable-danceable English Mikagura-uta where the song matches the hand movements.”

He told me, “Why don’t you do it?” I thought to myself, “Oh, no. Here we go again.” That was 18 years ago.

Being the good-natured guy that I am, I said “Okay, I’ll try” and I began working on this the first day I had office duty, the one day during the week when I didn’t have to do missionary work. Because I knew that the English and Japanese grammar order is totally opposite, I thought that it would be impossible to translate a singable-danceable English Mikagura-uta matching the hand movements. And matching the hand movements with Oyasama’s words, is the key to understanding, as Rev. Colin alluded to, God’s sign language.

Let me demonstrate. In Section Two, in the Seated Service:

“Just a word to you, to what God is saying, listen please. Any wrong thing to you, I will never say…”

“Any wrong thing to you”: Here we use the hand movement for what? Anybody know? “Illness.”  Why illness? What does this hand represent? “A pillow” Why a pillow? Because when we are sick, often we are sick in bed. So we use a pillow. This hand movement is used 100% of the time for “illness” except in this instance, where it is used with the word “wrong thing.”

Well, what is God’s message through this wondrous sign language? That anything God says to us will 1) not be wrong, but 2) and maybe more importantly for us, will not cause us to get ill. In other words, these teachings of Oyasama are for our health. And, you would never get this connection, if you did not know what the words meant or what the hand movement meant.

So let’s get back to when I first attempted to translate a singable-danceable Mikagura-uta. What happened in the next 6 hours, sitting by myself in that office in January of 1994, however, changed my life. To my complete surprise, during those 6 short hours, I was able to translate movement for movement, syllable for syllable almost 100% of not only the Seated Service, but also Yorozuyo. I immediately felt as if Oyasama had planned this in advance.

The next time I returned to Jiba, I showed Rev. Shimizu the viability of the concept, and to my further surprise, he talked to someone, who talked to someone, who talked to the Shinbashira, which this resulted in this project being officially sponsored by Church Headquarters sometime later that year—with the full “moral” and “material” support of the Overseas Department, with Rev. Masahiko Iburi, as its head (A belated thank you to Rev. Iburi), and the official sanction of the 3rd Shinbashira, Zenye Nakayama.

The project officially continued for 4 years between 1994 and 1997, when the last official Overseas Department sponsored SDM translation conference was held in Hawaii, in November of 1997. At that point, we had finished a rough draft of all the Twelve Songs, but everything after Yorozuyo still had many problems due to technical difficulties of singability and danceability. And due to some problems, which I will not go into, we had an 8-year period of virtually no activity on SDM.

Making a case for the importance of the SDM and its potential pitfalls

Honestly speaking, although I had begun to doubt the eventual outcome during those 8 years, however, I had never lost faith in the “worthiness” of our cause to Oyasama, which is to provide an alternative way for the non-Japanese speaker to truly understand Mikagura-uta and to be able to learn how to dance the Otefuri—I believe that one cannot fully understand the Mikagura-uta in some vacuum without the Otefuri.

The Service (i.e., Otefuri) is fundamental to universal salvation, so it is vital for as many people as possible to be able to learn to dance it. This has been our cause and is our mission.

Our cause, however, I repeat, does not include forcing anyone to do the Otefuri in English. It is merely a tool to have non-Japanese speaking people be able to dance and understand the Otefuri, first of all, in their own language, and use that as a stepping-stone to be able to ultimately learn how to do the Service, as Oyasama had taught.

It is a relatively simple step from learning it (both meanings and movements) in English, then transferring that skill into Japanese, as opposed to forcing non-Japanese speaker to learn it only in Japanese, a language totally foreign and meaningless to them.

However, if a singable-danceable English Mikagura-uta does lead to tens of thousands of new English-speaking people to embrace Oyasama’s teachings in the United States and other English-speaking nations such as Canada, U.K. and Australia, just as the Korean Mikagura-uta has done for Korean speakers, then that is a prospect that I, personally, would surely welcome.

I must admit, that for some people who are used to the Mikagura-uta being sung in Japanese, they may become confused while doing the Otefuri if someone close by is singing in English. This problem, however, can be remedied by viewing the Japanese song while dancing. In Korea, at churches with mixed Japanese and Korean singing, using written Japanese and Korean Mikagura-uta words allows for complete harmony while doing the Otefuri in both languages simultaneously.

Another thing I must mention, is that this Singable-Danceable English Mikagura-uta is far from perfect and we need much more work. The Seated Service and Yorozuyo work fairly well, as we have just seen demonstrated. But, however imperfect it may be at this point, it is still very easy to learn and memorize.

I, personally, never practice the SDM, because I know how easy it is to memorize. To illustrate, I still remember exactly how to sing the first version, over a 100 versions ago, but now, I find it hard to get it out of my head enough to be able to memorize the latest version.

Its ease of memorization is its wonder and also its danger. It is so easy to remember that the danger is having people getting too attached to premature versions, which would change drastically over time. Because it is a translation and translations are never perfect, we will never have a “perfect” version.

However, the point is to reach a level of comfortableness with the song, where we can honestly say to Oyasama, “This is the best we can do for now.” And, I believe, we are very close to this level for Seated Service or Yorozuyo.

Also, when I say danger, I am talking about the danger of the disunity of mind similar to what erupted in the Korean mission, which had several versions of the Mikagura-uta in Korean. Some people strongly preferred one version over another, and this led to much conflict and this literally led to the Tenrikyo church in Korea being split in half. It took almost 50 years to reunify the Korean Mikagura-uta recently, but still, many devoted followers were lost along the way and there is still open disunity amongst some of its followers.

This is exactly what the overseas mission and the former (3rd) Shinbashira wanted to avoid by originally sponsoring this project. And it is a “unity of mind” that we, of the United States and other English-speaking countries, must have in order to take the next step in realizing Oyasama’s dream of saving everyone in this world, without exception.

Hope for the future

One piece of big breaking news, I must add, is that a preliminary Spanish and Portuguese SDM version also exists for Seated Service, Yorozuyo and all Twelve Songs!

Earlier this year, I attended a 4-week Spanish Shuyokai in Brazil. During this time, I believe that Oyasama purposefully had me meet the two people who are in charge of SDM in Spanish and Portuguese. I’d like to demonstrate a Spanish then Portuguese version of the First Section of the SDM. And if you know any Spanish or PORTAGEE, you can also see how the words match the hand movements, just like in English.

(Sing and Dance)

How was my PORTAGEE? This is amazing and it gives me more confidence in my firm belief that Oyasama had planned the Mikagura-uta to be sung and danced in almost any and every living language today, and maybe in any language that has ever existed.

My prognosis for the immediate future of this project is that from next Monday through Friday, we will have a one-week SDM translation conference. We hope to finish our review of all Twelve Songs by the end of next year. We have a really good staff right now, with good translators and people with theological background, like Rev. Ichise, and some good musical and lyrical people like Loiuse Sasaki and Rebecca Uesugi, but what we really need help with from here on in, is more people with lyrical and musical skills. If you have such skills, and want to contribute, please talk to me or Rev. Ichise of Hawaii.

Next, today, I would like to propose an international English SDM movement, where we can get the contributions and support of Tenrikyo English-speaking followers in countries like the U.K. and Australia, amongst others. Further, I would like to propose having an International SDM movement in whatever language where Tenrikyo people are. I know that that is a tall order, but I think this is what needs to be done and this is what Oyasama wants us to do. Rev. Nagao, might you be willing to suggest this to your boss, at the Overseas Department, Rev. Miyamori, for me. Thank you.

I do have one caveat, however, the English SDM is not the magic pill that will cure all the problems that ails the Tenrikyo mission in English-speaking countries. Salvation work has and always will be a difficult endeavor. However, nothing worthwhile comes cheap. Everything worthwhile requires time, perseverance, and dedication. The Otefuri is exactly that. Regardless of whether we will someday be able to do it in our own language or not, it still will require dedicated effort to learn, albeit, much easier to learn in our native language of English.  Let us not shrink from this challenge when Oyasama asks us to step up.

To end, I would like to repeat a famous parable: “If you give a man fish, you have fed him for one day. If you teach the man how to fish, however, you have fed him for the rest of his life.”

In the same way, this applies to the Sazuke prayer, as well as the Service. Even if we could administer the Sazuke to someone every single day of his life, he may become saved physically for that time, but for him to be truly saved for the rest of his life, I believe he needs to be able practice the Service, everyday for the rest of his life.

And, I think that that is the difference between being a practicing Tenrikyo person, and not. We should perform the Service on a daily basis, not on a “whenever we feel like” basis.

We need to realize that the teachings of Tenrikyo, without the Service, is not Tenrikyo at all. It would merely be a philosophical or moral teaching—albeit a great one.

I believe that we, as Yoboku of Oyasama’s path in the United States and other English-speaking countries, need to do whatever we can to give the best tools to the English speakers of the world, to be able to do this all-important Service, and to be able to “fish” for themselves.

You, who have gathered here today, have the power to help this become a reality. I believe that this is what Oyasama asks us to do. I hope that I have given you some food for thought in what you will discuss for the remainder of today’s program. Mahalo.


  1. Renamed North America and Oceania Section in April 1999.

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