A Brief History – Lady Takeko Kujo

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K. Ken Fujimoto

Recently, it was brought to my attention that, arguably, the most important person in the history of the Buddhist Women’s Association (BWA) movement has been forgotten or totally ignored in this area. Much attention has been given, and deservedly so, to Eshinni, Shinran’s wife, Kakushinni, his youngest daughter, and to Lady Yoshiko Otani, the wife of the 23rd Gomonshu, Kosho Otani and mother of the past Gomonshu, Koshin Otani and grandmother of the current Gomonshu, Kojun Otani. Each of these women provided role models for Buddhist women in living their lives and contributing to the spread of the Nembutsu teaching. Lady Yoshiko Otani did much to revitalize the movement by encouraging the formation of the World BWA. However, we seemed to have overlooked Baroness Takeko Kujo, who co-founded the BWA movement in Japan.

She was born as the daughter of Koson Otani, the 21st head of the Hongwanji on October 20, 1887. Her older brother, Kozui, became the 22nd head of the Hongwanji and was noted as an explorer of Central Asia. Another brother, Sonyu, was a noted politician who served in the House of Peers in the Japanese Parliament. She received most of her education in the predecessor to the current Kyoto Women’s University and its affiliated schools. She was also considered to be one of the three most beautiful women in Japan of her time.

During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), she was active with the BWA that she co-founded with her sister-in-law, Kazuko Otani, by taking an active role in sending care packages to the soldiers at the front and in providing comfort and support to families who had lost husbands or sons in combat. The two women, through their work with the BWA, provided the vision and were instrumental in the foundation of the current Kyoto Joshi Gakuen, the Kyoto Women’s University, High School and other affiliated schools and the Chiyoda Gakuen in Tokyo.

She married Baron Yoshimasa Kujo, Kazuko’s brother in 1909, and accompanied him to London where we went to study at Cambridge University. She returned to Japan after a year though her husband stayed there and was later assigned to the London branch of the Yokohama Specie Bank, which later became the Bank of Tokyo and eventually, after mergers and such, the current Union Bank of California. The couple lived apart for most of her life.

Her humanitarian and BWA efforts came to the forefront after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which devastated the city and the surrounding area. She led many efforts to help those in need. Her efforts led to the reconstruction of the Tsukiji Hongwanji and the foundation of Asoka Hospital, one of the first modern medical centers in Japan. She was there helping to provide aid for many of those in the poorest areas where the need was greatest. It was due to her work in such areas that led to her contracting the blood poisoning that led to her death on February 7, 1928, at the age of 40.

Though much of the initial work in establishing the BWA seems to have been a joint effort with her sister-in-law, Kazuko, Lady Kujo is usually considered to be the founder of the BWA movement for the Nishi Hongwanji. This is undoubtedly due to her sacrificing her life in her humanitarian efforts. She was also a renowned poet and an early movie was made depicting her, brief, but illustrious life.

There are many women in the history of Jodo Shinshu and the Hongwanji and it is important to recognize their unique contributions in showing the range of activities that can be encompassed under the umbrella of the BWA. However, it seems that in that process, we have lost sight of the contributions and activities of those who spearheaded the formation of the group. Knowing the history and lives of those early pioneers can only enhance the image of the group and our appreciation for the BWA and our Jodo Shinshu teaching that provides the foundation for that organization. There is no single model for a Buddhist woman. All women who live with the Nembutsu as their core can be a model for others.

© September 25, 2014