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A Japanese American’s journey from auto thief to PK in the Holy Land

Yamashita looks like trouble. A stocky man who enjoys weight lifting, tattoos, cars, and West Coast hip-hop, 32 year-old Yamashita does not seem like the “religious type.”

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Mo Yamashita PKNY

“So, how long have you been in marital bliss?,” I asked Motoki Doug Yamashita at a housewarming party. A thick silver band wrapped around his ring finger in a snug fashion. He looked at his ring, which gleamed from the reflection of the table lamp, then looked at me with surprise. He looked back down at his ring before replying, “It's an amulet from my religion.”

We were in our friend Sarah's small studio apartment on the Upper West Side, one she had moved into and finally had gotten enough furniture and appliances in order to invite people over for a house warming shindig. Although no one knew each other, everyone seemed willing to ease their way into light conversation braced by good wine and cheese. I was intrigued by Yamashita's talisman, because it was new to me that an amulet can look like a wedding ring. Taking advantage of his bonhomie, I probed further and found an intriguing religious journey.

Mo, the name Yamashita prefers to go by, is the son of the pastor of the Church of Perfect Liberty, which is also known as PL Kyodan, in Jackson Heights, Queens. With more than 500 congregations in 10 different countries, PL Kyodan has more than 1 million followers, according to the group's website.

The religious group says that their mission through its “21 Precepts” is to bring world peace.

But Yamashita looks like trouble. A stocky man who enjoys weight lifting, tattoos, cars, and West Coast hip-hop, 32 year-old Yamashita does not seem like the “religious type.” Wearing baggy dark jeans, a black screened t-shirt decked with colorful graffiti artwork, and tan leather Timberland boots, Yamashita has an urban sensibility to him that – to an outsider – will make you believe he's from the 'hood. His black beady eyes can pierce into your soul--they never seemed to blink. Japanese coy fish and lotus blossoms are inked black on his right arm from his shoulder to his elbow. It wasn't just decorated in tats, but also embellished with pure muscle.

Mo Yamashita

Yamashita grew up in the Church of Perfect Liberty. He found that his pilgrimage experiences in the church “were uplifting.” He visited the holy lands of PK Kyodan in Japan (six times) and Brazil. His visit to Brazil was a solo 6-month long pilgrimage. He thought that he also had to “sacrifice a lot of personal things for the church and members.” Yamashita disengaged with his religion. Instead, he gravitated toward the more alluring excitement of the thug life during his teenage years.

From the young age of 13, Yamashita started hanging with “gang members, thugs, drug dealers, and rave dancers” in Lincoln High School in Torrance, California. They “were all indifferent about what they learned in school.” Yamashita started to break-dance more than study, gamble petty cash, smoked and sometimes sold marijuana.

At the age of 14, Yamashita started the habit of drinking beer and whiskey in the park with his crew after dark, while many kids his age were completing their class projects. He would sleep over his friend's house 4 times a week, not telling his parents were he was or who he was with. Most nights, they had no idea how to reach him or if he was safe. Not knowing what else to do, his parents would plead for him to come home. When he did, “my mom would look into my eyes, and she knew I was high,” recalled Yamashita.

Yamashita regretfully admits now, “I should've been at home studying.”

As tumultuous as these years were for Yamashita, coming out of these struggles led to the discovery of his family spiritual history and a deepening of his faith.

In the late 1960s, Yamashita's father, Priest Hidenori Yamashita, moved at age 25 from his native country Japan to the United States to lead the organization's North American branch based in Glendale, California. Yamashita's late grandfather in Japan was also a priest with PL Kyodan.

In 1972, Mo's parents met in church when his dad was a young priest in Glendale, California. They married 2 years later and in 1977 had their first child, Yamashita's older brother. After moving from one Californian town to another because of church duties, the family of four settled in Torrance, California, located in the outskirts of Los Angeles, where Priest Yamashita pastored a PL Kyodan church for over two decades.

The Yamashita family are part of a large religious shift that occurred in Japan. PL Kyodan fits within a broad category of Shinshūkyō, Japanese new religions founded between 1800 and today. They are rooted in older traditional religions of Shintoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and folk beliefs. The new religions like PL Kyodan say that they have synthesized the diverse religious traditions of Japan with modern concepts.

They refer to themselves as being “non-denominational.” PL Kyodan is independent and not aligned with any of the established denominations of Buddhism and Shintoism.

About 80% of Japanese new religions came into existence within the later part of the Twentieth Century. In an interview with A Journey, Helen Hardacre, a specialist in Japanese religions at Harvard University, observed, “The number and variety is staggering for new religions emerging after World War II. It was literally founded overnight.”

Prior to the war, religious life was tightly controlled by the state. After the war, many Japanese had a pent up desire to form a religious group. When the Japanese population shifted from living in rural areas to cities after World War II, traditional religions lost their appeal. Buddhist and Shinto shrines and temples were the established religion in the countryside, but people in cities sought a new type of religious life. So in the urban areas, “there was a potential audience for new religions, which attracted the self employed or small-medium business owners,” observed Professor Hardacre.

At the same time these sentiments were rising, the Allied occupation from 1945 to 1952 reconstructed the Japanese constitution. It granted the Japanese freedom of religion and prevented the state from interfering, with an exception in cases when a religious group was a danger to others.

The doctrines of new religions in Japan are all over the map. Some take particular significant text, such as the Lotus Sutra of Buddhism, and utilize it as an embodiment of their message. However, most of the new religions stem from a revelation or healing of the original founder.

The founder of PL Kyodan, Tokuharu Miki, originally was a Zen Buddhist of the Obaku Sect. However, he was plagued by a chronic asthma. He turned to Priest Tokumitsu Kanada for help. Kanada used a sacred ritual to instantly heal Tokuharu's illness.

Kanada also taught Tokuharu about 18 principles of life that he had established in 1912. He told Tokuharu that there were three more precepts remaining to be discovered to finalize the teachings. Before he died in 1919, Kanada prophesied that they would be disclosed to Tokuharu after he planted and prayed under a sacred tree. After five years of prayers under the sacred tree, the three remaining precepts were revealed in 1924.

The essence of the 21 precepts is that “Life is Art” of learning how to make the right choices and to bring out one’s potential for self-empowerment, expression and creativity. Learning and practicing the precepts creates mental freedom that allows the worshiper to achieve a new state of being characterized by happiness.

With the complete 21 precepts, Tokuharu, as “The First Founder,” established the new Tokumitsu Church (for a short time called Hitonomichi Church, meaning "The Way of Humans" Church) which grew rapidly throughout Japan, amassing 1 million members. In 1936, the government launched a campaign to suppress the group and ordered them to disband, but the group simply went underground for 13 arduous years. The First Founder was arrested and died in 1938. Official church history says that Tokuharu prayed to die so that by the example of his sacrifice the church would live and world peace arrive. “The stronger ones [new religious groups] managed to keep going under severe state regulations,” said Professor Hardacre.

After the World War, the Tokumitsu Church resurfaced as the PL Kyodan church. The 21 precepts were formally announced on September 29, 1949 by the Second Founder, Priest Tokuchika Miki, who was the son of the First Founder. However, there is no holy book per se.

In the 1960s, the group's missionary work successfully sent leaders to South America and the United States. Priest Yamashita was one of these missionaries. PL Kyodan is now one of the top four Japanese new religions practiced in Brazil, along with Seicho-No-le, the Church of World Messianity, and Mahikari.

The group has continued its missionary efforts. They've set up branches in 4 other South American countries, Canada, Australia, and smaller communities exist in Europe. In the U.S. region, the North American headquarters is in California. There are two PL Kyodan branches on the East Coast of the U.S. One is in Orlando, Florida and the other is in Jackson Heights, Queens – the congregation that is led by Yamashita's father. But before moving to New York City, the Yamashita family cleaned house.

Yamashita's behavior was terribly destructive. During his last year in high school, he ended up being detained in a juvenile detention hall for auto theft. Feeling fed up and helpless, Yamashita's parents told the facility personnel, “’Just leave my son in there.’” He recalled that the reply was, ‘”You don't want to leave your son in this, he's a good guy.’” Yamashita stayed in detention. It was a night of reflection.

“What do I want to do with my life?,” Yamishita asked himself. “I was in need of a lot of help, hopeless and desperate, and didn’t have anyone to turn to.” Two things kept crossing his mind: graduating high school and establishing a career.

Full of self-blame, Yamashita's parents picked him up the following day. Yamashita saw the pain written on his mother’s face. He recalled, “After being released, I saw the tears in my mother's eyes. My mom was crying so hard. I heard her self-deprecation of being a bad mother, I couldn't bear to see her like that.” The wayward PK was propelled to turn his crossing thoughts into concrete efforts toward a different path in life. “I realized I needed to search for a new life... A positive one in which I can be a good member to society.” He also went back to PL Kyodan church. “That's when I really started to engage in church.” However, most of his energy was in finding new friends to help him along in a new life.

He knew that whatever his life was to become, he'd have to start with changing his group of friends. He started distancing himself from the drug dealers, thugs, and ravers. He spent more time at home. He started to care more about school and finally opened some of his textbooks. He gave his future some serious thought. Yamashita graduated Lincoln High School in 1997. A summer trip sealed in a faith-based component into his recovery.

“I started to pray as soon I as graduated,” Yamashita recalled. His father seemed to notice. “My father said, ‘You graduated high school and I'm really proud of you. I want to take you to the holy land in Japan.’ That summer, my whole family went.” The summer 1997 visit to the holy land in Japan changed his life. He saw people who “practiced the principles of the religion, to lead a peaceful life.” He now appreciated what he saw. From then on, Yamashita's ultimate goal has been to lead a peaceful life.

He also discovered that his mother's family were converts to PL Kyodan. She was born in Hiroshima City, Japan, migrated to the United States at the age of 9 in the 1950s. In the U.S., her family converted from being Buddhists to members of PL Kyodan. They took their daughter as a little girl to church services.

At the age of 18 Yamashita realized from his mother’s family history that people took this religion seriously. They were willing to dedicate themselves to a new religious path in order to obtain better lives. He finally understood the importance of his faith for life and made a commitment to it. However, he didn't really recognize the extent that his goal of a better life was also a promise rooted in the virtues of commitment and faithfulness that would change his whole being. He was shedding his skin of gang life, rebellion and isolation for a rebirth in purity, faith, and closeness.

He started to become a student and a hard worker. He earned an Associate's degree in Automotive Technology from Skyline College, a community college in the San Mateo, California. He picked up a job with Nissan and over ten years moved up the ladder to senior management. Then, he started to think about how his work could become more filled with significance and meaning.

About five years ago, Yamashita came to work for Nissan’s New York operations. Coincidentally, his father also moved to the city to lead a congregation in Jackson Heights, Queens. Father and son found themselves in the same city questing for a deeper life. New York City had become a sort of holy land for their aspirations of a spiritual life that brings mental peace and freedom.

So, in December 2010, the PK quit his job with Nissan to study physical therapy. After graduation, Mo said that, “My biggest dream is having a steady career I'm passionate about so I can afford to raise three kids in a nice house with a loving wife.”

When asked if he will continue as a member in the Church of Perfect Liberty, he replied, “I'm faithful for life, no question about that, no doubt, 100%.”

Originally published in A Journey through NYC religions in 2011. Yamashita still lives in NYC, and his father pastors the Church of Perfect Liberty.


The Church of Perfect Liberty is located on 37-56 76th St. Jackson Heights, NY 11372

For more PKNY features read:

Invite your friends to read and comment on all of The PKs of NY series:

The Preacher Kids of New York;

The Yin and Yang of Old School PKs, Part 2. Roderick Caesar, Jr.–A Consistent Path;

Justice by Roderick Caesar III;

The Crossroads Faith in the City;

The PK Manifold: New School PKs’ diversity makes for a stronger faith;

A Japanese American’s journey from auto thief to PK in the Holy Land;

Complete guide to Leadership Journal on PKs;

Blessed City. PKs imagine the City of the Future; and

What happens after Christmas? The story of J.C. Penney, Jr.


For further information:

History and Doctrine. 1982. Perfect Liberty Overseas Mission. No Publisher listed.
The Story of the PL Founders: The Dawn of the Church of Perfect Liberty. 1985. Glendale, CA: Church of Perfect Liberty.
Barbara Hardacre, 1988. Kurozumikyo and the New Religions of Japan. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Barbara Hardacre. 1999. Marketing the Menacing Fetus in Japan. Berkley: University of California Press.
Neill McFarland. 1967. Rush Hour of the Gods: A Study of New Religious Movements in Japan. New York: Macmillan.

Other Japanese New Religions sites in New York City include:

Izunome (Church of World Messianity), New York Johrei Center, New Yorker Hotel, 481 8th Avenue #533, Manhattan, 212-279-3712, (Izunome also has a Staten Island Nature Garden)

Johrei Fellowship, 116 Lexington Avenue, 2nd Floor, Manhattan 10016,

Seicho-No-Ie, SNI New York Truth of Life Center, 247 East 53rd Street, Manhattan 10022, 212-371-5533

Soka Gakkai New York Culture Center, 7 East 15th Street, Manhattan 10003, 212-727-7715

Sukyo Mahikari Center for Spiritual Development, 124 East 31st Street, Manhattan 10016, 212-447-5811

Tenrikyo Mission, New York Center, 42-19 147th St., Flushing, Queens 11355, 718-359-2426

Tenri Cultural Institute of New York, 43A W.13th St, Manhattan 10011, 212-645-2800. Japanese language school.

Tenrikyo Meishin America Church, 211-38 45th Road, Bayside, Queens 11361,718-631-1383

Tenrikyo Sunrise Church, 32-21 201st Street, Bayside, Queens 11361, 718-423-0514

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