The daughter of Japanese-born parents, Takata grew up on the island of Kauaʻi where her father worked in the sugar cane fields. She left school after second or third grade and went to work in the plantation house. She was given increased duties as she grew older and was eventually was put in charge of the other household staff.
On 10 March 1917 she married Saichi Takata, the bookkeeper of the plantation where she was employed. They had two daughers together before October 1930 when he died at age thirty-four in Tokyo where he had gone for lung cancer treatment. After this, Takata worked hard to support her family on her own and this contributed to her suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a variety of serious gastrointestinal ailments and severe depression leading to a nervous breakdown.
Soon after this, one of her sisters died. Takata journeyed to Japan via steamship with her sister-in-law for the dual-purpose of informing her parents and seeking medical care. After visiting her parents, she went to a Tokyo hospital and was diagnosed with several life-threatening conditions including gallstones and a tumor. She was given some weeks to recuperate from emphysema before being admitted for surgery for appendicitis and her other gastrointestinal problems.
On the operating table, just before the surgery was to begin, Hawayo heard a voice. The voice said, "The operation is not necessary. The operation is not necessary." She had never heard a voice speak to her like this before. She wondered what it meant. The voice repeated the message a third time even louder. She knew she was wide awake and had not imagined the voice. It was so unusual, yet so compelling that she decided to ask the doctor. She got off the operating table, wrapped a sheet around herself and asked to speak to the doctor.Takata asked the chief surgeon about non-surgical alternatives and was given the address of the clinic run by Dr. Chujiro Hayashi, later described by Takata as Reiki's "Grand Master". Under Hayashi's care:
Mrs. Takata received daily treatments and got progressively better. In four months, she was completely healed. Impressed with the results, she wanted to learn Reiki. However, it was explained that Reiki was Japanese and that it was intended to stay in Japan. It could not be taught to an outsider. Mrs. Takata talked to the surgeon at the hospital and convinced him to ask Dr. Hayashi to allow her to learn Reiki. Since Dr. Hayashi wanted to teach Reiki to another woman besides his wife, and since Mrs. Takata was so persistent, he decided that she should be the one. In the Spring of 1936, Mrs. Takata received First Degree Reiki. She worked with Dr. Hayashi for one year and then received Second Degree Reiki.In 1937, Takata returned to Hawaii in good health to set up what soon became a very successful Reiki practice. Hayashi and his daughter visite her there when Hayashi went on a tour to promote his art. In the Winter of 1938, Takata became the thirteenth and last Reiki Master initiated by Hayashi.
Takata returned to Tokyo in 1940 as World War II was imminent led, she said, by a dream in which Hayashi appeared to her. There, by Takata's account, Hayashi announced that she would be his successor as Grand Master. Hayashi, a reserve officer in the Japanese Navy, was called to active military duty. As a Buddhist and pacifist, Hayashi performed seppuku rather than participate in the bloodshed of war.
She returned to Hawaii and taught Reiki for the next thirty years. Until 1970, Takata taught only the first and second level of Reiki instruction. Although she trained scores of people to be Reiki practitioners, Takata did not create any Reiki masers.
Between 1970 and her death in 1980, Takata taught the third level of Reiki instruction and initiated twenty-two Reiki Masters. She charged $10,000 U.S. for this training and has been criticized for making Reiki mastery an elite club for the wealthy. Takata defended this as an appropriate "exchange of energy" and cited a tale she said was told to her by Hayashi, the point of which was that those who had not paid for their healing they had no incentive to stay well.
One source says:
Her legacy is mixed. Certainly those in the Western world who have had the blessing of Reiki in their lives are grateful to Mrs. Takata for bringing Reiki to our society. Yet [...] Independent researchers traveling in Japan in the past 10 years have discovered that it is quite unlikely Dr. Usui ever designated a successor or even claimed the title of Grand Master himself. Apparently he did initiate several Reiki Masters, of which Chujiro Hayashi was one, but they were all equals. None was of a higher rank than others. Dr. Usui did set up an organization to carry on the work of Reiki but he did not set up a Grand Master system.
Tanaka's insistence that there was a single leader among practitioners of Reiki, and her failure to name a sucessor, has been the focus of discord within the Reiki community for decades and led to the development of traditional and non-traditional factions.