Swift: Touching conversion

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Touching conversion:

Tangible transformations in a Japanese new religion

Philip Swift, University College London

This article aims to explore the concept of conversion by means of the transformative practices of Mahikari, a Japanese new religion. Examining current theories in the sociology of conversion, it argues that the epistemological preoccupations of the latter are inadequate for an understanding of conversion as transformation. Instead, an ontological approach is recommended in which Mahikari conversions show up as visceral, sensuous transitions, mediated through touch. In conclusion, the article attempts an anthropological critique of the sociology of religion’s turn away from religion.

Keywords: conversion, epistemology, Japan, ontology, tactility, viscerality

For the finishing touch to his “discourse of the Machine” (the famous Wager), Pascal attempts to bring the unbelieving reader around to the realization of conversion’s infinite dividends with the following instruction: to practice Catholic ritual “just as if you believe, “taking holy water, having masses said, and so on” (1966: 152).1 That is, in Pascal’s program, the “machine” of the body is the engine of conversion. Now recall the move made by Mauss, when, in the final powerful paragraph of his lecture on body techniques, he states his belief that, “precisely, even at the bottom of all our mystical states there are body techniques which have not been studied . . . I think that there are necessarily biological means of entering into ‘communication with God’ “ (Mauss 1950: 386). In this article, I want to take up this Pascalian position—and the corresponding Maussian motion—in order to divine the kinds of relations that connect bodies to techniques to conversions. More specifically, I will try to show how, in the practices of Sûkyô Mahikari, a Japanese new religion, bodies are enacted as a technical means of contact with the divine, and, consequently, that conversion is a transformation that can be felt concretely: in the movements of the body, swaying and praying, in its effusions (in tears, sweat, etc.), and in its textures and temperatures (in its hard, cold, or hot and soft surfaces). In Mahikari practice, conversion is a tangible happening, a palpable enactment, and to be guided by this is, I think, to come into contact with a rather different configuration of the concept: a version of conversion that turns on the body and that is, in significant ways, realized and organized by means of tactile sensations.

These assertions require ethnographic fleshing out, of course. But before doing so, I want to undertake a somewhat summary review of the role of the body in the scholarship on conversion. The sociological literature on conversion is dazzlingly massive. The enigmatic voice that was the catalyst for Augustine’s own conversion may well have said, “Pick up and read,” but faced with the same injunction, the student of conversion might justifiably balk at the scale of the task. Nevertheless, it would appear that, with few exceptions, bodies—and by extension, corpuses of techniques or practices—have not been the subject of serious analysis in the work on conversion.2 One might as well begin with William James and his The varieties of religious experience (James 1985), still, to my mind, one of the most stimulating accounts in the field. Yet, for all its depth of description, James has little positive to say about the collective and corporeal involvements of practice. His interest is in the intense and inventive modes of conversion experience: in the hot, plastic enthusiasms of original mystics. Collective religious practice, too common and demotic, by contrast, is demoted to the level of a cool routine, rigid and derivative (James 1985: 6). It follows that the crux of conversion—its “vital turning-point”—is alien to practice: it is “no affair of outer works and ritual and sacraments” (James 1985: 210). The problem here is exactly that what, for James, constitute exemplary religious experiences all come from too small a selection of cases. Simply put, his varieties are not various enough; and, what governs the limits of the range on display are certain Protestant theological assumptions, not the least of which is a suspicion of the efficacy of ritual practice that Mary Douglas, for example, has so often skewered (e.g., Douglas 1970).3

Yet these same propensities—a view of ritual (and, therefore, of bodies) as extrinsic or marginal, along with a corresponding stress on the primacy of interiority—remain operative in models of conversion advanced in subsequent scholarship. In sociology, especially, the problem of conversion became one of correctly calibrating it, of attempting to establish a typology of faithful indexes of conversion in order to measure the extent of its presence as a process within individual subjects (Snow and Machalek 1983, 1984). Again, however, these typologies are organized according to the notion that conversion consists, ultimately, of radical and internal mental transformation (Snow and Machalek 1983: 264–6, 279). So structured, the model therefore plays down the possibility of practice as having a constitutive capacity in the work of conversion; it minimizes the idea that a body might, as it were, have a hand in transformation. Indeed, just as it is for James, ritual in Snow and Machalek’s usage, is merely a synonym for insincere or inconsequential performance (1984: 172–3).4

The axiom that conversion is a fundamentally mental event leads to odd methodological consequences. Practices are understood to be supplemental or secondary to the primary process of conversion itself, occurring in the mind; but since it is psychological, conversion can only be reckoned with, hence measured, indirectly. The only available data, then, are the very doings and sayings of so-called converts, which the methodology finds so suspect. This dilemma in the method is what Bromley calls the “observability problem”—viz, the problem that “the transformation itself is not directly observable” (Bromley 2001: 322). Transformations assuredly take place, as Bromley acknowledges (2001: 325), but their autopsy is impossible.5 Thus, according to this particular sociological vision, there are, apparently, two parallel processes: firstly, conversion itself, itself inaccessible; and secondly, conversion-behavior, which is accessible but derivative, and somehow deputizes for the former. All the conspicuous business that one might associate with conversions—testimonies, gestures, prayers, confessions, and other such practices—intervenes between the sociological observer and the supposedly actual action of conversion: a state of mind, staged unseen, as it were,in a Cartesian theater. 6 Sociology thus attempts to diagnose the conditions of conversion, for which practices are thinly symptomatic. Hence the repertoire of terms used to characterize such conduct: “empirical indicators”; “rhetorical indicators”; “indirect indications” (Bromley 2001: 322; Gooren 2006: 27–8; Shimazono 2004: 178; Snow and Machalek 1984: 185). Corporeality is reduced to something very like the status of a Leachian aesthetic frill: a nonessential and expressive edge around a necessary and productive center (see Leach 2000: 153–5).

There are some signs—empirical indicators, if you will—suggesting that the psychologism of the model is finally being recognized. In a collection of anthropological essays on conversion (Buckser and Glazier 2003), Glazier (2003: 165) notes the connection between conversion and particular styles of appropriate bodily bearing, and he cites Rambo’s synoptic account (Rambo 1993) and the latter’s application of Bourdieu, in order to call attention to the importance of the body in conversion. The only trouble is that the page of Rambo referred to contains no consideration of Bourdieu; nor, indeed, is Bourdieu mentioned anywhere in Rambo’s book.7 In a more promising contribution, Norris explores the embodied dimension, characterizing conversion as a change in “embodied worldview” (Norris 2003: 171). But this is, I think, an awkward formulation still captive to a cognitive vision, as is made plain when she writes that the “convert experiences conversion as a reorientation to a new religious belief system” (2003: 171; my italics). This is an epistemological claim, not a phenomenological description, and the difference usefully demonstrates the prevailing tendency in the literature, which is that the analysis of conversion has so often been couched in the idiom of epistemology (see Holbraad 2009: 100). Conversion is conceived, in effect, as the reordering of one’s world-picture, in which novel representations (or beliefs or propositions) are imported into the mind. Since this epistemological paradigm is, I contend, the dominant operating system within the sociology of conversion, I will, for present purposes, name and frame it in the following terms: as Windows epistemology.

Now, it might be observed that there is, on the contrary, general agreement that there can in fact be no uniform model of conversion, because the outcomes of conversion are dependent on the specific social relations in play—with their attendant pressures and persuasions acting on the convert—as well as on the particular beliefs of the religious collective (see Bromley 2009: 732–3; Gooren 2007: 347; Rambo 1993). And yet, this recognition of variation—of conversion as a plural process—masks an underlying presupposition of invariance, since beyond its various actualizations, it is taken as axiomatic that conversion just is epistemic transformation, a rearrangement of beliefs or worldviews. In short, Windows epistemology, wherever one cares to look.8

In an effort to reconfigure this complacent vision of conversion—complacent because it has taken on all the firm and familiar consistency of unexamined common sense—I want to suggest that we leave behind the well-trodden province of epistemology and turn toward the more experimental territory of ontology. Such a move is not without precedent. Victor Turner cut the trail for this train of thought in his famous exploration of rites of passage. Such rites, he maintained, involve “not a mere acquisition of knowledge, but a change in being” (Turner 1967: 102). Turner’s argument, in other words, is that rites of passage actuate transformations that are much less epistemic than they are ontological. My argument here is that conversion merits consideration in the same terms. I should make it clear that my argument is emphatically not that epistemological issues are not implicated in conversions; for, no doubt, conversions involve their own particular modes of knowing, their own pedagogies, etc. (see Faubion 2001: 25–9). What is at issue, rather, is the epistemological model implicit in much conversion scholarship, wherein conversion qua transformation is assumed to be epistemic in a curiously restricted sense, understood merely as a shift from one cognitive scheme to another, or as a switching of pictures (“worldviews”, and so on). There are then, I suggest, numerous benefits in taking up this ontological perspective for the study of conversion, not least, what this approach can do for difference (which I take to be the anthropological property par excellence). Within Windows epistemology, difference is only admissible at the componental level, in the local and particular arrangement of social relations and the ingredient beliefs of the collective in question. But at the most fundamental level, that of the concept itself, conversion is basically the same in all its instantiations. In the ontological approach, by contrast, difference is admitted at the very start, for the question of what conversion might be awaits its determination in the encounter with actual ethnographic cases (see Henare, Holbraad, and Wastell 2007).9

A further advantage in adopting the ontological position relates to the materiality of religious practice. So long as conversion is conceived as epistemic, there is a tendency to assume that it is an ultimately invisible or inaccessible operation—an assumption that gives rise to the clock-handed language of “indicators,” of outward signs dimly denoting more important processes happening elsewhere. Indeed, Keane (2009) has recently argued that religion cannot be understood apart from the manner in which it is semiotically and materially mediated. Thus, concurring with Keane, and contrary to Zock, who asserts that “the social sciences aim at shedding light on the psychosocial reality behind conversion” (Zock 2006: 41; my emphasis), the method I advocate here will stick closely to conversion’s surfaces. For, if the epistemological impulse leads sociology to posit remote operations that take place behind the back of practices and materiality, my premise in this article is, instead, that conversion is not something that can be said to be somehow present prior to, or beyond, the ways in which it is structured, storified, made material, or otherwise given body by practice.

It is with these considerations in mind that I will aim to explore the ontological dimensions of conversion as these are disclosed in the practices of Mahikari, a Japanese new religion. In this particular ethnographic case, I shall consider the ways in which conversions are rendered sensibly and palpably present, in particular, through tactile practices. Conversion, in Mahikari practice, is bound up with what Taussig (2006) calls “viscerality”—that conjugation of flesh and sense, in which bodies constitute the prime materials for the play of revelation. Conversion so construed, as a kind of visceral contact, offers a challenge to the Authorizedversion of conversion accepted by so much sociology of religion. Arguing anthropologically, I suggest that the Authorized version is up for revision. But first, some necessary ethnographic introductions are in order.

Mahikari: a Japanese new religion

Sûkyô Mahikari (True-Light Supra-Religion) is a Japanese religion with a purported membership of half a million. It is one of a galaxy of new religious groups that have emerged in Japan since the latter half of the nineteenth century. In keeping with the fractious filiation of these groups, Sukyo Mahikari (henceforth, Mahikari) is an offshoot of an offshoot: a breakaway organization from Sekai Kyuseikyo (Church of World Messianity), itself a breakaway from Omoto (Great origin), an influential organization that did much to galvanize the imaginations of subsequent Japanese new religions.10 Mahikari traces its own origins back to the early hours of February 27, 1959, when Okada Yoshikazu became the recipient of an urgent revelation from god: “The time of heaven has come. Rise. Your name shall be Kotama [jewel of light]. Raise your hand. The world has entered severe times.” The god was Su no omikamisama (literally, “lord-great-god Su”—Su God, in short) and the imperative reference to “raising the hand” (te o kazasu) has to do with what would become Mahikari’s main practice: the transmission of divine light from the open hand. Okada Kotama, as he was now called, began to attract followers, and this led to the launching of the Mahikari organization in 1962. That same year—as further revelations had anticipated—was a turning point in cosmic history: the beginning of the “baptism of fire” (hi no senrei), the late phase of a divine plan and a period of escalating disasters and contaminations that will eventually end in a great blaze of purification. According to Okada, human beings, ancestors, and animal spirits will only be saved if they attune themselves to the unfolding of the divine plan, taking up the “practice of the true way” (seiho jissen) in preparation for the coming “spiritual civilization” (reibunmei) that will be founded in a purified and restructured world.

Conceptually, Mahikari shares many features with the cosmologies of the groups from which it emerged: most notably, an interest in the occult operations of spirits and divine powers, a concern with toxic threats to the body, and a recognition of the periodic necessity of cosmic regeneration. A significant difference, however, is that while its predecessors developed certain techniques of purification, Mahikari’s own practice is more systematic and, importantly, its exercise is not limited to those with specialist knowledge or charismatic capacity only. Rather, the ability to perform purification is open to everyone; all one has to do is to take a three-day training course (Davis 1980: 88; Okada 1993: 100–1, 123–4).11


Mahikari’s central practice—the manual transmission of divine light—is formally referred to as “the Mahikari technique” (Mahikari no waza), but more normally known simply as okiyome, “purification.” As Mahikari members say, okiyome may be done “at any time, anywhere, to anyone” (Okada 1993: 100–1), but it is most commonly done in the dojo, the training hall, the regular space for all serious practice, and, more specifically, the place where one “gets in touch with god” (kamisama to sessuru), as one Mahikari member put it to me (cf. Davis 1980: 1–2; Okada 1993: 127). Okiyome is a practice of purification, then, but many Mahikari activities have cleansing effects: reading divine books, cleaning the dojo, working at the reception desk, handing out leaflets in the streets, etc. Everything, in fact, that constitutes practice (jissen) in Mahikari involves purification; and, in this sense, doing is almost always purifying. Purification is thus something you do, but it is also something that happens. Sweating, for example, is purifying, because it purges the body of the dirt (yogore) that is inside it. So, similarly: fever, a runny nose, coughing, and crying—all these, as well, are everyday purifications for which we should feel gratitude (kansha). Thus, in this cosmology of essential corporeal functions, our bodies are obliged to the operations of purification.

As a practice, okiyome is seen as central because it allows human beings to actively intervene in the ever-accelerating process of pollution. This pollution comes in many kinds, from the accumulated impurities of karma (zaie), to the new pollutions of industrial modernity: pharmaceutical products, chemical additives, acid rain, and so on. All such toxic imports lodge in bodies to form “mud-poisons” (dakudoku), coagulating impurities that, unless melted and expelled by the autonomous actions of the body—defecation, perspiration, etc.—will engender “spirit-blocks” (reisho), a name given to any sort of obstruction or suffering. A body’s own purgative powers are, however, now no longer capable of dealing with the continual inflow of contaminants, hence the regular necessity of okiyome practice. The divine heat and light of okiyome works by liquefying these karmic and chemical pollutions, dissolving spirit-blocks, and reopening vital flows, both within the body and more widely without.

It is important to emphasize, however, that, notwithstanding its potential therapeutic effects, the primary purpose of okiyome is not curative, but salvific. Healing and sundry other benefits that practitioners testify to having received are deemed to be side-effects of the more essential operation of salvation that okiyome is designed to produce. In Mahikari understanding, then, okiyome is a technique for the production of salvation. But since purity and salvation are so intimately tied to the technical, they remain forever as contingent conditions, dependent on practice for their activation. Purity is always provisional; salvation is never safe.12 Mahikari members are therefore enjoined to engage in a kind of perpetual practice, an ongoing program of transformation that could well be described—in Foucauldian terms—as comprising “technologies of the self (Foucault 2000), so long as we recognize, with Hadot, that such transformative exercises refer not merely to a self itself, but also have, crucially, a cosmic range of reference (see Hadot 2002: 323–2). In this respect, Mahikari thought accords with broader Japanese cosmological conceptions, especially developed in the new religions, wherein the self is the vital center of a mobile and extended network of material, spiritual, and ethical connections. Transformations at the level of the self have the potential to transmit their effects across the system, with cosmological consequences (Hardacre 1986: Ch. 1; Köpping 1977: 141–3). It is for these reasons that transformative techniques, and the exigency of their regular repetition, are held to be so central in Mahikari and in other Japanese religious groups. By the same token, the body, as the vehicle of technique, is regarded as a major cosmic and soteriological operator.13 But this mention of the body leads me to turn to the matter of conversion, for it is my claim in this article that in Mahikari conversions, it is bodies that matter.


As might, perhaps, be expected, there is in Mahikari a whole battery of terms that stand for transformation, both as happening and as aspiration. Among them, sonen tenkan (change of the innermost attitude), shinko (turning toward God), shinseika (divine transformation), and so forth. Now the sense of these expressions all turn on “turning”—that is to say, on “conversion,” which is just what conversion, etymologically speaking, means (see Hadot 2002: 223–4). But most pertinent for the purposes of my argument is a further term: henka. In ordinary Japanese, henka simply means “transformation,” “change” (though without the economic or transactional implications of the latter word), and in Mahikari, the term carries the same meaning, but its usage tends to be tied to a particular context: that of the practice of okiyome. The term henka, then, is typically used to refer to the transformative effects of divine light, given or received in okiyome practice. Thus, it is not uncommon for the recipient of okiyome to be asked the question, just after a session is finished, “Did you have any henka?” (Henka arimashita ka?). A typical reply would be to say, for example, that one’s body felt warmer. One member of a Mahikari dojo I often visited, once asked me in a more extensive sense whether I had had any henka since joining the group. I had to think a little. Well, I said, I thought I was drinking less. For her part, she said that her desire to drink alcohol had gone away.

Such cursory examples show that henka therefore designate changes of various scales and intensities, great or small, immediate or those more slowly unfolding, from variations in temperature, to shifts in temperament. It is important to stress, however, that the references of henka are not to abstract or intellectual changes, but almost always to specific, sensible, and tangible transitions. That henka so often nominate some particular, palpable experience is indicated by the fact that, following a session of okiyome, a representative reply (were it to be in the affirmative) to the question, “Did you have any henka?” would be a deictic response, to say, “Yes,—here,” and touch a place on one’s body. And I suggest that it is here, in contact with this henka-effect, that the seemingly untouchable model of conversion advanced in sociology comes to be much less convincing. (If I translate henka as “conversion” it is in order to bring this particular Mahikari concept of change to bear upon what passes for “religious change,” and this in order to change the latter.) For, when tactically opposed to the sociological model, the tactile and sensuous sense of henka transgresses the model in all kinds of anthropologically interesting ways. Not least because, as I have already attempted to argue above, the sociological comprehension of conversion—the Windows vision—is unable to grasp what conversion, as transformation, might be, beyond epistemic change.14 The Mahikari theory of transformation subverts a number of sociological certainties. Among them (less a principle of method than a generally unexamined article of faith), the view that conversion can only be apprehended second-hand or indirectly, because its ultimate point of origin lies beyond corporeality, untouched by the effects of practice. The Mahikari practice of okiyome suggests otherwise, and we will need to consider its performance, and the scope of henka-effects it can produce, in more detail, in order to see how this is so.

The procedure of purification

How, then, does the technique of okiyome proceed? In its standard format—as practiced in the dojo—okiyome is performed by two people sitting on the floor. One, the “light-giver” (sekosha) holds up their hand and transmits divine light to the body of the other, the “light-receiver” (jukosha), who either sits or lies down; their direction and position is determined by whichever area of their body is being purified. Normally, okiyome proceeds in three phases, in which purification is given to the three most vital zones of the body respectively: to the forehead, to the back of the head, and, finally, to the small of the back. A comprehensive session of purification lasts around fifty minutes, during which the three phases are oriented toward various “vital points” (kyusho)—twenty-seven specific positions that punctuate the body—that have a somewhat similar function to the pressure points (tsubo) in acupuncture. Indeed, as a practice concerned with maintaining the proper currency of the body via diverse points charted across the body’s surfaces, okiyome has certain affinities with acupuncture. The special point of the kyusho, however, is that they mark the locations where toxins coagulate inside the body, the “places where poison accumulates easily” (doku ga atsumari-yasui tokoro).

In order to illustrate how okiyome plays out in practice, I will describe an instance in which I was given light by Tani-san, a Mahikari member in his sixties. I had already received okiyome to my forehead from another member, when Tani-san offered to take over and begin the second phase, in which divine light is directed at the back of the head.

Tani-san placed his hand on the back of my head, apologizing for his impoliteness as one commonly does before touching the other’s body during okiyome. I felt him pressing the back of my neck hard, probing the flesh with his thumb—an almost painful exploration—his hand working slowly down, digging into my vertebrae.

With the second phase finished, Tani-san asked me to lie down on my stomach and he spread a blanket over my legs. Kneeling close on my right side, his back toward me, he found point number one and began giving light to it. Minutes later, I felt his hands on my back again.

“It’s blocked here” (koko, tsumatte’ru), he pronounced, indicating a particular spot. That is why your spine is curved, he continued. “The mud-poison is pushing at the bone” (dakudoku ga hone o oshite’ru). He twisted his body round so that I could see him and, lifting his arm, he crooked his wrist to illustrate the effects of distortion, the process that he had diagnosed inside me. I admitted to him that I have always had bad posture (nekoze, literally, a “cat’s back”).

“Your back will continue to bend” (magatte iku), Tani-san warned. He set about giving light to it. From time to time he would probe the line along my spinal column; it almost felt to me as if he was trying to divine some sort of channel, some direction in which the toxins were moving. I decided to ask him as much: “Have you found a line of flow (nagare-kata)?”

He hesitated. “Not sure” (wakaranai kedo), he said eventually. Then he pointed out a place on my lower back. “But if I do okiyomehere, it feels different” (kanji-kata wa chigau), he ventured. I asked if he could feel toxins melting there.

Again, he voiced some uncertainty: “I don’t know completely” (hakkiri wakaranai). Tani-san continued feeling and giving okiyome down the line, until he reached a place at the base of my spine. He prodded a spot. “It’s blocked here” (koko tsumatte’ru), he asserted. Because of the blockage, he went on, the toxins cannot flow through and they are causing the bend in the backbone higher up.

Tani-san moved on to investigate my shoulders. He found a place behind my shoulder blade. “Tsumatte’ru” (it’s blocked), he said. He held his hand over the area, giving it okiyome. Next, he turned his attention to my left arm resting flat on the tatami mat. It feels hard (katai), he suggested, massaging it, and he gave it light as well. Returning to my shoulder blade, he felt that he had located another area of accumulated mud-poison. Purifying the location, he worked his way up to my neck and, finally, the space behind my left ear.

“The time is up,” Tani-san announced at last I got up onto my knees and we prayed together.

Conversion and contact

There are different tactics of touching in okiyome, different styles of manual contact. Some people are very methodical, massaging the flesh in quest of the vital points and other hard spots under the skin. Others, women especially, touch more lightly, barely brushing the skin with their fingers. More than a few avoid direct contact—for the sake of politeness—interposing a handkerchief between their hand and the unclothed parts of the other’s body, the back of the neck in particular. Sometimes, both hands are used, in feeling for the kyusho point number one, for example, with fingers and thumbs passing down the spine and then moving outwards across the small of the back, in order to discover the point above the kidney. Or a hand may be used to hold the body steady. There are other occasions when only a light, flat contact is required, a gentle press of the palm against the body, so as to measure the level of heat on the body’s surfaces. The palm of the hand is like a thermometer (ondokei), Mahikari members sometimes say, and hot parts of the body indicate areas where toxins are melting. Different styles of palpation, different manners, differing exertions of pressure: some exercising a subtle touch, others pushing their fingers in. I could feel that Tani-san was unmistakably of this latter sort, as he firmly thrust his fingers into the muscles of my back, in search of obstructions.

Now, it is quite clear from my account of Tani-san ’s practice—a typical instance of okiyome performance—that my body for him was a substance touched by internal interruptions, the congestions of mud-poison. He felt as if he could uncover different densities in the texture of my body—my back was blocked in places, my upper left arm, for him, felt hard—and that this was a detection done more by touch than by sight; it was, for the most part, a haptic examination. Just as evident, however, is that my body was not a transparent medium but a cryptic substance that could only be read on its surfaces, the processes at work in its depths divined mainly through the hands, hence Tani-san ’s hesitations and admissions of uncertainty. Tani-san was feeling for a diagnosis, but he did not simply diagnose, he also aimed to intervene, aiming his hand at my back, my arm, my neck, in order to purify and remove the obstructions under my skin; the object of his practice was to interrupt these interruptions. This, then, is what we might speak of as the circular reasoning of okiyome: it works toward the restoration and promotion of flows, dissolving the toxic circuit-breakers in the body and reestablishing circulation.

Light and tactility

Under the light of okiyome bodies are said to “become soft” (yawarakaku naru), to “become warm” (at’takaku naru) or, just generally, to “become better” (yoku nam). In giving okiyome, one searches the other’s body, on the look out for hard places, cold places—such areas are “sick”; they are areas of reisho (spirit-blocks). But one also attempts to find warm places, hot spots, felt most effectively with the palm of the hand—the manual thermometer. If part of the body feels “hot” or “feverish” (netsuga aru), if it feels like a “place that is burning up” (moeagatte’ru tokoro) then this is taken as a hesitant indication that toxins “seem to be melting” (tokaso) at that spot. In either case, one should direct okiyome to both cold and hot locations, either to heat up and soften the body, or to further heat up, and so further promote, a melting in the body that is already occurring. At all points during the process, one should be purifying and testing, purifying and testing again, assessing the texture and temperature of the body for any changes. Yumiko-san, an older member, put the matter clearly. Advising me while I was giving okiyome to the back of her head, she suggested that I feel her neck, “check if it has become soft” (yawarakaku natta ka tashikameru). If so, then this is evidence that “the dirt is flowing” (yogore ga nagarete ru).

It is common among Mahikari members to have an appreciation of light, of the tangible sensations of okiyome: hot, radiant contact. Receiving okiyome, people will often say that they feel “warm” (at’takai) or that they can “feel the light” (mihikari o kanjite iru). One woman in the dojo said to me, as I gave okiyome to her neck, that “I’m getting fantastic light—it’s warm” (Sugoi mihikari o itadaite ‘ru ne—at’takai desu). And, again, afterwards, “A really good feeling. It’s warm” (Sugoi kimochi yokatta. At’takai desu). Such sentiments are fairly typical. Another member’s exclamation, just after okiyome: “I received enough light that it almost brought me out in a sweat!” (ase deru gurai mihikari o itadaite’ru desu). And a woman, during okiyome, quietly conversing with her partner, was describing okiyome she had received from the head of the dojo, the day before: “Amazing light!” She said, “The way it melts is different...” (Mihikari sugoi! Toke-kata ga chigau...). Here we see that the light of okiyome is said to differ not only in its texture, but also in its intensity.

But I would like to draw attention to a fact that is perhaps less obvious, that just beyond the surface of the sense of okiyome—the sense of melting heat and amazing light—is this more general matter of the body being contacted, and it is this contact that touches off transformation. By this meaning of “contact,” it might be thought that the only touching done in okiyome is the conspicuous feeling of the body in search of the vital points and the testing of the body’s texture. There is also, though, a kind of contact that is more mysterious but no less palpable: the touch of divine light. To be sure, at the very moment of giving okiyome one raises one’s hand over the body of the other, one does not touch the other, skin to skin—this being a gesture made before or after radiation, in order to check its effects or to explore the body for the next point of purification. But, in a sense, the touch of light goes deeper than the actual touching of the hand, since, as Mahikari members will say, the divine light “penetrates” the body, “runs through” it (torinukeru, tsuranuku), and, in giving okiyome, one is supposed to focus one’s attention on this piercing action in order to further incite it.

There is, then, the possibility of a tangible sensation of light in giving okiyome—Tani-san ’s saying that the okiyome to a part of my body felt different—and in receiving it too, in feeling warm, feeling good, feeling flows inside the body. And so, while I place great importance on the manifest and intimate touching of the hands on the body in okiyome, I would also insist on this other touch: the tangibility of light, for light, too, touches. “Tactility,” as Vasseleu points out, “is an essential aspect of light’s texture” (Vasseleu 1998: 12).

A body touched by okiyome is said to feel changed—purified, above all, but under this heading also melted, softened, or, in some way, moved. There is a horizon of expectation about how a body may feel in okiyome, a range of possible movements and sensations that are, however, neither precisely fixed nor foreseeable. It is generally expected, however, that the contact of divine light is transformative, and that such transformations are concretely sensible, tangible, and very often visible. okiyome ’s progress is the transition from a cold, hard body to a softer warmer one, from the impurity of interruption to the purity of flow.

A body touched by divine light may register its transformations in the smallest of ways, as a tingling heat on the skin, for instance. Or, one can feel more deeply touched, a sense of movement right inside oneself—visceral tactility. Feelings of flow, of passage, and outpouring are not uncommon. A person may say that they sweat, they may cry—during the first phase of okiyome, a person receiving light may shed tears, on occasion. Or, one can expect more dramatic eruptions, more violent streamings across the body’s surfaces. Tanizaki-san, a Mahikari member at the main dojo in osaka, who always had a supply of fascinating stories on tap, told me once that, years ago, when he had just begun in Mahikari, he was drying himself after taking a shower, now pressing the towel to his face, when he saw that the towel was wet with his own blood; his face was perspiring blood, a palpable sign of intense cleansing. In fact, one hears such accounts all the time, ordinary reports of the miraculous that constitute taikendan (experience stories), members’ testimonies that are delivered at meetings and published in Mahikari books and magazines. One popular work in English is thick with experiences of the aftereffects of okiyome, of upsurging legions and effluvia, of “pain, fever, sniffling, phlegm, mucous, coughing, vomit, diarrhoea, boils, pimples, skin rashes, discharges of dark blood (from the nose, ears, bowels, genitals),” etc, etc. (Tebècis 1988: 215). Members testify, sometimes in graphic detail, to the transformations happening in their bodies. One speaks of his “whole head feeling full of fluid” and then the unblocking, the “bright yellow gunk that just kept pouring out” every time he blew his nose. Another tells of the “blood” and the “rainbow of pus” that streamed from his ear (Tebècis 1988: 214–26). Here, bodies bear witness to the truth of okiyome. Touched by the light, a sweating, streaming body, a body moved, transformed, is both the expectant outcome of okiyome and the concrete affirmation of its truth; both the proof and the process, testimony and effect. As one Mahikari member signs off his account of miraculous healing: “Thank you Su God for such an elimination and demonstration” (Tebècis 1988: 223).


“Flesh,” write Deleuze and Guattari, “is only the thermometer of a becoming” (Deleuze and Guattari 1994: 179), and we might remember that the light-giver’s hand has this function, employed as a manual thermometer (ondokei), to be occasionally pressed flat against the recipient’s skin, in order to measure and monitor the transformative reactions of a body to divine light. That is to say, contrary to sociological orthodoxy, conversion can be felt by a person seemingly external to its process. For the Mahikari practitioner, giving light, the body of her partner presents itself as a field of tensive and soft surfaces, of colder and hotter folds, ridges and hollows. The constellation of kyusho (vital points) serve, in part, as points of orientation around this territory so familiar on its surfaces, enfolding the cryptic tissue of the interior, a visceral space of flows to be promoted and obstructions to be unblocked—the problem of conversion, figured and felt out in practice. But the flesh is not a thermometer only; it is both the measure and the medium, for, as both Mauss and Pascal argued—arriving, as it were, at the insights of a Japanese new religion without knowing it—the body is itself instrumental, generative; the vital vehicle of its own transformation.

In Mahikari, then, as I have endeavored to demonstrate, the paramount practice of okiyome is said to effect sensuous transitions and movements, tangible transformations. The extent of these henka-effects ranges from the very skinniest of occurrences—the softness of a neck, the heat that one might feel in the small of someone’s back—to more irruptive flows and streamings. But whether these are minor corporeal sensations or more sensational stirrings of the body, all such transitions disclose the palpable presence of conversions in Mahikari practice; conversions that are intensively ontological operations, concerned, as they are, with the problem and project of becoming.

If conversion’s turn is ontological, less an acquisition of knowledge, than a change in being—to return to Turner’s formulation (Turner 1967: 102)—then it is not my intention to suggest that conversion, always and everywhere, must necessarily conform to the visceral, tactile type exhibited in Mahikari. I do not think, however, that this is a wholly foreign concept, for it sometimes shows up closer to home, in the more familiar territory of Christianity. In a marvelous, open moment in his Gifford Lectures, William James—sounding very like Taussig—touches on the viscerality of conversion when he writes (of saints like Paul and of prophets like Fox) that, “The subjects here actually feel themselves played upon by powers beyond their will. The evidence is dynamic; the God or spirit moves the very organs of their body” (James 1985: 478; my italics).

Why, then, have these seemingly strange intuitions not been followed by the sociology of religion? It is tempting to speculate. In a recent assessment of the state of the art in the sociology of conversion, Bromley declares that the “multidimensional conception of conversion moves theorizing away from traditional religious/spiritual interpretations and toward a socio-political process of shifting individual alliances and social network identification” (Bromley 2009: 733).

Now, what is, I think, striking about this formulation, is that sociology’s trajectory of theory—conceived as an advance—has turned away from religion. As such, this statement merely marks the consummation of a project that the sociology of religion undertook long ago, equivalent to that program in philosophy that A. J. Ayer (1971) once imperiously entitled, “the elimination of metaphysics.” As Latour sarcastically remarks, “it became obvious for most sociologists of religion, that God cannot have any role in the behavior of any believer who says things like ‘God makes me do this,’ ‘God revealed this to me’ or ‘inspired me’ or ‘saved me’ “ (Latour 2001: 229). In spite of what the natives may say, conversion is a hard-nosed “sociopolitical process,” easily bracketed from any traffic with divine agencies or entities.15 And yet, there is a suspicion that the sociological disavowal of metaphysics has not been entirely successful. For, having, as it were, been served with the disciplinary equivalent of an ASBo (in this case, less an Anti-Social, than an Anti-Sociological Behavior order),16 it is perhaps no surprise to find that metaphysics remains on the loose, making mischief with the method. For I suggest that sociology of conversion’s analytical meta-language is animated by the all too familiar metaphysics of Christian theology. It constitutes a Protestant etic, if you will. For what, in the end, justifies the methodological distinction between the interior and exterior of conversion, with a privileging of the former, and consequent de-emphasis on practice and corporeality, if it is not a metaphysics of a particular kindP This is, I think, clearly seen in the sociological notion of “empirical indicators”—those visible indexes of conversion that gesture toward a more authentic interior process. Such a notion simply repeats, in a more secular, scientific register, the Calvinist doctrine of the signum visibile, the “visible sign,” according to which devotional practices cannot be constitutive of transformation, but are merely indicative of changes taking place within the person.

In any case, it seems to me that the anthropology of conversion can be more generous with its conceptions. For if it is true to say that anthropology is a kind of Deleuzian endeavor, concerned with the creation of new concepts (see Henare, Holbraad, and Wastell 2007), then what the theory of conversion requires is not further refinement, redefinition, or synthesis (pace Gooren 2007), but onto logical transformation. In a word: conversion.


The research upon which this article was based was funded by an Economic and Social Research Council studentship. I would like to thank Professor Nakamaki Hirochika, of the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, for his generous help while I was in the field. An earlier version was presented at the Cosmology Workshop, at the Department of Anthropology, University College London. The “Curl” version was subsequently presented at the Department of Social Anthropology, at the University of St Andrews. Among the many helpful comments and suggestions received, thanks are owed especially to Allen Abramson, Martin Holbraad, Ioannis Kyriakakis, Christina Toren, and Huon Wardle. I am also grateful to Keith Hart for his kind support. Thanks are also due to the anonymous reviewers of Hau. My argument is all the poorer where I have failed to follow their guidance. This article is dedicated to the loving memory of Masuoka Hana, without whom this research in Japan would not have been possible.


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Toucher la conversion : Transformations tangibles dans une nouvelle religion japonaise

Résumé : Cet article vise à explorer le concept de conversion par le biais des pratiques de transformation du Mahikari, une nouvelle religion japonaise. Il fait valoir que les préoccupations épistémologiques des théories actuelles de la sociologie de la conversion sont insuffisantes pour la compréhension de la conversion en tant que transformation. Il recommande pour ce faire une approche ontologique par laquelle les conversions Mahikari apparaissent comme des transitions viscérales, sensuelles, médiatisées par le toucher. En conclusion, l’article tente une critique anthropologique de la sociologie de la religion qui s’est détournée de la religion.

Philip Swift is Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, University College London. He is the author of “Divinity and experiment: conversion in a Japanese jam jar,” in Making spirits: materiality and transcendence in contemporary religions, edited by Nico Tassi and Diana Espirito Santo (forthcoming). His research interests include Japanese new religions, ritual theory, and the anthropology of cosmology.


1. This article was awarded the Curl Essay Prize 2009, by the Royal Anthropological Institute.

2. Exceptions include Belzen 1999; Coleman 2000: Ch. 5; Preston 1988. See also Glazier 2003: 165–6 and Norris 2003, whose contributions I will comment on below. Pascal—and what I take to be the performative import of his argument—has so far been neglected in the research on the body’s relations to conversion. The thinker most often invoked in this regard is, in fact, Bourdieu, who was himself fond of citing the particular Pascalian pensée with which I begin this article (see, e.g., Bourdieu 1990: 48–9). But Bourdieu’s own invocations of Pascal show up why his theory of the habitus is a problematic candidate for making sense of conversion. Bourdieu’s interest is not in conversion—at least, not in the conversion of social actors; the conversion of the sociologist is another matter (see note 7, below)—but in the social reproduction of belief by the body. This reading of Pascal—as an unlikely theorist of ideological embodiment—goes back to Althusser and can be seen, with rather different intellectual effects and motivations, in the work of Zizek (1989: 36–9).

3. To say all this is merely to repeat the main criticisms made by Mauss in his review of James’ book in 1904 (see Mauss 1968: 58–65). Observing the lack of fit between the apparent amplitude suggested by the book’s title ( Varieties) and the narrowness of its actual content, Mauss rather mischievously proposed an alternative appellation for James’ Gifford Lectures: A study of some psychological states pertaining to religgion (Mauss 1968: 63).

4. Snow and Machalek are quite unequivocal on this point. Practices such as baptism, testimony, etc., “often signify little more than ritualized performance . . . [of] little enduring significance” (1984: 173). Yet Gooren—in his own overview of the sociology of conversion—cites Snow and Machalek’s paper as being one of the few contributions to have, he says, emphasized “the importance of rituals” (Gooren 2007: 348).

5. To be sure, Bromley’s article (2001) is not concerned with the mechanisms or effects of conversion, but rather with the conflict of interpretations being fought over the legitimacy of the two terms, “conversion” and “brainwashing.” Yet he regards these designations as mere labels for a process (transformation itself) that takes place beyond their influence. In other words, he seems to believe, along with other sociologists of conversion, that transformation has some separate existence on the hither side of discourse, practice, or similar mediations by which transformation is instituted. Compare Shimazono 2004: 178, who remarks of conversion that, “Unless it is reported by those who have experienced it, there is no way we might know what it means.” The same objection applies. Conversion, as a purely self-present, exclusive experience would simply lack all meaning as conversion. See Keane 2009: 109 for a more general argument along these lines.

6. If, from the point of view of sociology, conversion cannot be seen, it is somewhat ironic; since, within the history of Christianity, and clearly visible beyond it in other techniques and traditions, conversions have so often been connected with an economy of vision, with the restoration and transformation of sight, with witnessing, and with seeing more deeply (see Eliade 1962; Hadot 2002: 223–5). Paul, arguably our most conspicuous convert, was famously unable to see, struck blind by the light. The sequel is perhaps less well remembered: he was subsequently taken in hand and touched by Ananias, who baptized him (Acts 9:8–18).

7. One might be inclined to say that this purported reference to Bourdieu is, like conversion “itself,” not directly observable. It seems to me, in any case, that appeals to Bourdieuean theory are of questionable utility for understanding conversion. For, in so far as conversion is a question of transformation, Bourdieu’s habitus is a rather inflexible construct. The habitus is the space of unconscious reproduction, untouchable to intentionality and utterly unmoved, as Bourdieu says (1977: 94), by “voluntary, deliberate transformation.” This immunity of the habitus to the effects of intentional action renders his theory unable to make much sense of practices of self-cultivation, innovation, or change. (This difficulty often appears to pass unrecognized by those who deploy Bourdieu for these purposes, e.g., Flood 2004: 6.) Moreover, Bourdieu himself does indeed speak of conversion (and of metanoia, its Greek equivalent), but this designates a power of transformative vision available only to sociology. For it is the sociologist uniquely who may, through the hard act of epistemological conversion, ascend to a quasi-transcendental perspective of the social world; a world in which others who might claim to have been converted can only be living in a state of illusio (see Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 248–53).

8. For affirmations of the “worldview” worldview, see Bruce 2006: 1, 10; Buckser and Glazier 2003: xi; Gooren 2007: 350. For an early and influential expression of the idea that conversion can be defined as a change of worldviews, see Lofland and Stark 1965. Snow and Machalek (1983) were quite right to point out that the “what” of what changes in conversion is seldom spelled out in the literature. Their own solution (that what changes is the convert’s ”universe of discourse”) is an undoubted advance on previous hazy formulations, since it recognized that conversion goes deeper than a change of “beliefs”; it being no mere “matter of rearranging the trivial elements of one’s consciousness as one rearranges furniture” (Snow and Machalek 1983: 265). Yet, to the extent to which conversion is still figured as a “transformation of consciousness ... indicated by the [convert’s] talk and reasoning” (1983: 279), the conceptualization of conversion remains epistemic; it just takes place at greater depth. It is, then, merely an updated version of the Windows framework: a vista epistemology, if you will.

9. One might add: historical cases as well. Because the sociology of conversion predetermines its object in certain, significant ways, it does not take sufficient account of its historicity. Consider, for example, Rodney Stark’s attempt to explain the rapid expansion of Christianity in the Roman empire (Stark 1997). In a consummate case of what Milbank (2006: 115) has identified as that “tendency to suppose, that by invoking ‘sociology’ we are given a magical access to a pre-textual level,” Stark’s enquiry proceeds on the assumption that conversion can already be rendered perfectly intelligible and objective in advance of any serious reflection on historical materials. By employing a model previously conceived in a study of the Unification Church (see Lofland and Stark 1965), Stark all too easily equates conversion with affiliation to a religious group (Stark 1997: 15–21). But, in doing so, his analysis thereby passes right over what is most historically (and anthropologically) interesting about the extant evidence, which is that social actors in Late Antiquity simply did not configure conversion in these terms. Stark therefore presupposes exactly what it is that most requires explanation: namely, the question of just what conversion was in Late Antiquity. I am grateful to Joe Streeter for bringing this book to my attention, and for his instructive comments on the nature of the historical evidence.

10. Strictly speaking, Sukyo Mahikari is itself a breakaway from Sekai Mahikari Bunmei Kyodan (Church of the World True-Light Civilization). Following the founder’s death in 1974, there was a dispute over the succession to the leadership that led ultimately to the formation of Sukyo Mahikari in 1978, by Okada Keishu, the founder’s adopted daughter. For studies of Mahikari, see, e.g., Davis 1980; Knecht and Hatanaka 1993; Köpping 1967. For a recent investigative account of Okada’s foundational revelation of 1959, and its secular sources, see Broder 2008.

11. Everyone, that is, with the exception of children under ten years of age.

12. This notion of the everyday inevitability of pollution and the concomitant contingency of purity is a recurrent theme in Japanese cosmological formations more generally, especially evident in ascetic practices. Thus, see Blacker 1999: 42; Raveri 1990: 259.

13. On the significance given to the body in Japanese religious practices in general, see Kawano 2005; Pye 1997. Watanabe 2008 is an excellent ethnography on the central recognition of the transformative capacities of bodies in Shingon Buddhism.

14. An anonymous reviewer for HAU has quite rightly pointed out that henka, in standard Japanese, “does not connote religious conversion at all,” for which the technical term-in Japanese sociology at least—would be kaishin or kaishû. Quite so. But, as Kawakami observes (2007: 23), without the qualifying adjective “religious,” the most basic translation of the English word “conversion” into Japanese would be tenkan (“change,” “transformation”). The relevant question, then, as Kawakami goes on to ask, is what it is that changes? This, too, is precisely the question framed by henka in Mahikari.

15. In an excellent historical study of conversion in twelfth-century Europe, Morrison chides the social sciences for passing over questions of God, grace, etc. “Metaphysics,” he remarks, is not a subject “much cherished by sociologists, anthropologists or historians” (Morrison 1992: xvi). Without speaking for the other two professions, I would suggest that, on the contrary, anthropology has specialized in this area since its professional inception. For what else are our founding accounts of divine kings, collapsing granaries, and kularings, if not exercises in alternative metaphysics?

16. The ASBo, for those readers unfamiliar with this quaint British legal custom, is broadly similar, in American law, to the restraining order.