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Summer 2000 ASCJ Conference Details

17.  Conversion Religious and Secular: Asian Perspectives  

Chair: Megumi  Takasaki, International  Christian University and John Clammer, Sophia University

Organizer:   John Clammer, Sophia University, and Megumi Takasaki, International Christian University

    Studies of conversion have been a fairly prominent theme in the anthropology and sociology of religion in the West and more recently in Africa. Relatively few attempts have been made to explore this phenomenon in Asia – of conversions to religion from an agnostic stance, between religions or from religions formally defined to secular positions of social commitment (such as Asian varieties of socialism). This panel proposed to initiate scholarly discussion of these phenomena in Asian settings and from a variety of Asian theoretical and religious perspectives. It is also the case that much of the existing literature on conversion is historical in nature. This panel proposes to take an anthropological approach and to explore the emerging political and identity paradigms that have been applied elsewhere in the world to religious and ideological transformations of individuals and communities in a range of contemporary East, Southeast and South Asian societies and cultures.

 1)      John Clammer, Sophia University. "Conversion, Performativity and Transformation of Cultural Identity:  Chinese Buddhism, Christianity and Japanese New Religions in Southeast Asia"

    The traditional religious scene in much of Southeast Asia has been transformed by  two forces – the appearance on the scene of what are effectively new religions and in particular Protestant and Pentecostal forms of Christianity and the Japanese "new religions" on the one hand and "modernized" forms of older religious practices including revivals of both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, neo-Hindu cults and varieties of Islamic renewal movements on the other. These alternatives and their complex relationship with secular forces of nationalism, capitalism and in some cases socialism, have fundamentally altered older patterns of identity politics, including ethnicity, gender and caste and have through the process of conversion or potential conversion transformed the nature of identities, the cultural politics underlying them and patterns of syncretism, and hence cultures themselves. This paper will look at a variety of examples of such processes and will attempt to build a more theoretical model for their explanation.

 2)      Hideaki Matsuoka, University of California, Berkeley. "Messianity Makes the Person Useful:  Describing Differences in a Japanese Religion in Brazil"

 "Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!  I don't have words to explain. If you visit Guarapiranga,

the sacred place the Church of World Messianity in Brazil, a Japanese new religion, and ask the followers their impressions, many of them will answer like this way. Japanese new religions have propagated in Brazil since 1930s and now they have at least a million non-Japanese Brazilian followers. Three major religions ranked by the number of followers are:  Seicho-No-Ie, Messianity, and Perfect Liberty. Besides churches, these religions have their own sacred places around Sao Paulo where their headquarters

are. There is a sharp contrast between these Japanese New Religions' sacred places and those of other Brazilian religions; in its size, structure, and symbolism. Compared to both Catholic churches and gathering places Brazilian spiritism such as Umbanda and Kardecismo, these sacred places are extensive. They look like small villages in the countryside; they have hills, creeks, and lodgings where pilgrims can stay. They may be considered theme parks full of religious symbols such as waterfalls, woods, and altars.

Though the relationship between religious space and experience is something worth looking into, not much has been done in the anthropology of religion. Focusing

on Messianity's sacred place, Guarapiranga, I will try to elucidate three questions; how

Japaneseness and Braziliedade are integrated, how the followers experience the sacredness in this "forest of symbols," and which position does this sacred place occupy in Brazilian religious arena.

 3) Itoh Masayuki, University of Tokyo. "Conversion to the New Religions in Japan" 

   While it is recognized that "new religions" are a major social and religious phenomenon in Japan and are widely studied as such, relatively little systematic attention has been paid to conversion to these religions and in particular the previous religious background and identity of members, and how conversion influences their relationships with their previous belief systems. This paper, attempts to explore these links and transformations in social patterns (for example in family relationships, relationships to neighbors and colleagues), using recent data from a number of new religious movements in contemporary Japan.

 4)   Megumi Takasaki, International Christian University. "Hidden Christians in Japan and Conversion to Shinto"

    This paper examines a group of people who made a group conversion from Hidden Christianity to Shinto in the early 1990s. In the context of the region in which they reside, Hidden Christianity is a given. However, once they face the people from outside, they need to explain themselves, but at the same time they know that people may see them as strange holding such an "outdated" religion. They think of themselves as "too strange" to claim diversity within the Japanese context. This paper tries to show that the group conversion is their attempt to make their collective identity legitimate and acceptable.  

Discussant: Richard Gardner, Sophia University