REL 360 Presents: Room 11 & In Leila’s Room

REL 360–our one credit hour course–is hosting its final movie night of the semester! We’ll be viewing two films–one created by one of our own profs, Dr. Suma Ikeuchi. Continue reading

Pagan Rites in Space

Yes, cosmonauts apparently all pee on the back right tire of the bus that carries them to the launch pad, before they take off.

At least the guys do; but the ladies are said to bring a vial of urine to pour on the tire.

It’s a ritual. Continue reading

Ar·ti·facts with Prof. Ikeuchi


The second episode in our third season of ar·ti·facts features our new prof, Dr. Ikeuchi, and a fond memento from a pilgrimage she took with her father. Be sure to watch it!

Ar·ti·facts: Taking the Scenic Route with Prof. Suma Ikeuchi from UA Religious Studies.

Why Do They Touch the Phallus? Or, Diverging Theories of Ritual

One night during my fieldwork among Brazilian migrant communities in Japan, I was invited to a dinner at Daniel’s apartment. He and his girlfriend frequented a local Brazilian evangelical church that I was studying. After the dinner, they started talking about the “strange festival” in Komaki, a city one-hour drive away from where they lived. The festival took place the previous week (on March 15 2014) and they came across its footage online. The Hōnen Festival at Tagata Shrine is best known for its 280 kg (620 pound), 2.5 meter (96 inch)-long wooden phallus, which is carried around on the streets during the celebration. The object is supposedly the embodiment of prosperity, bountiful harvest, and fertility. The youtube video above can give you some idea of what Daniel and Sachi saw.

“Nossa (Wow)! These women flock to the phallus and try real hard to touch it! They think they can get pregnant that way!” They exclaimed in a critical tone. Laughing hard at the whole comicalness of this festival, I responded, “Ah, c’mon, it’s just fun, that’s why most people try to touch it! Do you really think these Japanese women believe in it?”

Yes!” They answered.

Continue reading

Messing Up at Starbucks, or the Ritual Order of Choice


I’m a regular customer at Starbucks. Several times a week, I walk into one, order a drink, wait for it, say thank you, and walk out. I’m sure many of you do the same thing pretty often, if not every day, without even thinking about it.

But I once failed miserably at this banal procedure. It was my first year in the US and I had just arrived from Japan, so many things were still new to me. But Starbucks was definitely not new. I had spent so many hours there studying as an undergraduate student in Japan that it felt like my habitat, even though I was now in Boston. I walked into one store and everything looked familiar – the menu, employees’ uniform, and interior.

“What would you like, ma’am?” It was my turn to order. “Café misto, please?” I answered (or something of the sort). Then the employee – a nice young woman – said something that I had never heard before: “holetoopercetskimhaffanhafforsoy.”

OK, that’s how it sounded to my unprepared ears, but she was in reality asking me: “whole, 2%, skim, half&half, or soy.” After some back-and-forth, I figured out that she was asking me to choose what kind of milk I wanted them to use to make my drink – a choice I had never been given or heard of in Japan. By this point, the nice young lady who was dealing with me was visibly frustrated. She probably thought I was having a hard time understanding English. Instead, I was having a hard time trying to understand why on earth choosing the kind of milk matters at all. I was having a hard time because they had violated the ritual I thought I knew so well – and in that ritual, milk was a non-question. Anyway, I eventually said what I honestly thought:

“Um, can you just pick one for me? I honestly don’t care what kind of milk it is.”

And the young woman looked at me as if I were an alien. Now it seemed I had violated her ritual as well. In that ritual, I imagine, no matter how little you care about the thing, you still pick something. It’s on you. The choice is on you. I don’t remember what happened next. All I remember is my thought as I walked out of the place: It’s just milk!

But of course it’s not just about milk (although if you think that way, great!). It’s about how many of our daily little rituals are predicated on tacit assumptions about how the world functions, which in turn reflect cultural, ideological, and political orders that shape our lives. In forsaking the small right – and in fact the obligation – to choose (but never outside of the neat options they created and bind us to), I think I violated one of the most cherished ideals in the US, which is the myth of personal choice. By “myth,” I don’t mean a fake story but a shared narrative that becomes so valuable to a group of people that an alternative reality becomes difficult to conceive. You think I’m stretching it too far? Here, listen to Barry Schwartz, professor of social theory and author of The Paradox of Choice“In terms of fetishizing the idea of choice, the U.S. is the absolute pinnacle… We want to be able to choose everything that matters, as well as the things that don’t.”

Have you ever said “um, skim milk, please,” when you actually didn’t care that much about the choice? Well, independent of your internal state (i.e. even if you actually didn’t care), you performed a little ritual there, which in turn reinforced what sociologist Erving Goffman called the “ritual order” – the social hierarchy, structure, and ideology that we constantly and often unconsciously reaffirm by daily interaction rituals.


From consumerism to politics to romance, the idea of choice plays a powerful role in how people navigate the social terrains in this country. You choose the right product/candidate/partner because it/he/she is for you! In reality, most of the products you are interested in may be coming from the same region in China. In reality, no matter how much “freedom of choice” there may be, people tend to marry within their own class/ethnic/racial groups. But the idea and ideal of choice remain an important driving force in US culture, and you can see people exercise it in many rituals, big and small. Think of election day. And think of the type of milk you pick at Starbucks.

You think I’m wrong? Next time you are asked to choose – kinds of dressing, cheese, milk, anything – say, “I actually don’t care. Can you pick one for me?” Trust me, you don’t want to be looked at like you are an alien after a while. And you are being an alien, because you apparently don’t know the ritual.

Backstory: Prof. Suma Ikeuchi

Suma Blog

Backstory” is a series that asks the REL Faculty to tell us a little bit about themselves, to explore how they became interested in the academic study of religion and their own specialty, elaborating on their current work both within and outside the University.

Where are you from?

I was born in Himeji City in western Japan, but my family has never lived there. In Japan, there is a custom called satogaeri (literally, “returning to one’s home-place), which allows expecting mothers to return to their natal households to give birth with the help of their own mothers, not mothers-in-law. My mother was in Himeji for a month after my birth and then returned to the Metropolitan Osaka area (2nd largest city in Japan), where I grew up. While my mother was from a wealthy family of land-owning farmers, my father was a son of tenant farmers who migrated to Manchuria (northeast part of China that the Imperial Japan occupied before the WWII) as colonists for a better future. When Japan lost the war in 1945, my paternal grandparents returned to Japan on a ship, which arrived near the Suma beach in Kobe City. My father named me after this place.

Could you tell us a little about what your undergraduate degree was in?

Toward the end of high school, I became really interested in the question of culture. Why do different societies produce different ways of thinking and ways of life? The one-year high school exchange program in rural Thailand ignited my curiosity in this area. For instance, my class of roughly 40 Thai students had 3 kathoeys (gender category in Thailand that includes effeminate gay males). I was surprised and then intrigued about cultural categories. Around the same time, I was also developing an interest in minority issues in Japan, so I chose to attend Hokkaido University, which is known for its research on indigenous people of northern Japan called the Ainu. I majored in Anthropology and History there. I was really interested in how different cultural systems and historical forces create different realities, experiences, social orders, etc.

Do you recall how you first heard about the study of religion? Any memories from early classes stand out as helping to hook you on it?

One of my favorite professors at my undergraduate university in Japan was a scholar of religion and expert of Durkheim. In his class, we’d read The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life in English (not in French because few of us undergrads were that good at French!) word by word. I don’t think I’ve done that kind of close reading since then. He also had this sarcastic sense of humor that I loved.

Then, as I worked toward my master’s at Brandeis University in MA and then Ph.D. at Emory University in GA, both in Anthropology, I deepened my interest in the study of religion as a cultural phenomenon. Whenever I compared cultural systems in my ethnographic projects (U.S. and Japan for M.A. and Japan and Brazil for Ph.D.), the category of religion popped up in my data as a primary mechanism of difference-making. It’s been an interesting journey, because now I work in a department of religious studies!

Other than being a professor, any other interesting jobs you’ve had, for summer or longer?

I worked at the 2005 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, as an English-Japanese interpreter. It was funny, because I ended up using my intermediate French much more frequently than my English. My “post” was near a team from France and they wanted to speak to me constantly. Too bad that I mostly forgot French since then (and Thai too for that matter). It seems my brain can hold only 3 languages at any given time and currently they are English, Japanese, and Portuguese.

How’d you first get interested in your own specialty? What intrigued you about it?

When I started my doctoral training, I set out to research minority groups and their health issues in Japan. So I decided to visit Brazilian migrant communities one summer to see what’s going on. They are among the newest foreign migrant groups in the country because the large-scale Brazilian migration to Japan started only in 1990. That year, the Japanese government introduced a new visa for foreigners of Japanese descent up to the 3rd generation. So the majority of Brazilians in Japan today are Japanese descendants. I started my research expecting some psychological issues, given their marginal and ambiguous place in a society that values ethnic homogeneity. As it turned out, I encountered so many Pentecostal Christians and found so many charismatic churches in the migrant communities that I had to change my research plan. Now I’d say my specialty is identity negotiation at the intersection of transnational migration and the globalization of religion. Sometimes you don’t get to control what you study, I suppose.

What are you currently working on in your own research and writing?

I have just finished revising an article for Ethos: Journal of Psychological Anthropology. The title is “Accompanied Self: Debating Pentecostal Individual and Japanese Relational Selves in Transnational Japan.” Yes it’s a mouthful, but reality is complex sometimes… It’s coming out in the spring of 2017.

Now I am working on a book manuscript entitled Japanese Blood, Brazilian Birth, and Transnational God: Diasporic Return and Global Pentecostalism in Japan. It analyzes why Japanese Brazilians convert to Latin American Pentecostalism in their ancestral homeland, where Buddhist and Shinto traditions predominate. I am also slowly working through the video footages from my yearlong fieldwork among Japanese Brazilian migrants to produce ethnographic films. I am hoping that these digital resources can accompany the book to enrich the reader/watcher’s learning experience.

There’s always another book to read or essay to write, but are there other things apart from academia that you enjoy doing?

I love throwing pots. Most of the plates and mugs at my home are things I have made in the past five years. Since I am still new to Tuscaloosa, right now I’m looking for a studio where I can continue throwing. I also love hiking on trails and have just been to the Lake Lurleen State Park with my husband this past weekend. I hope to go to many more trails around Tuscaloosa and in Alabama.

Prof. Ikeuchi to Screen Her Research

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.39.28 AM

Our newest addition to the REL faculty, Prof. Suma Ikeuchi will screen her ethnographic film “In Leila’s Room” at the 2016 Society for Visual Anthropology Film and Media Festival. Here’s a brief description of the film:

A young Brazilian migrant woman, Leila, runs a small make-up salon in her apartment in Toyota City, Japan. Most of her clients are, like herself, Brazilians of Japanese descent who have return migrated to the land of their ancestors. Her small salon is also a social hub of evangelical women in the local Brazilian migrant community who come in for good make-up and conversations. In this intimate space, Leila, her fellow migrants, and the filmmaker speak about and act out their complex identities.
Shot almost entirely in one room, the film captures migrants’ sense of identity and belonging by witnessing the interactions between Leila, the filmmaker, her family and friends, and the clients. What defines being Japanese, Brazilian, or Japanese-Brazilian? How does generational identity shape transnational belonging? How can one rely on God in the face of ethnic discrimination and social alienation? The scenes and dialogues speak to these issues that migrants constantly grapple with.

The film will be screened at the festival in Minneapolis, MN this November. Congratulations, Prof. Ikeuchi!


New Hire in REL


We’re extremely pleased to announce that, as of August 2016, we will have another new colleague in REL.

Suma Ikeuchi is currently a doctoral candidate at Emory University, where she will receive her Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology in May 2016. She also has an M.A. in Anthropology from Brandeis University and a B.A. in both History and Anthropology from Hokkaido University, Japan. Continue reading