Readers of SBM are sure to be familiar with reiki, a mystical form of energy healing that promises a plethora of cures and relief by allowing one’s own body to more efficiently heal itself through the manipulation of its vital energy field by a trained user. This miraculous “modality”, as it is often referred to by integrative medicine practitioners, was brought into being by Mikao Usui in 1922 – but only after he travelled to the top of a mountain in Japan and was imbued with this “gift” in a very Moses- and Jesus-like fashion. He wasn’t alone though…a very similar form of energy medicine called “johrei” is also being promoted, with about as much credibility and evidence.

Background: Where did johrei come from?

There is, of course, no proof that this vital energy exists or that humans have any ability to manipulate it. In fact, all methodologically sound, well-controlled studies have shown no evidence of efficacy beyond placebo. In concept, it is closest to a religious belief based upon pure supernatural delusion, and in practice it is an easy scam to pass off in exchange for payment through “healing” sessions and trainings, often under the nebulous label of “self-care”. Of course, reiki is far from the only energy healing practice; there are indeed a vast many that are both old and new. Most have, fortunately, not managed to be thrust upon mainstream medicine. Another one that has, though, is johrei, which has received substantial government funding, but has only one listed active clinical trial. Sadly, I was actually introduced to it in Hurst’s The Heart, a truly mainstream and respected medical text. If it’s worth taxpayer funding and mention there, it certainly deserves a skeptical evaluation here.

Like reiki, it was also invented in Japan, actually just a few years later in 1935 by Mokichi Okada (1882-1955). Okada, often called “the master of light” by proponents, by amazing coincidence also received his gift through revelatory enlightenment. This came after several failed business ventures, reportedly due to illness, banking difficulties, and an economic crisis. Luckily for him, johrei brought moderate fame and fortune. However to truly understand johrei one must appreciate that it is actually a part of a Japanese spiritual/ health movement.

The movement as a whole is sometimes referred to as a non-exclusive religion, and other components of the belief system include art appreciation, flower arranging, and organic gardening. Taken together, like much of CAM and IM, not one of these is based upon actual medicine or science. We already know that there is no benefit to organic gardening beyond the possibly relaxing act of gardening, as non-organic gardening aids such as genetically modified seeds and artificial fertilizers are clearly safe. Flower arranging could also be relaxing, but that’s it. Followers of the johrei movement do not see these practices as simple stress relief, but as a means to attain some form of spiritual enlightenment and steps on the path towards an earthly utopia.

Johrei theory and practice

Johrei is practiced in a way extremely similar to those of its relatives, reiki and therapeutic touch. The “giver” moves their hands over the body of the “receiver” in close proximity, but without physical contact. As with other forms of energy healing, the difference rests in the slightly different purported mechanism of action. In the case of johrei the goal is as follows:

Johrei is a spiritual practice based on the focusing of universal life energy, also referred to as “divine” or spiritual light. We believe that this action fosters positive changes to both the physical and the spiritual body and that it helps to eliminate suffering by dispelling negative energy.

The rhetoric above is common in CAM and IM and shouldn’t be surprising to most readers. All forms of energy healing are based upon spiritualism and mysticism; johrei, however seems to be more forthcoming about it, uniquely bold compared to its cousins. Direct mentions of God can be found in many sources, including the official website, where the following statement admits that the goal is not to treat disease (emphasis added):

Receivers often find that over time they experience spiritual growth, physical healing or increased blessings, according to divine will. We do not prescribe, nor do we diagnose or treat physical illnesses.

It is clear from the above statement that johrei could be immediately attractive to a large group of people, in both a spiritual and medical sense, because many people ignore the last line, seeing only what appeals to them. For those that are desperate in their medical and/or personal lives, there is often a desire to seek out anything that can offer a reprieve and some form of solace, whether or not there is proof or even a promise of success. There is, however, another group that finds johrei more attractive than its followers, although they love the followers as well. That group is, of course, integrative medicine practitioners. Their interest seems based more, as most of their interests are, on profit.

Johrei research

There are multiple red flags that suggest johrei has the propensity to reach the popularity level of reiki in IM in the next few years, and enough information to suggest it is already on its way. That offers too much chance of harm to both human health and the respectability of medical science to ignore, from a group that can’t decide if it’s medicine or not.

The Johrei Fellowship, by their own admission, has no interest in proclaiming remedies. In light of this, the following quote from the same site is curious and presents like orations of a politician (emphasis added):

Johrei has its roots in Japan, and is gaining recognition in the West as a non-invasive energy healing practice. It is a universal vibration that is available to all. The Johrei Institute was established in 1998 to prove the effectiveness of Johrei through scientific medical research and to fund accepted research work through universities.

The Johrei Institute is in fact controlled in part by the Johrei Fellowship, which make the above claims regarding johrei as a medical treatment contradictory. In addition, all listed researchers on the Institute’s website are staff members at the University of Arizona, whose integrative medicine department is headed by Andrew Weil. In fact, they are the only academic medical center in North America currently doing research on it (as far as I could find) which of course raises the specter of suspicion of the Institute that it may be, at least in part, another front for U of A’s integrative medicine center.

From 2002 to 2004 U of A also received four grants, totaling over 2 million dollars, from the NCCIH division of the NIH to fund the now-defunct “Center for Frontier Medicine in Biofield Science” (CFMBS) which has transformed into the “Laboratory for Advances in Consciousness and Health”. The aims of the grants and center were to study three energy healing methods: therapeutic touch (TT), johrei, and Qi-Gong. The main recipient for those grants and the current director of the center, Gary E. Schwartz, PhD, is listed at U of A as a professor of psychology, neurology, psychiatry, medicine and surgery —most of which are highly unusual positions to hold without a medical degree. In addition he has made quite the writing career from publishing books such as: The Afterlife Experiments, The Truth about Medium, and The Energy Healing Experiments, the last of which was based upon work done under the aforementioned grants. The reason for the book is stated on the website: “…the findings were again too controversial for mainstream journals.” Articles did, however, appear in several CAM journals.

Compared to reiki, the current published literature on johrei is not very extensive: a keyword search on Pubmed revealed only 19 results, some not even involving humans. The short list of results did not take away from the questionable nature of the studies with titles such as the following:

The last study listed is cited as preliminary research that justifies a clinical trial, currently listed as active at the U of A, entitled: “Johrei Therapy and CBT-I in Facilitating Sleep in ICU Survivors”. In order to save readers the time and frustration I’ll summarize the two studies.

In the first, the murine (mouse) model on johrei and sleep was done in part by the principal investigator for the human trial, Sairam Parthasarathy, MD. The murine model consisted of splitting 45 mice into five groups and depriving them of sleep then measuring two types of reactive neurons in their brains and through EEG. The two groups reported in the abstract were those that did and did not receive therapy. The results, unsurprisingly, were positive for johrei (the groups in the full article showed little difference between them). Forgoing all the technical details and ways the numbers could be easily manipulated, I’ll note the largest problem, aside from being published in Explore: 45 divided by 5 equals 9 (did that all in my head). That, along with the difference being very small, suggests quite strongly that the results are simply noise.

The clinical trial has even more possible confounding factors. It is being conducted jointly by the Johrei Institute and U of A. Once again I don’t want to go too far into the technical details because enough flaws are apparent on the surface. The goal of the study is to examine the effects on sleep between two interventions for former ICU (intensive care unit) patients, in-person johrei done three times weekly, and internet-based CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) done once a week, both at the patient’s residence, which must be in close proximity of U of A, Tucson. There are 50 subjects that range from 18-85 years of age who eligibly can, with very few exceptions (from the available information), have been in the ICU for any condition and have nearly any other co-morbidity. The only excluding criteria are: being considered too unstable, pregnancy, debilitating neurological disease that prohibits informed consent, not being discharged home, living more than 20 miles from U of A, and/or not having a reliable form of communication. The trial is obviously not placebo-controlled or blinded, and has many obvious problems that make it almost certain to garner a positive result.

Most glaring is the question of dose, if it can be called that. A brief CBT session done once a week over the internet with a psychologist seems non-comparable to home visits three times weekly by a johrei practitioner, for many reasons. Most apparent are the logistical and practical differences. These patients recovering at home are most likely going to be spending some time recovering at home, and (speaking from personal experience) that includes a lot of lying in bed. That alone can often cause insomnia due to lack of activity, both physical and mental. Having someone video chat with you for once a week is probably not going to do much (the duration of the session is not specified). In addition, there is no guarantee of patient compliance with the techniques that are often so critical to the success of CBT. The johrei arm on the other hand, is certain to have compliance because the act is done immediately and any other advice they give (trial-appropriate or not) is more likely to be adhered to because of a more intimate between patient and provider.

The mere event of someone coming to your home multiple times a week and being in a somewhat close proximity is also going to spur the mind and body into a more active state. More activity typically equals better sleep. Of course, there are also placebo effects to account. Patients will most likely be told flat-out about johrei and the “evidence” that it will help them sleep, making it sound like medicine. CBT and psychologists by their very nature rely upon the individual to do a large part of the work; there are no magic cures in the psychologist’s repertoire, only techniques and guidance that must be adhered to if they are to be effective. In addition, the responses to the therapy arms are intended to be measured through 12 different outcome measures. One can therefore imagine which arm is more likely to be adhered to and come out with a statistically positive result — which, it will be claimed, obviously calls for more research on the subject.

In addition, it may be possible that CBT was chosen not just because it is non-pharmacological, but because it is harder to measure objectively and makes it easier to tilt the results towards johrei. There are many drugs that are appropriate and safe for use by patients experiencing short-term insomnia (benzos, z-drugs, melatonin receptor agonists, etc.). If I noticed this fact, it is a fair assumption that the study designers did as well and chose what they felt would provide a more palatable result.

How to assess these claims?

When I evaluate a claim, almost any claim, I look at the source and base of the claim through the lens of logic and current scientific knowledge. If the claim seems logical and at least scientifically possible, then I look further into it to see how it stands up to stricter scrutiny. Johrei does not even make it past the starting point. There is no credible mechanism with which it could interact with a human body to exert effects, no reason to suspect its claims of divine providence are possible, nor that other components such as flower arranging could lead us to an earthly utopia.

The main supporters of scientific research on johrei do not inspire confidence either. Weil with his institute and Schwartz with his books are well known for trying to inject mysticism into every crevice of medicine they can find. An older video on the Tucson johrei fellowship page demonstrates scenes of johrei in practice and shows Weil in conversation with Dr. Michael Dixon, a GP and professor in England known for his promotion of CAM. Dixon has been criticized publicly by Edzard Ernst. Discussed by Weil and Dixon were how “sickness is purification”; that attitude towards cancer affects prognosis (it doesn’t); Mokichi Okada’s problems with western medicine; and how “amazed” Weil was that they were “spot on” and “exactly the same as the philosophy of integrative medicine”. My personal favorite is a common one I hear, that western medicine “doesn’t look for the cause of illness or pathology”. It does.

I personally try not to assume that just because a person has promoted wrong ideas that all their ideas are wrong. Yet the previous and ongoing research of johrei under the ultimate leadership of Andrew Weil, apparently with U of A blessings, just demonstrates to me again that he, through the integrative medicine department’s frequent boondoggles, rejects scientific reality in exchange for money or fame. Such research only helps him to fulfil his apparent desire to become the main Integrative guru at the expense of patients and the integrity of medicine.

Johrei, like other forms of energy healing, is clearly pseudo-medicine that wants to be accepted by mainstream medicine and real doctors. Although it has managed to receive money and limited support, it is still not widespread. This limitation should encourage skeptically minded individuals in all fields to keep it that way or minimize it even more. It is far easier to prevent a person from latching onto a delusion than to rip it away from them.

Posted by Jesse Luke

Jesse Luke is a writer of fiction and non-fiction who has published under various pseudonyms. He studied English and religion at Columbia University, Yale University, and even a brief semester in an Anglican seminary before devoting himself to full-time writing and research. He was drawn to the skeptical examination of health claims through his own experience with cancer and appreciation of hematology. In addition, he is in the process of writing a book detailing his experience of being ill and encountering pseudo-medical treatments throughout. Jesse Luke can be reached directly at jesse.luke.skeptic(at)outlook.com or on Twitter: @RealJesseLuke