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From the Field: Japan

A column about field research in Japan, contributed by our research students, where they discuss elements of their research that most fascinated them and consider the particular trials, pressures and rewards of conducting field-work in Japan.

There is also a Chinese studies 'From the Field' column.

Spiritual Advisors in Japan

posted 22 May 2011, 23:51 by Web Admins ‎(Ben Caesar)‎   [ updated 23 May 2011, 00:01 ]

Japan's spiritual advisors for hire.

4 tomatoes, 500g of chicken, is my husband cheating on me?, 1kg of oranges ... - Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The other day, on my way to the restrooms of a big shopping centre in central Tokyo, I came across a group of women in their late 20s to early 30s standing in front of a suspiciously looking sign.

Looking closer, I realized that the sign was referring to the three booths on the side of the corridor. Peeping in one of them, I saw an older lady sitting at one side of a table and seemingly 'reading' the hand of a female customer occupying the single seat in front of her. How interesting! I looked again at the two signs.

The small sign on the left of the picture said something like:

"Please first speak to the fortune-teller of your choice. The waiting-list will be managed by the fortune-teller. Thank you for your cooperation."

Then, looking on the left, the customer would get the price list for the services offered by what is called 'Clover Leaf' and seems to be one of the many businesses, such as coffee shops, electric appliances shops and all the usuals stores one expects to find in such a huge shopping centre.

"Open from 12pm to 8pm. Chinese Astrology (I Ching), Divination, Physiognomy, Astrology, Name Fortunetelling, Hand Reading, Astrology based on the Chinese Twelve Year Cycle, Daneki (type of Chinese divination technique based on the five elements), Tarot, House Physiognomy etc.

List of Prices (per person)

  • financial situation/lucky item --> from JPY 1,050 (tax included) [£6]
  • appropriate job/love life(only to concerned individuals) --> from JPY 2,100 (tax included) [£12]
  • health/entrance exams/change of job/travel/wedding --> from JPY 3,150 (tax included)[£18]
  • love compatibility/personal relations/moving house --> from JPY 4,200 (tax included) [£24]
  • husband and wife relationships/real estate/find better luck --> from JPY 5,250 (tax included) [£30]
  • business/family issues --> JPY 6,300 (tax included) [£36]

The above prices are per item. Longer sessions (over 40 minutes) are subject to extra cost.

House physiognomy and Naming require a special fee."

How incredibly convenient! I mean there is always the old lady outside the train station who offers simpler divination services, and, of course, one can seek divination by phone, e-mail or online, not to mention going all the way to a fortune-teller's place, but here it's a completely different thing. The divination service is not only located inside the building with all the other consumers' favourite stores, but it is also placed beside the restrooms in an infrequently visited area of the centre. Hence, one would not need to go out of one's way to have access to a fortune-teller, like in a situation of purposefully visiting an independent diviner. Additionally, even better than queuing near a train station to get your hand read, with hundreds of people passing by and occasionally looking at you in an odd way, you can be sure of attracting the least attention possible since only those who wish to use the toilet traverse the corridor.

Indeed, such an intimacy, and even anonymity, is also guaranteed by using the phone or the Internet, but in those cases, one has to actually dial the number or look for the website. And here lies, I believe, the difference. While offering the best possible conditions for one's private visit to what may still be thought of "bad"/"superstitious" activity by the general public, the divination service belonging to this very popular chain of shopping centres in Tokyo, ensures the maximum "consumerization"/product-transforming of the fortune-telling activity in contemporary Japanese society. The idea being that fortune-telling is laid out for the customer to consume, side by side with books, vegetables, clothes, computers etc. And as divination becomes part of the consumer's shopping list, it also looses its 'taboo' character because, like any other product, one does not always buy it because it is necessary, but because it is trendy, fun, tried by a friend or relative, subject to discount.

The era of TV commercials on fortune-tellers using new, better astrology techniques may not be that far after all!

'Commoditization' - Sunday, 12 October 2008

Following on last post's considerations, another matter came to my mind.

The other day I met a person who, I suggest, is probably representative of the majority of individuals involved in the divination 'business'. This woman opened with her husband a small company (5 employees including the owners) offering services related to web design and website development. When the number of jobs entrusted to them decreases, the husband works also as a teacher at a technical college. On her side, the wife, started using their office space to offer tarot divination services after working hours.

Soon, she realized that her clientèle increased and, hence, the ?5,000 (about 30GBP) she was asking for the 1-hour consultation were not enough. Hence, she decided to charge ?5,000 per issue/case requesting advice, since in one hour a lot of problems usually came up in the conversation. It seems however that the students of her husband would get discount prices, as her husband often promotes his wife's second job in the breaks between two teaching sessions at the school where he works. On asking him if he thinks his wife has some kind of psychic power, he replied that she claims to be able to connect with people she has got to know well, which I interpreted as having paid a lot of money.

Here, similarly to the commoditization of the ancestors' spirits among the itako, the diviners of Clover Leaf and the woman above have commoditized the everyday as well as the existential issues of their clients.

This is an interesting theme that needs more development and thinking than what I offer hereafter, but I shall briefly touch on some important points.

First of all, the itako have attached a price to a fundamental belief, i.e. the belief in the existence of their clients' ancestors in spiritual form in the afterlife. This I can imagine may have influences on who the visitor decides to call, in the sense that, depending on one's budget, one cannot call everyone one desires, thus one is forced to make a choice. This, therefore, attaches a certain 'value' to one's ancestors' spirits. On the other hand, whereas in the past, the client used to pay the itako for her services, now it almost feels like he/she pays the spirit to come down, the itako having just become a necessary intermediary who one could bypass, in fact, if one could contact the spirits by oneself. Thus, I argue, one factor behind the growing popularity of neo-shamanistic workshops and books in Japan, in the last 2 decades.

Secondly, in the case of the divination services reported above, the commoditization of people's issues have not only forced the clients to attach value to their problems, particularly if the cost for seeking advice depends on the nature of the problem (as seen in the list of prices), but, most importantly, tends to separate specific issues from the environment in which they occur, for the reason that if one issue leads to another, the price raises (arguably to the advantage of the diviner). Hence, I would argue, that this practice eventually prevents people from seeing the 'bigger picture' and, like the medicalization of the 'illness' dimension of human distress in the West, the consultation with the diviner provokes an individualization of one's personal/family/social issues, as if they could be given a solution one by one. Would this point to a common feature of biomedicine and fortune-telling?

Cause and effect - Saturday, 18 October 2008

Yesterday, in central Tokyo, I met someone who presented himself as a 'spiritual advisor', in inverted commas because the English term is also used in Japanese. I shall talk about this 1-hour meeting in more detail in a future post, because there exist so many perspectives one can look into such activities, but, in the meantime, I shall focus on something I found out at the end of a session with, quite frankly, the most suspicious individual I have met so far (and with my subject of research I'm guessing this is just the beginning).

So, this spiritual advisor revealed to me that the majority of his clients visit him for the same reason: they never get the time to fix an error they made in the past, and this eventually leads not only to them keeping making the same mistakes, but also to them being constantly chased by their former issues. As he suggested, seeking the cause of one's errors and fixing them before moving on was the most frequent advise he could give.

Now, did he mean that the clients do not know the cause of their misery, or was he just accusing them of not attending to this cause which they, nevertheless, perfectly knew about?

Here, I shall jump to something else which is related, I think, to this last question.

The other day, I visited the National Showa Memorial Museum, which according to the pamphlet "is a national facility whose objective is to collect, store and exhibit historical data and information that is related to the hardships of citizens' life, including the bereaved families of those who died, during and after WWII, and provide an opportunity for future generations to know about these hardships". So, in fact, the museum presents objects (letters, clothes, house furniture, pictures etc.) on the life of the Japanese from around 1935 to 1955.

Now, I am not particularly aware of all the debates about Japanese museums, their representation of history, and the way Japanese understand their history, although I know from my university classes and from the articles that frequently appear in newspapers that the subject has always been very current. From this position therefore, as an informed tourist, my visit to Showa-kan (as it is called in Japanese) left me with two major group of questions:

1) Did not the Showa period last from 1925 to 1989? Where did the first 10 and last 34 years go? If the museum focuses on WWII why not call it Showa War Memorial Museum? Would it be possible that relating the Showa period to the war, limiting it to just the 20 years of ' modern dark history', serves some higher mission of purposefully distinguishing the latter period, which ended less than 20 years ago and saw Japan's rising to world economic power, thus, not really 'deserving' being called the same name as the era when all the 'bad things' happened?

2) Why is there nowhere an explanation for what occurred during those 20 years? The visitor starts the tour with the letters sent by soldiers and pictures of people partying before a young member of the family goes to war, but nothing, throughout the museum, hints at the causes behind the hardships Japanese people (and unfortunately only Japanese are mentioned) underwent, hardships which at are length described through videos, statistics, photos, collected objects.

According to an inside source working at the museum, the rule is that '"we never discuss the reasons behind what happened. We just tell them that they should refer to their history textbooks." 'Them' are the hundreds of primary school kids who often come from all over the country to visit the capital, and, among other places, receive a history lesson at Showa-kan. The same day I was there, 600 sixth-grade primary school students from Shizuoka prefecture had been touring the building all day, before reaching their final destination: Disneyland.

The reason no explanations are provided lays mainly, according to the source, to the unresolved/controversial nature of the subject. A more unofficial reason may be related to the managing body of the museum: the Japanese War Bereaved Families Association, which, as noted also by other sources, is conveniently/strategically placed (as is the museum it hosts) within walking distance from the Yasukuni shrine.

How the heck are the spiritual adviser's comments on his clients hardships connected to the apparently conservative educational role played by Showa-kan? Well, I thought that what Showa-kan refuses to do for the visitors is not really to include the reasons behind the war among its galleries, but to put in the same space the causes and effects (= the war) .The political background of such refusal does not interest me here; the result of such practice, however, a practice that I have observed and heard from other individuals involved in education establishments in Japan, is more relevant; i.e. deliberately avoiding to show the link between cause and effect, may, I believe, lead to some individuals being unable, in their adult lives, to get out of a series of mistakes which are always due the same factor, but remain unresolved because the actor cannot see that fatal connection.

Arguably this does not concern every single individual educated in Japan, nor is it only observed in this country, as so many other factors are involved in the decision-making process every one of us goes through on a daily basis.

I just thought here that (and of course I haven't mentioned examples I am aware of from other educational establishments in Japan) if such an observation is accurate, it may account for even a small part of the reason behind the existence of Japanese seeking the advice of these modern magico-religious practitioners I am researching upon. Far-fetched?

The First Days of Field-work

posted 22 May 2011, 23:45 by Web Admins ‎(Ben Caesar)‎   [ updated 22 May 2011, 23:50 ]

The trials of PhD field-work in Japan

Conducting qualitative-based field research in Japan presents unique challenges to the fledgling social sciences researcher: maintaining a relationship with a native supervisor; working out the best way to approach people for information; finding a method of observing without unwittingly becoming a participant. Here, Ioannis Gaitanidis, one of our research students, encounters all of these challenges in his first months in Japan and has written about the experience.

Immersion - Sunday, 5 October

I finally arrived in Japan to start my fieldwork. To be honest, I had never really thought that would really happen, so nothing, from showing my visa to the immigration officer, to taking the train from Narita airport to the city centre, felt like being back in my favourite country for the sixth time. All my surroundings looked refreshed and ready to be discovered again. Unfortunately, reality called me down from my cloud as soon as the sun rose the next day.

On the move from the hotel to the room I rented for the month of October in Eastern Tokyo, I was unable to check my e-mails for the whole morning, but remained with a bad presentiment which revealed itself in the early afternoon: my supervisor in Japan, who had not replied to my last two communications that I sent before leaving Japan last time at the end of August, had expressed his disappointment in me in the following line written on the morning of the 1st of October: "you haven't contacted me and I am starting to worry". What surprised me even more was that his message was a reply to my last e-mail which stipulated that I would be back in Japan on the 30th and will contact him again.

At first, I was of course baffled. Then a bad memory of losing a contact last July because I seemed not to understand the rules of communication between elderly Japanese academics and young foreign research students. Finally, a deeper worry regarding my ability to undertake fieldwork in Japan; a worry which I shall explain hereafter.

After I calmed down and arranged to meet my professor next week (his complaint now having switched from me "having disappeared" to me "asking for an appointment less than a week in advance"), I considered the difficulty for anthropologists, sociologists, ethnographers etc. In general, researchers intend to investigate a society from within, to reach a balance in achieving the basic requirement of fieldwork: immersion.

Indeed, although it may be thought that immersion should be a straightforward process of 'blending in' with the society under investigation, this requirement is not as easy to complete even if one has a degree in Japanese Studies or has visited the country several times. I mean that comprehending and to a certain extent imitating the cultural behaviour of Japanese when living in the country for a certain period, does make of one neither a Japanese, of course, nor a person capable of immersing oneself in the Japanese society. All this because of the individual character, cultural background and life experiences that he or she has been carrying around for far longer than his interest in Japan. In that sense, and I am aware here that I do not say anything new, one needs to reach a balance between one's individuality and the degree of effacement of this individuality in order to achieve full immersion. I wonder, in fact, if it is really possible, as some may have suggested, that one can keep one's individuality and still succeed in attaining one's fieldwork objectives. It can certainly be claimed here that everything depends on the subject of research, on the degree of will and adaptability required to find out the data sought, and most importantly, on the 'weight' of one's individual 'baggage'.

Coming back to my example, the above consideration translates to simply the following question: did I make a mistake by waiting to contact my supervisor once I arrived in Japan because I thought he was not in his office or was not particularly bothered by my previous communications, despite the social hierarchy that obliges me to occasionally provide him with news from my part?

One look at the outcome and I would say 'yes'.

I hope to find a solution to the whole issue by the end of the fieldwork period. It may be revealed that eventually it all comes down to personal relationships and that cooperation between foreign researchers includes a 'tolerance' challenge. We shall see.

But then again, should one worry too much about this?

Questions - Monday, 6 October

As one can imagine the best people to ask about a Tokyo neighbourhood's activities, good places to eat, to shop etc., but also to find out information one cannot access through official channels, are taxi drivers and hairdressers. I decided, thus, to have my hair cut last Sunday morning at an inexpensive (1,000 yen, about 6 pounds) place around the corner from where I live.

One 10 square meters-room contained 5 chairs for waiting customers and 3 chairs for those getting their hair cut by the owners of the business: two ladies, both in their late 40s or early 50s. As soon as I sat down and that we established that I was perfectly understanding what she was saying to me, the hairdresser, as expected from a true professional, rushed to question me on my background, my job, my liking or disliking of Japan customs, and my plans for the future. Then, as we touched on matters regarding my research, I figured out that maybe it was the right time to take my turn in inquiring about the existence in the neighbourhood of the type of magico-religious practitioners whom I have come to investigate.

Considering the relative taboo, depending on the identity of the informant, surrounding the subject, I was not expecting the lady to give me much information, particularly if she belonged to those fervently opposing the 'spiritualist' movement currently occurring in Japanese society. And, indeed, her answer was negative; "I don't know. I don't believe in these people."

Now, she might indeed not know anything about such practitioners living in the area. But, she might have also refused to give such information to a person she hardly knew, and who even claimed to be a foreign researcher. So, here I find again myself with the issue of developing the right way for approaching future informants. My first idea is that I should not hide my identity or research purpose, usually vaguely identified as 'sociological study'. The reason for this is that a foreigner asking to consult a psychic in Japan sounds already quite suspicious. On the other hand, people may not be willing to open up to someone wishing to ask them about their most inner beliefs. Of course, I don't see any surprise to this.

I think there are two solutions to this problem of questioning.

The first method, and probably most common in Japan, to get access to the subject of research is through the introduction of another researcher or friend/relative. That is straightforward.

The second method would be to try winning over the inhospitable field by increasing the intensiveness of the informant-seeking process. Maybe the more I widen the scope of people I ask for information, the better the chances I meet someone who is willing to talk to me.

A smart combination of these two methods may bring results. I hope.

Diplomacy - Sunday, 7 December 2008

No matter how often you may remind yourself that fieldwork has its ups and downs, when the downs finally come, memory will fail you. That has almost become a rule.

Well, some events unexpectedly happen and plans need to change, adapt. This is the easy part of the "downs". The hard part is when the "downs" are related to the actual abilities of the researcher.

Back to Tokyo from a short, mostly failed fieldwork trip, I reconsidered my approach. Yes, 'constantly reconsidering my approach' has actually turned to an obsession. To the point that I always find myself in that middle-state of mind between having discovered a new direction and having already eliminated that direction for conceptual reasons.

And while I keep reading here and there, pacing down for being unable to concentrate on one single idea, I happen to get in contact again with one of the practitioners I am researching upon, and for a while the sky cleared up.

Print the map to her house, prepare my questions, read on her life, buy a present because it is the second time I visit her, all check.

On the meeting day, I got there 10 minutes late. The practitioner, a psychic/cult leader (I shall call Ms. O), had already started her small ritual, encircled by a dozen of white robe-dressed participants, all silently reading a prayer, on their knees, facing the small altar. I entered the room and was hastily pushed to the front and asked to write my name, address and birth date in the booklet used by Ms. O to pray for her followers.

10 minutes later, the prayer finished and Ms. O, in a sermonised tone of voice spoke of her recent 'unusual' experiences and the explanations she had bestowed upon them by skillfully picking here and there among Japanese myths, traditional folk religious beliefs, western numerology and astrology and her self-acclaimed divination powers, to compose a linear story that, to the uninformed mind, would undoubtedly make perfect sense. And it does, as the several nods among the small audience made it clear to my all-seeing eyes.

Then, the moment came when the unexpected occurred and I was asked to give a speech on my thoughts on Japan and on the connection between Ms O 's sermon and Greek mythology. On that right moment, my mind started running, trying to find a way to say enough that will allow Ms. O to justify my presence to her group, but not too much as to reveal my true thoughts about Ms. O's activities. In a short burble that contained enough 'exotic' information to please the audience and as little as possible of what I was there to do, I managed to slip through that over-embarrassing moment of being 'an ignorant foreigner who has a lot to learn'.

There, for a second, I felt I had managed well. For a second. Then, I realised my mistake: my presence at the front of the room, next to Ms. O, my beginner's speech, everything seemed planned. Ms. O had welcomed a new member, a blank mind to educate, a proof of her influence outside Japan, an advertisement for the originality of her cult.

So, there I sat half an hour later, in front of a table, in the men's room, eating my lunch while three old ladies were rushing around filling my dish before I had time to take a second bite, and wondering how I am going to start asking questions about the cult while keeping my outsider's identity. I decided therefore to keep my mouth shut, listening to the stories of the cult's older members' travels to the West, their jokes on each other's family issues, and occasionally answering their questions on Greece and on my life in Japan.

'Not very exciting that new guy', I could imagine them thinking. I would rather say 'not very clever that new guy; he should have seeing it coming and done something about it. And then, when it happened he should have been more diplomatic instead of staying silent'.

Yes, that is the word. Diplomacy. "Skill in dealing with people and persuading them to agree to something without upsetting them".

I left three hours later with a few interesting stories and a feeling of having disappointing Ms. O.

To cheer myself up, I try to think of how unique the atmosphere of the place was and my fortune in having the chance just to be there. Indeed, I have realised lately that just being there is a data collection technique that I am quite good at. It is amazing how much you can learn from looking at people's reactions. I guess that is not new but I doubt it will suffice for the markers of my thesis.

Japanese Shamanism

posted 10 Apr 2011, 06:36 by Web Admins ‎(Ben Caesar)‎   [ updated 21 Jul 2011, 07:19 ]

The itako, 50 years after Carmen Blacker

Author: Ioannis Gaitanidis, a WREAC PhD scholar researching Japanese shamanism, is currently on his field trip near Tokyo, Japan. Here he discusses the itako; traditionally a blind female shaman in Northern Japan.

For most Japanese, visiting festivals in the north of Japan during the summer season is a frequently advertised way to escape from the humid and hot weather reigning over the rest of the country during the months of July and August. For me, it filled the need to observe one of the most talked and researched magico-religious practitioners of the country, the itako.  As Japanese religions specialist Ian Reader observes, "the itako have become extremely well-known in Japan, as much as anything because they represent the last and dying vestiges of a shamanic tradition that once was very strong in northern Japan". Hereafter, I shall describe my experience of 'consulting' one of these practitioners.

Five hours and a half from Tokyo ( 3 hours on the bullet train to Hachinohe [八戸], 1 hour 30 minutes to the city of Mutsu [むつ市] on a local train, and 45 minutes by bus through the woods), stands Mount Osore (恐山), one of the three sacred, spiritually meaningful peaks of Japan.

In fact, to the Japanese themselves, as the name suggests (Mount "Fear"), the place recalls much more out-of this-world images than the two other mounts of Hiei in Shiga prefecture, and Kōya in Wakayama Prefecture. The story narrated on the pamphlet distributed to guests, places the identification of the mountain as a holy location about 1,200 years ago, when the Buddhist priest Ennin (known as 慈覚大師円仁, 793-864 A.D.), during his travels in China saw this area of the Shimokita peninsula in his dream and was struck by the other-worldliness of the scenery and the omnipresence of spiritual power. Indeed, the extremely rocky, sulfur-fuming pits-filled landscape had been for centuries believed to be the gateway to hell, and, as such, every one of its composing elements has been awarded with the physical representation of the paths and crossings the dead soul traverses after death.

For example, according to folk tradition, those who pass away before their parents' death enter a limbo called sai-no-kawara (賽の河原), located on the bank of the river Sanzu (三途の川; in reality the lifeless lake Usoriyama filling the mouth of the volcano)that separates this world from the after-world; there, in sign of forgiveness to their parents, they erect cairns made of small stones. The legend says that demons come and break down the cairns, thus forcing the dead souls to constantly rebuild them; an endless and aimless work that reminds one of Sisyphus' curse in Greek mythology. The Japanese myth however records the existence of the boddhisatva Jizō (地蔵菩薩) who comes and helps the tormented souls to escape sai-no-kawara and reach heaven. Today, visitors and especially those who have lost a child pile up small stones to ease the work of the dead and help them rest in peace faster; they also place offerings (most often all kinds of snacks and canned juices) for the bodhisattva of the dead children, Jizō.
Unarguably, the location of the river sanzu and many of the other places claimed to correspond to the steps crossed after life, are not the monopoly of Mt. Osore, since, for example, almost every one of the 43 prefectures of Japan is proud of its own sai-no-kawara. But, as shown earlier, the volcanic scenery of these sulfur-gasping springs and the rocky, grey paths often sentinelled by big ravens, explains why the region is recognised as the most haunted in the country. Hence, and according to the taxi driver who drove me back to the hotel, the number of visitors has been increasing every year, particularly during the current Mount Osore Great Festival or Jizō Festival of the 20-24 of July.

Several of the tourists come to this event organized by the Bodai temple (菩提寺) to make offerings to the worshiped deity of the temple, Jizō, walk around the "hells" (name given to the volcanic cauldrons), pray for their dead, mainly the souls of children who died too young, still-born or orphans (see picture below), and maybe also bathe at the natural hot springs near the temple. The majority however arrive seeking the words of their dead relatives, and listen to their advises spoken out of the mouth of blind women called itako.

According to Professor Reader, the itako have been one of the most researched, debated and, I would add, controversial practitioners of folk religion in Japan. From the average Japanese person who immediately, when asked, associates their name with superstition and fundamental Japanese belief alternatively, to the dozens of Japanese ethnologists who have dedicated their career investigating this or that aspect of the itako's training, activity and purpose of existence, these magico-religious "performers" figure also in many foreign language works dealing generally with the study of shamanism, such as the recent Shamanism: An Encyclopaedia of World Beliefs, Practices and Cultures (Namba and Neumann, 2004). It would be impossible to list all writings referring to this practice uniquely found in the North of Japan; however an interested reader should start from the works of Sakurai Tokutarō and Takamatsu Keikichi in Japanese, and, in English, the dedicated chapter in Carmen Blacker's The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan (1999, 3rd edition).
In the north-eastern region of Japan (Tōhoku), there have been traditionally 2 types of fujo: the blind who are called itako (Aomori prefecture), ogamisama (Miyagi prefecture), onakama (Yamagata prefecture) and waka (Fukushima prefecture), and the normal-sighted who are called kamisama throughout the region. Apart from their physical differences, the main distinction between these two types lies in that the blind practitioners become fujo through a training process, whereas, in general, the kamisama, in a way that reminds us of the 'arctic hysteria' of the Siberian shaman, are meant to acquire their spiritual powers through a spontaneous possession by a god often occurring after a physically and psychologically straining period. This distinction does not however undermine the work of the blind fujo, since they have historically specialized in the practice of kuchiyose, i.e. the passive transmission of the words of the gods (kamioroshi) or of the dead (hotokeoroshi) through possession. Using Western specialist terms therefore, the itako is theoretically rather a medium than a shaman for she plays only the role of a mouthpiece and remains unable to negotiate with or control the possessing deity or spirit like the kamisama is supposed to.
Carmen Blacker, in her seminal study of the shamanistic practices in Japan, suggests that a girl becomes an itako because of her blind condition, which she may have been born with or reached in her childhood due to some disease. The motive therefore is voluntary and purely practical, in the sense that she seeks a viable status within her community. It is the parents of the young girl who take the decision to place their daughter, before the onset of her menstruation, at the house of an older, experienced itako where she will, for a period of 3 to 5 years, undertake her apprenticeship which includes strict fasting and daily learning of chants. All abstentions lead to the final rite of initiation during which the young girl is possessed by and wedded to her god after an exhausting week of severe training calculated as it seems to bring her body to the verge of exhaustion.

It can be said that the accuracy of Carmen Blacker's study of the itako is ensured from her cooperation with one of the two seminal figures of shamanistic studies in Japan, Sakurai Tokutarō who the author met while visiting Aomori prefecture in the 1970s. Her first encounter with these particular mediums, however, seem to have taken place in 1959, when she attended the festival I also had the chance to observe this year (2008) on Mt. Osore.

According to the calculations of Takamatsu Keikichi, a researcher who has spent his entire life interviewing and studying the blind fujo of Aomori, the festival of Mt. Osore started hosting their activities in the early 1920s . In 1952, when the itako of Mt. Osore first became the subject of research, there were 21-22 of them. At the time other types of fujo seem to have been offering their services, but eventually only those specialising in the commemoration of the dead remained the regular participants, growing in number from year to year: in 1974, there were 38 itako and in 1978, 53. Last year, however, only 9 were observed by Professor Takamatsu, and this year, I saw 6 of them still practicing an ‘art' feared to be on the verge of extinction by students and adepts of Japanese folklore.

When Carmen Blacker attended the Summer Festival at Mount Osore in 1959, she narrates her experience as follows:

the itako's procedure was as follows: rubbing the beads of her rosary together, she cited the posthumous name of the dead person and the date of his death, together with the invocations needed to summon the spirit. These preliminaries over, she would pause and ask, casually in a low voice, a number of leading questions. What relation was he to you? Was he your father, or your brother? Did he die in an accident? Or after a long illness? How many children had he, and how old is the youngest? All these questions were eagerly answered by the client, who was often an old woman. Having thus ascertained into which type the dead person fell, the itako launched into a rapid singsong chant lasting five or ten minutes. It was not difficult to see that not a single one of the itako were in any state resembling trance (...) answers were typified. All spirits spent a great deal of time repeating over and over again how glad and grateful they were to be called, how sweet was the moment of respite which the calling gave them from the gloom and misery of their present existence. Clearly the itako were simply reciting the most suitable among a repertory of fixed chants learnt by heart in the course of their training as purporting to come from the dead. Their performance belonged to the category of geinou or folk drama, at the same time functioned as kuyou or requiem comfort for the dead. On their audiences, however, the effect of these hackneyed effusions was pathetically touching.

Although it is doubtful that all blind fujo present exactly the same performance, not much seems to have changed in the last 50 years as far as the content of the ceremony and the feeling of being 'cheated' expressed by Carmen Blacker are concerned. To the defence of the medium, however, I believe that particular abilities and experience must be necessary to manage at such an age (89 years old) to spend more than 12 hours chanting and giving good advices to the client, one after the other, making sure that every one of them leaves satisfied, in such a warm day of July.

From the 6 practitioners offering their services, I chose one of the eldest among them, hoping that her practice would be as authentic and similar to what I have read as possible. The itako I consulted was born in 1919 and started her training at the age of 14 after she lost her right eye in an accident. Her protector deity is, like most of her colleagues, Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.

The ritual to which I assisted lasted roughly 10 minutes. After I sat down inside this tiny booth of 1.5m³ made of pieces of carton and plastic tied together, the fujo, her eyes tightly closed, immediately asked my relation to the dead relative I wanted to 'bring down' and the day of his (I decided on my grandfather) death; then she started rubbing the beads of her rosary for a short moment while chanting. Soon she stopped moving, and continued uttering what sounded like a mixture of song and structured speech. This was what I heard:

"As a grandfather, I am happy my grandson is holding a memorial service for me. I thank him. I hadn't even dreamt of my grandson doing so much for me. So, after my death's anniversary, I will call your protector god and I will ask him to protect your home and your children and make you happy.

Right now, I am happy and grateful, because on my right stands Manjusri (文殊菩薩様)1 and on my left Samantabhadra (普賢菩薩)2 .

My beloved grandson, please devote yourself to all gods and spirits, pray with all your heart and let them protect you.

I thank you. I am so thankful for having been called down.

Please protect yourself from the directions of the north and the west between the 15th and 20th of October at 2 o'clock in the afternoon(?), and avoid accidents and misfortunes, and make sure to spread around your luck to your house, family and descendants.

...on the 3rd and 5th of November, misfortune and sadness will hit your home, so I want you those days to be careful and offer sake to the gods and honour your ancestors ...

...remember this divination and take it back home with you..."

(I could not make sense of a few sentences concerning divinations on my financial situation)

The end of the kuchiyose was marked by the rubbing of the rosary, and eventually a 'hai' coming from deep down the itako's throat; then, since the client is allowed to ask the practitioner on particular issues in connection with the dead relative who possessed the fujo, I inquired on the possibility that my grandfather may be angry towards my mother. The woman's answer was:

"Of course not! The day he passed away, he was in a normal mood. Please bring offerings to the gods every year on that day. What is your astrological sign? Ox? Rooster? Then your guardian god is Fudō3. Honour him and make offerings to him and all will be well for you."

The first impression is that not much had changed since Carmen Blacker's visit. The itako seemed indeed to be simply reciting the most appropriate chant to my situation and it is needless to say that the frequent scratching of the head or clearing of the throat during the ritual attests of the absence of any kind of altered state of consciousness. The majority of the clients still leave in tears and the whole process reminds more of an artistic performance meant to commemorate the dead, like a Christian prayer conducted by the priest during a funeral, than a shamanistic practice. Alterations in the conditions under which the itako work and the clientele seeks advice, point however to a modernisation effect worth studying in the future.

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