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.