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?