Thursday, March 20, 2014

Shamanism in Japan

Article by Ty Hulse

Mediators with the Kami and Spirits

Purchase: Filmed between
 1991 and 1997, this film documents the final years of the charismatic Ms. 
Taki Kudo, a medium, healer and fortune teller. Every year she comes to 
Japan's sacred Mt. Osorozan where the mediums draw chopsticks 
for the best places to set up their booths. Summoning the spirits of the dead

Many of the kami and spirits want to connect with humanity, but cannot do so directly (in ancient lore kami are weakened by impurity, which our world is filled with, so rather than appear directly they often choose to possess objects such as rocks, trees, mountains, mirrors, or people so that they'll be safe from the impurity of the world), so to become involved they choose some few people to be shamans, mediators between humanity and the world of the kami.

In Japanese lore the first kami came down from the heavens via the pillar or the tree of life and possessed humans causing some of them to enter a state of ecstasy by performing a wild dance or a long period of music using the koto. In this way the kami made the first shaman families of Japan and it was these shaman families who became the ruling elite.

Yet at the same time these shamans were dangerous to the power of the Emperor and the Shogunate (Sort of like head general and typically the true ruler of Japan). A shaman could at anytime show up with a message from the kami which condemned the actions of the rulers, or threatened their power. In Japan's early history their was a shaman to the Kitsune (fox spirits) which started a rebellion against the Emperor. The danger posed by these shamans (often, but not always known as Mikos) caused the Emperor to outlaw much of shamanism, though he never fully succeeded in eliminating it.

Working with the Other World.

While shamans in most of the world focus on sending their souls into the spirit world to mediate with it, the shamans of Japan typically become possessed by the spirits of the other world. While possessed they often enter a trance like state and might dance wildly, shake violently, bounce or levitate while in the seated position, roar, make animal noises, or do other similar sorts of things. The key here, however, is that they also gain the ability to act as a conduit for the spirits voice and powers. This gave the shamans a lot of authority and power, though they were not magicians, as this power wasn't there own. Yes a shaman could learn to be a magician and manipulate magic themselves, but that wasn't what made them a shaman, what made them a shaman was the ability to use or be used by kami and other spirits.

Living as a Shaman

A shamans experiences and life often varied greatly, for it depended on their station, the will of the spirits, the era in which they lived, whether shamanism was still acceptable or feared. Further some shamans would marry humans while had an intimate relationship with the kami and spirits which had possessed them. There are even stories of various shamans having 'virgin' births through the kami, and so they had children who were kami in their own right. Still there were some basic types of shamans which can be identified.

Japanese Shamanism and Siberian Shamanism
have similar roots, with both likely coming from
the same source, thousands of years ago.

Traveling Shamans

Because of the importance of traveling shamanesses and the desire of  many shamans to live with like minded people, to have friends and allies causes some shamans to group together into their own villages. These typically female shamans would spend half the year in the village of shamans and the other half of the year traveling from community to community. This meant that there could be entire villages of hundreds of mikos who were independent of the official shrine system  (though they were often under Imperial license). The Mikos in these villages lived together in small groups within shared households that together made up a village. Although it's difficult to say exactly what life was like for these mikos within their villages as there are only a few records of this they would set out every New Years and travel the countryside for six months. Those who had husbands would be accompanied by their spouses who would would act as porters, helping to carry the shamans baggage, while also working to keep them safe on the road. Meanwhile their their sons and the older men would stay at home to tend the farms and keep the village. During this time outside of the village the members of each household would travel together, with each household going to different villages. They would have two goals, the first was to aid the people of other villages by performing the kuchiyose as well as other function, the second was to look out for beautiful girls between the ages of 8 and 15 who had the potential markings of being good mikos. There is some indication that these girls were purchased from their families, and that beautiful girls were chosen.

Wandering Shamans

As the shrine systems began to brake down many mikos who had previously performed in shrines found themselves unemployed and forced to wander from village to village. Other miko were unable to pay the high taxes which were required to work within the shrine system and so had to leave their homes to wander the country. In many ways these Tabijoro or Aruki miko (walking mikos) became 'unclean' workers themselves as they looked for nearly any job they could. They of course still performed the normal miko jobs of being possessed by the spirits of the dead and kami in order to act as messengers or healing the sick, enriching harvests and performing other religious-magico functions. However, others were rumored to be prostitutes, and others still became entertainers at way stations on the road. In other words these mikos had become some of the lowest members of society and very nearly unclean. Dispte this they could also be very important to small villages which had no access to other shamans.

Local Shamans

There were many shamans who had a specific home, a place within their village or city. Some of these lived much like we would expect aesthetics to live, dwelling in small huts in villages, quietly going about their lives.

In the North Eastern Section of mainland Japan, young blind girls were selected to train for the roll of shamaness. Most often sent by their parents to attend some form of formal schooling, and to live with another shamaness, a Sensei, who could teach them their art. Because they were so vital to their communities, and because this was likely the only work open to blind girls these shamanesses continued to work even after shamanism of all forms was outlawed, for this reason ethnographers were able to get better records of their training and practices than they could of most other shamanesses, which is why so many texts on folk religion and shamanism have focused on them.

Other local shamans would become the toast of the nobility and other upper circles of society. For example, an aesthetic named Tonomura was sitting with some samurai when he explained that one of their relatives was sick because the spirit of a dead person had possessed him. Soon after Tonomura impressed these samurai by giving them details about the spirit of the dead person so a samurai named Katsu Kokichi asked to be the aesthetics student. Within less then a year Tonomura was flooded with requests by the wealthy people to teach them or say prayers for them. Tonomura wasn't a shaman himself, however, he was part of a partnership. When trying to determine what the winning numbers would be for a lottery, for example, he had a girl across from him, he then intoned his prays, lit a sacred fire and handed the woman a sacred staff decorated with paper streamers. She than became possessed of the spirit of a kami and foretold the future. Although shamanistic partnerships are common in many places, in which a drummer or chanter will aid a shaman in getting into a state of ecstasy, Japan is the only place I know of where the nonshaman aesthetic gets more credit than the shaman does. I would presume this has to do with Buddhism and Confucianisms mandates against shamanism and woman, with these two ideas trying to lesson the power and role of the female shaman.

Miko aren't all shamans, and not all shamans
are Miko, but the Miko/Shaman relation
is historically important.

Shrine Shamans

Before they lost their homes in the shrine systems, many mikos likely led semi-comfortable lives within the shrine system, performing all the religious-magico duties that the wandering mikos performed. For them, however the kagura, or ritualized dance was perhaps the most important means of calling the kami. Like many other shamans they may also have been married to the kami as well. However, in very early times some of these would even become possessed of the goddess in order that she might enjoy sexual relations with the priest of the temple, though this activity is only mentioned a few times. In some cases the young boys who served at Buddhist temples would also become possessed by goddesses, though again this is rarely mentioned, so the activity may have been extremely rare, or it may simply not have been mentioned in official records very often because it wasn't thought of as very important.

Imperial Shamans

There were also shamans who were members of the imperial family, high level officials, or even at one time the rulers of nations. Recall that in many cases it was the greatest shamans that became the ruling classes of Japan. For example, the kami of Mount Miwa, one of the most powerful in ancient political history, became the ancestor kami of the Noble Riiwa and Ramo families through the conception of the noble virgin, Tama-yori-hime. Her name literally means a female shaman possessed by a spirit of a god (tarnu “spirit,” yari “possessing,” and hime, “an ancient honorific title for a noble woman”). In another tradition Princess Yamato-totohi-momoso-hime, who was an aunt of the Emperor Suijin became the wife and shaman to Omononushi. When a massive epidemic swept through the land and killed nearly half the people the horrified Emperor prayed to the kami to understand what was happening and his aunt become possessed by the kami and explained that he needed to seek out an Otataneko and appoint him as the high priest. When this was done the plague ended.

Princess Yamato-hime was one of the Emperor's daughters who was chosen to be the head priestess of the Sun kami at the imperial families shrine during the reign of Suinin. It was she who traveled the land until she came to Ise where she erected the most important shrine in Shintoism. She was still serving when her nephew Prince Yamato-takeru visited her before going to war in the east. At this time she gave him the sword Kusanagi no tsurugi. This sword had been endowed with powers by Susanowo-no-kami and so allowed the prince to defeat the Emishi and their kami.

Solitary Shamans

Learning the art of shamanism and the secrets to help others often required long periods of quite contemplation in the mountains. So Japan's lore is filled with those who would go up into the mountains to learn from the spirits, away from humanity. Yet more often than not these aesthetics would return to civilization, or at least live on the edge of civilization in order to help humanity. Their purpose after all, was most often to act as mediators between the spirit and the human world.

Each region had it's own variation of shamanism
because Japan isn't historically a single religion
but many, which all came under Imperial control.
While they technically had to follow the Emperor's
religion, they all still followed their own to some extent.

Family Shamans

There are many traditions of families with their own set of kami, their own ancestral spirits. In Okinawa for example, each family has their own kami known as ukamagam and tukurugam, both of which are passed down to the eldest son, and from there to any branch families as well. True to the female shamanistic character of Japan, however, the relationship with kami is most often cared for by the eldest sons wife.

The Ukamagam are sometimes considered to be ancestral spirits, but other times are believed to be separate beings all together. Regardless of whether the ukamagam is an ancestral spirit or not they are a key part of the families connection to the spirit world, acting to help insure a happy household. They also act as bridge between the family and the kami of the heavens.

The tukurugam is a guardian spirit which protects the house from robbers, thieving little animals, and the like. They also act as a connection between the household and the other kami of the earth and sea. Though the tukurugam are tied to the eldest son in a family they are also tied to the household itself. So when a new house is built the family moving in will ask shamans to ritually ask the tukurugam to settle into the household.

Still the existence of these household kami, doesn't make a member of the family a shaman, it just gives them the potential to have their own personal shamanistic traditions, which they sometimes do. The most famous, or infamous of these family shaman traditions are those who worship animal spirits. These traditions are interesting because unlike much of Japan's post Buddhist culture they are matrilineal, with the animal spirits being passed down from the mother to each of her daughters. This means that the sons of one of these families will usually seek out a wife from another of these families, in order to continue to enjoy the benefits which the animal spirits provide. Of course sometimes all it took to become a family which worked with animal spirits was moving into a house, or onto land which had once been owned by such a family. Further, since animal spirits could dwell inside of drawers, jars, and more, even buying or receiving one of these from a family which had animal spirits could stick a family with them as well.

Keep in mind that one of the key jobs of Shrines is to
build and maintain a relationship with the Kami.
This means not only honoring them, but traditionally
also entertaining them.

The Shamans Work

The Kuchiyose

Kuchiyose is the act of becoming possessed by the kami for some purpose. For an experienced shamaness the state of ecstasy is a moment of calm, a moment of clarity, a prayer in which they are filled with a spirit, whom they are than able to speak for. There were three kinds of kuchiyose

1 - kami kuchi_ possession by gods or spirits in order to divine, heal the sick,etc.,

2 - shi kuchi—possession by the souls of the dead to report conditions, desires, etc., of the dead.

3 - possession to obtain information concerning the activities, locations, thoughts, etc.,of people who were at a distance. (Fairchild)

There were a number of different ways of performing the kuchiyose, one of which involved having the patron place a dead tree leaf in one of the mikos sacred bowls of water. The miko would than breath into the water and stir it three times with a twisted peace of paper, at which point the miko would become possessed.

Other Mikos would use a rosary which was at times called irataka nengu and was often passed down from teachers to their disciples for generations (often on the death of the teacher). It could be as much as eight feet long and would be made from some three hundred soapberry wooden beats, as well as the claws of animals, figures made from the jaw bones of dear and foxes, as well as the horns of deer, the teeth bears, claws of eagles, shells, and other sacred items.

The Sasa Hataki would use long pieces of the bamboo grass sasa which they would tap to their faces and heads while sitting before a bowl of water. They would than invoke various spirits for a long time before shaking and becoming possessed.

Those miko who would become possessed by fox spirits would use a cylinder object which was called a gehobako, which the fox spirit was said to live in. In nearly all cases the Miko carried a box also called a gehobako which held these sacred objects, many of which were said to be possessed by various spirits.

Still other miko would use  two Oshira Kami Dolls, one male (which had three bells attached to it) and one female (which had four bells attached to it). These were made from an eight inch piece of mulberry wood with a dress made from a simple piece of cloth with a hole cut in it to go over the head.

Once possessed the miko would be able to speak for the dead and or various kami. They could also cure illnesses, exorcise evil spirits,  perform rituals to protect people and homes from possession, and perform divination with regards to agriculture as well as various other  religions-magico functions.
This was contrasted with the ontake ko (male shamans) who were  believed to have a special relationship with the spirits of foxes, being able not only to exorcise them but also to become possessed by and than control the spirits of foxes. In order to perform their rituals these shamans would work in pairs. So when exorcising a fox one Ontake Ko (called Zenza) would make on offering of soy bean paste and fried bean curd to the fox. These offerings would be placed before the other shaman known as Chuza.

There is some evidence that the lion dance in many regions
is the partial decedent of the old bear dances, of previous mountain
religions which worshiped bears.

Sacred Dances

Sacred dances known as kagura were an important means for a shaman or some other person to become possessed by the spirits. In  the Shimane Prefecture there is an independent system of professional ohinto priests which managed to survive into the modern day, even after their practices had been outlawed many times by the Meiji government. Theses ohinto perform the kagura for Omoto (an ancestral kami, or a collective of ancestral kami) which dwell within a long straw figure of a snake which is coiled around a sacred tree. For the ritual this snake is carried in procession through the village to the shrine where the kagura is going to be performed in it's honor. At the end of this dance Omoto-sama typically possesses one of the villages and gives his message.

In this village the dancers are all male as are the mediums, however, this dance used to be performed by a miko who became possessed with the help of a male mountain aesthetic (who was at times her husband). Now the ritual tends to be performed by volunteers and priests who go through a week long purification process.

Kagura-no are dances which are performed in masks and costumes to tell stories of myths and epics. One of the more interesting of these Epics is a local version of Susa-no-o's story in which he fights a pair of dragons which whirl around him breathing fire and smoke. Others are fights between yamabushi and evil spirits. At the end of this performance one man becomes possessed such that he falls into a trace or begins to jump wildly about and has to be restrained by the priests. After the possessed person and possessing spirit have been calmed the priests will ask them questions important to the villages future (such as the harvest for the next year, potential disasters, and the like).

Becoming a Shaman

Tiny ice crystals hang in the still cold night air, caking everything in the small village with layers of frost so that even the thin layer of snow seems new. A young girl steps shivering from the cool house where she is staying, and into the freezing night air. Her pure white clothes seem to blend perfectly with the cold white snow and if anyone were to see her the could be forgiven for thinking that she was a snow woman. But if anyone saw her, other than those few who had been purified in order to be able to watch her, she would have to start over again. And her stomach has started to burn from hunger so intensely that she's still thinking about it even as her bare feet step out into the freezing cold snow. It's been days since she's slept so even the cold isn't enough to keep her from dozing for long enough to fall over a small pine into a snow drift.

A bucket of water sits out for her at the edge of the trees and mountains just a little ways ahead. Although it was just placed there she has to brake a very thin layer of ice that has formed on it. She takes a breath and hefts the bucket, than pauses. Tired, hungry and cold she reconsiders what she is about to do for a moment, but just a moment, there is no going back now. She pours the freezing cold water over her head and nearly lets out a shriek as the cold water shocks her system, washing away the hunger, the fatigue, all her worldly thoughts and concerns, at least for a moment. She's not even half way through the hardest part of her training, and it seems impossible to imagine how such a young girl could continue on this way for much longer.

In most cases a potential shamanesses would spend from 3 to 5 years  learning the art of the kuchiyose, magico-religious rituals, important ballads, and gaining an understanding of the kami. After which these girls would begin the most severe part of their training. For 21 days they would be kept in a tiny hut in front of their mistresses house, during which time they couldn't be exposed to sunlight. Three times each night they would have to sneak out, and remaining unseen by others they would have to pour cold water over themselves. They had to abstain from most foods, and had very little to eat. In one case the girls could only eat chestnuts, nutmegs and potatoes for the first seven days, than they could only eat small unsalted riceballs for the next seven days, and during the last seven days she could only eat a small amount of raw foods as she had to avoid fire. During this period in time they weren't allowed to sleep, or lay down, but could only kneel three times a day. If they became exposed to an impurity such as blood they would have to start over, Thus young girls often had an easier time than older girls who were prone to having periods, and so often did have to start over. Blood of any sort after all would drain a kami of it's power and so would prevent the kami from visiting the girl for the first time. Still some older woman did become shamanesses would perform purifying rituals to deal with this, or would start their ablutions over when they began to menstruate and so would be able to become possessed by the kami.

Their graduation ceremony was called kami tsuku (attaching the kami) as this was the ceremony in which a kami would possess the girl for the first time, and so become her guardian spirit During the ceremony the young itako would mount bags of rice as if they were a horse, and offerings would be set before her for the spirits. The itaku would put her feet in these offerings and be asked which spirit had attached itself to her. She would respond with the name of the kami and at times than fall over in a faint, to be caught by her primary instructor. After this a wedding would take place between her and her guardian spirit in order to unite them.