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What is an itako?
Kohkan Sasaki, professor emeritus of Komazawa University is a researcher of religious anthropology who has studied shamanism in Asia. He recently spoke to The Daily Yomiuri about itako.

Miki Fujii / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Daily Yomiuri: Why are most itako women?
Sasaki: There are various explanations. While male shamans are common in China and Southeast Asia, female shamans are more prevalent in India, North and South Korea, and Japan, where societies are based on patriarchal values. I think shamans tend to be female in societies where women are suppressed or discriminated against as an inferior gender. By associating themselves with the gods, women are able to balance their power with men in such societies.
Japanese used to believe that the gods offered mercy to those in misery, especially Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. She is one of the most commonly believed-in gods among itako.
I have seen noseless yuta shamans in Okinawa Prefecture. Such physical defects used to be interpreted as symbolic of supernatural stigmata.
The oldest reference to female shamans in Japan appears in the Wei Zhi, a Chinese chronicle of the third century. A woman called Himiko, who is described as a shaman, ruled an early Japanese political federation known as Yamatai using a divine power to converse with the gods.
The first reference to female shamans in Japanese writing dates back to the 11th century.

Daily Yomiuri: What religion do itako believe in?
Sasaki: Shamanism is based on animistic folk religions. In the case of itako, they believe in a number of gods from various different beliefs, such as animism, Buddhism and Shinto. Rather than simply mixing these beliefs, they superimpose later religions on top of existing ones, enabling long-running beliefs and gods to maintain strong identities.
During an initiation ceremony, each itako will come into contact with the gods that will possess them. They will also learn which god is most powerful in a variety of different circumstances.

Daily Yomiuri: How is the initiation ceremony carried out?
Sasaki: In training for initiation, itako dress in a white kimono 100 days before the ceremony. They pour cold water over themselves from a well, river or pond--usually this takes place in midwinter--and practice chanting. Three weeks before the ceremony they stop taking grain, salt, and avoid artificial heat. This helps to create an extreme state of mind to facilitate their entering a trance.
During the ceremony itself, the itako trainee is dressed as a bride to indicate that she will marry a god. Repetitive drum and bell sounds are produced to help raise concentration levels and prepare the mind while older itako sit around to assist the chanting. The session can continue for days and days until the itako finally enters a trance. That is when the master itako determines which god has possessed the trainee itako. During this tough ritual trainees are not allowed to sleep and their consumption of food is kept to a minimum. Because many itako suffer from some kind of visual impairment, trainees must learn by heart various scriptures. In this way, some itako know the scriptures better than some of the less-motivated priests.

Daily Yomiuri: Why haven't itako been respected in the same way as priests?
Sasaki: The difference between priests and shamans lies in the fact that shamans go into a trance while priests simply ask the gods for mercy. Priests often come from privileged backgrounds while shamans are generally lower-class people or social outcasts.
Before Buddhism and Confucianism entered Japan, various emperors made use of the services of shamans. But as doctrinal religions were introduced, animism became vilified as the superstition and heresy of primitive culture. A similar trend can be seen in most civilizations around the world, in which folk religions are eliminated by institutional religions such as Buddhism, Christianity or Islam.
Eventually, the religious rituals once performed by female shamans in Japan in ancient times were taken over by men of later, more sophisticated religions.

Daily Yomiuri: How can you verify that an itako has really entered a trance?
Sasaki: Although this is a crucial point for researchers, you can never be sure that a trance is entirely authentic. I think the important point is that the client believes in the power of the itako and that society accepts the tradition. This is one aspect common in all religions.

Daily Yomiuri: Can itako contribute to the well-being of modern people?
Sasaki: Shamanism can help make up for weaknesses of modern culture by providing relief for people in extreme suffering and pain, making fuller use of people's daily lives and keeping society and culture intact. Shamanism fills some of the spaces left open by modern rationalism and science.

Miki Fujii for The Yomiuri Shimbun

Miki Fujii


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