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 first reference to female shamans in Japanese writing dates
back to the 11th century.
Daily Yomiuri: What religion do itako believe
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
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
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
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
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.