You know by now I am in love with Japanese religions and I’ve been talking about itako for quite a lot… I would like to share with you the experience I had with Matsuda Hiroko, the youngest itako still working today. She is very popular in Aomori, and I have to say she is a very interesting woman, first of all because she is not at all blind.
If you don’t know who are itako in japanese religions, I suggest you have a quick read at these previous posts, where I talk about shamanism in Japan, who are itako shamans, and also what are the main religions in Japan.
Itako by choice
I heard about Matsuda-san in the winter 2012, and I started looking for her contacts in order to meet her as soon as possible; with the help of other researchers I could finally get her phone number, and I could get in touch with her. As usual, due to the strict accent of the Tohoku inhabitant, I ask my informant Sae to help me with the phone call; we spoke with Matsuda’s mother, who asked few informations about us, and while talking with her daughter she agreed to meet us in the month of April 2013. She agreed to an interview, but she refused to perform a kuchiyose for me.
She lives in Hachinohe 八戸市, in southeastern Aomori – ken, the second biggest city of the prefecture; we found her house thanks to several phone calls, which led us finally to a traditional home at the border of the neighborhood, surrounded by woodland and uncultivated lands. Her mother let us in, and led us in a small room with the altar and the tools of the activity. Matsuda arrived soon after us, with her younger child, a little girl of about two years old; we sat in the room, and we started talking quietly wild the child played around us. The atmosphere was very familiar and relaxed. The first thing that striked me is that Matsuda-san is not blind, and she is very young, especially in comparison with the other itako; she was born in 1972, from a middle-class family, in the area of Hachinohe. Thus the first question for her is quite obvious
Why did you think about becoming an itako?
Clearly, this was not the first time she heard such a question (She also wrote a book 最後のイタコ, in which she tells her life history and the peculiarity of her professions, you can find it here) , since she is now renowned in the area, and the most requested for at the Taisai. As she told me, the itako as always been a familiar presence in her life since a very young age; in Tohoku, she recalled, it was very common to have an itako in the neighborhood, and to turn to her when in need, in particular for health issues, since the hospitals were still rare, and people used to avoid them in case of a cold or some general bad health condition.
The Japanese shaman path: a difficult childhood
When she was a child she used to be always very sick, suffering of recurring fevers; her parents brought her to the hospitals and to the local doctors several times, but they couldn’t tell what the actual problem was, nor offer an effective cure. Her mother’s collegue then, suggested them to visit an itako, and she introduced them to the woman that later became Matsuda’s teacher, Hayashi Mase林ませ, an itako of the Nanbu tradition 南部伝承イタコ. When the itako visited the little child she immediately said:
This child’s illness is caused by an ancestor’s spirit
So she proceeded with a purification ritual, oharai お祓い, and in the following days the fever lowered significantly, and she had to drop out of kindergarten. Her overall health didn’t however improve, and over the following years she kept developing sudden fever; every time, her parents would bring her to the hospital and after that, they would visit the itako. Matsuda said these visits were never something she felt reluctant about; they were the only time she felt happier and less tired in her body, while the chanting and the rubbing of the rosary had a calming effect on her mind. Visit after visit, month after month, her body started recovering, and around the time of the elementary school her health was so improved as to allow her to go back to attend classes.
The Japanese shaman path: the call
Her visit to the itako continues for some more times, while she started thinking about become an itako herself; she declared her wish only later, around the time she turned 15, when she told her family she didn’t want to go to high school, in order to enter the apprenticeship with Hayashi-san. Her parents strongly opposed this decision, but since she was so firm, they decided to ask Hayashi-san for an advice on the matter.
Hayashi-san was very surprised, even amused by Matsuda’s desire, but she didn’t refuse; she only imposed Matsuda to graduate from high school before starting the apprenticeship, promising her to accept her as a student after that. Thus, Matsuda entered high school, but during the first summer vacation she went by herself to Hayashi-san in order to start the training. After a few time, when the lessons started again, she managed to convince her parents to let her continue the training during the weekend (thus living with her teacher for that time), while attending school during the week. She trained for four, five years, until she turned 19. That year, her teacher told her she was ready to start her own activity, and started the planning and the training for the kamitsuke, the initiation ritual. While recounting her training, Matsuda pointed out that for her it was longer than usual because she couldn’t devote herself completely to it, and she couldn’t live her everyday life with her teacher. However, she underlined the fact that being able to see was a clear advantage during the apprenticeship, in particular simplifying the learning process of sutra and prayers; since she could write them down and read them over and over, it was less hard then for the blind apprentices, who could only learn by listening and repeating after the teacher.
What’s the future for itako in contemporary japanese religions
During the interview, Matsuda-san stressed repeatedly the fact that in the area the itako were very important not only for the kuchiyose and the kamigoto, but in general as support for the local families that turned to them for advices on many different issues: in Hachinohe, this notion is well exemplified by the term kaka-sama かか様 (かか mother, wife), with which the itako was called. They were also important as healers, which often cause a bit of a conflict with local doctors and hospitals. Her understanding about the role and activities of an itako in increased with the observation of her teacher’s activity; she would follow her during her visits to client and neighbors, and she came to realize that the clients related to the itako all the problems they couldn’t discuss with their family or friends. She was an intermediary for the kami and hotoke, and therefore clients connect with their ancestors through her, opening up about their anguish and troubles. The teacher was also always available to visit her clients at home, in case of health problems, and to perform healing ritual for them at any time: this made her essential for the community, who trusted her for everything.
During the interview, I could briefly touch some other interesting topic with Matsuda: first of all she explained her relationship as an itako with the local religious institutions, clarifying that there are no official contacts between them. The temples and shrines do not recognize her activity, nor she belongs to any specific sect; the only link between them is the temporary lease of some temple area to the itako in order to perform their rituals (as in the case of Osoresan Taisai). She declared that her personal relations with temples and shrines are limited to the worship of her tutelary deity (Senshu Kannon 千手観音), but she actually doesn’t belong to any specific sect.
Secondly, she discussed the present situation of her profession, the latest changes and the possible future; she reported a growth in the popularity of the itako practices, with a lot of people that now is interested in meeting them, and have rituals performed. In particular after the 2011 Tohoko earthquake, she witnessed an increase in the number of visitors, especially at the Taisai; simultaneously, she perceived a deep change in the motives and expectations of the people who ask for her help. She suggested that people now consider this practice more like a counseling, losing a little the original meaning of intermediary with the kami and the ancestors, and focusing more on their own future through divination and prediction.
Recently, the opportunities to perform kuchiyose in events outside the Osorezan are increased; I am very grateful for the fact that in this way people get to know the existence of the itako, but sometimes, i receive some unthinkable questions and requests, that puzzle me. For example, this kind of demand:
“What was the food I ate this morning?”,
“Now they are taken care of, but how long will my parents live?”,
“Please let me talk with my dead pet”,
“Please, look for my missing son”.
What itako can do is create a connection between the departed hotoke-sama from the other world, and the people in this world; we cannot do thing such as predict the future, invoke dead animals, or find a missing person. Furthermore, I don’t answer to the questions based on the intent to test the power of the itako
In her opinion, there is a tendency to delegate any kind of choices to the itako advice; even if sometimes the need for external help is understandable, it is necessary that people start taking responsibility for their own choices without constantly relying on the outside.
Finally, I asked Matsuda if she had any students of her own; she says she didn’t have any students for now, and she’s not planning on having one any time soon, since she as a little child. She’s receiving a lot of requests, in particular from outside the prefecture, from people that wants to start the apprenticeship; she told us, though, that these are often kids in a particularly difficult stage of life, with a troubled spirit but with no real gift, or any consciousness at all about the profession. She does not consider a good idea to take them as apprentice, given their state of mind, and often suggest to the families to face the kids’ problems in other direction.
There was in Matsuda-san a peculiar concern about the future of the itako practices; even if, as she recalled, there are more itako than those who attend the Osorezan Taisai, and in some cases they are organized in local associations, their number is dramatically decreasing. They are getting older, and therefore start retiring, or recovering in nursing homes, and there are very few new apprentices that can properly follow in their footsteps. Moreover, as she reported, a lot of different kind of practitioners use the name of itako, expecially on the internet, and in the local area (Hachinohe), to exploit their popularity and gain money without actually being an itako. She expressed a deep concern about the fact that in the future the itako culture might disappear, as a result of a better health and welfare system, and with a wider range of choice for blind women.