I am passionate about Japanese culture, and I’ve been studying it professionally for the past 10 years. During this time, I’ve been actively analyzing some different aspects of Japanese religions and culture: the first one is my PhD project on Japanese shamanism, in particular the shamanism of itako イタコ, while the second one is connected to the Japanese funerary practices and mortuary rites.
#1. A female shaman
In the Nord-est of Japan can still be found the last rapresentative of a peculiar shamanism; the feminine shamanism of the itako, the blind shamans. The activity of these women does not exhaust the landscape of Japanese shamanism, but they undoubtely represent a peculiarity of the place; blind since birth, or from a very young age, they “choose” the shamanic as a consequence of this phisical disability.
The itako can be considered as the last heiresses of an essentially feminine shamanism which has his own roots in the myth (linked to the image of the shamaness to the prototype of Himiko, the legendary emperess of Yamatai); however, they have often been the target of differents controversies and debates among anthropologist and religious specialists, who questioned the authenticity of their shamanic experience, and even the possibility to include it in the field of shamanism. Nevertheless, taking a wider look at the phenomenon, their role, path, and their whole experience allow us to put them in the shamanistic phenomenon; they face in fact a long period of physical and spiritual training that culminates in the initiation ceremony, where the apprentice simbolically dies in order to gain a new life as a religious specialist.
READ MORE: What is shamanism?
Calling the dead
What is exactly the activity of these japanese blind shamans? Shamanism a very complex contract established with the supernatural aiming to create a link between our world and the other, and the shaman is the only person who capable of travel between the two place in order to ensure communication.
The itako perfectly fit this general pattern, but their activities have a particular functional focus: their specialty resides in the preferential communication with the dead, and in particular with the ones I will call “angry ghosts”; these latters are the exiled souls who can’t find peace, barred from the ancestors’ society, and who represent a threat for the living.
The main important duty for the itako is to allow the angry ghosts to communicate with their living relatives in order to have their needs satisfied, and their anguish eased.
What is itako’s role?
This liminal role, peculiar to the itakos, inevitably raise one first question: why the task to enter this dangerous border region is assigned exclusively to the itako? And why their activity can not be accomplished by other experts of the symbolic pratices, or by the priests of the official and institutional cults?
The notion of impurity
We can find a first solution to the previous questions in a very archaic category of the japanese religious thought, the concept of kegare, which is usually translated with “impurity”. The idea of pollution in a central in almost all the religious systems, and it goes beyond the ritual interdicts about health precautions and hygiene. In the Shinto tradition, the boundary between purity and impurity is extremely important, and it provides the ground for the delimitation of space, places, moments devoted to the Sacred, and other related to the Profane. The ritual impurity is what really impedes the communications with the Gods, because it offends and repels them; it is what make the earth dirty and polluted in turn. Death is the source of a extremely powerful pollution, which requires particular attentions, and purification rituals of a certain importance. Also the Buddhism, in particular in its Japanese declinations, puts a strong accent on the dangers of the pollutions from different sources of impurity; it often results in very strict training periods to purify the body and the spirit.
The impurity of death and the dead
Here we come to the first of the two elements of the problem. Death is polluted and impure for its own nature, and the dead, in particular the angry dead, are dangerous not only as the climax of impurity, but mainly because they threat to bring about new deaths and new pollutions in the society of the living. Violating all the organized classifications between the two worlds, the angry dead lives open the boundary between worlds that should never come into contact, because if the delimitations vanish, the caos reappear. The dead must be kept apart from the living society, in order to preserve the boundaries between the two realities.
The impurity of women
The second element is the following: not only death is impure but, in the same way, the woman too is a extremely strong source of pollution.
In the japanese religious context, woman is impure: she represent tha nature in its savage condition, dangerous, defined by the absolute caos and the absence of control. Menstruations, pregnancy, childbearing and birth are all strongly polluted, and the woman, which is biologically related to procreation, is naturally doomed to impurity. This vision is encouraged by the Buddhism, for which the women won’t never be able to rich enlightenment, and are condamned, after death, to suffer the torments of the Hells as a punishment to have polluted the earth with menstrual and delivery blood.
The ideal of woman as a symbol of fertility and life itself, usual for European and American people, is here overturned; women are the breaking violence of negative forces in the ordined masculine world, and fertility comes exclusively from the control that man exercises on her. It is not an accident if the deity of the mountains (Yama no kami) is feminine, while the deity of rice fields and organized spaces (Ta no kami) is a male deity.
When the Buddhism grew his power on the places of worship, the monks estabished the nyonin kekka, sort of sacred perimeter inside which women, and shamanesses in particular, were not allow the walk. This brings to a particular situation in which the buddhist monks, inside the mountain temples, represent the institutional religious powers (the only one actually recognized), and the female shamans of the ancient cults (representing a second source of power) are “external”, outside the sacred circle, and extremely dangerous.
Impurity and social structure: order and chaos
Now we can offer a better answer to the initial question: only the itako can come to contact with the angry ghosts because she share their same impurity. If a man ventures in that world, he will invariably get polluted. Moreover, the itako live on the fringes of society: their activity is accepted by tacit agree, also sought for, but at one condition: they have to stay in this gray zone, outside the official practices and cults. Placed outcast from the birth (because of their physical disability), they maintain this status as a consequence of the path they chose. They are necessary to the society because they take charge an activity that no one else would practice; nevertheless they are condamned to the social and onthololgical fringes.
We can give the same status to the angry ghost; it is an errand being, precariously in balance between two places, the world of the living and the world of the deads, without belonging to either of them. It can not come back, refused from the living society, nor move on, in the ancestors society. We can now better see why only someone who share the same characteristic with it, can actually start a communication.
We can say, hence, that the itakos represent a different source of power, alterative to the institutional and prevailing cults. But their status is extremely ambiguous: rejected from the society in order to avoid the breaking of the order, the itakos receive, from this same society, the request to manage a violent power such as that of the angry ghosts, which otherwise could mine the existing order and bring chaos to the livings.
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#2. Death and funeral practices in contemporary Japan
This is for me a more recent interest, that interacted deeply with the previous and that allowed me to better locate the work of shaman-like practitioners in Japan.
However, in the past three years, I have been deepening this topic, with a particular attention to the new funeral rites in contemporary Japan, and some of the most debated ritual that Japan “created” in the last 30 years or so: I am talking about mizuko kuyo, the ritual for the aborted fetuses, that arose a good amount of debate in western scholars.
Along with this topic, in the last year I’ve been researching the new burial practices that emerged in Japan in the last decade, in particular the sakura burial, the scattering of the ashes, and the eternal memorial graves.
Brain death and organ donation
Finally, I have been studying a particular topic in Japanese debate surrounding death: the notion of brain death, that seems to find a difficult path to acceptance in Japan, and the related problem of organ donation and transplantation.