To those with an interest in the occult, Japan's itako - female, blind spirit mediums practicing an ancient form of shamanism - are endlessly fascinating. But as the few remaining women die off, it's a tradition in danger of extinction.
I remember the first time I heard about itako from a Japanese friend whose grandmother had made periodic visits to the shamans to contact her dead husband. It's reminiscent of the oracles at Delphi: what the New York Times calls "elderly, often blind women who hold séance-like ceremonies that customers hope will allow them to commune with spirits of the dead" in a sulfur-permeated dormant volcano known as the "Mountain of Horror." It seemed impossible that anything so ancient should still exist. But as the Times explains, it won't for much longer.
Although the animistic practice is thought to pre-date both Buddhism and Shintoism - and over the years have been treated with hostility by both religious and civic authorites, who regard it as superstition - it has come to incorporate elements of both. The Mountain, for instance, is thought to be a place where souls assemble before reincarnation, and is the site of a Buddhist temple. However, the article points out that the temple has disassociated itself from the freelance shamans, who have long been regarded by some as frauds - and, as one professor points out, perhaps scorned partially as a result of their lower social status; as opposed to (male) priests, most itako came from the lower classes.
While there used to be hundreds of itako, whom people would consult at temples, asking them to channel the dead for a small fee, now only four remain, three of whom are elderly. Traditionally, blind girls trained from a young age - or were called to the practice, often by a health crisis in later life.
Ms. Himukai, the 40-year-old itako, says she enters a trance in which she feels the presence of the spirit and its mood, which she expresses in her own words. She said she decided to begin the three-year period of study to become a spiritual medium as a teenager, after an itako near her rural village cured her of an ailment that doctors could not fix.
It's easy to see why the rigors of the mysterious discipline might leave some young Japanese women cold, particularly in a world where the blind have other employment options. Here's how Wikipedia describes the initiation process:
In training for initiation, itako dress in a white kimono 100 days before the ceremony. Austere purification is obligatory to achieve an extreme state of mind. Rites where she must pour cold water over herself, usually in the cold of winter, occur and she is required to practice chanting. Three weeks prior to the ceremony, she is not permitted to consume grain, salt, meat and must avoid artificial heat...During the ceremony itself, the itako trainee is dressed as a bride to indicate that she will marry a god. The ceremony is accompanied by continual drum and bell sounds to help the itako achieve the concentration required to enter into a trance. Older itako sit around to assist the chanting; the ceremony may go on for days until the trainee has entered the said trance. Once she has entered a trance, the master itako will determine which god has possessed the trainee. Trainees are not permitted to sleep and food consumption is kept to a minimum. As a result of being blind, itako must learn the obligatory scriptures by heart and may even know the scriptures better than some less motivated priests
As an outsider, it's easy to mourn the death of ancient tradition - particularly one whose continued existence is itself remarkable. But at the same time, for a young woman with other options - and more to the point, other means of enfranchisement - it would be inexplicable, in a way, to opt for such a difficult life. For those few pilgrims who still seek their services, of course, the loss will indeed be felt: as is clear to any of us who've ever, even in spite of our intellectual reservations, given into the temptation to have our cards or palms read, a desire to know the unknowable dies very hard.
The Itako—A Spiritual Occupation For Blind Japanese Girls [NFB]
What Is An Itako? [WurzelWerk]