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Talking about shamanism may seems some easy task, and some images immediately pop to mind: the old shaman in trance, whispering obscure words while drums and smoke filled the (often) dark room. In reality, the situation is much more complex and far more variegate.

What is shamanism


The word shaman derives from the Tungus šaman, and means literally “one who is excited, moved or raised”;One of the first scientific definitions of “shaman” was given by the Russian ethnographer V.M. Mikahilovskii, who stated that the shaman is “an intermediary in man’s relations with the world of spirits.” We can consider this as the basic description of the shaman, and of this role within the community; it is the ground on which following descriptions and interpretations have been built. Shirokogoroff, the Russian author who was considered the first authority in the study of Tungus shamanism, defined the shaman as a “persons of both sexes who have mastered spirits, who at will can introduce these spirits into themselves and use their power over the spirits in their own interests, particularly helping other people, who suffer from the spirits”.

Dispite the fact that this characterization is extensively accepted and employed even in the contemporary studies, it is not free from problems; aside from this role as mediator, it seems very difficult to give a more detailed definition, and to reach an agreement on what constitutes the main elements of the shaman, his activities and his methods and techniques

Current debate regarding shamanism has been profoundly influenced by the historian of religions Mircea Eliade, whose work represented for a long time and authority in the field. In his 1961 work Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, he attempts to create a worldwide comparison of the shamanic phenomenon, considering it the “ultimate expression of an innate and timeless human religiosity centered on the ecstatic trance or archaic technique of ecstasy”. A shaman would become such after an initiatory sickness during which he or her experience the first ecstatic trance. His focus was thus mainly on the notion of ecstasy considered as an experience of the shaman’s soul that flees the body toward the spirit realms. Possession on the contrary is the action of an external spirit that enters the body of the shaman and speaks through his or her voice; in Eliade’s interpretation, however, this was not a true shamanism.

In recent years, the concept of shamanism has been at the center of a huge debate among scholars, who criticized the classical interpretation suggested by  Mircea Eliade, and proposed new approaches to the subject, in particular focalizing more on the notion of the “role” of the shaman within society and less on the centrality of trance and ecstasy.

Shamanism in Japan

In Japan, if possible, the situation is even more difficult. For many years now, Japanese shamanism has been regarded as a marginal phenomenon in the category, very hard to analyze and to include in the mainstream definition mainly because scholars have generally detected the lack of the classic shamanic “election” with its consequent “initiatory sickness”; this general statement brought to the conclusion that the trance of Japanese shamans is not authentic, and therefore they should not properly be regarded as shamans at all. While these critics lay on a somewhat outdated definition of shamanism, the Japanese phenomena contain nonetheless some problematic elements.

When dealing with the topic of Japan Folk Shamans, an immediate conceptual or definitional problem arises in the documentary compilations devoted to the subject […] the one of delimiting the range of magico-religious practitioners which I here subsume under the category of folk shamans. Two issues in particular: Folk (minkan) and Shaman (fusha)
Ikegami Yoshimasa

shamanism in JapanAs Ikegami Yoshimasa sharply points out, a first debate concern the use and limits of the word “folk” minkan 民間: it seems to refer in specific to the category of traditional indigenous customs, therefore excluding all the professional specialists members of the organized established religions. Itako, kamisama and the like can fit without particular trouble in this definitions, since they presents autonomous traits and activities, but there are examples in which they are afferents to organized religious groups (Tendai, Shugendo, and some New Religions such as Taiwa-shu, Tenrikyou, ecc.) leading to a difficulty in discriminating between folk and non folk. Ikegami suggests to consider as “folk” all the practices typical of the non-ruling classes, in contrast with the officials (kan), but as he underlines, this would lead to define several local Shinto shrines as folk religions.
The second problematic element is the use of the word fusha 巫者, usually translated with shaman, and the related practices. Following the classical theory on shamanism, we should separate the fusha from other specialist suc as prophets, yogensha, kitōsha, etc.; again, however, this distinction is not always functional to the actual activities of the different fusha, who especially in the New Religions display different roles and characteristics.

Blind shamans

Blind fusha are well attested in Tohoku from at least the Edo period, as well as in Tochigi and Ibaragi prefectures, which border Fukushima; at present, there can still be found some interesting example of such practices alongside with seeing fusha practitioner; these latter are increasing in number (though not so much in popularity) while the former, for a concurrency of different reasons are rapidly decreasing. The name these practitioners receives changes according to the areas and prefecture, but tends to reflect the distinction between blind and seeing; these latter are generally called hayari-gamisama ハヤリガミサマ, kamisama カミサマ, sensei せんせい (先生). The blind fusha have a wider range of names according to the locations: in Aomori-ken, Iwate-ken (north) e Akita-ken (north) they are called itako イタコor idago いだご, in Tsugaru area of Aomori arimasaアリマサ, in Akita-ken (south) ichigo イチコ. In the inner Yamagata-ken area, they are miko ミコ or migodo ミゴド. In Mogami and Murayama area of Yamagata, onakamaオナカマ. In the Okita area of Yamagata, in Fukushima-ken, in Tochigi-ken (north), e Ibaraki (north), they are called waka ワカ or agataアガタ. Finally in Miyagi-ken and South Iwate, ogamisama オガミサマ or okaminオカミン.

Blind fusha practices

shamanism in JapanAs previous researchers pointed out, there is an important difference in the practices of the two groups: while the sighted fusha perform almost exclusively kamigoto 神事 and divination rituals, the blind fusha are popular for their activity as medium, with the ritual called kuchiyose口寄せ, the calling of the dead. They also perform a variety of other ritual (such as kami-oroshi, oshirasama-asobase, uranai ecc.), and expecially in the past were renowned as local healers. So while it’s true that blind fusha can also perform the sighted fusha activities, the contrary occurs very rarely, and the kuchiyose performed by sighted fusha is more simple and quick than the original one.