Japanese Shamanism: Ancient and Alive

by Cerridwen Fallingstar

“The Queendom of Wa is ruled entirely by sorceresses.”  This assertion by a 3rd century Chinese document is the first written record referring to Japan.  Of course, every culture, world-wide, has arisen and evolved from its own Pagan-magical spiritual traditions.  But unique among modern industrialized countries, Japan has kept its original Shamanic tradition, Shinto, as its dominant religion.
Shinto comes from the Chinese words ‘shen’ meaning deity, and ‘tao’ meaning path or way.  In Japan, it is referred to as ‘kami-no-michi’, the way of the kami.  Kami means deity, but it more loosely means the ‘spirit’ which inhabits every rock, tree, waterfall, fox and human. The primary goal of Shinto is to achieve harmony with all the various kami so that life can proceed smoothly. Its chief value is ‘makoto’ which translates as truth, sincerity, authenticity, acting from the heart.  Rather than a series of commandments, Shinto seeks purity of intention, which is a function of ‘koroko’, union of heart and mind, illuminated by ‘seimei’ or ‘brightness’.
While each individual is responsible for purifying themselves and keeping their spirits ‘bright’, spiritual professionals are consulted when ceremony and ritual are required.  Shamanism is the practice of moving ‘between the worlds’ of matter and spirit to heal, commune with and restore harmony between the earthly and the invisible realms.
Shinto is the heart and soul of Japan, but over the last 1500 years, Buddhism and Shinto have intermarried to the point where it is difficult to say where one leaves off and the other begins. Virtually all Japanese attend both shrine and temple rites, generally performing baby blessings and marriages at their local Shinto shrines, yet allowing the Buddhist monks to preside over their funerals.  Early Buddhism, having learned polytheistic patience with the Hindu traditions of India, blended and accommodated itself to Shinto, unlike the Christian and Muslim cults which sought to annihilate both practice and memory of the native traditions which preceded them.
I immersed myself in 12th century Japan while writing a pair of historical novels about a young woman believed to be a sorceress, caught in a deadly conflict between the Heike and the Genji, two clans battling for control of the throne at that time.  The White as Bone, Red as Blood series is told from the point of view of the main character, Seiko Fujiwara, raised on Inari’s mountain south of Kyoto.  Her mother, Fujuri Fujiwara, is High Priestess at the shrine; her work includes making amulets and curative potions, divination, and the technique of channeling of deity known as’ kami-gakari’, kami descent.  At this time, both Priestesses and the Miko, or shrine maidens, participated in rituals in which they consciously embodied the kami, bringing heaven to earth and wisdom to their community, much like the Oracles at Delphi.  Though only partially trained, Seiko becomes known as the Empress’ sorceress and as such is sometimes called upon to look into the future by the process of kami-gakari, as in this scene;

“I approach the brazier wearing a headdress and extremely heavy and stiff outer robes.  I am dressed as an Inari Priestess; though I was never initiated, Tokushi has the utmost confidence that I can speak with the voice of Inari.  I am in that state of dual consciousness where a part of my mind is watching as I move towards the brazier, feeling the descent of the Inari kami into my being.  The Inari kami has the essence of both male and female…tonight I feel the presence of both of them, the sacred marriage settling within me.  I sense the presence of the fox aspect of Inari as well, soft fur of the fox’s tail brushing up against my ankles as it curls up at my feet.  Though I know it is spirit presence only, it is very vivid.  The drugs I have taken come on strongly, and I sway like rice plants in the wind.  My body adopts a certain rigid posture as the dancing of the flames in the brazier starts to penetrate my consciousness.  The flames ripple and unfold into images…suddenly all the people recede, leaving only the fire and this force pushing down into me, so much larger than anything a human can hold that I feel nauseous, as if the palm of a giant hand is pushing me into the ground, so heavy it crushes all the individual awareness out of me.  Just before my mind winks out, I wonder if I can survive this channeling again.”

Authentic trance possession, true kami-gakari, rarely happens  today. A visit to a shrine involving kami-gakari is now largely a scripted performance rather than a dangerous, unpredictable descent into the unknown that a true journey to the land of spirit entails.  The shamanesses of old were exclusively female; during the Meiji restoration, the shrine Priestesses were replaced by Priests; only at Ise, where the sun Goddess Amaterasu is worshipped, are the ancient rites administered by a High Priestess.  It is extraordinary to realize that the worship of Amaterasu, Sun Goddess and divine ancestress of the Imperial line still retains its matristic, female-centric structure even though centuries of the samurai ethos have created a Japan that is sexist and patriarchal in the extreme.
Another hazardous undertaking assayed by ancient Priestesses was exorcism.  In these attempts to banish ‘hungry ghosts’, the Miko would be guided into and out of the trance state by a Priest-shaman known as ‘Hijiri’ or “Yamabushi’, whose invocations and spiritual will were powerful enough to drive the unquiet dead out of the body of the priestess they were inhabiting.  The second volume of White as Bone, Red as Blood; The Storm God, contains such an exorcism.  Seiko fears that her thirteen-year old daughter, Tsubame, is possessed by the spirit of her dead father, a cruel and abusive man who was secretly murdered by his wife and concubine.  She takes Tsubame to the local shrine to be exorcised:

‘The next morning, at my request, Tsunemasa has arranged for a carriage to convey Tsubame and myself to a local shrine, where he has placed a heavy purse in the hands of the priest-shamans to perform a very private exorcism.
I have told Tsubame that, in order for her to stay in proximity to the royal family, she must undergo a purification ceremony.  As the shamans begin banging loudly on bells and shouting, Tsubame turns to me in panic.
“Mother!  What kind of ritual is this?  Do you think I am some kind of demon?”
“Hush daughter!  Of course not!  It is typical for people to be purified before spending time with the young Emperor.  It is a precaution, nothing more.”
A young girl attached to the shrine sits quietly with a veil over her face, waiting for the priest to draw any unfriendly spirits out of Tsubame and into this girl, where they can be questioned and banished.  As the chanting from the priests reaches a crescendo, the shrine maiden falls to the ground and starts writhing like a wounded caterpillar.  Tsubame looks in horror at the girl, who is only a few years older than she.
“What happened?” she cries out.
“Shh.  You must stay silent unless the priests ask you a question.”
The priest sternly addresses the uneasy spirit which now possesses the body of the Miko, asking who inhabits her.
To my horror, the girl twists brokenly, finally hissing the word, ‘Sannayo’.
“”What business have you with this girl?” the Priest demands loudly.
“I am her father,” the ghostly voice declares.
All the hair on my neck is standing straight up.  Tsubame, shaking violently, looks as if she will be sick.
“It is understandable for a father to be concerned with the daughter he left behind, but it is time for you to journey to the windy land now,” the priest insists.
The girl who has taken on Sannayo’s spirit trembles convulsively; her heels drum on the ground.
“Banish it!  Banish it!” I urge, “Don’t talk to it, just banish it!”  I am sick with fear that my secret will be revealed.  Mindful of who is paying him, the priest shouts loud incantations over the girl until she goes limp, head lolling.
“The spirit is banished,” the priest says, wiping the sweat from his brow.  Tsubame is so white, her eyes are like two black smudges on rice paper.  The Miko who did the channeling is carried off to recover.  Machiko and I half-carry, half-drag Tsubame back to the carriage.  She sits beside me like a child made of wax.’

Exotic as this scene may seem to us, open any phone book in any city in modern day Japan, and you will find pages and pages devoted to practitioners of ‘uranai’ (divination, fortune-telling), including shamans and psychics offering exorcisms to placate the uneasy dead, rituals to comfort aborted fetuses (‘water children’), and spells to conjure love, protection and abundance.  Though the rituals within Shrine and Temple precincts have become more staid and formalized, much of the populace routinely seeks readings and intercessions with the spirit world, which in Japan is never more than a breath away from the mundane.

For hundreds of years, Japanese seeking such counsel would have consulted the Itako, a class of blind women seers, whose lack of physical vision was thought to be compensated with insight into other realms. After a period of apprenticeship with another Itako, they were ceremonially ‘married’ to a particular kami who would provide them with guidance. Blind women were rarely considered marriageable, so for a long time, the life of a prophetess was the only profession open to them.  Now, mandatory education of the blind has opened up many avenues to a once discriminated against minority, and only about 40 Itako remain.

Most of today’s shamanic practitioners come not from a venerable lineage of traditional training, bur from their own inspirational contact with the spirit world (or, as is often the case in the west, their own entrepreneurial instincts).

Various ‘New Age’ versions of Shinto have sprung up since the 1970’s, called ‘shin-shin shukyo’ or ‘new-new religions’. Curiously, most of these new sects are founded by women; women having held exclusive channeling ability since time beyond record.  The pendulum has swung from the hyper-masculinized war-like version of Shinto promoted from the Meiji Restoration of 1868 through WWII, to something far more grass-roots and emotional. One example of this new take on an old nature religion is Shinmeiaishinkai, founded by Komatsu Kiyoko.  Komatsu claims to have been visited by the Goddesses Kannon and Amaterasu who developed her powers through dreams and visions rather than with conventional training or the acute illness or near-death experience suffered by those typically called to the shaman’s path.  Her primary audience is small business owners who believe her blessings and advice can render them success. During her workshops, Komatsu frequently goes into a state called ‘ukagai otateru’ to channel the answers to her followers’ questions.  The linguistic style of the oracle is quite distinct from her normal speech, utilizing archaic phrases and verb forms to give advice reminiscent of old Japanese  magical texts;  “There is a pine tree near an Inari shrine by a river.  Put a branch from this tree in water and offer sake (to Inari).”
There is a powerful movement among the young, mostly under 30, back to the raw, primal connection of the way of the kami.  Japanese youth are increasingly interested in traditional activities such as seasonal grave visits honoring ancestors and tending household altars dedicated to various kami.  Western writings on New Age philosophies and other Native religious traditions have become popular.  Such Anime films as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle both reflect and inspire an increased concern about caring for the earth characteristic of youth quietly rebelling against the materialistic focus of their elders.  One wildly popular computer game features the heroics of Abe Seimi, historical shaman-priest of a thousand years ago who utilized various animal-spirit kami to defeat the evil forces menacing the Imperial family.  Magical symbols and practices such as carrying protective amulets, incantations and magical prayers known as ‘kito’ were never demonized in Japan as they were in the west.  Polytheism encourages people to ask special favors from the kami who hold sway over certain areas of life.  At the primary Inari shrine in Fukushima, I witnessed men in business suits receiving blessings for their corporate endeavors from Inari priests and priestesses.  Inari, traditionally the deity of the rice harvest, has come to symbolize abundance of every sort, and few would initiate a business venture without her blessings.
Even the less spiritually oriented among the Japanese would never think to neglect the many Shinto celebrations, known as Matsuri, which follow the cycles of the seasons.  Once celebrated at times appointed by the lunar calendar, now the holidays are fixed by the western Gregorian calendar, and often held on weekends so that businessmen and students may attend.  Some of the most important rituals include New Year’s, celebrated on Jan. 1, Adult’s day, when those who have turned twenty during the previous year celebrate their rite of passage, Girl’s day on March 3rd, which is celebrated with dolls, Boy’s day on May 5th, when parents of sons hang paper carp outside their house for each boy present, Ohari Matsuri, a Grand Purification festival exorcising evil from the world, Shukuku Matsuri on Oct. 17th honoring the harvest of the first fruits, and the Winter Solstice honoring the Sun Goddess’ return to the earth.  My own favorites include the 3-5-7 ritual held on my birthday (Nov. 15) honoring children of those ages, and the Tanaba Matsuri (Aug.7), the bridge of birds festival celebrating the reunion of the Herdsman and Weaver stars (Vega and Altair), separated lovers who can join only once a year when all the magpies on earth form a bridge of birds for them to cross from opposite sides of heaven to meet again.  It is sort of a Japanese Valentine’s day, though less commercialized and far more poignant.
Though Japan is a completely modern industrialized nation, with a highly educated workforce, the old superstitions and beliefs hold sway just below the surface.  While researching my Japanese epic in Kyoto, the former Capitol, I walked into a large public garden late at night.  This garden dated back to the time period I was writing about; its peaceful silence filled me with nostalgia.  But soon the silence was broken as five raucously drunk men staggered down a neatly manicured path in my direction. Japan is generally safe for women, but it was late at night, I was alone, and these men were clearly very inebriated.  I stood motionless behind a tree, but the moonlight clearly delineated my presence.  They spotted me, and I reluctantly came out from behind my cedar to confront them on the path.  “Who are you?” one of the men asked in English.
“Fox woman.  Inari woman.” I replied coolly.  Inari is the Goddess of sorcery as well as abundance; the consummate shape-shifter, she can appear in any form, but is particularly associated with the fox, whose uncanny ability to materialize and dematerialize at will has made it a symbol of magic in many shamanic cultures.  My claim had the desired effect; startled, they collectively took a step back.  Peering at me, their leader asked cautiously; “Are you a ghost?”
I laughed softly.  Having spent a few weeks in Japan in pursuit of my own past-life there, the question seemed all too apt.  “Well…as a matter of fact….yes, I am,” I admitted.
As one, the men all leaped in the air, shrieking loudly, and ran pell-mell in the other direction.  Once a safe distance away, the leader called back—“But you are a very beautiful ghost!” before fleeing down the trail with his fellows.  Inari had come through for me at a level I had never imagined.
Inari, kami of abundance and sorcery, is also the Goddess of the love which transcends death.  One can hope the youth of Japan will continue to move back to the natural roots of their traditions, igniting a renewed respect and love for nature and the divine feminine which underlie Japanese philosophy.  Then perhaps ‘Wa’—both the word for ‘harmony’ and the most ancient known name for Japan—can be fully restored to the land of the rising sun.

–Cerridwen Fallingstar

Cerridwen Fallingstar, a shamanic Witch and Priestess, has taught classes and offered lectures in magic and ritual, as well as offering private sessions utilizing hypnotherapy, soul retrieval and divination for over thirty years.  The first historical novel in her White as Bone, Red as Blood series, The Fox Sorceress, came out in August 2009.  The second part of the series, White as Bone, Red as Blood; The Storm God will be out in early Spring of 2010.  Her first book, The Heart of the Fire, a novel  about Witchcraft in 16th century Scotland, has sold over 20,000 copies.  Books may be ordered from Amazon, Ingram, Barnes and Noble, or directly from Cerridwen’s website, www.cerridwenfallingstar.com.