Itako, also known as ichiko or ogamisama, are blind women who train to become spiritual mediums in Japan. Training involves severe ascetic practices, after which the woman is said to be able to communicate to both Japanese Shinto spirits, kami, and the spirits of the deceased. Though not part of either Shinto or Buddhist traditions or practice, itako practice folk aspects of both.
Role of itako
Itako are said to have the ability to communicate with both kami and the dead. An itako's role varies depending on the spirit she is connected to. Ceremonies vary by prefecture, but typically itako are called upon to communicate with kami spirits to garner favor or advisement on harvests, or to communicate with the spirits of the dead, particularly the recently deceased.
Calling the dead usually involves calling upon a hierarchy of spirits in reverse order, beginning with kami and rising to the level of ghosts. The ghost is then asked to communicate with each member of the family. The ceremony typically takes place in the ancestral home of the dead.
Women usually enter itako training at a young age, prior to menstruation, at the encouragement of her parents. Prior to special education programs in Japan, this was a choice made by the family to assure that a blind daughter could contribute to the household. Adopting the role of a medium was seen as an acceptable means for blind women to contribute to their local village and household, and avoid becoming a financial burden to their families.
Schools for itako were often paid for with contributions from villagers, rather than the family. Common aspects of initiation practices for these women were seen among training schools in Yamagata, Aomori, and Miyagi prefectures in the 1920s and 1930s. They are trained in various practices, including memorization of Shinto and Buddhist prayers and sutras. Training typically involved cold-water mizugori, or purifying baths, which in its most extreme form can involve complete, sustained drenching by ice-cold water for a period of several days.
Apprenticeship typically lasts three years, and involved heavy rote memorization and feats of physical purification.
Ahead of the initiation ceremony, itako dress in a white kimono for several days. She is not permitted to consume grain, salt, meat and must avoid artificial heat for three weeks before the ceremony. The lead-up to the ceremony had been described as incorporating "sleeplessness, semi-starvation and intense cold."
This process usually leads to a loss of consciousness, which is described as the moment in which Fudo Myoo, or Nittensama, or some other deity, has taken possession of the itako's body. In some cases, the itako must collapse while naming the spirit. In other cases, the names of various deities are written and scattered, while the itako sweeps over them with a brush until one of them is caught, which denotes the name of the possessing spirit.
At this point, a wedding ceremony is performed as an initiation ceremony. The itako trainee is dressed in a red wedding dress, and red rice and fish are consumed, to celebrate her marriage to the spirit.
In contemporary Japan, itako are on the decline, with only 20 living, all over the age of 40. Itako are increasingly viewed with skepticism and disdain, and contemporary education standards have all but eradicated the need for specialized training for the blind.
- Blacker, Carmen (1997). Earhart, Byron, ed. Religion in the Japanese experience : sources and interpretations (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub. Co. pp. 130–135. ISBN 0534524613.
- Kawamura, Kunimitsu. "The Life of a Shamaness: Scenes from the Shamanism of Northeastern Japan". Kokugakuin. Archived from the original on 19 September 2015. Retrieved 1 February 2016.
- The Itako--a Spiritual Occupation for Blind Japanese Girls
- Fackler, Martin. "As Japan’s Mediums Die, Ancient Tradition Fades". New York Times. New York Times. Archived from the original on 11 April 2015. Retrieved 1 February 2016.