MaintenanceHeirs to disappearing ancestral traditions, the shamans of Japan help to weave links between the visible and invisible worlds. Sociologist Muriel Jolivet went to meet the last of them.
The modernization of Japan has in no way affected a host of small beliefs and rites, including communication with the deceased. This practice was revived following the disappearance of 2,500 people whose bodies were never found, out of the 19,650 victims of the March 11, 2011 tsunami. She proposes to reweave the links beyond the grave with these “unrelated dead” who can become ghosts.
Sociologist Muriel Jolivet has lived in Japan for many years. Author of a dozen books on Japanese society, she went to meet these shamans who, it is said, have the ability to bring down on them the spirit of the dead, to make them speak through their mouths and that doctors sometimes use to refine their diagnosis. A voluminous and fascinating report based on impressive Japanese documentation, punctuated by portraits of shamans, descriptions of places and encounters, collected in The Last Shamans of Japan. Encounter with the invisible in the Land of the Rising Sun (Vega, 2021).
You have worked on this survey for ten years. What prompted you to take an interest in the world of shamans?
In more than forty years of sociological research on Japan, I have often come across accounts of ghosts, of communication with the dead, of visits to shamans that seemed to me anecdotal. Gradually, I became aware of the importance and frequency of these rituals in Japanese society. The shamans refer to a complex spirituality in which Shintoism is mixed [polythéisme animiste]esoteric Buddhism and local folklore.
There are shamans from north to south of the Archipelago. How did you choose the locations for your surveys?
The Tohoku and Okinawa regions are predisposed places. Shamans itako of Tohoku are part of a long tradition, because it was one of the few outlets available to the visually impaired, often victims of measles. The other options were to become a masseuse or goze, itinerant singers who accompanied themselves on the shamisen [luth japonais à trois cordes] and moved to five or six, at the rate of about twenty kilometers traveled on foot each day. The less visually impaired served as a guide for the others, each with a hand resting on the shoulder of the one in front.
The itako were placed very young in apprenticeship with an elder, to whom they served as housekeepers. The instruction was done orally in contact with their initiator, or shishō, with whom they lived in osmosis. The training was not easy, as they had to memorize all the invocations according to the rituals.
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