Understanding the Tsugaru Itako:

『津軽のイタコ』

Anthony Rausch, Hirosaki University [About | Email]

Volume 21, Issue 2 (Book Review 2 in 2021). First published in ejcjs on 16 August 2021.

A review of Tsugaru no Itako (津軽のイタコ) by Sasamori Takefusa (笹森建英), Kinseisha (錦正社) ISBN: 978-4-7646-0143-7, Pages: 200 (Japanese)

Keywords: Shamanism, itako, folk beliefs, Tsugaru.

Shamanism, referring in its most general sense to religious practices wherein a practitioner—a shaman—is believed to interact with a spirit world through altered states of consciousness and trance, is an inherently broad, if not universal, yet complex and highly-contextualised realm of traditional religion. Within the global and multi-dimensional mosaic that constitutes the origins and evolution, beliefs and practices, and contemporary reality and relevance of shamanism and the shaman, there are myriad geographically-local and distinctively specific practices, one which is the itako of northeastern Japan. Even within this geographically-restricted variety of origin and practice is the Tsugaru itako of the Tsugaru District of Aomori Prefecture—the subject of a recent book, titled appropriately Tsugaru no itako 『津軽のイタコ』, published by ethnomusicologist and Tsugaru native, Sasamori Takefusa.
 
There is, of course, an established literature that exists on the itako, the female shamans of the north-eastern part of Japan. The itako were in the past blind women, who through training, learned the practices and then worked as mediums offering their services at the local festivals held regularly around the northern area of Tohoku, and annually at a major festival held at Mount Osore on the Mutsu Peninsula, a site said to have a powerful connection to the other world. The earliest truly academic works published in Japanese were in the 1960s, focusing on aspects of the itako practices and transmission of those practice through the blind, and, as time went on, the increasingly sighted, itako themselves on the one hand, and the social-psychiatric implications of such practices on the other. One of the earliest papers in English was also in the 1960s, under a title which included the term necromancer, thereby acknowledging a link between the practices of the itako and, by definition, “those who claim to communicate with the dead in order to discover what will happen in the future.” More recent scholarly investigations into itako have continued to focus on these fundamental themes, offering detailed investigations into the practices, tools, and acoustic aspect of the rituals as well as the psychological and psychiatric implications of itako in society and how the itako are adapting to social change. In addition, there have been several personally-descriptive accounts of interactions with itako that humanise the practice and practitioners as they portray the reality of itako in modern rural society. Sasamori Takefusa’s contribution to this body of knowledge about the itako—the Tsugaru itako specifically—is highly authoritative and descriptively detailed. Born in Hirosaki, educated at Keio University, along with graduate-level study at the Manhattan School of Music in musical composition and the University of Hawaii in ethnomusicology, Sasamori combines a personal understanding of local history as well as native-fluency in the local dialect with both a detailed eye for the actual practice of the itako and an understanding of how the practice emerges through sound, both in instrumentation and in chant and song.
 
The book covers all aspects of the itako practice and a review can neither sufficiently ground nor approach the detail provided in the book itself. The contents begin by looking at the kuchiyose—the incantation that takes the itako into a trance-like state—in its three forms: communicating with the dead, communicating for the living, and communicating on behalf of the children in limbo between worlds. As Sasamori explains, the kuchiyose is the practice through which the itako create “a place for returning”—a space for communication with those who have departed. Vital to this is a recognition that such spaces are revealed not in appeals to some absolute religious authority, but rather in a created place: virtually any place that is appropriately prepared for such inter-realm communication. The kuchiyose as created space provides for an interaction between interested parties across the divide of dead and living, with the itako acting as facilitator.
 
The contents continue with consideration of the terminology of the itako. While briefly outlining the many different interpretations of oshirasama and itako that one can find in various historical records, Sasamori confirms that the oldest reference to itako specifically is found in the Heizan Diaries (平山日記: property of 青森文化財保護協会, the Society for the Preservation of Aomori Cultural Properties) covering the period from Tenbun (1550) to Kyōwa (1803), in references written originally in the kanji characters for sorcerer or sorceress (fu) followed by woman, rendering a standard reading of miko or fujo, a medium, sorceress, or shrine maiden, but with furigana indicating the pronunciation as ‘itako.’ This explanation continues on with details about the itako practicing in Iwate, Fukushima, and Akita prefectures. Chapter Three takes up the history of the itako, beginning in 1185 but focusing predominantly on events in the Meiji period, mostly the prohibition of itako activities in 1873. However, Sasamori’s account also alludes to the fact that, in reality, the activities of the itako were allowed to continue unimpeded across northern Japan through the Meiji, Taishō, and early Shōwa periods due to their importance to how the local populace responded to the tumultuous events of these times. Much of the anxiety that came with Japanese history over this period was addressed in rural places through practices such as the itako. This is followed in Chapter Four by a detailed consideration of the specific characteristics that define the itako: most notably the trance and the mechanism of spirit possession—possession of the itako by the spirits who speak for the deceased. While the focus is on the practices and the tools, the centre of attention is ultimately the importance of sound in the realm of both trance and spirit mediation, whether through voice and incantation or the vibration of the string and bow that constitute the main tools of the itako.
 
Chapter Five presents several short accounts of the lived history of itako, summarising Sasamori’s interviews with five itako born in the early years of the 20th century. While brief, this content sheds light on the generation of itako born in Japan’s war years or shortly thereafter, countering recent accounts of those who have chosen the life of an itako post-1950s and 1960s. One of the interesting aspects of the activities of an itako that Sasamori points to is how accommodating it has always been to an otherwise ordinary life: blindness aside and apart from participating in seasonal events and making a yearly trip to Mount Osore, a rather remote spot in the peninsula that sits atop Aomori Prefecture, much of the ‘work’ of the itako can be conducted under relatively ordinary circumstances, in almost any room given over to such purpose in an ordinary house and on a rather ordinary schedule.
 
Chapters Six, Seven and Eight describe and detail the incantations, prayers, purifications, and blessings that constitute much of the itako’s practice, whether as a part of the training or in her interaction with a client. Sasamori here focuses on how this aspect of the itako practice reflects the intimate understanding of itako with life’s burdens, both physical ailment and mental pain, whether through the disease and aging that racked rural peoples in the past or the psychological anguish of losing a child through disease or a loved one through war. Chapter Nine focuses on the music of the itako practice, undertaken in a fairly technical sense, highlighting the character of its anhemitonic pentatonic scaling and the combinative characteristics of chant and song. Chapter Ten then closes up the discussion by offering a wider look at religion and belief and role of music in possession and trance, based on Sasamori’s collaboration with ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget.  
 
Although written in Japanese, at only 200 pages, the book is accessible to the non-native Japanese reader who possesses moderate reading ability. Furthermore, the contents focus strictly on the theme of the Tsugaru itako, with only limited extensions to content on a wider scale, whether about belief practices in general and shamanism in particular or the variety and variation of such practices across Japan. In this sense, while Sasamaori’s work contributes little to either fundamental understanding or general background of shamanism, it is valuable in its specific focus on the Tsugaru itako. Indeed, it is that focus that makes Tsugaru no itako meaningful to the reader looking for this particular piece to the broader puzzle of shamanism.

About the Author

Anthony Rausch is professor at Hirosaki University, Japan. He obtained his PhD from Monash University and has published on issues relevant to rural Japan. He is author of Japan’s Local Newspapers: Chihoshi and Revitalisation Journalism (Routledge), Japanese Journalism and the Japanese Newspaper: A Supplemental Reader (Teneo Press), and co-editor of Japan’s Shrinking Regions: 21st Century Responses to Depopulation and Socioeconomic Decline (Cambria Press). His research focuses on rural Japan; he has recently published Resolving the Contemporary Tensions of Regional Places: What Japan Can Teach Us, available on Amazon.com in paper and kindle formats.

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