Asakura Kino is a fictional character in the manga and anime series of Shaman King. She is a master Itako who trains young girls in the art at Osorezan.
She uses sunshades to hide her blindness.
Itako: The Blind Women Who Talk to Spirits by Dave Afshar
in Aomori prefecture in northern Japan, Itako are spiritual mediums believed to
possess the ability to communicate with kami (Shinto spirits and deities) and
the dead. Adding to their mystique, the only people allowed to train as Itako
are prepubescent girls who are born blind, as blindness was once considered a
sign of spiritual or shamanistic powers in the days of old Japan. Though now
seen as a bizarre and antiquated practice, a small number of Itako still exist
in the mountains of Aomori. We take a deeper look at the origin, rituals, and
history of this unique ancient tradition.
While the exact origin of Itako is unclear, research points to the days of
prehistoric Japan, when many villages were lead by female shamans. While
Shintoism would eventually become the primary religion of Japan, the Shinto
belief system retained some of the shamanistic elements of early Japan, some of
which carried over into the modern eras of Japanese history.
The Edo Period
During the Edo period (1603 – 1868), many Japanese believed that blindness was
associated with shamanistic powers or unique spiritual abilities; it was also a
time when women were expected to contribute financially to their families.
Parents of blind girls, knowing their daughters would have little opportunity to
marry and support a family, often pushed them in Itako training around the age
of 11 to 13. Training involved a ceremony in which the young girls would be
“wed” to a deity, thus granting her the ability to communicate with kami and the
spirits of the dead.
The Meiji Period
In spite of their supposed abilities, Itako were largely unaccepted by the
general populace and considered to be among the lowest social class. During the
Meiji period (1868 – 1912) the government discouraged the practice in favor of
modern medicine, and a law was passed making it legal to arrest spiritual
mediums on site for practicing their rituals. Many Itako were arrested during
this time and were likened to prostitutes and thieves by local newspapers.
Itako carry numerous charms and artifacts to aid in their
practice. Typically the items are stored in bamboo cylinders and boxes and can
include animal bones and skulls, shells, or beaded necklaces. Depending on the
spirit they are wed to, each Itako can perform a unique role such as
communicating with the dead, praying to kami for a good harvest, and connecting
mothers with the spirits of their babies who died in childbirth. Each ceremony
has its own unique ritual; for example, during mizuko kuyo, a ceremony for
mothers who have lost their children due to miscarriage, abortion or
complications during childbirth, the itako gives the unborn child a name and
calls upon a spirit to protect it. There is also a performance through which
Itako attempt to summon the dead by playing a sacred musical bow called an azusa
As of 2009, less than 20 Itako still exist in Japan,
all of whom can be found living on Mt. Osore in Aomori. Though they are
generally discouraged from entering Buddhist temples, the local government
acknowledges their presence as a popular tourist attraction and includes photos
of them in tourist brochures.
Osorezan and Lake Usori. Aomori prefecture, Japan.
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 with Japanese Shinto spirits,
kami, and the spirits of the dead.Itako perform rituals tied to communication
with the deadand divination.The practice has been on the decline, with only 20
living itako in Japan, all more than 40 years old.
Training for itako traditionally began at a very young age, and included
ritualized exposure to cold water. Hundreds of buckets of ice water could be
poured on their bodies over the course of a few days.This education for itako
takes about three years, and also includes memorization of songs and sutras.At
the end of this training, a ceremony is held, announcing the marriage of the
itako and her patron spirit.
Scholars suggest that blindness has long been associated with spiritual powers
in Japan. Furthermore, options for those with severe vision impairment to become
self-sufficient were limited in ancient times. This led many families to
send young blind women to itako apprenticeships up until the start of the
Meiji era, which outlawed itako rituals outright.
Today, itako are most commonly associated with Mt. Osore in Aomori prefecture.
There, itako gather for an annual festival to channel the dead for thousands of
tourists. Itako perform ceremonies to communicate with spirits of the
recently deceased,including those of aborted and stillborn children.
Itako are always blind, or have very poor vision. In pre-modern
Japanese society, blindness was widely associated with spiritual capabilities;
after the introduction of Buddhism, it was considered evidence of a karmic debt.
These beliefs lent an aura of "ambiguous sacred status" to the blind. During the
Edo era, women were expected to contribute to family wages.However, blind women
of the era had limited opportunities to support themselves or their
families. The reputation of blindness and spiritual abilities led many
families to seek training for young girls, typically aged 11 to 13, in a folk
religious tradition in which the young girl was wed to a deity, and there on
able to communicate with spirits. Despite this power, blind women who became
itako were still considered to occupy one of the lowest social strata within the
community, especially those who relied on community support for financing their
Itako are thought to have risen from an ascetic cult of the Edo era, the
yamabushi, male monks who were encountered during popular pilgrimages to the
Kumano mountains in the 9th–10th centuries. These monks had wives who
traveled with them, selling amulets and channeling the dead through trances.
Meanwhile, women in the north performed the dances and rituals of shrine
miko. Over time, the two groups merged, creating the modern concept of
In 1873, the Meiji era government attempted to ban itako and their associated
kuchiyose rituals as a means of encouraging the adoption of modernized medicine.
An estimated 200 itako were practicing at the time. The law led to the
arrest of mediums across Japan; by 1875, itako and their healing rituals were
specifically targeted and could be arrested on sight. Arrests of itako
were based on charges such as spreading superstition, to obstruction of medical
practices. Newspaper accounts of these arrests indicate that itako were
commonly attributing illnesses to possession of the ill by cats or foxes.
Newspaper reports at the time tended to refer to itako in negative terms, and
often associated the arrest of itako and the arrest of prostitutes. One
editorial wrote, "These miko disgorge reckless and empty gossip, squeezing the
pockets of the common people, and prostitutes tempt loose men and rob them of
their money. While the professions are different, they are the same in
disrupting public morals and deceiving people of their possessions."
Public support, however, continued. Shortly before, and after, the surrender of
Japan in 1945, many families sought out itako to communicate with the war dead,
particularly those who were lost in combat abroad. Just before the end of the
war, itako were also called upon to conduct "living seances" (ikiguchi) with
soldiers overseas. An editorial by intellectual Orikuchi Shinobu at the time
note that the itako in Aomori prefecture had "not been subject to prohibition",
in contrast to itako and shaman in other prefectures, and that "persecution
would be counterproductive". News stories reported locals occasionally
interfering with the police attempts to arrest prominent itako.
small number of living itako gather annually during the Obon holiday at Mt.
Osore in Aomori, known locally as "Mount Dread". The gathering has received
televised news coverage since the 1960s.
Itako typically carry several artifacts. These include the "box outside of
Buddhist law" (gehobako), a box which contains secret items representative
of a protective spirit, or kami. Blacker describes an old folk
tale tying the box, and its contents, to an "inugami" ritual. In this
ritual, a dog is buried up to its neck, and starved, while staring at food too
far for it to reach. The itako place the animal's skull into a box and offer its
spirit a daily offering of food. In return, the spirit enters homes of her
patrons and provides detailed information about the dead.
Itako also carry a black cylinder, often bamboo, containing another protective
charm and their certificate of itako training. The cylinders are
said to be used to trap the spirits of animals that attempt to possess a human
being. Finally, the women carry beaded necklaces (irataka nenju),
which are used in ceremonies and made up of beads and animal
bones. The bones are typically jaw bones of deer or foxes, but have also
included bear teeth, eagle claws, or shells.
The term "itako" has associations with beggars, and some mediums reject the
use of the term. One theory suggests the term derived from "eta no ko",
or "child of the eta", referring to the Japanese burakumin social class who were
once associated with death. Other possible derivations include the use of wood
pieces, ita, for the ceremonial writing of the name of the deceased.
(then ita) are first referenced in poem #1773 of the ancient Nara period poem
collection, the Man'yōshū. Anthropologist Wilhem Schiffer describes a local
legend about the practice of recruiting blind women into shamanism. According to
this legend, the practice began in an undetermined era when blind children were
killed every 5 years. A local official, impressed with a blind woman's ability
to describe her environment despite her lack of vision, determined that the
blind must have special powers. Rather than being killed, he pressed for the
blind to study necromancy.
Itako is the common term for these women in Aomori, Iwate and Akita prefectures,
but the term can vary by location. They are also commonly called ogamisama in
southern Iwate and Miyagi prefectures; miko, mogodo, onakama or waka in Yamagata
prefecture; and waka in Fukushima, Tochigi and Ibaraki.
There are similarities to another group of shaman women, the kamisama. Both
kamisama and itako believe in a marriage to a spirit, and both follow the
Buddhist deity Fudo Myoo. However, kamisama are sighted, typically
claiming prophetic powers in the aftermath of a traumatic disease. Unlike
itako, they are associated with small Shinto shrines, which they may operate
themselves. Kamisama tend to view itako with suspicion, though ethnographers
have found that kamisama often associate themselves with itako and 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. The rituals typically
take place on Mount Osore, which locally associated with this "traditional"
ritual, though evidence suggests itako withdrew to the mountain to escape
pressure from the Meiji state. The ceremony had traditionally taken place in the
ancestral home of the dead.
Ceremonies draw on a series of Shinto practices,
but most often call upon Buddhist gods. Some chants of the itako are similar to
secret practices of Yoshida Shinto, and may be tied to practices at Ise shrine.
Itako perform the ceremony using Tsugaru dialect, and a series of "taboo
words" that are not understood by all native Japanese speakers. Locals, who
understand the Tsugaru dialect, are therefore often employed as translators for
the itako. Folklorists suggest that this allows the itako to avoid any need to
personalize the communication from the departed spirit.
The ritual of contact with the dead, kuchiyose, has been named an
intangible cultural heritage asset of Japan. The ritual has been documented
as early as 1024 AD in the Eiga monogatari. The ritual is held during a funeral or anniversary of a death, though some itako
claim the dead cannot be contacted until 100 days have passed. Once the
spirit communicates its own status in the afterlife, patrons receive advice and
predictions for the future. Visitors to the itako typically bring fruit, candy
or other gifts, and offer the age, relationship, and gender of the deceased, but
not the name.
During the ceremony, purifying rice and salt are scattered, and a spirit is said
to enter the body of the itako. Gods are called forward and asked to compel the
desired spirit or ghost to come forward.Calling the dead usually involves
calling upon a hierarchy of spirits in reverse order, beginning with kami and
rising to the level of ghosts.Then, the local kami is called forward to protect
those attending the ceremony. During the summoning of the deceased (hotoke
oroshi), the itako sings songs, called kudoki, said to be relayed by the
contacted spirit. The spirit of the dead arrives and shares memories of its
life and the afterlife, answering questions for patrons. Then, the spirits are
sent away, and songs are sung about "hell, insects, and birds." A final spell is
repeated three times: “The old fox in the Shinoda woods, when he cries during
the day, then he does not cry in the night”. The interaction lasts about 15
As recently as 1962, ethnographers observing itako rituals noted a shaking of
hands and use of special voices when channeling the dead. More recent
observers note that itako sang in their own voices, without any visual
performance of entering a trance-state. The ritual songs are typically repeated
to many patrons, suggesting that the itako are understood, even by their
patrons, to be theatrical performers. Nonetheless, a survey of 670 people
with chronic illnesses in the area around Osorezan Mountain, home of many itako,
showed that 35% of those patients had visited itako to take part in a kuchiyose
Mizuko kuyōis a ceremony performed for mothers who have lost their
children in childbirth or through abortions. The ritual, Buddhist in nature,
gives the unborn or stillborn child a name, and then calls upon the protection
of the spirit Jizo. The ceremony is considered by many to be a scam preying on
grieving mothers, owing to its relatively recent origins in the 1960s. Others,
however, see the practice as addressing a spiritual need created by Japan's
legalization of abortion in 1948.
New Year Ebisu
Itako must learn a chant known as the New Year Ebisu, shōgatsu-ebesu), a
celebration of the New Year delivered in travels at the start of Spring. The
chant mixes Buddhist references (such as peacocks) and aspects of the Japanese
national anthem. Scholars suggest the language reveals the chant is derived from
songs associated with the hinin.
The kamioroshi ritual is a musical performance dedicated to Oshirasama, a
god of family.This ritual includes the performance of a song describing a horse
who falls in love with a young human girl and is flayed alive; the girl falls
ill, but is cured when the horse descends from heaven and flies her to
India. The story is told through a dance including sticks with the heads
of a horse and human girl on each side. This dance is known as the Ebisu Mai, or
the "God of wealth dance," and it is said that the dolls become possessed by
kami spirits during the performance.
Itako are associated with the catalpa bow (azusa
yumi), a plucked instrument with ties to summoning the dead. The necromantic
ritual of plucked instruments is found in the earliest document of Japan's
history, the Kojiki, which describes a koto's sound in conjunction with the
possession of a medium and the channeling of the dead. Another poem describes
the sound of the instrument as a reflection of his wife's spirit possessing the
instrument. The biwa hoshi, itinerant blind priests, have a similar history with
Biwa hoshi, itinerant blind priests
The chant which opens the kamioroshi ceremony makes several references to the
plucked bow. The chant announces that the first pluck of the string calls down
the gods of the village, the second calls down the gods of the prefecture, and
the third calls the gods of all prefectures in Japan. Additional notes summon
more powerful gods, responsible for ever-increasing spans of land and spiritual
realms. These gods are sent away in reverse order at the end of the ceremony.
Women usually enter itako training at a young age, prior to menstruation, at
the encouragement of her parents.Before the introduction of 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.
Training for itako was often paid for with contributions from villagers, rather
than the family. Common aspects of initiation practices for these women were seen
among those training 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
purifying baths (水垢離, mizugori), which in its most extreme form can involve
complete, sustained drenching by ice-cold water for a period of several
days.These rituals are observed by the community, which prays for a fast
resolution through the early arrival of a marrying deity.
Apprenticeship typically lasts three years, and involves heavy rote memorization
and feats of physical purification.During this time, the itako-in-training is
essentially adopted by a practicing shaman, and performs household work for the
of the initiation ceremony, itako dress in a white kimono for several days,
similar to a burial gown.She is not permitted to consume grain, salt, or 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, kamizukeshiki,is performed as an
initiation.The itako trainee is dressed in a red wedding dress, and red rice and
fish are consumed to celebrate her marriage to the spirit.It is suggested that
the ceremony signals the death of the itako's life as a burden and her rebirth
as a contributing member of the community.
In contemporary Japan, itako are on the decline. In 2009, less than 20 remained,
all over the age of 40. Itako are increasingly viewed with skepticism and
disdain [why?], and contemporary education standards have all but eradicated the
need for specialized training for the blind.
An annual festival is held on Mt. Osore beside the Entsuji Buddhist temple,
which hangs signs disavowing any connection to the itako. The
festival is held July 20–24, coinciding with the Obon holiday, which is the
traditional day on which spirits of the dead return. They also
attend the summer festival at Kawakura Sainokawara. Despite the disavowal
of many religious organizations and temples in Japan, both events have become
tourist attractions that attract crowds of hundreds. The local government
includes the image of an itako in its tourist brochures, and attempted to fund a
permanent itako position in the nearby temple to encourage sustained tourism
throughout the year.
Itako, though few in number, have formed an association,
the itako-ko and do occasionally work with Buddhist temples, usually providing
support for funerals.
The Itako - a Spiritual Occupation for Blind Japanese Girls
by C. Edwin Vaughan
Nakamura-san, Modern-day Itako
ITAKO were young-girl blind spiritualists in traditional Japan and other
traditional Asian cultural regions. These cultures developed distinct
occupations for blind people. There were no schools for the blind, nor were
there publicly sponsored programs of rehabilitation or job training.
Fortune-telling, story-telling, and massage were occupations commonly dominated
by blind people in medieval China, Korea, and Japan (Vaughan, 1998). Frequently
blind people managed their own guilds, the organizations that regulated access
to these occupations. One of the more unusual of these pursuits, at least from
the perspective of our cultural traditions, was the occupation for young blind
girls - the Itako of Japan.
The women's studies movement has provided rich insights into the contributions
of women to cultures around the world. This includes women's spirituality as
manifested in the study of mother goddesses, healing, shamanism, and
fortune-telling. An example of this research is the book by Carmen Blacker, 'The
Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan' (1986, Allen and Unwin).
In this book Blacker describes various ways women in traditional Japanese
culture participated in shamanistic practices (including arctic hysteria), calls
from the other side, and experiences claiming relationships to the deity
(Blacker, 1986, p. 140). She also describes a somewhat less expressive form of
spirituality which came to be dominated by blind women initiated into these
practices in their early adolescence.
The training involved in becoming an Itako included, often at age twelve,
frequent immersions in excruciatingly cold water and intensive, tightly
disciplined efforts at memorizing ancient religious texts. The following is a
summary based upon the recollections of a sixty-five-year-old woman.
She got up before dawn and performed the cold water austerity. There followed a
short service of chanting before the family altar and after breakfast the
morning lesson. Here she would have to repeat a number of poems, phrase by
phrase after her teacher until she had them effortlessly by heart. After lunch,
with the other two pupils in the house, she had to go over the phrases she had
learned in the morning. After supper there was more practice until the evening
cold water austerity. The teacher was strict and would scold her unmercifully if
her memory failed. If she showed signs of fatigue, the teacher would direct a
short, sharp yell which startled her so much that she often burst into tears.
Another woman, Suzuki Tsukayo, described the intensity of the training leading
to her initiation into her new occupation. "For the week immediately before her
initiation the austerities were further intensified to an almost incredible
pitch of severity. She had to observe the sandachi of three abstentions. No
cereals must pass her lips, no salt, nor any cooked foods. Nor, if the
austerities took place in the winter, must she ever go near a stove or any form
Every day she had to pour no less than a thousand buckets of cold water, each
one counted on the beads of a rosary. At the same time she must recite a
thousand Hannya Singyos and twenty-one Kannon Sutras. This appalling austerity
lasted from crack of dawn until late at night so that throughout the week she
was allowed next to no sleep.
The first two days of this fearful regime, she recalled, were almost unbearable.
The intense cold, the sleeplessness, and the semi-starvation brought her to the
point of breakdown. Her joints ached so agonizingly that she could scarcely walk
or lift the buckets over her head. But on the third day her pain suddenly
vanished. She felt herself flooded with an extraordinary access of strength and
enthusiasm such that she felt capable of enduring any ordeal in order to
accomplish the final initiation. (Blacker, pp. 143-144)
Following this initiation, she changed out of the traditional white garment of
the initiate into a brilliantly colored kimono, which indicated her spiritualist
status. This final initiation ceremony was held in the presence of her family,
relatives, and teacher. She was now symbolically wedded to the deity who had
"taken possession" of her (Blacker, p. 147).
This blind girl could now assume her place among the women spiritualists who
earned their living by providing spiritual advice and insights to others. She
and other blind spiritualists would make themselves available at the numerous
Buddhist temples throughout Japan. The most typical user was an elderly woman
who would pay a small fee (thirty yen) for each spiritual service.
her book chronicles three days at one temple where these women worked.
Throughout the day and into the evening, customers would go from one blind
medium to another seeking spiritual advice or consolation. Each would ask
questions about the deceased person - was the deceased a family relation; what
was the cause, the date, and the nature of the death; were there surviving
children? "Having thus ascertained into which type the dead person fell, the
Itako launched into a rapid singsong chant lasting five or ten minutes. It was
not difficult to see that not a single one of the Itako was in any state
resembling trance. They exhibited none of the usual symptoms of stertorous
breathing and convulsively shaking hands. The chants they recited, moreover,
were easily seen to fall into different fixed forms." (Blacker, p. 160)
With secularization and modern forms of education, including better access to
education for the blind, these spiritual occupations have nearly disappeared.
According to Blacker, by 1960 these practices still existed in a limited number
of prefectures in the northeast part of Japan's main island, Honshu. Blacker
links the decline of shamanism in Japan to this less intensely spiritual
activity, which came to be a major source of employment for young blind girls.
Today one can still easily encounter blind fortune-tellers in China and Korea.
However, almost all of them are men. Japanese culture provides this unusual
example of an occupation primarily for blind women. Perhaps Monitor readers in
Japan or elsewhere could update us on the present status of this custom.
Carmen Blacker. The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan,
2nd ed., London: Allen and Unwin, 1986.
The Itako - a Spiritual Occupation for Blind Japanese Girls by C. Edwin Vaughan
The Braille Monitor May, 2002
Maria José Alegre