Friday, August 21, 2009

Sympathy for mediums

Here is a news story about Japan loosing a shamanistic tradition, itako. Now, I usually find psychics and mediums reprehensible (one of the best South Park episodes dismantled John Edward, The Biggest Douche in the Universe). Most psychics are charlatans - the rest are at best, deluded. However, I find sympathy for itako - not for the validity of their claims, but rather for the loss of a tradition they represent - and the niche they fill in a society. I may feel different about all this if I knew that people were sinking their fortune with them and making important life-decisions based on spirit communications (which probably is still happening). But then what about astrology? I don't think I will feel much sympathy for the loss of astrologers in a society - but then again, it may depend on the context. In any case, I find this case interesting and here is the story from today's NYT:

MOUNT OSORE, Japan — Its name means the Mountain of Horror, which seems an apt description for this sacred Buddhist site inside the crater of a dormant volcano. The weather-beaten temple here is surrounded by a lifeless lake and a wasteland of naked rock reeking of sulfur that conjures images of Buddhist hell.

But during the mountain’s twice annual religious festivals, visitors come by the busload to line up before a row of small tents in a corner of the temple. Within are the “itako” — elderly, often blind women who hold séance-like ceremonies that customers hope will allow them to commune with spirits of the dead.

These spiritual mediums seem out of place in a hyper-modern nation better known for bullet trains and hybrid cars. Found only in peripheral areas like this volcano on the far northern tip of Japan’s main island, and only dimly known to most Japanese, the itako are among the last remaining adherents to ancient shamanistic beliefs that predate Buddhism and modern forms of Shintoism, Japan’s two main religions, historians say.

They have survived government efforts to stamp them out, as well as the continuing disdain of many Japanese, who look down on them as charlatans who trade in superstition. Even the deputy abbot at Bodai-ji, Mount Osore’s temple, said the itako were not connected to the temple, which he said only tolerates their presence.

Now, however, even these last remaining itako are vanishing. Only four graying itako appeared at Mt. Osore’s weeklong summer festival this year, three having died of old age in the last year. Worse, the only practicing medium younger than retirement age — 40-year-old Keiko Himukai, known among believers as the last itako — stopped coming this year for health reasons.

“We can see a very ancient flame dying out before our eyes,” Ms. Himukai said in a separate interview. “But traditions have to change with the times.”

Junichi Tonosaki, a historian in the prefectural museum in Aomori, where Mount Osore is located, said the number of itako had fallen from about 20 a decade ago. He said they began gathering at Mount Osore in the last century as their numbers began to dwindle, to make it easier for customers to find them. The volcano’s 1,200-year-old temple is believed by many here to be a gathering point for souls of the dead before Buddhist reincarnation.

And here is an interesting bit: this was perhaps the only profession available for the blind:
Mr. Tonosaki and other historians say itako and other shamanistic mediums were common across Japan in medieval times, when this was often the only occupation available for the blind. But they were suppressed in the late 19th century, as Japan built a modern nation. In recent times, they have survived only on the geographic margins, in rural northern Japan and on the southern island of Okinawa.
Read the full story here.


Sabio Lantz said...

かわいそう (what a pity)

Salman Hameed said...

Nice touch.

Pity - for itako or for the sympathy for the mediums (probably both :) )


Times they are a-changing. Let them die out.

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