The Braille Monitor                                                                                               May, 2002

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The Itako--a Spiritual Occupation for Blind Japanese Girls

by C. Edwin Vaughan

Ed Vaughan
Ed Vaughan

The 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. (Blacker, pp.142-43).

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 of heating."

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. Blacker in 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.

Blacker, Carmen. The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan, 2nd, London: Allen and Unwin, 1986.

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