Gender & Spirit Possession in Shamanic Practices, Modern Japan


Gender & Spirit Possession in Modern Japan

  1. Introduction of the essay

In Japan, shamanic practices and the participation of women in spirit possessions as Shamans or Medium have been happening since before the completion of the Kojiki (Blacker, 1975, 104-105). The Kojiki was completed in 712 CE by O No Yasumaro and represents the Japanese Creation Myth that serves as one of the basis for Shintoism in Japan.

A Shaman is someone who is “regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of good and evil spirits, especially among some peoples of northern Asia and North America. Typically such people enter a trance state during a ritual, and practice divination and healing” (New Oxford English Dictionary)

This essay will explore the complex world of shamanic practices in Japan with more specific relations to Spirit Possession & Gender in Modern Japan Meiji Era (from 1868-1912) until nowadays.

Firstly in this essay it will be important to introduce Shamanism, Gender & Spirit Possession in order to then analyse the constitution and purposes of the various rituals within Shamanic Practices in regards to Spirit Possession. This essay will also be trying to define and understand the importance of gender in shamanic practices and spirit possession.

  1. Introduction – Shamanism & Gender

The notion of gender in Shamanic practices in various cultures is omnipresent and is women dominated in some groups. Women have a significant place within the world of shamanism as they predominantly have the role of the shaman even though men can also have this status. Indeed women are more likely to gain access to this status as they are believed to have pre-disposition for the communication with the spiritual world. Indeed, according to Boddy (1988, p4) in the region of Northern Sudan, women are more prone to be involved in the spirit possession as they are more easily possessed than men. One of the factors that trigger the possession of the zar in that case, is the fertility that women gain (ibid). It is also the case on the Asian continent, more especially in Japan where different shamanic groups exist and are also women dominated. These various groups such as the itako or the yuta are relevant examples of groups of Shaman women in Japan.

The relations between men and women in shamanic practices are indeed very interesting by their different interpretations regarding the cultural groups of the shamans around the question of the fertility and the disposition to receive the spirits or to communicate with them. In all kinds of practices, culture defines the roles of the women and the roles of the men with an explanation of their own. Thus, it is also the case as far as shamanic practices are concerned. During the Heian period (794 – 1185) in Japan, shamanism was to give a voice to the women who shared an inferior social status compared to men as Bargen argues (1997, p246). Gender in shamanism has thus an important place that will be discussed in this essay along with the various significations attached to it and its implication within the society and the shamanic group as it defines a role.

  • Introduction – Shamanism & Spirit Possession

“According to the Japanese Shinto faith, after death a human being becomes a spirit, sometimes a deity. It is believed that eight million deities inhabit the heavens and the earth – the mountains, the forests, the seas, and the very air that is breathed.” (Rubin, 2000). The world of the spirits is thus very significant in Japan and spirit possession is an essential part of practices within the shamanic groups. According to Dolce (2015, p1), the phenomenon of possession called “kamigakari” in Japanese society comprises two kinds of practices:

                  Exorcism: “the expulsion or attempted expulsion of a supposed evil spirit from a person or place” (New Oxford English Dictionary)

                  Spirit possession: “the state of being controlled by a demon or spirit” (ibid)

Both practices are related to the phenomenon of possession “kamigakari” and are widely practiced in various region of Japan (Dolce, 2015, p1). This essay will introduce the different kinds of spirits involved in these practices in the category dedicated to the Rituals – Practices & Purposes.

Moreover, Knecht (2003, p5-6) points out the work of Eliade (1951) who identified distinct states of shamanism trance, which are the state of ecstasy and the state of possession. However he notes (ibid) the state of possession as more common in Japan than the state of ecstasy.

Additionally, Dolce (2015, p1) adds “Specialists of possession, in fact, draw from both these traditions [spirit possession & exorcism] in their practices [Shintoism & Buddhism]”. Indeed this is due to the fact that some of the possessing spirits are from both these traditions, as it will be clearly explained in the next part of the essay.

This essay will also demonstrate in the following paragraph the implication of the rituals through the various practices and its actors, the social implication of the possession as well as the different aspects of the ritual such as music & dance. It will also tackle the notion of individual and collective identity through the work of Anne Bouchy (2000) as the possession may go through individuals but remains a shared experience within the group and the system.

Spirit possession is indeed a complex system of differing shamanic practices that also relate through a cultural and religious conception of gender. This essay will then demonstrate what it takes to be or become a shaman through the detailed description of rituals, their practices and purposes; moreover it will explore the importance of the genre within shamanic practices and more especially in Japan during the modern times. In a last part, it will analyse the question of what shamanism represents nowadays, and how it is portrayed in the popular culture as well as its consequences on tourism – or tourism consequences on shamanic practices as well as the remaining importance of sacred places such as Mount Osore.

Rituals, Practices & Purposes

Rituals are an essential part of the spirit possession; each group has its own characteristics and practices during the rituals. Moreover, the purpose of the ritual may vary regarding the group in question. This essay will analyse the related spirits connecting through spirit possession; it will then describe and compare the various groups practicing spirit possession in Japan; it will also analyse what it takes to be a shaman, how can one become a shaman. The actors of the rituals, in other words, the shaman, the possessed person and the group will be taken into concern in this essay to then analyse the importance of music & dance during the phenomenon of possession. It will also be relevant to study the different causes of the possession or purposes of the rituals.

  • Related Spirits to spirit possession & the relations to Shintoism & Buddhism

Spirit possession in Japan involves the encounter of various kinds of spirits. Dolce (2015, p2) starts by explaining the two kinds of possession, which are “unwanted possession” that requires the intervention of exorcism, and the “possession, both solicited and involuntary” that involves positive spirits (ibid). Different spirits govern the world of possession in Japan. The negative spirits, which need exorcism or the expulsion of the evil spirits, are called the “mononoke”. They are regarded as responsible for plagues, illness and diseases, thus they need to be extracted from the body of the possessed. Among those spirits it is possible to distinguish three different kinds (ibid): the spirit of the dead (shiryô), animals (the snake and the fox, kitsune) and the Demons (oni) and gods.

                  Spirit of the dead (shiryô): according to Dolce’s description (ibid), the spirits of the dead represent “people who have died of an untimely or violent death”. The spirit of these people became vengeful, as they have died while suffering because of other people or catastrophes. These spirits need to be liberated from their suffering and thus possess other people in order to avenge this suffering and do what they could not achieve.

A renowned example of one of those spirits that Dolce (ibid) also mentioned is the case of Sugawara no Michizane. Sugawara no Michazane was a state minister in the 9th Century who had to go on exile where he died. He thus kept his vengeful grudge against those who banished him. When he was possessing people, the spirit was going against the people who caused his exile.

The drawing below, drawn by Sukioka Yoshitoshi, depicts the spirit of Sugawara no Michizane attacking Fujiwara Shihei who was also a Minister at the imperial palace in Kyoto. This drawing seems to show the grudge of the spirit of Sugawara Michizane because of his exile. Since his spirit has been deified (Dolce, 2015, p2) “he became the protector god of students”.


The spirit of Sugawara no Michizane attacks Fujiwara Shihei at the imperial palace in Kyoto. From an album of 30 ‘block-ready’ preparatory drawings (hanshita-e) for an unpublished series. Drawn by: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (月岡芳年) Ukiyo-e School Meiji Era 1880 British Museum.

The animals:

In Japan there are a few distinctions between animal spirits that can possess men: the snake spirit (hebi); the fox (kitsune) & the dog spirit (inugami). However the spirit of the fox is known to be the most widespread in Japan (Pallini, 2015).


The print by 歌川芳虎 above shows the spirit of the fox with the 9 tails around the people and creating disasters and war between men. This illustrates the mischievous characteristic of the fox.

The Demon (oni) & gods:

The demons or oni are considered responsible for plagues and diseases. However the “Buddhist ‘Oni’ demons did not always represent the forces of evil” (Rubin, 2000, Indeed according to Buddhism, the oni are actually the monks who became oni after death in order to give a protection to the temples. It is thus interesting to note one of the relations of spirit possession to one of the main “religions” in Japan.

The negative spiritual agencies have been mentioned above, however, there are also positive spiritual agencies that possess human beings. The Kami & Buddhist deities belong to this group but also the spirit of the animals and the spirits of the dead, which are originally considered as negative spirits may act toward a positive outcome through the possession (Dolce, 2015, p3).

Still according to Dolce (2015, p3), these spirits may act to transmit words to the world of humans, empower them or give a more comprehensive approach while acting as medium during the possession.

In this part, this essay has showed the various possessing agencies and it has also demonstrated that there is an actual connection between spirit possession and the main “religions” of Japan, which are Shintoism & Buddhism, as many of these spirits are coming from these beliefs – kami through Shintoism & oni & deities through Buddhism.

  • Various groups practicing spirit possession and their specialists

 In Japan there are various groups from different regions practicing spirit possession. These groups also practice spirit possession in distinct ways. The main groups are the Itako, the Yuta, the Dai & the Ontake Cult. There is a name to designate the shamans in Japan, which is miko, it means female shaman and it can be applied to all the groups at any period in time (Bouchy, 2000, p209)


The Itako are situated in Northeast Japan and they constitute a very particular group. Indeed the Shamans are females who are either blind from birth or from a very young age. Another specific characteristic of this group is that the women decided to become shamans “as a consequence of this physical disability” (2013, According to Dolce (2015, p4), the Itako are “channelling with the spirit of the dead” but they do not experience a veritable possession however they create the communication between the client and the spirits. The Itako are mostly seen on Mount Osore (ibid) and are less numerous than during the previous periods (2013, Also, many anthropologists and religious specialists have discussed their place within the shamanic groups in Japan due to the fact that they do not undergo spirit possession but they still allow a significant communication between the world of the living and the world of the dead (ibid).


The Yuta are another specific group of Shamans who are based in the region of Okinawa. The group is women-dominated but they do not exclude men (Dolce, 2015, p4). They mainly undergo spirit possession to channel the spirit and as a way of divination (ibid).


Other possession specialists are called the Dai, from the region of Kyoto and Osaka. They are also women dominated according to Dolce (2015, p5). These are possession specialists who have a protector god, the Inari Fox (Bouchy, 2000, p226). The possession by the spirit of the Inari is regarded as healing and the deity does not only possess a specific person but may also possess the whole group (Dolce, 2015, p5).

Ontake cult

The Ontake cult group, unlike the other groups that have been presented above, are predominantly men. They are from confraternities and remain in the mountains of Central Japan – Mount Ontake. The possession among the Ontake cult only takes place in the mountains (Dolce, 2015, p6). Nowadays according to Dolce (ibid), spirit possession is still taking place, however, there different confraternities taking various paths in the mountains who have “slightly different styles of performance of possession” (ibid).

In this part, the essay demonstrated that various shamanic groups exist in Japan in different regions of the country. These groups seem to have variable use of spirit possession for distinct purposes that this essay will analyse closely in one of the next parts. The groups also have different sets of rules regarding the participants and their gender as well as the style of possession and their sacred places.

  • Becoming a Shaman

This part of the essay will focus on the work of Kawamura (1994) “The Life of a Shamaness: Scenes from the Shamanism of Northeastern Japan”. Kwamura interviewed twelve shamanesses in order to hear various stories from different regions and shamanic groups, to then be able to analyse these stories and contrasting them with each other. He noticed four distinct stages in the path of becoming a shaman. These four stages are:

“(1) – Loss of eyesight in childhood or pre-shamanistic period” (ibid), indeed the women always undergo in complete or partial blindness from birth or early during their childhood.

“(2) – Entering apprenticeship or training period” (ibid). After the loss of the eyesight, as a consequence, the female shamanesses or their relatives decide to follow a training to become a Shaman as they are believed to have special connection with the spirit world.

“(3) – Initiation experience (kamitsuke or utsushisome) or initiation” (ibid); this period is at the end of the apprenticeship, the shamaness has to undergo fasting and ablutions with cold water before the official ceremony.

“(4) – Completion of apprenticeship and entering independent business or professional independence” (ibid); when the Shamaness finishes the ceremony and has repaid her debt to her master, she can go back home and starts her own business as a Shamaness.

Becoming a Shaman takes many years and the future Shamaness has to go through different stages of which the style may slightly vary from one group to another. However that is a path that she has to follow, and that is usually chosen as a consequence of the illness as the illness will indicate the disposition for the connection to the world of spirits.

  • Actors of the rituals – who are the specialists and the possessed?

During the rituals there are different people involved. According to Bouchy (2000, p220-221), there are three possible ways to do a ritual. There is the “simple ritual” but also the ritual with 2 or 3 people.

As far as the simple ritual is concerned, it means that specialist performs a double role: the one of the master who interrogates the spirits and the one that receives the answers from the gods or spirits and thus replies. Bouchy (ibid) also adds that there is not a noticeable change in the behaviour.

On the other hand, there is also the case of the ritual with 2 or 3 people (with or without an assistant). Bouchy (ibid) notes that this kind of ritual has been practiced since ancient times until today. During this kind of rituals, the divinities are usually speaking through women specialist of possession or a young person under the direction of the master. However the master of the ritual also has the possibility to use a different medium that may be a man, a woman or a child.

Thus, in a ritual there are two main roles: the one of the interrogator, performed by the master and the one that receives the spirit and answers the questions, this role can be performed by the master, a female specialist of possession or even a man, woman or child.

  • Dance & Music during spirit possession rituals

In this part, the essay will analyse the role and importance of dance and music during rituals of spirit possession in Japan. The focus will be on the purposes and significant presence of music and dance as the details may vary from one group to another.


Music has important role during rituals, it actually induces the trance and allow the spirit to come down (Blacker, 1999, p227). In The Catalpa Bow (1999), Blacker describes the ritual known as yorigito that implies the connection with the world of spirits. This kind of ritual has been practiced since the 9th Century in Japan until nowadays (Blacker, 1999, p225).

Blacker also interestingly emphasizes on how the medium is brought into the trance through the music and sounds (1999, p248).

“… rhythmically reiterated sounds were the prominent devices used. Thunderous banging on a drum, deafening blasts on conch shell trumpets, clashing and rattling of iron-ringed croziers, clanging of bells and loud shouted chanting of familiar words of power are used in every case, … ” (ibid)

Additionally, Blacker (1999, p243) noticed that when the rhythm of the music of the drums slackened, the medium came to a pause. The music is indeed leading the medium in his state of trance.


Dance (or movements) is another way to induce trance and thus to allow the communication with the world of the spirits.

Blacker (1999, p248) suggests that dance and movements are a variation of music and sounds during the trance in the region of Okayama. They thus have the same function of inducing and conducting the trance of the medium. Both “the eye as well as the ear of the medium is bemused by what is known as the nuno-mai or cotton dance” (ibid).

  • Various purposes of possession in the different shamanic groups

 Spirit possession is practiced for various aim, even though the main connection is the contact with the spirit world, this communication is meaningful. As previously seen above, there are many groups in Japan practicing spirit possession and all of them use the communication with the spirits for various purposes.

  • The Yuta mostly undergo spirit possession in order for divination (Dolce, 2015, p4). Indeed, they communicate with the spirits in order to know about the future events that will affect them.
  • The Itako channel with the spirits in order to open and create a communication with the spirit world for their clients as they may seek for answers to their questions or want to help the spirits to cross over if they had a brutal death and could not achieve what they wanted during the time of their living (Dolce, 2015, p4).
  • Healing is another purpose of spirit possession, especially aimed at by the Dai who are invoking a spirit protector, the Inari in order to do so (Dolce, 2015, p5)

Channelling with the dead or the spirits is done for a purpose that may vary according to the group of shamans that performs the ritual. The purpose may be the one of divination, connecting spirits with the human world to complete their task or also healing through the invocation of gods and divinities.

In this part, the essay has been looking at the various spirits connected with the spirit possession, either positive or negative and their relations with Shintoism & Buddhism through the various deities that are involved. It has also presented the various shamanic groups involved with spirit possession with their specialities. Additionally based on the work from Kwamura it has shown the main stages in order to become a Shaman as well as who the main actors of the rituals are. Moreover this essay has also shown the importance of dance and music. Finally, it also argued that there are various purposes to spirit possession that may differ from one group to another even though the first aim is the communication with the spirits.

Importance of Gender in Shamanism, Japan

As previously mentioned in this essay, gender has its importance and we may have noticed that it is a recurrent theme within Shamanism in Japan, especially regarding the role everyone has within the various groups. In a first place this essay will present shamanism as a women dominated practice and insist on the disposition of women for their connection with the spirit world. It will also emphasize on the relations between men and women during rituals. Next it will introduce the case of the Ontake Cult – predominantly men as they are based in the mountains. Finally it will analyse the new social role for the women in Modern Japan – Meiji Era and the effect on shamanic groups.

2.1.          Shamanism as women dominated practice – disposition for women to the spirit world

Shamanism in Japan is a women-dominated practice as underlined by Dolce (2015) when presenting the major shamanic groups in Japan. Indeed women have a disposition for the spirit world (Kawamura, 2003, p261) According to Blacker (1975, p142), women are more disposed for the connection to the spirit world as a regard to their sexuality. It is believed that the sexual desire may interfere with the spirit possession and thus it is more reliable to do the training to a young girl who did not have her periods yet. Blacker (ibid) also adds that if the Itako begin their training after their first periods they may be seen as less reliable by their clients.

The fact that the women do not have this sexual desire before their periods dispose them to have more abilities to connect with the spirit world and become a shaman compared to men.

2.2.          Relations & connections between the shaman and the divinity during the rituals

During the rituals special relations and identities are forming. Indeed, Bouchy (2000, p214-215) argues that there is a relation established during the first oracle of the spirit possession between the shaman and the divinity coming to possess. The divinity can present itself in two distinct forms: as a husband or a master, in all cases the divinity represents a protective superiority to the miko who is a woman. This shows that the social role of women is concealed and inferior to men’s as previously argued with Bargen (1997, p246). Thus according to Bouchy (2000, p214-215), the relation and connection between the shaman and the divinity possessing is one of submission from the miko, female shaman to the divinity that represents a husband or master. For the women (ibid), the rapport to the divinity is exclusive and they cannot obtain a marital status.

2.3.          Shamanic group of men, and their relations with the divinities

As previously seen in this essay, not only women can undergo spirit possession, but also men could also been involved. Indeed, the shamanic groups are women-dominated in Japan, however they do not exclude men. On the other hand there is the Ontake cult group, which is actually predominantly composed of men (Dolce, 2015, p56). Men can recognise the divinity as their master, however the difference between men and women lies where the men have the possibility to keep their “human wife” (Bouchy, 2000, p215-2016).

2.4.          Social role of the women in Meiji and shamanism

Female shamans are known as prostitutes since the Heian period according to Fairchild (1962, p103). However there is little literature available about the social role of the women during the Meiji Era, or Modern Times in English language. The Japanese state has instituted a different vision of the family in Japan and this may be regarded as a factor of change for the miko, or female shaman in their social role as the women access a different position in the society.

On another note, Dolce (2000, p1) states that spirit possession in Japan is not disappearing. On the contrary, according to Dolce (ibid), the phenomenon of possession still has an “enduring presence in the modern (and postmodern) world” of Japan.


 To conclude, this essay has shown what the Shamanic practices – and more specifically spirit possession involved, including the participation of various spirits, Shamanic groups, actors during rituals; also it has showed the different stages for a woman to become a shaman, the importance of music & dance during a ritual, as well as the numerous purposes for spirit possession in Japan.

In the second main part, this essay has demonstrated the relations between the gender and how important and recurrent gender is among shamanic groups through the disposition of becoming a shaman, and the relations with the spirit world. This essay has also tried to define female shaman and their social place in the modern period from the Meiji Era with difficulties due to the lack of publications in English language, but instead it has presented shamanism as something still prevalent in today’s Japan.

Lisa Aïssaoui

Twitter: @LhyzaLibertad / Instagram: @daughterofthe_desert


  • Bargen, D. G., 1997, “A woman’s weapon: Spirit Possession in The Tale of Genji” Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press
  • Blacker, C., 1975, “The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan” 1st ed. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd
  • Blacker, C., 1999, “Chapter 13: Village Oracles”, in The Catalpa Bow, Richmond, Surrey: The Japan Library,
  • Boddy, J., 1988, “Spirits and Selves in Northern Sudan: The Cultural Therapeutics of Possession and Trance.” in American Ethnologist, 15(1), 4–27. Retrieved from [Accessed online on 21st November 2015]
  • Bouchy, A., 2000, “Quand je est l’autre: Altérité et identité dans la possession au Japon” in L’homme, (153), 207–230.
  • Dolce, L., 2015, “Possession in Japan,” in J. Laycock (ed.), Spirit Possession Around the World: Possession, Communion, and Demon Expulsion Across Cultures, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO
  • Eliade, M., 1951, “Shamanism and Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy” 2004, Princeton: Princeton University Press
  • Kawamura, K., 1994, “The life of a shamaness: Scenes from the shamanism of northeastern Japan” in Folk Beliefs in Modern Japan, ed. Inoue Nobutaka, trans. Norman Havens, 92–124. Tokyo: Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics, Kokugakuin University. Available at [Accessed online on 25th November 2015]
  • Kawamura, K., 2003, “A Female Shaman’s Mind and Body, and Possession”, in Asian Folklore Studies, 62(2), 257–289.
  • Knecht, P., 2003, “Aspects of Shamanism: An Introduction” In Shamans in Asia, Clark Chilson and Peter Knecht, eds. 1-30, London: RoutledgeCurzon
  • Perrone, E. & Bonfanti, F., 2011, “ItakoDoc” Available at [Accessed online on 23rd November 2015]
  • Yoshitoshi, T., 1880, “The spirit of Sugawara no Michizane attacks Fujiwara Shihei at the imperial palace in Kyoto. From an album of 30 ‘block-ready’ preparatory drawings (hanshita-e) for an unpublished series, Ukiyo-e School Meiji Era, London: British Museum

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