Japan from the inside out

Yuta: The Japanese shamans

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 5, 2009

THE EXISTENCE of shamans, people said to have the ability to communicate with the spirit world and intercede with that plane on our behalf, seems to be a universal human phenomenon with many shared characteristics over different regions. Yet it’s curious that most of us shy away from acknowledging a phenomenon that is so widespread and still exists today. Perhaps that’s because they’re viewed as part of a primitive tradition that most of us would prefer to think we’ve grown beyond. Then again, perhaps it has something to do with the Siberian origins of the word, which literally means, “He who knows”. Those who know too much have always made the rest of us uncomfortable.

yuta on amami

Japan has had its own shamanistic tradition throughout the archipelago, though now it lives on the edges of our peripheral vision. But the practice still thrives in Okinawa and the Amami islands, which are part of Kagoshima Prefecture. The shamans there are called yuta, and there are an estimated 5,000 in Okinawa alone.

As is the case with shamans elsewhere, the people who become yuta did not make a conscious decision to do so. In the Ryukyus (the Amami islands are considered part of the northern Ryukyus), the yuta acquired their abilities after being selected by the divine spirits and surviving a serious illness or some other physical danger.

As is also the case in other parts of the world, the yuta in the Ryukyus sometimes serve as physicians. Indeed, there is an Okinawan saying: Half doctor, half yuta. Whether they are involved in medicine or not, however, they usually intercede on human behalf in matters of life and death, or matters that people think are critically important.

The Japanese too have always felt a bid edgy around the yuta. The practice was suppressed when the Satsuma domain of Kagoshima controlled the islands during the 17th century. Local newspapers in Okinawa campaigned against the practice in the late 19th century, and some scholars suggest that was because journalists were anxious to have Japan become part the modern world. It’s also true that the nature of the practice itself, which includes fortune telling, attracted charlatans. Many of the yuta (though not all) are women, and some people tended to lump them together with prostitutes. The Okinawan newspapers occasionally campaigned for a crackdown on their activities, and the sketchy surviving records indicate a handful of them were in fact placed in detention for 20-day periods. Some hold that the small number of arrests was due to the deep-rooted popular belief in the tradition and the resultant lack of public support for the campaigns. But since most of the Okinawan newspapers from that period didn’t survive World War II, it isn’t possible to piece together a clear picture of what actually happened.

Nowadays, the yuta are usually part-timers who pursue other careers for a living. Most of the female practitioners have been married and divorced. They also offer advice on personal problems, including those related to romance and work. Another traditional practice in which they are involved is a sort of exorcism that drives away evil spirits three days after a person has died, for which they are paid.

They also hold annual festivals. The photograph here shows a group of yuta a week ago in Tatsugo-cho, Amami, Kagoshima holding one of those festivals on sacred ground. The group consists of 10 men and women from different parts of the Amami islands and Kagoshima. After first purifying themselves with ocean water, they offered prayers in accordance with an old ritual to summon a goddess from across the sea. The sacred ground on which they are standing is actually a large outcropping of rocks near the ocean, and those are eulalia leaves they are using in the ceremony.

After finishing here, they hiked to a small settlement at the top of a nearby mountain to offer rice, sake, fish, and other foods to the divinities.

Are the yuta the remnants of primitive superstition, or are they actually capable of doing some of the things it is said they can do? From a scientific perspective, experiments in Japan have found the right side of the brain of yuta in a trance to be much more active than normal. From an anecdotal perspective, here’s a brief account from someone who has consulted three yuta:

A yuta was able to divine things about my family ancestry, things that I hadn’t even told my wife, and explain that as the cause of my personal concerns. I was so impressed with the accuracy of the yuta’s reading that it led to my research and ultimately writing my novel.

“He who knows”? Maybe they do know something after all—and maybe that’s why they’re still around and active in the information age.

5 Responses to “Yuta: The Japanese shamans”

  1. Robert Meurant said

    Mircea Eliade has written extensively and insightfully on Shamanism, among other aspects of the Sacred.

  2. Michele said

    That was a really fascinating piece — thank you!

  3. Wow! Thats a very well written article! Thanks for writing that up. Its so often tough to find such academic writing about Japan on the web.

  4. ruth said

    I was impressed by the discussion on yuma, not only because we find their parallels throughout the world, but because we hear so little from Okinawa and its islands. We need to remember these are the Ryukyo–a different people.

  5. […] and even later, common-born women.  Some Japanese women today, especially those called noro and yuta in Okinawa and the surrounding islands, still practice shamanic divination” (p. […]

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