Music of Female Shamans in Japan*

By Kárpáti, János | Studia Musicologica, September 2013 | Go to article overview

Music of Female Shamans in Japan*


Kárpáti, János, Studia Musicologica


Shamanism is a specific system of belief among peoples in Siberia and Central Asia. At its centre stands the shaman, who is endowed with extraordinary powers and who acts as an intermediary between humans and the imaginary world of spirits and ghosts. Being a charismatic person, the shaman is capable of going into a state of trance, sometimes with the help of artificial means, and to take great imaginary trips into other, transcendental worlds: the realm of gods and the dead. Shamans never perform these activities autotelicly, but rather for public or individual good, most often in the form of healing or soothsaying.1

Classic Siberian shamanism's easternmost boundary is Korea, therefore Japan does not belong to this tradition. However, it is without doubt that Japanese culture was subjected to powerful Korean influences for centuries, since Chinese culture also reached Japan via Korea. Therefore, the hypothesis that Japanese, Tungus, Manchurian, and Korean shamanism are all closely related, is completely admissible.2

The oldest Japanese chronicle, the Kojiki (712), testifies to the existence of certain shamanistic rituals. A classic example of this is Arne no Uzume's dance before the cave which, in its preparative moments, in the motif of the "divine pos- session," and in the use of music and dance contains the description of an entire agrarian ritual Another type of shaman ritual is to be found in the prophecy report, in which Empress Jingu (Okinaga Tarashi-hime) falls into trance and predicts the conquering of lands overseas (Korea). Both rituals are basically prototypes of shamanistic activities since they focus on changing the surrounding environment, making it more favourable, or trying to deduce what the future holds.

In addition to literary documentation, there are also artefacts attesting to ancient Japanese shamanistic culture like the so-called haniwa clay figures, which were found on the kofuns, burial mounds dating from the fifth and seventh centuries. These haniwas were funeral objects made from red clay, kilned at low tempera- tures, representing houses, horses, ships, and people. Among the haniwa depict- ing people, peasant and soldier figures can also be found, while the majority of them portray both male and female shamans. The female shamans are in cere- monial dress, with headwear, and jewellery. It is of great importance for us that on several of the discovered statuettes, the female shaman is holding a zither-type instrument on her knee. One has every reason to regard these five or six stringed instruments as being identical to the yamato goto, the "Japanese zither" found in archeological excavations.3

Female domination in shamanistic activities suggests that women held a position of special social esteem in pre-historic Japan and also in the early periods of recorded history from about 250 (the Kofun Age) to 593 (the beginning of Empress Suiko's reign and the Asuka Age) as attested by reports sent to the Chinese Emperor by his ambassadors. The Wei Dynasty chronicle Wei Chih dating from 297, quotes a report sent by the ambassadors on the island they called Wa, which contains an important piece of information regarding the special social position of female shamans.

The country formerly had a man as ruler. For some seventy or eighty years after that there were disturbances and warfare. Thereupon the people agreed upon a woman for their ruler. Tier name was Pimiko. She occupied herself with magic and sorcery, bewitching the people. Though mature in age, she remained unmarried. She had a younger brother who assisted her in ruling the country. After she became the ruler, there were few who saw her. She had one thousand women as attendants, but only one man. Fie served her food and drink and acted as a medium of communication. She resided in a palace surrounded by towers and stockades, with armed guards in a state of constant vigilance.4

Later Japanese documents confirm the domineering role of women not as leaders of the community, but as responsible for carrying out funeral rites. …

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