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The Miko and the Itako: The Role of Women in
Contemporary Shinto Ritual
Heather H. Kobayashi
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Kobayashi, Heather H., "The Miko and the Itako: The Role of Women in Contemporary Shinto Ritual" (2013). Senior Capstone
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The Miko and the Itako The Role of the Women in Contemporary Shinto Ritual Heather Kobayashi April 8, 2013 Asian Studies Bachelor’s Thesis Peipei Qiu Michael Walsh Contents Introduction 3
1. The Feminine in the Kojiki 6
2. Aka fujo “Feminine Pollution” 18
3. Female Priests, Itako, and Brides 27 Conclusion 50 Introduction Like many modern civilizations, Japan has a patriarchal past still evident in its contemporary society. In the case of Shinto–Japan’s so-called ‘indigenous’ religion, though this does not adequately describe the reality–gender roles are often reinforced through objectification and the targeted use of sight. Male sight, specifically, occupies a privileged position in everything from ancient myths to the modern wedding ritual and continually exerts an oppressive influence on the lives of women, monitoring and impeding their public movements. The twin themes of men dominating women through sight and women building social as well as literal shelters from that sight cut across time and space in ritual practice. To further explore this topic I will approach it from two angles: the first looks at the theological and historical framework that guides Shinto practice with regards to gender; the second examines how contemporary women choose to or are forced to interact with that framework in various capacities. I will trace throughout how the physical act of sight becomes a social phenomenon which has been used to demean women by labeling them as somehow “impure” and thus excluding them from the social order. The result has been that in some cases women reject that social order and the sight of men and in others embrace the role of visual object for the sake of complete integration into society.
The Kojiki, a text completed in 712 CE (Philippi, 3) isan important part of this discussion because it is the canonical text of Shinto myths and forms the backbone of organized Shinto theology. Modern priests are tested on their knowledge of the Kojiki and its interpretations in order to advance in the shrine hierarchy (Nelson Enduring Identities, 139-140), so although it is a historical text, it is still relevant to the practice of Shinto today. The text takes a firm stance on the subordination of women via sight which sets the stage for the social developments to follow.
Another relevant topic is the idea of “pollution” in Shinto ritual, which has been used in the past to justify discrimination against a variety of groups, including women (Namihara, 65).
Embedded in the idea of pollution, however, is what a society finds threatening and dangerous to its social order (Douglas, 126); the categorization of women as polluting, therefore, might speak to the fear of women even in a patriarchal society (176) as well as being a remnant of ancient practices where women were revered for their unique spiritual powers (Smyers, 12).
Nevertheless, women have historically been pushed out of the public eye and out of public religious spaces because of their supposed impurity (340) and to this day women are haunted by the belief in their inherent pollution (Namihara, 68).
How, then, do modern women engage with the centuries of Shinto practice and mythology regarding their gender? Women have participated in Japanese religion as shamans and mediums since before the Kojiki was written (Blacker, 104-105), but one modern path is to become a priest, an option that has only been open to women since 1946 (Kobayashi, 81). Many women embark on this path to carry on a family legacy (Nelson, A Year in the Life 124), but they can be hindered by the hypervisibility of their gender in the predominately male environment of Shinto shrines (125). As a result, they conceptualize themselves as continuing the spiritual lineage of powerful, pre-Kojiki female shamans, which they lament is overlooked by modern Japanese people (128).
Another form of spiritual practice specific to women is that of the itako, a type of shaman which has a unique relationship to sight because they are always blind or visually impaired.
Their initiation ceremony echoes many of the same themes as those found in the Kojiki (Kuwamura, 266) and their pairing with a male spirit speaks to the presence of patriarchal influences even within a female-exclusive religious practice.
Finally, as a bride–a role occupied by most women at some point in their lives–women are expected to completely efface their individuality for the visual pleasure of others (GoldsteinGidoni, 120). Through makeup, restrictive clothing, and enforced passivity, women are introduced to their new public role as a wife, which is to provide visual pleasure and emotional support to men.
All of these avenues of religious practice showcase the ways in which men and women are culturally conditioned to interact, but they also illuminate possible paths of resistance to the status quo rooted in Japan’s own culture and history. Many of the roles carved out for women in Shinto emphasize their passivity or subordination to men, but they also exemplify ways in which female practitioners of Shinto draw strength from the spiritual history of their country and strive to make their presence known.
When the Kojiki was compiled beginning in the 7th century CE almost a century had passed since the arrival of Buddhism into Japan from Korea (Holcombe, 78). The completion of the Kojiki followed a century-long period of increased adoption of Chinese culture and political tools as the Soga Clan seized power and tried to unify the clans of Japan under the government of their puppet emperor (Brown, 163). After the Soga Clan was overthrown, however, during the reign of Emperor Temmu (CE 673-686)–when the bulk of the Kojiki was completed–this trend continued and Japan looked to the contemporaneous Tang Dynasty for a model of "national unification under a strong emperor ruling through a bureaucracy” (Philippi, 16). The Taika reforms, initiated in 645 by the Soga in order to solidify the power of the central government (Holcombe, 115-116), and Taihō and Yōrō Codes of law initiated at the turn of the 8th century all contributed to the character of the period (117). Temmu "eagerly adopted the culture of Tang China” (Philippi, 16) and, as a result, both the Buddhist and Confucian influence of this era contributed to the codifying of societal sexism (Smyers, 12). For instance the Taihō Code of 701 not only established an imperial bureaucracy based on the Chinese model, but also dismantled the previously matriarchal clan organization and “established a patriarchal system, called for the subjugation of women in the Confucian manner, and discriminated against women in matters of property, marriage, and divorce.” Furthermore, the Buddhist sects which held sway in Japan at the time clearly stated that women were incapable of attaining enlightenment without first being reborn as a man (Paulson qtd. in Smyers, 12). Despite frequent reference to the patriarchal cultural influence of China, however (Smyers, 12; Nelson 1996, 123; Philippi, 52), the stance on gender roles outlined in the Kojiki cannot be laid entirely at China’s feet. As the political purpose of the Kojiki was to establish a hierarchy of the existing clans based on their relationship to the Emperor as well as cement the power of the imperial line, the compiler of the Kojiki was working from documents of imperial lineage and from anecdotal sources of folk myth (Philippi,
11) which can be assumed to reflect primarily native Japanese views. Thus, the theology and politics of the time were all pushing for the diminished power of women and this is reflected in what subsequently became the ultimate text of Shinto theology.
Although it includes a creation myth and plenty of social commentary, the overarching theme of the Kojiki is the divine origin of the Emperor, whose bloodline can be traced back to Amaterasu, the sun goddess and the principle god in the Japanese pantheon. In fact, Emperor Temmu sponsored the compilation of the Kojiki specifically to correct the existing genealogies and establish the rank of all the existing clans (Philippi, 6). Thus, it served as the ultimate rebuttal to any opponents of the imperial bloodline and justified the strong governmental actions of the era–such as the formation of an imperial army and imperial oversight of local clan affairs (Brown, 232) –which could otherwise be characterized as petty power grabs. As a result, the text must be viewed critically as one with a specific political goal, a goal that, as previously discussed, allowed the emperor to dictate questions of gender as well as politics. It is a text which was intended to prop up the existing status quo and–although it may not have been out of place at the time–a modern reader will find a rather shocking indictment of femininity, which would appear to be at odds with the worship of a supreme goddess. The sun goddess Amaterasu's exalted position notwithstanding, the Kojiki depicts femininity as an unstable force with the potential to bring both life and death that must be controlled by a civilizing male influence.
Furthermore, the female force often exerts its power through concealment and the opposing male force brings her into line with the power of his sight.
The first of these gendered struggles occurs within the first fifteen chapters of the Kojiki between the sibling-spouses Izanami-no-mikoto and Izanagi-no-mikoto. Izanami (the wife) and Izanagi (the husband) follow a long lineage of gods starting from the creation of the universe.
While they only appear after many generations of gods are described in the Kojiki, they are the first to be depicted as having personality and physical form:1 most of the previous gods are referenced in name only, performing no individual actions and with indications of their specific domain being either vague or completely absent. As a result, the story of the Kojiki as interpersonal drama really begins with Izanami and Izanagi.
This couple is tasked by the “heavenly deities”–most likely a reference to the generations of gods who preceded them–(Philippi, 49) with creating the islands of Japan. Having solidified an initial island with the Heavenly Jeweled Spear, Izanami and Izanagi descend to the newlycreated land and raise a “heavenly pillar and a spacious place”(50)–most likely elements of an ancient wedding ceremony (398). At this time the two notice their respective sex organs and
Izanagi proposes the idea of sexual intercourse. He says to Izanami:
Izanami simply replies, “That will be good”(50). Izanagi phrases his question as a mere logical response to biological fact, but, as foreshadowed by the trappings of a wedding ceremony, the In fact, Izanami and Izanagi were probably the first gods to appear in the folk version of this creation myth, and the compilers merely wished to create a longer, more ‘rational’ genealogy in order to appeal to the Chinese-influenced sensibilities of the time (Philippi, 397).
situation immediately becomes more complex when the physical act becomes conceptualized as a social ritual with unequal roles for the two participants (Grapard, 8). In fact, as soon as Izanagi poses a question to Izanami, the act of sex is recognized as a social ritual which requires the consent of both participants. He is also establishing the model of the man as the asker and the woman as the one who is asked–in other words, of sexual desire as masculine.
The result of this ritual of asking and answering is that both participants agree that they will pass in opposite directions around the pillar and then call out to one another before they have sex; trouble arises, however, when Izanami, the woman, is the first to speak. Izanagi warns her that “It is not proper that the woman speak first”(Philippi, 51), but they nevertheless proceed to procreate and Izanami gives birth to a “leech-child” and a small island. They dispose of the leech-child in a reed basket and neither of the products of that first attempt at procreation are counted in the official lineage as their children (51). When consulted, the Heavenly Elders perform a divination which reiterates Izanagi's original assessment that “Because the woman spoke first, [the child] was not good”(52). Izanami and Izanagi then perform the same ritual of walking around the pillar, only Izanagi speaks first when they reach the far side and their children are the islands of Japan and thirty-five additional gods and goddesses, which are all considered members of their proper offspring (57).
This episode clearly advances and normalizes a patriarchal social structure.