Japanese Priestesses Through History

Queen Himiko

Lately, while continuing to read Japanese manga for younger audiences to improve my reading skills, I picked up a different set of comics besides the Chibi Marukochan education series here at Kinokuniya bookstore in Seattle. This other series, made by the same publishers, features another famous comic character, Ryōsan (両さん) a boorish, funny policeman with lots of crazy-get-rich schemes, as he and his associates explore Japanese history. I am reading part 1 of the series, called 両さんの日本史大達人 (ryōsan no nihonshi daitatsujin, Ryo-san’s “Great People of Japanese History”). The picture above is one illustration I photographed out of the book.

The series covers the prehistoric period of Japan, the Jōmon Period, then moves into the Yayoi Period, where the hunger-gatherers have settled down into rice agriculture learned from the mainland, employed new bronze-technology, and build small cities that began to compete with one another for control. Indeed, Chinese records at the time describe Japan, the so-called “Land of Wa (倭)” as a patchwork of states constantly fighting with one another.

It was at this time that the famous Queen Himiko came to power. According to Chinese records at the time, she briefly put an end to warfare, unified the surrounding area into the kingdom of Yamatai, and served as a powerful oracle to her people by communing with the gods. Records from those times show that people took oracles very seriously, and not for the sort of self-amusement we get from newspaper horoscopes. People used many elaborate methods to divine the will of the gods, such as putting one’s hand in boiling water to see if they were lying, heating a shoulder blade of a deer to read the cracks, among other methods, and Queen Himiko was said to have 1000 female attendants who helped her with elaborate ceremonies, and to lead the country. Historical records at the time showed that when Himiko died, a great burial mound was raised, the same one thought to have been recently discovered. Afterwards, a male king was placed back on the throne, but the country soon fell into warfare again until Himiko’s niece, Iyo, was put in change. However, what happened afterwards in Japan is not well known until centuries later.

The notion of female shamans appears in other areas of Japan too. Off and on, I’ve been reading Professor’s Kerr’s excellent history of Okinawa, which shows that in Okinawa female shamans, or noro held prominent roles since prehistory until the 15th century when Okinawa strongly adopted Chinese-Confucian culture instead. As Kerr writes, the sister or daughter of the King at Shuri frequently served as high-priestess until 1879, and away from Okinawa Island itself, the noro priestesses continued to be central figures in rural villages even after Chinese influence:

It was the noro’s duty in most ancient times to preserve the fire on the hearth. It can be imagined with what difficulty fire was transported from island to island in primitive days, and what hardships a community suffered if the precious flames were extinguished by accident. A daughter in each household was assigned the task of conserving and feeding the hearth fire. A tabu [sic?] system grew up about the office of the fire-custodian. She was expected to remain a virgin and was thought to be in close communication with the ancestors from whose care the fire descended….Vestments of white cloth (symbolizing ritual cleanliness) and a string of beads (including the magatama or curved jewels) have been symbols of the noro’s office since prehistoric times. Her duties require care of the hearth fire, worship of the ancestors through ritual devotion, and divination to settle upon auspicious days for marriage, burial, travel, or the simple tasks of the agricultural community. (pg. 32-33)

Meanwhile on mainland Japan, women close to the Imperial family likewise served as high-priestesses as well, though there is probably no connection to the Okinawan noro cult. During the time of the ancient Heian Court, and even sometime after, the Shinto shrine of Kamo became very important to the Imperial household, and the Court overall. The shrine at Ise, though technically more sacred, was often too far to travel, so the Kamo Shrine rose to prominence. The Imperial Office frequently sent reports to the Kamo Shrine, so that the news of events could be reported to the gods as a gesture of respect, for example. It’s location in the north-east side of the capitol also served to protect the capitol from evil influence, according to Chinese-imported geomancy.

As a result, the office of the High Priestess of Kamo, or saiin (斎院) became very important. The high-priestess was almost always a vestal virgin from among the Emperor’s daughters, and would remain at the Kamo Shrine as high-priestess until the Emperor died or abdicated. As Lady Murasaki writes in her diary, the high-priestess often had her own “court” and inner-circle faction within the Court, and wielded great influence during their hey-day. During Sei Shonagon’s time, she wrote about the related Kamo Festival (kamo matsuri 鴨祭り), which occurred in the fourth lunar month, and was the largest Shinto festival of the year at the capitol:

[205] The procession for the Return of the Kamo High Priestess is a most delightful thing. Everything has been cleaned and prepared the day before, and the First Avenue lies wide and gleaming ready for the procession. The sun’s rays are hot, and dazzling when they penetrate the carriage, so you shield your face with your fan and adjust our position to avoid them as you sit there uncomfortably waiting on and on, the perspiration oozing and dripping. Everyone has hurried out to get here early, and on the carriages parked near Urin’in and Chisokuin, sprays of aoi and laurel flutter in the breeze….Everything about the attendant ladies, from their fans to their dark leaf-green robes, looks delightful, and they way the men from the Chamberlain’s Office are clothed, in green formal cloak over layers of white gowns with just a touch of white hem tucked into the belt, produces such an illusion of being near a hedge of white deutzia flowers that you almost expect a hototogisu [bird] to be hidden there. All those crazy young nobles who yesterday were crammed into a single carriage, with their matching lavender formal cloaks and gathered trousers or hunting costumes all in disarray and the blinds off their carriage, are now decorously dressed in formal attire, each in his own lonely carriage, on their way to the public banquet as accompanying guests, with charming young page boys seated behind them.

At this time, the Kamo High Priestess would arrive in the capitol in a great procession to preside over the festivities, and then return to the Kamo Shrine in a separate, elaborate procession once things had concluded. This ceremony still exists in a somewhat evolved form today in Kyoto as the Aoi Festival.

Today, the closest contemporary equivalent to the ancient Japanese shamaness is the miko (巫女), who still assists with the functions of a Shinto temple, often within the family-owned temple or just as a part-time job, but in a more modern, down to earth way. This could include ceremonial dances, or just helping at the gift shop. Spirit mediums, vestal virgins and such are a thing of the past, expect where new-religious movements and one-off cults are concerned, but I think women in Japan have a lot of religious heritage to be proud of. The world doesn’t need divination or shamans as it once did, but it shows that women are powerful in their own right.

Update: This article in the Asahi Shinbun implies that researchers have almost definitely found the location of the kingdom of Yamatai in Saga Prefecture.

P.S. Dedicated to reader “Paula” after this post.

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About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.
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4 Responses to Japanese Priestesses Through History

  1. Paula says:

    Many thanks for dedicating this good read to me!
    It is such a good read, I hope that you, apart from blogging it, will send it to magazines of with a Japanese focus or theme.
    I have been visiting a burial mound in Seoul. It was of a princess. Now, after your post, I believe I should have asked in more detail about her role in history.

  2. Doug M says:

    No problem. I thought you might enjoy it, and I thought it was a good contrast. :)

    I do some very limited writing in online journals and magazines, but I am not a scholar, so it would not be worth submitting to something like that, and the topic is probably a bit narrow for some readers. Instead, I prefer keeping these things accessible on the blog because it’s easy for Google searches to find them, so that people can find such information easily.

    I have the same feeling too: I visit famous places in EU and Japan and realize too late how significant it was. Oh well. There’s still time to visit again. :)

  3. Doug M says:

    I have. Thinking about picking up a copy at the local Japanese bookstore (in Japanese since I am practicing reading) today actually.

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