Shamans Look to Spirits for Guidance : In Okinawa, Supernatural Is Taken Very Seriously

Times Staff Writer

Fumi Hokama used to have trouble controlling herself. She threw shoes out of windows because they were made by mere mortals, attacked devils on the street with butcher knives and snipped people’s phone lines to stop the babble of the gods. Police took her to a mental hospital, but she escaped.

Today, years later, Hokama is well and prosperous, serving the public as a shaman.

She sees clients in a tidy two-room apartment on the fourth floor of a building she erected with profits from her business in prayer, advice and folk therapy. At the beginning of the lunar New Year, people line up to pay $25 for her predictions. Strangers seek her advice on how to properly worship their ancestors. They come when they are sick or having marital problems, and she goes into a sleepy trance to tell them why.


Hokama is part of a rich tradition that dates back to the earliest times on Okinawa, once a nominally independent kingdom on the main island of the southern Ryukyu Archipelago, where shamanism continues to thrive.

Despite annexation by Japan nearly a century ago, a 27-year interlude of U.S. administration after World War II and a steady bombardment of Tokyo civilization since reversion to Japanese rule in 1972, Okinawan society retains a stubborn attachment to the supernatural.

The influence of the yuta , or shaman, has held strong even in the face of improved health care and education in Okinawa Prefecture, the poorest and least developed area of Japan, scholars say. Recent studies show that two out of every three Okinawans have consulted a yuta and that most patients at mental institutions seek therapy through both modern medicine and shamanism.

The yuta ‘s clients come from all levels of society, from peasant to urban intellectual. Although it is mainly women who visit the shaman, the spiritual divination uttered by the yuta applies to the whole family, particularly to the ancestral line of the male head of the household.

“The men will say it’s nothing but superstition when they’re outside the home, but if they want dinner, they have to reenter the world of the yuta ,” quipped Tokutaro Sakurai, president of Tokyo’s Komazawa University and an authority on Okinawan religion.

American Indian Beliefs

Shamanism is a universal phenomenon, Sakurai said, surfacing in various isolated strains in most cultures around the world, including the United States, where it is seen in American Indian beliefs and in the spirit possession of some Christian sects. Sakurai is fascinated by actress Shirley MacLaine, who, he said, records “shamanistic tendencies” in her writing.


But Okinawa is unique in that shamanism is part of the pattern of mainstream life, far more deeply ingrained than such faddish interests as, say, astrology, channeling or palm reading. It survives here in a simple and unrefined form, reflecting beliefs that were buried by centuries of Shinto and Buddhist dogma on the main Japanese islands.

“Japanese can see the origins of their religious life vividly manifested in Okinawa today,” Sakurai said. “It may be heresy to the clergy in organized Shinto, but this is where they came from--shamanism.”

Hokama’s story is typical. She was born and reared in Naha, the prefectural capital on the main island of Okinawa, and suffered at an early age from physical illness and hallucinations. She had kidney problems, her legs became swollen, she went temporarily deaf and blind. Her behavior ruined her first marriage, and her life was a tormented one. Then, she said, she realized that the voices she heard might be a special pipeline to the gods, the animistic spirits and Taoist and Buddhist deities that populate Okinawa’s supernatural universe.

Bizarre Messages

“It’s like listening to them talk on the phone,” she said, describing how she learned to tune in to the bizarre messages that once prompted her to go about cutting neighbors’ telephone wires with scissors.

Okinawans call such a rite of passage kami-daari , literally the curse of the kami , or gods. The cure for this privileged brand of insanity, according to custom, is to fulfill one’s spiritual obligations by searching out a special patron among the kami and serving that deity--in other words, becoming a yuta.

On a recent morning, Hokama, 62, faced a huge altar, bobbing her head from side to side in a frenetic rhythm and mumbling a prayer as she searched for inspiration to counsel a visitor. She turned slowly, painfully, to face her client over a low table on the tatami mat floor, yawning and sighing.

“It’s the gods that make you sick; that’s why you must pray,” she said, squeezing her right eye shut. “The gods will make you quarrel, too.”

Hokama tells her client, a 38-year-old Okinawan woman, that her problems are mostly caused by the god of the sea, although unhappy ancestors also appear to be playing a role. The client was not able to marry until the previous year, and her father had a heart attack, she said, because of interference from the other world.

Tablets Moved

Particularly troublesome was her family’s decision to move its ancestral memorial tablets to Okinawa from the outlying island where the clan originated.

“You may have brought the tablets here, but their spirits were left behind,” said Hokama. “Since your mother lacks filial piety and does not pray, it’s your job.”

Projecting life’s problems on the malice of ancestors or the gods is a therapeutic exercise that has proven effects, said Masaharu Matayoshi, an Okinawan author who has studied the yuta.

Matayoshi runs a family counseling center based on concepts that he said he distilled from local shamanism. The woman is the key to mental health in the Okinawan family, he believes, because she performs a stabilizing role by carrying out ritual obligations, with the help of yuta .

“A yuta might divine that the husband has an alcohol problem because an ancestor--say his grandfather--never got enough to drink,” Matayoshi said. “So she’ll pray for the grandfather and place an offering of sake on the family altar. Okinawan homes are so small that the husband can’t help but watch this happen, and it has a soothing effect. It’s cathartic. He’s forgiven.”

Family Counseling

So pervasive is the influence of the yuta in counseling the family--in conservative Okinawa, the family, not the individual, is said to be the smallest social unit--that physicians trained in modern psychotherapy are exploring how to work with the folk tradition.

In some cases, what might be termed schizophrenia elsewhere is diagnosed here as kami-daari-- the shamanistic curse of the gods.

“Every culture has its own kind of stress, and the cure has to come out of that cultural context,” said Toshihiro Takaishi, a native of northern Japan who heads a rural mental hospital on Okinawa’s Motobu Peninsula. “Shamanism goes back to the base of the culture.”

In spiritual matters, Okinawan society is matriarchal, as was the culture that spawned Japan’s imperial household about 1,400 years ago, scholars say. In a vestige of this, women still hold the purse strings in the Japanese household. Although Okinawa’s ancestor worship is patrilineal, meaning it is the man’s family that counts, it is the women who do most of the worshiping.

Close to the Gods

“Women bear human beings. They are the closest thing to the gods,” said Yoshiko Urasaki, a yuta in Motobu. “No matter how great a man is, he came from the body of a woman. But you’ve got to get the cooperation of the man or there’s no effect in prayer.”

There are no reliable estimates of the number of yuta , partly because their activities went underground in the old days when the government tried to ban them. The term yuta still carries a derogatory tone, and most shamans call themselves kaminchu --Okinawan dialect for “kami person.”

The late William P. Lebra, a University of Hawaii anthropologist who did field work here in 1960, estimated that there were at that time about 2,000 yuta-- or roughly one for every 600 Okinawans, a far greater ratio than for doctors. Takaishi and his professional colleagues think Lebra’s count was high, but they figure that there are as many as 600 yuta in practice today, nearly all of them women and most of them living in Naha and other major cities.

Yuta spring up spontaneously and undergo no formal training or education in the beliefs they propagate. Much knowledge is gained while suffering through the god-curse, when the afflicted invariably seek counseling from experienced shamans. Shamanism has otherwise been a solitary endeavor, though, rarely practiced in an organized manner. But that could be changing.

Dreams of Shrine

Urasaki, the shaman in Motobu, publishes some of the writings dictated to her by her patron kami. She dreams someday of opening a shrine.

Shizuko Tokashiki, a renowned yuta in the remote village of Yakena, has developed an elaborate doctrine and operates what she calls a “god school” with a core of about 70 followers.

One major task for the postwar yuta has been cleaning up the spiritual debris from the Battle of Okinawa, a holocaust that took more than 100,000 civilian lives. Together with the deaths of Okinawans serving in the Imperial Army, the prefecture lost about a quarter of its population.

Miyoko Uehara, a yuta in Ginowan City, said she overcame the physical pain of her god-curse only when she began to fulfill a mission of straightening out the confused and forgotten souls that littered the battlefields. Uehara claims the ability to close her eyes and see visions of the Okinawan landscape as if she were flying overhead like a bird. The kami tell her where to go to pray for the repose of the dead.

“It usually comes to me with a burp or a yawn,” Uehara said. “I told my husband before we married that I wasn’t an ordinary woman. He thought I meant I couldn’t cook.”

Pray to Buddhist Image

Last year, Uehara’s visions took her on a trip to South Korea, after the gods instructed her to go the city of Kwangju and pray before a certain Buddhist image. Then the word came that she must follow her trail of ancestors all the way to Mongolia.

“I asked the gods to give me a break,” she said. “We’re in debt from all this traveling.”

Tokashiki, who told a visiting reporter that his arrival was foretold in a telepathic conversation she had with the spirit of George Washington, has much in common with the shamanistic founders of some of the so-called new religions established on the main Japanese islands after the war. She sees for herself a kind of messianic mission.

“I thought I was crazy at first,” she confessed. “I didn’t think it would be possible to save a place as polluted and corrupt as this world.”