Ancient Rite Fades in Japan: Communing With the Dead

By Jason Farago,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 21, 2009 7:47 AM CDT
Tenryu-ji temple in Arashiyama, Japan.   (Flickr)
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(Newser) – Far from Japan's hypermodern cities, a few old, blind women are among the last of a centuries-old tradition—they are mediums, or the "itako," calling forth the spirits of the dead for paying visitors. In medieval times, Japan was full of women communing with spirits, but now so few remain that the tradition may not survive another generation. The New York Times visits one of the last such mediums, at a rundown temple in Japan's far north.

Visitors need to wait hours to see an itako, who charge about $30 for a 10-minute seance. One widow and her son came to speak with her husband, who died of cancer. Swinging beads and closing her eyes, the medium spoke in a male-sounding voice: "I didn’t go to a doctor soon enough. Men don’t listen to things like that." That was enough for the widow, but not her son, who said, "I didn't feel like it was really my father."