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Soul Searching On Mt. Terror

Letter From Japan


By the hundreds, the believers come. By chartered bus. By plane. By car. By train. They line up at 4 a.m. in front of Japanese spiritualists to contact deceased relatives and friends. By 6 a.m., I join them to hear the voices of the dead on the sacred volcanic plateau in Aomori Prefecture called Osore-zan, or Mt. Terror.

For 350 years, legend has it, a group of women in northern Japan called itako, or spiritualist mediums, have worked as professional mouthpieces for spirits who, local monks say, rise to this desolate haven among thick green forests. Twice a year--once in July and again in October--itako set up tents at the top of 2,885-foot Mt. Terror to help people reach the souls of loved ones. Itako have no other regular jobs. In four days, each woman makes a bundle helping as many as 300 followers. The fee: $21 per spirit.

Yet this tradition, like many others in Japan, is faltering. Japan's worst recession since World War II has caused a drop in pilgrims. Since 1996, the number of people, some of whom journey from as far south as Hiroshima, 1,000 miles away, has slipped by about 3%, to an estimated 36,000, and if the recession continues, their numbers could decline even more.

Worse,with more job opportunities open to women, fewer of them are becoming itako. They're passing up the chance to communicate with the spirit world for jobs in this world that guarantee regular paychecks. At one time, there were hundreds of itako. Many women--most of them blind, with no other options for earning a living--became itako simply because they could not find any other work. "I was drawn to this at a time when I had no money," says Matsue Yoshida, a senior itako. "I didn't go to school, so I thought it would be good to learn how to be an itako." Some devoted followers such as Akiko Tanaka, 76, remember when there were 39 itako. That was 18 years ago. Now, there are only 16. Each has more clients than she can handle, and at the end of each day, some people are inevitably turned away. "There are few successors," says Jinan Aoyama, an associate of Aomori Prefecture's tourism board who introduces people to itako. "It's an unstable income. So many women now prefer to work as physical therapists instead."

The dearth of successors is forcing these women to open up their closed ranks. Itako are a curiosity, even to most Japanese people. And they have worked hard to keep it that way. Almost all information about them is guarded. These women do not belong to a particular religion. They do not follow a "call." All they share is a faith in the afterlife and practices that have been passed down through generations. These days, however, women no longer have to be born blind to qualify for the job; many younger itako are not blind. And if a foreigner were interested in learning to develop a direct connection to the afterlife, she'd be welcome.ETHEREAL WORLD. But this is a demanding career. There is only one requirement: An itako must have enough concentration to "reach" one spirit after another for her followers, even as they crowd in around her and a candle set on the ground in a small tent. Yet each itako must find her own way to that ethereal state. There is minimal formal training, no special dress. Each woman relies on her own technique, be it meditating in an ice-cold bath or just a distinctive style of chanting. No matter what she does, if she cannot hear spirits' voices, even the most willing apprentice will be turned away.

Many believers leave candle-lit sessions in tears. Maybe they are moved by the wandering spirits of dead relatives. Or maybe they are moved by the spirit of the moment. But something clearly seizes the hearts of those who come to ask these women to put them in touch with the deceased. "It was the first chance I ever had to speak with my mother," says Yoshiko Ito, 52, who wipes away tears as she emerges from a tent with her older sister Nobuko. Their mother died only a few months after Yoshiko was born.

Chiko Shima became a believer after an itako referred to Shima by the same word her deceased father often called her. Then the spirit told her to make sure her two siblings got along. "There is no way that she could have known" those things, she says. Through the itako, her father also thanked her for a big funeral, even though he had asked for a small one. He told her that by burning his photo in his ashes, she had put him into a higher class in heaven. "I don't know if I believe everything the itako says, but she sounded like my father," says Shima.

Itako seem to have weaker connections to American spirits. After waiting 13 hours, I speak with one medium rumored to have once reached John Lennon. I tell her the date my grandfather died. She rubs a black beaded necklace together that is supposed to protect her from customers' nightmares as she chants. Then she asks if my grandfather was a fisherman. He wasn't. He was in the Navy. But strangely, his nickname was "Fish" Thornton. Coincidence? In Japanese, not English, the spirit accurately states that I'm the eldest daughter. But after that, the connection encounters interference. Nothing said is wrong. But a great deal of time is spent telling me to work hard. Next, I try to reach the spirit of Frank Sinatra by telling the itako only his dates of birth and death, not his name. "I wanted to live for five or six more years," the spirit says. "But nothing I did could change things." Hmmm.

Tokiyo Komatsu, 81, who has come from Hiroshima three times to hear the voices of 11 relatives killed by the atomic bomb in World War II, says I'm too skeptical. "Unless you believe it in your heart, you cannot make good contact," she explains. After all, says Keiko Hinata, one of two itako in their 30s, reaching the deceased is only one part of what these women have traditionally tried to give their followers: "There are two reasons for coming here. One is to meet your relatives. The other is to seek peace." That spirit gives these women hope that their mysterious ways might still have a chance to survive.EDITED BY SANDRA DALLASReturn to top

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