Universal Shamanism: The Japanese Context

In religious studies and popular usage, the term “universal” is used to describe religions which are open to all and transcend ethnic, geographic, political, and cultural boundaries. Three religions are usually cited as universal: Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Some newer religions, such as Mormonism and Bahá’í, would also qualify. But if we take a longer and broader view of religious history, it is more accurate to say that shamanism is the universal religion. It is the oldest and most widespread.

When fully modern humans left Africa around 75,000 years ago, they almost certainly carried some form of shamanism with them. It is even possible that humans they encountered along the way — those whose ancestors had left Africa during earlier migrations (such as Neanderthals and Denisovans) — were shamanic. We know that some of these encounters involved genetic mixing; they also probably involved ritual mixing. Indeed, having sex with different looking and sounding strangers may have been richly imbued with ritual.

Whatever the case, one thing is certain: wherever humans went, so too did shamanism. It is found throughout Africa, Near East, Europe, Asia, Oceania, Australia, Arctic, and Americas. If you look at any map which shows migration routes from Africa and colonization of the world, the map shows not just the movement of people over tens of thousands of years: it also shows the spread of shamanisms.

All humans were hunter-gatherers and shamanic until the advent of agriculture some 12,000 years ago. But wherever agriculture takes hold in any kind of intensive way, shamanism is transformed into something that looks more like what we today call “religion.” It becomes, in other words, more organized, systematic, and doctrinal. The primacy of individual supernaturalism, a hallmark of shamanism, gives way to collective supernaturalism or formal religions.

In isolated areas where foraging and small-scale horticulture persisted for longer periods of time, so too did shamanism. Traditional shamanism exists today primarily in small-scale societies such as those found in the Amazon and New Guinea. As an ancient practice which many deem to be closer to the “primordial supernatural source,” it is hardly surprising that it has been appropriated and commodified for global use. Commercial neo-shamanism thrives in places like New York, Paris, and Tokyo.

Traditional shamanism was not, however, wholly replaced by Neolithic religions created to meet the needs of agricultural and large-scale societies. As Robert Bellah frequently observes when discussing the history of religions: “nothing is ever lost.” There is in other words a bit of shamanism in all religions today. Ideas about souls, spirits, gods, other-worlds, after-lives, possession, prophecy, and divination were all developed within shamanism and existed for many thousands of years before the earliest religions formalized and systematized them.

This process of incorporation and domestication did not completely subsume shamanism. Strands of shamanism persisted in more traditional forms, especially in rural areas, and elements of it continued to be practiced at the margins under different names: oracles, mediums, healers, diviners, psychics, seers, clairvoyants, sorcerers, and witches. Within more established religions, people who privileged and cultivated the shamanic substrates of those traditions are known as mystics, sages, gurus, prophets, and saints. Shamanism runs as deep as it does wide, and a splendid book on the shamanic aspects of Christianity is begging to be written.

While waiting for this genealogy of shamanic Christianity, it may be less threatening to trace the transformational course of shamanic practice in Japan, where supernatural syncretism has long been the norm. Where syncretism prevails, it is easier to acknowledge borrowings and debts.

In 1975 Carmen Blacker published The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan and highlighted the prevalence of Japanese “folk” beliefs that run alongside and mix with official Shinto and temple Buddhism. In “Witch Animals” (open), Blacker examines belief in animals who have spirits that can be cultivated as household guardians. This is a common idea among hunter-gatherers in general and Amerindians in particular; the latter famously sought visions to identify an animal whose spirit would become a lifelong companion and protector. In “Exorcism” (open), Blacker examines the belief that physical-mental illnesses are caused by spirit maleficence or possession, the cure for which is exorcism. Similar beliefs are found in nearly all shamanic societies, with the cure being a ritualized extraction or casting out.

Blacker is aware of these shamanic connections and suggests in early chapters (open) that Japanese “folk” practices are rooted in an ancient hunting and gathering past. That such practices have persisted is remarkable in light of Meiji period (1868-1912) efforts to modernize Japan, one programmatic aspect of which was to root out shamanic “superstitions” and create a national tradition which conformed to the Western concept and category of “religion.”

Although such superstitions were by the time of the Meiji period identified mostly with Buddhism, this had not always been the case. When Buddhists first arrived in Japan around 550 CE, they encountered an intensely spiritualized landscape that was deeply informed by indigenous Japanese shamanism. This shamanism arose in conjunction with the Jomon peoples, who hunted and gathered in Japan from 14,000-300 BCE, a spectacularly long run during which they built permanent settlements, made pottery, and developed rituals.

As Buddhism developed in Japan it did so not by displacing traditional beliefs developed over 14,000 years, but rather by incorporating and accepting them. This meant that over the centuries Japanese Buddhism developed into a distinctive amalgam described here by Jason A. Josephson:

During the Tokugawa period [1603-1868] the vast majority of interaction between priests and parishioners was for the purpose of practical, this-worldly benefits (genze riyaku 現世利益) or memorial rituals for the dead (kuyō 供養). The day-to-day life of Buddhist priests of all sects was filled with the performance of exorcisms, funerals, distributing healing charms, and spells for rain.

Many of these rituals were intended for apotropaic purposes, banishing monsters, limiting their negative effects, or transforming the curses of ancestors and kami into blessings. Hungry ghosts (gaki 餓鬼) and demons (oni 鬼 or ma 魔) were an integral part of the worldview promoted by the Buddhist establishment; and one of the main benefits of seemingly unconnected activities such as lay ordination rituals, for instance, was to manage these sorts of supernatural entities. Despite later revisionism, both demons and this-worldly magic were fundamental to Buddhism—in canonical texts and in daily practices.

While Buddhist priests were performing these ancient (shamanic) rites during the medieval Tokugawa period (1603-1868), this had not always been the case. For centuries prior, Buddhist priests had been learning this craft from female shamans known as miko. In a recent article on spirit mediums or miko in pre-Tokugawa Japan, Lori Meeks observes that miko were often ensconced in or around temples where they performed a variety of services that were much in demand but were not on official Buddhist offer:

[W]e can find many examples of miko who engaged in a variety of closely linked spiritual services, such as the transmission of oracles from gods and bodhisattvas, which was thought to occur through divine trance; channeling spirits of the dead; divine petition, which sometimes involved exorcism; fortune-telling; rituals and blessings for romantic relationships and childbirth; and physical healing.

Both shrine miko and arukimiko also developed extensive repertoires of spiritual services meant to meet the needs of individual patrons: the conjuring of dead spirits, divination, love rites, and physical healing.

Although miko were tolerated, accommodated, and sometimes celebrated in medieval Japan, they were often viewed with suspicion by government officials attempting to impose control and maintain order in collaboration with more placid and malleable temple Buddhists. Miko were recognized as shamanic atavists and may have served as reminders of an unruly populace or anarchic past. The fact that miko carried drums and danced connects them directly to shamans, as does the fact they were healers.

When it comes to shamans or those who carry on aspects of shamanic tradition within larger-scale societies, the usual course is for shamanic functions to be co-opted by mainstream religious traditions or relegated to the periphery where they are denigrated as “superstition.” The latter epithet is euphemism for “supernatural beliefs not fitted within recognized religions or traditional doctrines.” From the priest to the palmist, all supernatural practitioners are indebted to the universal shaman.


Meeks, Lori (2011). The Disappearing Medium: Reassessing the Place of Miko in the Religious Landscape of Premodern Japan
History of Religions, 50 (3), 208-260 DOI: 10.1086/656611

Josephson, Jason A. (2006). When Buddhism Became a “Religion”: Religion and Superstition in the Writings of Inoue Enryō Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 33 (1), 143-168

Habu, Junko (2008). Growth and decline in complex hunter-gatherer societies: a case study from the Jomon period Sannai Maruyama site, Japan Antiquity, 82, 571-584


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3 thoughts on “Universal Shamanism: The Japanese Context

  1. HP

    Jomon society was remarkably stable and well-developed, and 300 BC is fairly late to be joining the “civilization-and-agriculture” game.

    I remember ordering a nice sashimi dinner at a Japanese restaurant, and suddenly realizing that, apart from the rice and soy, everything on my plate was (or easily could have been) foraged.

    The connection between religion and agriculture runs deep.

  2. Sabio Lantz

    When the state controls religion, it leaves the peoples hands and is control by hierarchical religious specialists under the state. Mystics, shamans and such are threats to authority that flows from the rulers — I think this is both why they emerge and why they are killed off.

    Perhaps the Greek Oracles had similar tensions with authorities as did miko(巫女 ).

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