The Ancient Practice of the Ainu Shamans

The Ainu shamans are the spiritual practitioners of the biggest indigenous group in Japan - the Ainu . Ainu originate from the first inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago . They are also called Jomon and have settled in nowadays Japan approximately 10 000 ago . The Ainu population formed large communities which thrived until 1700 A.D. when the influence of the central Asian population began dominating the area .


Ainu shamans


According to the oral tradition the male Ainu shamans were community leaders , healers and soothsayers .


The Ainu shamans had a key role in most of the important ceremonies held . During these ceremonies the shamans danced , played music , and chanted in order to achieve an altered state of consciousness . In that state they are able to perform miracles , to diagnose , to heal and even see the future .


Furthermore , the Ainu shamans have been known for their abilities to levitate , to shape shift and most importantly to connect with the spirits . While connected with the spirits they were able to contribute to the successful hunt , fertility and prosperity in the community.


The Ainu shamanism has deep historical roots .


The Ainu shamans in ancient time were both males and females . Their primary responsibilities beside the healing , was to take care about the rituals and the ceremonies . Before the traditional Ainu shamanism to be almost completely eradicated during 17th century , it formed a sort of theocracy , consisted of complex ceremonial system , rituals and beliefs . During these times , the shaman had influence equal and even greater than the chief itself and even has led the armies in times of war . At that time , a division arose and shamans with different roles and responsibilities appeared . The male Ainu shamans were mainly responsible for the proper conduction of the ceremonies , while the female shamans had worked with the spirits . They also healed the people with special rituals and traditional medicine .


In most recent ages the Ainu shamanism is dominated by the female shaman-healers and soothsayers .


While some of the female shamans have continued the traditional path in dealing with the spiritual realm , and conducting ceremonies , most of them committed to divination and soothsaying . They were falling in a state of trance and interacted with the spiritual realm . An interesting fact is that the Ainu shaman does not control the spirits as in most of the shamanic cultures . During a session the Ainu shaman is often possessed and controlled by the spirits .

 ainu shamans


In more recent times the Tuskur(female shamans) use this altered state of consciousness in its full capacity . While possessed by kamuy(the spirit), the shaman was able to obtain the wisdom of the spirit , to diagnose and heal .


Today’s Ainu shamans are divided in few general groups .


Apart from the u-e-inkar (clairvoyance) there are also u-e-potar (incantation and curse) , tek-e-inu (the healing hand) and imu (a kind of spontaneous trance) . Of course these are only the general groups . There are more sub-types of shamans and practices . The midwives or the i-ko-inkar-kur, for example are these capable of transmitting the spirit’s wisdom and healing powers .


ainu shamans


Although the ikoinkarkur can’t be viewed as a separated group, they were pretty important , as they were the bearers of the ancient Ainu knowledge .


The Ainu shamans were skilled healers .


The Ainu shamans were able to treat a vast variety of psychological , physiological and spiritual illnesses . In their practice they combined a complex system of surgical , physiological and spiritual knowledge aided by the nature’s powers .


The Ainu shamans pay special attention of these powers . They believe that for the proper treatment of an illness a vital role plays the nature and its spirits . When a female has problems producing breast milk for example , a special ritual is performed high in the mountains . The shamans claim the with birch tree spirit . They sing and dance and bow before the tree asking it for his aid . They cut a barks from the tree . The patient makes a brew from the barks and dink it . The tree dies within few weeks and gives away its soul to the patient .

 ainu shamans


The Ainu culture and tradition are in renaissance since 1997 , when the Japanese government acknowledged them as the indigenous people of Japan . A law is forged to aid and protect the traditional Ainu culture . The revival of the Ainu shamanic practice however remains a major issue , as most of the priceless knowledge is either irreversibly lost or wrongly interpreted . Thanks to the efforts of the government and the Ainu community , the rituals and the customs of the Ainu shamans slow and steady are revived for a new life .

Related Literature

The Ainu of Japan: The Religion, Superstitions, and General History of the Hairy Aborigines of Japan

by John Batchelor


Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People

by William W. Fitzhugh


The Song The Owl God Sang: The collected Ainu legends of Chiri Yukie

by Benjamin Peterson


Harukor: An Ainu Woman's Tale

by Katsuichi Honda___________________________

The Fabric of Indigeneity: Ainu Identity, Gender, and Settler Colonialism in Japan

by Ann-Elise Lewallen


Beyond Ainu Studies: Changing Academic and Public Perspectives

by Mark James Hudson, ann-elise lewallen, Mark K. Watson


Together with the Ainu;: A Vanishing People

by M. Inez Hilger


The Ainu and the Bear (The Gift of the Cycle of Life)

by Ryo Michico