Transactional Relationships – Supply and demand in Japanese urban shamanism and popular fortune-telling


The UK-based Asian popular culture magazine NEO runs a regular a column by writer Jonathan Clements which, each month, analyses a Japanese manga magazine from a perspective of both narrative content, demographic and market conditions. Over a period from 2014 through to late 2015, the column regularly drew attention to a specific trend in publications aimed towards women: ‘advertorial’ content combining actual manga stories about characters whose lives were changed for the better after purchasing ‘magic’ bracelets, charms or crystals, alongside a subsequent ‘promotion’ highlighting how the magazine’s readers could contact a series of spiritual ‘specialists’ to buy real-life versions of these same charms.

The services of these ‘specialists’ – Madame Sara, Madame Akashi, Madame Horai – would appear time and time again in publications like Truly Awesome Woman’s Dramatic Life, Family Suspense and Sakura Mystery Deluxe; the advertorial ‘PR Comic’ stories touting effusive testimonials such as “Thanks to the Heart Bracelet I am getting remarried to a man ten years my junior” and “Thanks to the Gold Bracelet we have achieved our dreams of becoming millionaires”. Each time, the ‘magic’ charms would be offered at a heavily discounted price.

These examples illustrate the tip of the iceberg in regards to a phenomenon referred to by Shimazono Susumu as ‘new spirituality culture’ (shinreisei bunka). Within this bracket, we might reasonably reference a number of terms of varying degrees of interrelatedness including: urban-shamanism, neo-shamanism, spiritual therapists, spirit mediums, New Age Practitioners, divination and fortune-telling. Previous studies on this topic by both Ioannis Gaitanidis & Aki Murakami as well as Suzuki Kentaro begin by addressing the inherent difficulties surrounding such diverse terminology. Indeed, Gaitanidis & Murakami posit a theory regarding the scholarly intermingling of these terms:

“…certain analytic frameworks that were developed several decades ago to study a category of magico-religious practitioners called “shamans,” become relevant again today when we study practitioners that, at first glance, resemble these magico-religious practitioners but originate from and are active in distinct sociocultural and historical backgrounds.”

Essentially, while these definitions may not be mutually inclusive – the analytical framework by which we might look at them through potentially is. Following this line of thinking, in employing terms such as ‘neo’ or ‘urban’ shaman, we do not necessarily seek to align the disparate grouping of practitioners highlighted above within formal definitions of ‘shamanism’ such as those set forth by Eliade regarding the requirement of an ecstatic, trance-like state. But rather, in focusing this essay primarily on the practices of divination and spiritual therapy in contemporary Japan and employing the term ‘urban shamanism’, we seek to locate these newer practises within the same framework of transaction and performance seen in ‘traditional’ forms of Shamanism – the ‘urban’ element simultaneously conveying the inherently money-media-and-modernity-driven quality of these newer incarnations.

I will look to unpack this specifically transactional quality by analysing how these practices manifest via a network of producers and consumers – two sides of an equation that are mutually dependent on each-other. In this sense, while Gaitanidis & Murakami’s study provides a solid theoretical framework from which we can define what an ‘urban shaman’, spiritual therapist or fortune-teller actually is, this essay will look to a more ‘real world’ understanding of the phenomenon via a number of key questions:

1) What drives individuals to become practitioners (a question of supply) and consumers (a question of demand) of divination and spiritual therapy.

2) To what extent can we identify a kind of self-generating system that keeps this supply and demand perpetuating

3) Lastly, why are the consumers in this system so overwhelmingly female

In looking to answer these questions, I will also seek to illustrate the role of both the media – as we saw in the manga advertorials highlighted above – and the notion of a wider capitalist system as key drivers in the perpetuation of these practices. The ‘real-world’ factor is crucial here, because for all that this phenomena could potentially be dismissed as an individualistic New Age ‘religion of the self’, it is ultimately made up of interactions between real people, looking to achieve real change in their lives.

Creation & Consumption – Belief, legitimacy and ‘hardship’ narratives

“If we visit today the summer festival at Mount Osore,” Gaitanidis & Murakami comment, referring to the tradition of blind itako spirit mediums commonly associated with the mountain, “We will see long lines of Japanese waiting for a private session… it is evident that both old and new types of magico-religious practitioners seem to respond to some of the needs of contemporary Japanese. ‘Magic’ is still sought in today’s Japan, although those who seek it hold different expectations in regards to its ‘reality.’”

This specific phraseology of ‘magic’ and ‘magico-religious’ is important – in essence, the notion of something which expresses the same kind of non-rationalist belief systems as religion, but without the presence of a ‘divine’ element. This is crucial to our understanding of a ‘belief’ orientated transaction, and why these consumers are able to exchange the very tangible asset of money for something that is arguably, highly intangible.

By way of illustration, as with the case of the itako at Mt. Osore, we might offer the example of divination having a long history at both Shinto and Buddhist institutions in the form of consumers paying for small omikuji fortune-slips. While this practice might be occurring at a religious premises, is the ‘act’ itself specifically religious? Namely, does the consumer interpret the outcome of the fortune-slip as the result of divine will, or merely blind chance? Do they completely and unquestioningly believe what they are being told by the fortune-slip, or are they merely ‘performing’ a facade of belief via their real-world interaction with the process?

It is this kind of ambiguity that is central here – the question of whether these practices are whole-heartedly ‘believed’ or rather – as Michael Saler puts it – “enjoyed as constructs in which one can become immersed but not submerged. Rationalist skepticism is held at in abeyance, yet complete belief is undercut by an ironic awareness that one is holding skepticism at bay”. Is it in this notion of ‘complete belief’ that we can find the distinction between a kind of ‘religious’ belief and one that is merely ‘superstitious’? Suzuki Kentaro presents a similar dichotomy in seeking to explain a wide mix of divination techniques such as astrology, tarot cards, palmistry, physiognomy, and Chinese augury, stating that: “All of these can be performed without assuming either the presence of a divine or spiritual being or the use of spiritual powers.”

The idea of ‘performance’ presents one of the most important resemblances between the older and newer forms of shamanism and divinatory practice – that of the ‘performed’ ritual and how it achieves special significance for both the performer and the consumer. As Catherine Bell summarises: “performance is understood to be something other than routine reality; it is a specific type of demonstration. It can also confer on the performance the ability to signify or denote larger truths under the guise of make-believe situations.”

This recalls the ideas of a kind of non-rationalist reality, in which concepts of whether the participant is achieving ‘complete belief’ become arguably academic because – in the precise moment of the enactment and performance – the belief is already operating in its own special kind of reality. In essence, it is the performative ‘actions’ themselves that matter most, or as Barbara Myerhoff puts it: “not only is seeing believing, doing is believing”.

In Practically Religious… Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan, Ian Reader & George Tanabe address these themes in a similar manner, laying out a kind of logical methodology that can be applied to the thought process of purchasing and ‘performing’ these types of spiritual ‘service’:

“…people feel that chance can be modified, that it can be made to work for them, and that it can be explained in a moral context that is fathomable to human beings. If luck is a matter of chance, rather than the result of calculated deliberation, then a good luck charm is not about luck at all, since it symbolizes two kinds of causes that work cooperatively together: human effort and divine help. Whenever charms or amulets are described as things that “bring” good luck, a confidence is being expressed in the ability of those objects to act in some fashion as a causal agent.”

We can take this notion of a ‘causal agent’ as synonymous with the idea of a ‘signified’ belief; a performative belief system encapsulated within an object or service which – crucially – can then be commodified. When Gaitanidis & Murakami discuss the ‘response’ of various forms of spiritual practitioner (both old and new) to the “needs of contemporary Japanese”, they highlight the centrality of the supply/demand equation in this regard. Indeed, we would suggest that the sheer diversity in ‘kinds’ of shamanism, spiritual therapy and divination offered as part of a modern society are naturally symptomatic of a ‘marketplace’ environment in which different kinds of producer are matched to the respective needs of different kinds of consumer. Where the need exists, the practitioners rise to meet it.

Where these practitioners ‘rise’ from exactly offers a crucial insight into the nature of the system – after all, for a system like this to perpetuate, logic suggests that it requires a constant stream of ‘new’ practitioners entering the cycle to replace those that leave. Equally, to what degree can we chart the course of consistent trends that shape these practitioners into the semblance of an identifiable system, as opposed to a scattering of ‘stand-alone’ instances arising from unrelated scenarios. In this regard, it is worth turning our attention to the bulk of Gaitanidis & Murakami’s study – which focuses on the narratives of 68 surveyed ‘spiritual therapists’ and crucially – how they ended up operating in that profession.

From their analysis of those surveyed, we can identify two significant stages on the path to what they call ‘spiritual transformation’ and the subsequent legitimation of these practitioners’ powers. Firstly – a consistent narrative of hardships (usually mental/physical health issues, social isolation and poor living/working conditions); socio-societal malaises which they address as fundamental to neo-shamanistic discourses.Secondly, they observe another consistent trend of what we might term a ‘fandom’ for the occult – ie. an express interest to consume vast volumes of mass media (books and magazines), seminars and workshops on various kinds of alternative therapies; with the individuals ultimately obtaining ‘official’ certifications for these.

What both of these observations can tell us about the ‘origins’ or creation of new practitioners is that it is invariably prompted by an above-average interest in occult/alternative topics, and that this is – in turn – typically prompted by the kinds of life conditions that might instigate one to pursue these routes instead of traditional ‘mainstream’ solutions. This theme is one that has been discussed prominently in relation to wider themes of New Age spiritualism – Paul Heelas presents the theory that participants are typically disillusioned with mainstream society and, placed in a situation where they are powerless to change that society, subsequently turn their attentions inward and instead try and affect change in themselves. This theory is further born out in the case of Ms. Saeda – one of Gaitanidis & Murakami’s surveyed practitioners: “If she had not stopped her job… and divorced, hence being in need of an income, she would have never become a spiritual therapist.” As they observe: “Professional neo-shamans who make a living from their craft… are compelled by their environment to take very rational decisions.”

Here, we see a classic instance of how traditional mainstream narratives (a job, reliable income and marriage) have failed Ms. Saeda, and thus – as Heelas describes – causal necessity compels her toward the ‘alternative’ narrative of becoming a spiritual therapist. Here, once the individual is removed from the gravitational orbit of a ‘mainstream’ life, the allure of spiritual therapy starts to exert its own strong gravitational hold – pulling them into a new, ‘alternative’ orbit. This phenomenon has also been observed as part of a wider kind of Japanese urban spirituality – such as that seen in Japanese New Religious Movements – where a relationship can often be drawn “between their members’ economic vulnerability or uncertain future and their attraction to a religion with a world view which reflects their own sense of uncertainty.”

This concept of ‘uncertainty’ is interesting because we see it expressed not only in the motivations of those that become practitioners of ‘spiritual therapy’, but also in those that consume those very same services. In Suzuki Kentaro’s study – in which he surveys the users of the ‘Libra’ divination hall in Tokyo as to what they are specifically seeking by using divination, a marked majority attested to it being:

“…something I can count on”

“…something that helps me get my worries and fears out in the open”

…something to consult in planning my life”

“…something that provides the impetus to carry out things I’d wanted to do“

In these responses, we see echoes of the themes Reader & Tanabe expressed regarding belief systems being used as a kind of ‘confidence’ supplement. These consumers – lacking certainty in their lives – turn to divination as their specified ‘causal agent’ to engineer the narrative change in their lives they are unable to manifest by themselves. Just like the practitioners themselves – invariably driven to the role through rationalist circumstances such as financial necessity – the consumers are enacting the same kind of blend; achieving rationalist goals (more certainty or impetus in life) via non-rationalist means.

Another fortune-teller – Takahashi Kiriya, who specialises in tarot cards and astrology – testifies to this almost counselling-like role of divination, whilst also positioning it as specifically relevant to a Japanese audience: “Japan today seems to have become a society where it’s difficult for people to speak with one another, even if they are in trouble. In the olden days, people were able to turn to their family and neighbors. Unlike in America, counseling is not common here. But people still want someone willing to listen to them, and to give them advice. I think fortune tellers are meeting those needs.”

In essence, for these consumers, divination has become a kind of surrogate means of social communication – a kind of paid-for shoulder to lean on. It is this specifically transactional nature that is of relevance to our argument – essentially, to what extent does the involvement of money change this interaction from a purely social or spiritual one into something else? Just as we have identified the factors that ‘drive’ people toward a life in which practices such as divination play a significant role, what factors – in turn – can we identify that push these processes beyond simple one-to-one performative actions and into something operating on a far wider scale?

Driving transactional relationships – Media frameworks and fandoms

As we have seen above, the supply and demand of those interested in divination and spiritual therapy is fed very much from the same pool – indicating a certain synchronicity in the mindsets of those who go on to become both producers and consumers of these practices. With this foundation in mind, it is important to also understand the framework that keeps this system perpetuating – in essence, if the practitioners are the muscle of this transactional system and the consumers are the flesh, we must identify the skeleton that holds them both in place. Equally, in defining this system as transactional, we do so not only in a monetary sense, but also within a definition of exchange or interaction between people – namely, via the medium of information. As many of Gaitanidis & Murakami’s practitioners attest – their narratives are often defined by an express desire to obtain more ‘information’ about these practices via training courses, books and magazines.

In seeking to illustrate how these factors play a vital role in the proliferation of these kinds of narratives in contemporary society, we turn to Benjamin Dorman’s Representing Ancestor Worship as “Non-Religious”, which presents the case of Hosoki Kazuko; a popular Japanese fortune-teller whose best-selling divination books and TV appearances have made her an incredibly famous media figure. Of relevance to our argument here is how Dorman’s description of the Hosoki ‘craze’ is couched very much in the language of fandom and media fervour – as he puts it:

“Her fans and her programs’ participants refer to her with the honorific title “Sensei” (teacher). On the other hand, she has been labeled in a derogatory sense as a mere “shaman” or “simply a fortuneteller”… But the criticism and negative publicity she receives merely serves to keep her image firmly in the public eye and in a sense stirs up the media’s appetite for more.”

The cyclical aspect to this ‘appetite’ is noteworthy as it implies a ravenous need for both a supply and demand of information (ie. media content) regarding Hosoki – which is then ingested by both her fans and detractors. And just as the media engender a kind of habitual appetite for more ‘information’, so too does Hosoki, who has produced at least one new book per year since 1985. What Hosoki’s fans are seeking to gain by purchasing one of her books and consuming the information contained within is perhaps best explained by referring to Dorman’s introduction to a number of ‘laws of causality’ from one of Hosoki’s books on ancestor worship:

“The second law is “self-cultivation”, which encompasses (1) showing gratitude, (2) having a sense of what would constitute “shameful behavior,” and (3) being able to carry out completely a role/task/job.”

Here, Hosoki attempts to outline a link between these ‘laws of causality’ (which echo Reader & Tanabe’s ‘causal agent’) and the individual taking control of their destiny by way of ‘self-cultivation’. In these terms too, we see the same consistent rhetoric of seeking to engender positive change or impetus in one’s life. In doing so, the consumer enacts three stages of performative ‘belief’ action, that we might reasonably apply to any ‘transactional’ action of divination or spiritual therapy:

1) The monetary aspect of the transaction itself (in this case, buying the book)

2) The transfer of information from producer to consumer (reading the book)

3) The belief in / real-world performative enactment of said information (following the principles in the book)

But whereas in other instances these principles might be enacted on a one-to-one, face-to-face basis between producer and consumer (such as in the case of the itako), in this instance the transactional relationship between Hosoki and her consumers is simultaneous and one-to-many, because – by definition – a piece of media can be replicated identically many times over.

One might draw similarities between the rise of the Hosoki ‘craze’ in the 1980s with the current craze surrounding Japanese ‘decluttering specialist’ Marie Kondo and her multi-million-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A simple, effective way to banish clutter forever. Like Hosoki, Kondo has become the centre of a media frenzy – with countless articles discussing her books, the efficacy of their methods and how her background as a Shinto shrine maiden influenced her approach to tidying.

A number of quotes from Kondo’s book show a striking similarity to the ‘self-cultivation’ we saw outlined by Hosoki, namely:

“Giving sincere thanks to an item will significantly reduce or even eliminate any guilt you may feel when you decide that you will no longer have it in your home,”

“Unless you are truly committed, you will most likely become discouraged or distracted before finishing your tidying journey,”

Seen here are the same concepts of showing gratitude, being able to completely carry out an action, and by extension, a cultivation of a sense of shame if one is not able to successfully do so (thus reinforcing and locking-in the user’s belief in sticking with the system).

Like Hosoki, Kondo is not without criticism – one account discusses her methods in specifically gendered terms, something which will be of particular relevance later in this essay:

“All of her examples of clients are women. When men appear (and they only do 2-3 times) it is as part of a couple. Kondo never says tidying is women’s work, but the implication is clear. She is far from the only person who believes this, and I’m sure she has this feeling from experience: women are the ones who seek her out.”

Kondo – of course – is not a shaman or fortune-teller, but what she represents is a similar kind of transactional relationship between provider and consumer in which ‘peace of mind’ and a sense of self-improvement is obtained in exchange for money. The kind of self-cultivational habitual drive which Nikolas Rose defines as: “continuous training, lifelong learning, perpetual assessment, continual incitement to buy, to improve oneself…” I make this comparison to highlight that these systems need not necessarily be spiritual or religious in nature, but rather converge around a distinctly contemporary notion of emotional well-being and how to achieve it. Central to both cases is a clear set of psychological ‘reinforcing’ frameworks designed to continually remind us that what we are doing is having real efficacy, if only we follow the rules correctly and pay for the services that will clarify how to do this.

In this, we see the apotheosis of the capitalist system; one in which a solution for every problem in life – from practical, materialist ones to purely psychological ones – can be bought and sold. Indeed, it is the act of spending money that is the ultimate symbol of efficacy – that something ‘really works’. Just as the systems themselves are self-sustaining, by spending money on our beliefs, we inherently strengthen them. In purchasing a book by Hosoki or Kondo, we are instinctively placing belief in its contents and the notion that the (intangible) information contained within will help us manifest (tangible) real world improvements in our lives. Here, we return to the ideas expressed by Reader & Tanabe regarding the individual expression of ‘confidence’ in the purchased good or service to act as a ‘causal agent’ – as they describe: “In making a purchase, the buyer pays a material and a moral price to try to ensure that the good things in life can be guaranteed, and the bad kept at a distance, rather than being left to chance.”

In referencing terminology such as ‘purchased good’ and ‘buyer’, it is worth emphasising here the sheer scale of the market in question, with Dorman’s study citing the equivalent of over $600,000,000 spent on divination in Japan every year. With ‘divination’ as a firmly established sector within the Japanese publishing industry – encompassing both books and magazines – it should come as no surprise that many of the practitioners that Gaitanidis & Murakami surveyed also expressed a specific interest or ‘fandom’ in these ‘seishin sekai’ (New Age) publications prior to finding their ‘calling’.

This immense monetary value furthers our understanding of the perpetuation of fortune-tellers and spiritual therapists as not only a habitual need for consumption of related media or a ceaseless drive for self-cultivation, but as an inherently capitalist principle. Studies such as Tadashi Nishihira’s Seishin-Sekai: A Superficial Pop Cultural Phenomenon or an Important Culture in the Post-Modern Society? suggest an interesting dimension in which to discuss this question – namely; does a degree of ‘pop culture’ cut-through (including but not limited to monetary success) muddy the waters when discussing the ‘serious’ relevance of these spiritual phenomenons? For example, as we have seen above regarding practitioners entering the ‘profession’ through financial necessity; where do we draw the line between the proliferation of these practices for purely ‘spiritual’ purposes, and the economic role of making money and providing a convenient livelihood for the practitioner? To this extent, what happens when the system achieves such a degree of monetary impetus that the very motivations behind it start to become morally questionable?

Peer networks and the influence of belief

This very notion of a morally grey area lying at the heart of these practices is one that reoccurs in relation to the unavoidable fact that the majority of consumers in this equation are female. As Suzuki Kentaro points out as a preface to the results of his survey data from the ‘Libra’ divination hall, “The clientele of the Libra is overwhelmingly female, with women comprising a full 95% of the respondents to this survey.” Suzuki’s study mentions ‘women’ twenty-six times, usually prefaced by either ‘young’, ‘unmarried’ or ‘single’ – drawing allusions to a highly developed sphere of targeted media publications that cater to this market in much the same way as Hosoki’s books, including market-leading fortune-telling magazine My Birthday (with a circulation of 440,000).

Alongside this media network, we must also take into account the influence of face-to-face personal networks; what Suzuki terms a ‘loose community of the like-minded’ – born out in his survey results of those frequenting the ‘Libra’ divination hall, with “72% [reporting that they] had talked with someone about the result of a reading, and 90% knew of someone close to them who believes in divination.” In these results, we can see a kind of ‘If it worked for her, maybe it’ll work for me too’ mentality at work – one in which divination becomes a kind of self-reinforcing peer network where people’s thoughts and processes become increasingly aligned.

Suzuki’s survey results observe this kind of ‘aligned anxiety’ in specifically gendered terms, namely: “An overwhelming majority of the respondents (74%) said that their consultation concerned love and the opposite sex.” As he observes,  “Love, with its risks and uncertainties, can be a time of head-spinning change. What the young women are seeking is an outlook on an unclear situation and a clearing up of confused feelings.” We see this emphasis on love and sex also expressed in the outlook of Zappallas Inc., the company that runs Japan’s largest network of fortune-telling websites and mobile content – with users subscribing to any of their 220 different sites for a subscription fee of ¥300 a month. Zappallas Inc. claim their primary target is ‘women in their 20s and 30s’ and that on their sites, a ‘majority of the content was romance-related’.

These trends can be considered in the light of how – whether through peer networks or media networks – these individuals are subconsciously already ‘culturally priming’ themselves to participate in these activities themselves. We see this idea of societal surroundings engendering a kind of ‘inevitability’ in Gaitanidis & Murakami’s work too, where they envision it as the “constant accumulation of information rendered necessary by the information society that we live in”. Essentially, if the magazines you read and the conversations you have – your social reference framework – all contain narratives about divination and spiritual therapy, it must surely follow that you will also at some point entertain the thought of these narratives too. Suzuki summarises this as ‘a rhetorical and behavioral atmosphere conducive to belief in divination’ and goes on to illustrate the almost addictive habituality of the practice, with 61% of those he surveyed indicating that when they faced problems of difficulties in life “they “almost always” or “occasionally” turned to divination at such times.”

While on one hand we can see behaviour like this as a kind of social support network, there is also an inherently darker nature to it; the very fact that the community is so ‘like-minded’ beginning to breed an inherent homogeneity of thought and action, which – in turn – starts to generate a kind of ‘sensory deprivation’. In essence, once the like-mindedness becomes so uniform, we begin to follow it unquestioningly, and it is allowed to continue perpetuating, unchanged. This docility is understandably attractive in a financial sense too – a captive market ready to lap up what they are told they ‘need’. As we have seen, with the divination market representing a sizeable financial interest, it only follows that there is an express desire to see those vested interests maintained.

In analysing the question of gender as part of this transactional equation, it is useful to turn to Meredith Underwood’s work on mizuko kuyo – a memorial rite carried out “for miscarried and stillborn babies, those who die shortly after birth, and most recently for aborted fetuses”. Underwood’s essay, by definition, focuses specifically on the role of the female in understanding this ritual, and lays forth an interesting narrative regarding the link between emotional experiences and their position within a gendered society – in her words: “The experience of guilt, like any experience, is gendered, as is the need for repentance and healing. To restore one’s humanity means something different for a woman in patriarchal society because she is by definition a different sort of human being.”

Here, we see the notion of ‘gendered guilt’ inextricably linked with that of the role of a woman in a gendered society – something also present in Dorman’s study of Hosoki, where he categorises her brand of self-cultivation as ‘traditional and conservative’; indicative of the ideals present in Japan’s traditionally patriarchal system. While mizuko kuyo obviously stands on the more dramatic end of the spectrum to the vast sweep of arguably more ‘benign’ activities employed in the sphere of spiritual therapy, it is useful to our argument in illustrating how vested financial and media interests can play a role in amplifying specifically ‘gendered’ needs that must then be addressed (via payment for services-rendered) to remove the vacuum of anxiety and guilt.

Underwood’s study presents a crucial quote from Helen Hardacre, which aims to crystallize the role of the media in essentially manufacturing (or at the very least, emphasising) needs which did not really exist in the first place: “[the tabloid press] have taken a major role in highlighting ambivalent emotions about abortion and in creating the sense of spiritual anxiety motivating these women to patronize mizuko kuyo“. By placing the role of the modern media as specifically ‘active’ in its playing up of emotions that then need to be ‘salved’ by engaging with these practices, we see the case of the mizuko kuyo placed within a wider trend of “[pushing] women into modes of consumption required to sustain New Age capitalism”. The moral indictment here goes back to the idea that once established, the capitalist, financial interest of these practices ultimately eclipses the spiritual interest. This then predicates a situation where, arguably, the supply/demand equation is almost flipped on its head. Now, the ‘demand’ is for a fresh stream of willing customers, and thus, a supply must be engendered – even if via the means of artificially created anxiety.

It is this argument that suggests an uneasy tension between the moneyed commodification of these practices and where exactly to locate the woman’s ‘choice’ when she engages with them. Underwood attempts to distill this down into a simple formula: “Rather we are left with a one-to-one equation: religious entrepreneurs “create” spiritual anxiety; women flock to temples seeking ritual relief.” The significance of this is that it implies a removal of women’s agency from the equation – in essence, because the system is so strongly enforced, it begins to create a kind of conveyor-belt effect in which women move, autopilot style, in a continual system of supply and demand. An osmosis of producers and consumers which will, by definition, bypass individual choice and always move to fill a vacuum / achieve equilibrium.

Perhaps then, in answer to our original question of why the consumers in this system are so overwhelmingly female, we might suggest that just as the system itself replicates perpetually, the female demographic is simply a result of that same perpetuation principle too. Essentially, if the vast majority of inputs to the system are female, it only follows that the output will be largely female too. Media networks and peer networks dovetail into a consistent informational and societal framework in which a cyclical process of ‘spiritual anxiety’ is built up and then relieved via these transactional interactions. Equally, precisely because the system is cyclical and self-generating, its demographic make-up (both in terms of gender and personal disposition) will only change if the factors comprising the equation break, or a significant new element is introduced.


Through the course of this essay we have sought to apply to the topics of divination and spiritual therapy many of the same analytical frameworks previously used to present the case of ‘traditional’ shamanistic practices in Japan. In doing so, we have attempted to draw parallels in many of the same kinds of transactional and performative behaviours which come to define the relationship between practitioner and consumer. Via a reinforcing network of media and peer influences, we have shown how these systems are both thoroughly rooted in the nature of modern society, as well as how vested financial interests may play a key role in the desire for their continued perpetuation.

In their study, Gaitanidis & Murakami discuss a previous trend of “historical essentialism that conceives of Japanese shamanistic practices in degenerative terms, namely the more recent the practice is, the less ‘authentic’ it must be”. In light of this, and drawing on the framework we have set out above, we would suggest that instead, this notion of ‘authenticity’ is instead as ‘authentic’ as its producers and consumers allow it to be. The question of recency is crucial because it is fundamentally linked to the contemporary culture of media and money that this framework of practitioners is built on in Japan.

Likewise, when Gaitanidis & Murakami state that “Japanese spiritual therapists… are not just contemporary versions of some ‘traditional’ Japanese shamanic practice, but should be considered as mostly a Western import”, we would argue that an understanding of the term ‘Western’ should be taken synonymously with the term ‘modern’. In other words, that the concept of urban spiritual therapists and fortune-tellers should not be taken so much as an issue of Western processes exported to the East, but rather one embodying a natural osmosis or self-generation by way of societal conditions and human need, where an understanding of what it means for a society to be ‘modern’ or ‘urban’ inherently incorporates aspects of Westernisation.

What we are left with is a picture of a conveyer belt process where producers and consumers are essentially cut from the same cloth; each side of the equation validating the other’s existence. Both are essentially interested in the same thing – an alternative narrative to the one that has up to this point, not supplied them with the satisfactory impetus or confidence in their self. Thus, at some point in the individual’s life – when their degree of interest in these occult/alternative practices reaches a certain level and ‘triggers’, they will then deviate into one of two routes: either as a creator or consumer, who then go on to reinforce the framework and proliferate its narratives via both the media and their peers. The ultimate in truly cyclical systems. In context, it is not without a certain degree of irony that one reads the Japanese kanji character for ‘shop’ 店 (mise) as containing the radical for ‘fortune-telling’ 占 (uranai).

In defining the nature of these transactional relationships, we have come to understand a means by which information, performative practices and money change hands in a ceaseless chain of causal agency designed to reinforce belief that what we are paying for and consuming will bring about real change. Through this all, we have seen a consistent basis of very human, real-world concerns around self-confidence, self-belief and self-cultivation – seeking through means that may or may not be religious in nature – a little bit of certainty in a fundamentally uncertain world. The simple, and entirely understandable, desire to have ‘something we can count on’.


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