Miko: The Shrine Maidens of Japan

Religions and beliefs differ from country to country, from person to person. Certain religions believe in a higher being while others believe in the enlightenment of one’s self. Each religion also has its own traditions and rituals that their followers adhere to and believe in. Religious organizations are established for this purpose among others and are also composed of key persons that play certain roles to ensure that these rituals are enacted. While there are many religions worldwide, there are only two that governs the country of Japan, namely, Shinto religion and Buddhism.

Between the two religions, it is the Shinto religion that is the top religion in Japan as of the moment. There are various shrines all over the country that is devoted to the teachings and rituals accompanied by Shinto religion. Furthermore, there are various traditions and rituals that come with the Shinto religion, with key people making sure that these customs are met. Among the many key persons that help sustain the Shinto religion, its shrines, and its rituals are the shrine maidens known as the Miko. The idea of a miko goes back to centuries ago, but until today, their roles and significance in the Shinto religion remains vital to the Shinto community. They have specific roles in maintaining the teachings and customs of the Shinto religion alive. 

The Many Words Describing A Japanese Shrine Maiden 

May also be a supplementary priestess, the term “miko” may translate to a lot of things. It can be translated to “female shaman” while the Japanese words fujo would mean “shrine maiden.” Archaically, the kanji word for miko may be translated to either “god” and “child” combined or “shaman child.” Other names for miko may include ichiko, which means “female medium” or “fortuneteller,” and reibai, which means “spirit go-between” or “spirit medium.” Generally, though, miko is now translated to “shrine maiden” or “female shaman” in English.

There are many words to describe miko due to the way they performed back in the day. Spirit possession and takusen were among its vocational functions as part of their services to the shrines. However, as time passed by, the miko eventually left the shrines to work self-sufficiently in secular society. Still, there is a long but sad history behind the miko. 

History Behind Mikoism

There are many traditions that accompany mikoism. These rituals began during the prehistoric Jomon era.  Back then, female shamans were believed to be able to go into trance and communicate with the Japanese gods, known as the kami. They are then used to convey the words of the gods to humankind. It is said that this act could be compared to the pythia or sibyl that was done in Ancient Greece.

Back in the day, the miko was considered an essential social figure. They were usually related to the ruling class of the nation. Not only did they perform various ritual performances, but they also had political functions to the society and the government. It was during the Nara period from the year 710 to the year 794 and the Heian period from the year 794 to the year 1185 that the government officials at those times tried to take hold of the practices of miko. The practice of ecstasy was not allowed outside the shrines.

However, it was during the feudal Kamakura period from the year 1185 to the year 1333 that the miko was strained into a state of mendicancy. At the time wherein the country was ruled over by warring shogun states, the shrines and temples feel intro bankruptcy. As these shrines and temples were the sources of livelihood of the miko, this posed as a huge problem. The performance of miko began drifting away from the religious context and instead got more associated to a non-ecclesiastical form. Known as the aruki miko, the traveling miko sadly fell into prostitution.

It was during the Edo period from the year 1603 to the year 1868 that significant transformations were made on the practices of female shamans. However, come the Meiji period from the year 1868 to the year 1912, several practices by shamans were outlawed. There was an official discourse due to the wanted separation between Shinto and both Buddhism and folk-religious beliefs, which shed a bad light to miko and their organizations. In the year 1873, an edict known as Miko Kindanrei was inducted, which prohibited all spiritual practices of miko. This edict was issued by the Religious Affairs Department at that time.

Becoming A Miko with Rituals and Dances

By Mikomaid(日本) - 自分自身で撮影, CC BY 2.5, Link

In order to become a miko back then, there was a traditional training involved. It begins when the girl is still quite young, usually just after the beginning of her first menstrual cycle. She would have to undergo a very rigorous training that was designed specifically for the kuchiyose miko. A recognized elder shaman, typically a family member of the clan, would be in charge of teaching the girl various techniques needed in order to be able to take control when in her trance state. These are supported by certain rituals such as regular purifying, washing with cold water, abstinence, and observation of public taboos at the time such as blood, illness, and death.

Another training would incorporate communication with the gods or the kami and the spirits of the dead. This would be done by being overcome by the spirits as a medium. Achieving this, however, was not that plain and easy. Chanting and dancing, along with melodies and intonations, were utilized in prayers and songs so as to achieve the goal of possession. This was further aided by drums and rattlers.

Knowing the names and functions of every kami that was vital to her village was also a requirement in order to become a miko. A secret language is also taught to the girl that is only known by shamans and other miko within the tribe. Through this, the girl would also learn the art of fortune-telling and other magical formulas. The length of this training can last from three to seven years before the girl would obtain her initiation rite in order to become a real shaman.

The ceremony of the girl becoming a shaman can only be witnessed by her mentor, fellow shamans, and other elders. A white shroud would be worn by the girl, symbolizing the end of her previous life. A chant would be voiced out by the elders, waiting for a kami to possess the girl. After which, the girl would be asked by the mentor as to which kami possessed her body as this kami would be who the girl would be serving.

Once answered, a rice cake would be thrown onto the face of the girl by her mentor. This shall cause the girl to faint. While unconscious, the elders were tasked to bring and keep the girl to a warm bed until she woke up. After which, the woman would be allowed to wear a beautiful dress colored in different hues, symbolizing her marriage to the kami.

Costume: Elements Combined for A Miko Outfit

By 久次米一弥 - 自身で撮影, CC 表示-継承 3.0, Link

One of the things that would automatically establish whether a girl is a miko or not is her outfit. Generally, an outfit of a miko consists of a white robe and a pair of hakama. The white robe is known as a hakui while the pair of hakama, colored in vibrant red, is known as hibakama. Another piece is added to this attire when performing dances or kagura. This piece is known as a white chihaya, which is just a loose jacket with long sleeves worn over the normal costume. This is especially great during the winter days when it is colder than usual.

Because of the symbolism that they possess as a miko, their hair cannot be disheveled or in disarray. The clean look is always the goal when wearing a miko outfit. The hair arrangement of a miko would consist only of a low ponytail with the black hair held together by either a takenaga or a mizuhiki. For those who are unaware, a takenaga is a ribbon made from washi paper in Japan while a mizuhiki is a cord made from washi that was twisted. If using a mizuhiki, a white sheet of washi paper shall be wrapped around the hair underneath it. While striving for simplicity, special floral hairpieces called hanakanzashi and special diadems known as kanmuri may be worn by a miko to add something pretty to the overall plain and simple look. These pieces represent several types of plants in the country, which are believed to increase the spiritual power of the miko wearing them.

Other things that are used by miko when they perform rituals or dances are known as toributsu. It is composed of nine specific items, namely, sacred evergreen boughs of sakaki in Japanese, a wand or staff or tsue in Japanese, a bow with or without arrows or yumi in Japanese, a bottle gourd or hisago in Japanese, staff with plaited paper streamers or nusa in Japanese, a type of bamboo called sasa in Japanese, a sword or saber or ken in Japanese, and a type of creeping plant known as kazura in Japanese. Other items that can also be used depending on the shrine and rite are bells or suzu in Japanese, lanterns or bon in Japanese, and folding fans or ougi in Japanese.

Because the body of a miko must be suitable for spirits and deities to utilize, there are certain strict points that a miko must adhere to. This includes no nail polish, watches, bright makeup, earrings, and other forms of accessories. Despite this taboo, the design of the outfit of a miko remains appealing to the eyes. Hence, many girls cosplay with a miko outfit as the fashion trend looks great on the female gender. Because of the contrasting colors of white and red, the costume looks bright and eye-catching, which is basically one of the goals of a cosplayer. Not only does the outfit look clean due to the white top, but also inviting due to the red bottom.

Contemporary Miko: The Miko of Today

By Mikomaid(日本) - 自分自身で撮影, CC BY 2.5, Link

As of today, the miko is no longer a part of the female shamans that perform spiritual possessions and magical formulas. While they still perform ceremonial dances and offers omikuji fortunetelling, their tasks now are only limited to maintaining the shrines and helping the priests. This may include selling souvenirs in the shrine shop, assisting a Kannushi in Shinto rites, doing office work, and cleaning the grounds of larger shrines.

There are three main types of contemporary miko. The first type would be the full-time miko. These are considered shrine employees, which can only be found at larger shrines that can actually accommodate a number of permanent staff. Their tasks include helping priests with rituals and performing the miko mai dance, also known as miko kagura. The second type would be the temporary miko. As the name suggests, temporary miko do not stay for a long period of time. usually composed of university students, contemporary miko are typically hired for a certain but short period of time. this usually occurs during the New Year’s when shrines would be accommodating more visitors that usual. They would have to undergo some training but do not need to perform in ceremonies.

Last but definitely not the least, the third type of contemporary miko is the young miko. Usually, at a young age, these miko are still going to elementary school. They are tasked to perform the miko mai at the annual matsuri of their village shrine. Practice for this performance would begin months before the actual festival. Come next year, a new batch of performers would then have to perform the dance. Whether or not one believes in Shinto religion, its gods, and its creatures such as the Yamata no orochi, it can still be considered amazing how the religion has sustained their rituals after all these years.