right Ki is regarded as the fundamental life force in the universe. Sometimes associated with Confucianism and Taoism, it is harnessed in Japan by acupuncturists to cure patients, by monks to achieve oneness with nature and businessmen to achieve success.

In China ki is known as qi (or chi ). It is a mystical material force described using terms like “cosmic energy,” “life force,” "vital energy," "the Breath of Heaven," and "the Breath of Nature." Said to be generated by yin and yang, it is regarded as the fundamental life force in the universe, and the force that gives life to living things. It is said ki is a force possessed by every individual but some people take the time to master it and cultivate and use its special powers.

There are two kinds of qi: "hard" ki, which is associated with martial arts like kung fu and karate, and "soft" ki, which is associated with meditation, health and concentration. One qi gong instructor told the Korea Times, qi gong "is very systematic and even scientific. Step by step, you can learn how to absorb the ki scattered around, and you not only become healthy but also achieve a wholeness with the universe, the source of the unlimited energy or ki."

Websites and Resources


Good Websites and Sources: Ki and Qi Gong Academic Article on Ki in Japan pdf file ; Literati Tradition ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classical text sources ; Qi Gong Institute ; Qi Gong association of America ; Skeptic’s Dictionary on Qi Gong Feng shui Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Feng Shui Crazy ; Feng Shui Ulimate Source ; Feng Shui Society ;Skeptic’s Dictionary on Feng Shui ; Osorezan is the home of Itako Shaman. It regarded as one of three holiest mountains in Japan along with Mt. Koya and. Mt. Hiei. Japan Guide Japan-Guide ; Japan Times itako article Japan Times ; Wikitravel Wikitravel

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in Japan: A View on Religion in Japan ;Book: Religion in Japan ; Religion and Secular Japan ; U.S. State Department 2009 Report on Religious Freedom in Japan ; Resources for East Asian Language and Thought ; Society for the Study of Japanese Religions ;Contemporary Papers on Japanese Religion ;Japan Glossary Washington State University ; Shinshuren, Federation of New Religious Organizations of Japan

Qi Gong

left Qi gong (pronounced chee-GONG) is an ancient Chinese healing art, philosophy and spiritual belief that combines gentle movements, deep breathing, self-massage, mediation and variety of other practices. Qi means "vital energy" and gong means "cultivate."

Qi gong forms the basis of traditional Chinese medicine, several martial arts, and unexplained powers. The force behind qi gong is qi. In China qi gong is considered a “national treasure” and is supported by the government. It is sometimes thought of as a kind of faith healing.

Qi gong has many supernatural associations. Qi gong masters perform healing massages without touching the body, ignite fires with forces generated by their hands and claim they can fill entire lecture halls with uplifting positive energy particles. There is a story of ku fu master in the early 1900s who was harassed by a foreigner on a horse and killed the horse by laying his hands on the animal and disrupting its internal organs with qi.

Qi gong has been credited with improving scores and university entrance exams and locating victims under collapsed buildings. Some qi gong masters attribute their powers to black holes, gamma rays and antimatter.

Qi gong practitioners are taught to control ki by controlling their breathing, their mind and their body and learn how to harmonize these three things to live long, healthy lives and heighten their mental and spiritual powers. They are also taught to perform exercises that focus qi to different parts of the body. In one series of movements called the Bear, intended to stimulate the kidneys and lower back, practitioners stand upright, hold their palms upwards near their ears and twist their bodies back and forth at the waist. In the old days, some people believed that lelching and farting caused people to lose qi, hastening death. For this reason qi gong believers don't eat root food that makes them fart and belch.

Book: The Way of Qigong by Kenneth Cohen (Ballantine Books).

Ki Masters at Work

right Practitioners of Qi gong, who often don't touch anything directly, harness the power of ki to throw people against walls without lifting a finger, repel assaults by people attacking with all their strength, heal and cure patients, bend metal and lift objects without touching them, produce fires through spontaneous combustion, help people loose weight, and drive nails through boards without a hammer or any other tool. In Japan ki masters are sought out sort of like chiropractors or acupuncturists to offer relief from various kinds of pains and ailments.

Describing what happened to a man who was touched the hand of a Japanese ki master, Andrew Pollack of the New York Times wrote, "Almost instantly, as if propelled by some invisible force, the person reels backward and crashes into a padded wall." Other people who touch the master "then collapse to the ground, screaming and writhing until two...assistants jump on them to calm them down."

Sima Nan, a self-appointed "cult buster," has made a living of exposing fraudulent claims by qi gong masters. In 1986, the Amazing Randi, a former magician who makes a living snuffing out quacks and fakes, made a visit to China. He found that psychic healers who purportedly made women go into convulsion were actually reacting to the patient not visa versa. He also discovered that children, who supposedly put together broken matches inside a sealed box, had actually opened the box and replaced with the broken match with an unbroken one.

Ki and Business in Japan

Ki masters and consultants have been hired by companies like Sony, Sega, Honda and NEC to help their employees relax, focus, think positively and improve their golf swing.

Ki masters teach things like "breathing through the soles of your feet" to 10,000 people a year and sell videos which reportedly help cure the sick. One businessman with a petroleum exploration company who used their techniques told the New York Times, "I have become dramatically healthier."

Describing the techniques of Yukio Funai, the head of a firm that gives advise to companies about mysticism, Pollack wrote, "Mr. Funai asked a visitor to touch his toes without bending his knees. After the visitor could not do it, Mr. Funai waved his hand in the air and snapped his hand toward the visitor, as if to shoot rays out of his fingers. After receiving this infusion of ki, the visitor was able to touch his toes."

Sony's Ki and Paranormal Research Laboratory

Sony has a four-member "ESPER" (ESP and excitation research) laboratory, which is involved in trying to prove the existence and measure paranormal phenomena by doing things like measuring the skin temperatures of ki masters when they use the life force. So far the group has come up with no conclusive results.

The head of the group told the New York Times, "Our ultimate goal is to discover the mind or consciousness that all humanity, and the whole of creation, must possess---to pursue the spirit or soul that exists in our universe."

There is also a foundation, supported by 16 companies and affiliated with the Japanese government’s Ministry of Trade, that is try to artificially produce ki and use to heal the sick.

Feng Shui

Feng shui chart
Geomacy (feng shui) is widely recognized and practiced in Japan but is generally thought of as a more Chinese thing. Some Japanese go out of their way to avoid occupying a house with a door that faces the north or northwest. On restauranteur interviewed by the New York Times decided to open his business in the slow season because the date was auspicious and to relocate his kitchen because rooms with fire should face south.

Feng shui is the practice of bringing about good fortune among the living, the dead and the spiritual world by making sure objects placed in a landscape or space are in harmony with the universe in such a way that they optimally draw on sources of qi. Also known as geomancy, it is often expressed in terms of Chinese and Taoist cosmology and is said to be over 3,500 years old.

Feng shui (pronounced feng shway) has been practiced in various forms by a number of culture throughout history. Believers regard it not as a religion or superstition but as a science whose goal is to create balance and harmony among the five elements of nature---water, fire, wind, wood and earth. One Feng Shui master told Reuters, "Feng shui is a Chinese ancient art of living in harmony with the environment. Feng shui is not a miracle. Feng shui is not magic. Feng shui is like a catalyst.”

Feng shui literally means "wind-water." It can be influenced by the location, shape, size and color of an object. Objects that allow qi to flow freely are said to have good feng shui, which is said to bring prosperity and success. In the old days only the Chinese emperor was allowed to use it.

Feng shui observations has traditionally been carried out by feng shui masters who have traditionally come from families of feng shui masters. Cities, skyscrapers, office buildings, homes, gardens, rooms, beds, desks, chairs, windows and graves are all laid out under guidance provided by a feng shui master, who often tell fortunes by consulting geometric figures and check houses for evil spirits on the side. When choosing the right spot feng shui masters often walk around with a special compass.

Book Feng Shui Made Easy

20080222-House feng shu  U wash.jpg
Well-situated house acording to feng shui

Feng Shui and Homes

The five directions of Chinese cosmology and feng shui are north, south, east, west and center. South represents light and brings good luck. North represents darkness and brings bad luck. Accordingly, doors of houses should not face north of northwest: they should face south. The entire house should be oriented towards the south with mountains to the north to block the bad luck from entering and keep good luck from escaping. The best location is at the foot of a mountain, facing a river. Waters helps attract qi. Buildings with a square plan help hold it firmly.

The location of the family alter, the orientation of the house and the arrangement of the furniture should be in harmony. Bedrooms should face the sun and stairway shouldn’t be visible from the front entrance. Qi is believed to enter through the front door and exit through the toilet.

Walls can be constructed at certain angles to attract positive energy. Doors can be adorned with coins bearing the names of famous emperors to attract good luck. Fountains in corners are sometimes used to deflect bad energy from the sharp angles of nearby buildings. Mirrors are also used to deflect bad energy. Cell phones are believed to disrupt feng shui. Plants that thrive well are a sign that qi is plentiful.

Feng Shui and Furniture

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Mirror, scissors hung over door
Furniture is moved and mirrors and wind chimes are often added to direct good and evil spirits and forces to their proper places. Negative earth forces from the northwest can be held back and positive energy can be attracted , for example, by placing wind chimes in strategic places. Objects in a room can also placed in different arrangements and places according the birth sign of the occupant.

Common household feng shui practices include: 1) making entryways bright and inviting; 2) using mirrors to increase space; 3) removing furniture that blocks entrances; 4) directing desks and chairs towards the doorway; 5) keeping the television covered when in not use; 6) and 7) never placing a mirror at the foot of the bed. [Source: AP and Gemocay-Feng Shui Organization, San Francisco]

Windows should be opened occasionally to keep the energy flowing. Beds should be aligned in a north-south direction---even if that means they are arranged diagonally across a room---and should not face towards any closet. It is considered bad luck to move beds through the front gate of a house. It only happens after death or a divorce. The stove represents the source of food; mirrors should be placed behind it increase the positive energy of the burners and reflect approaching people.

The Japanese clothesmaker Descente markets sportswear with colors selected by a feng shui master to bring good luck to their wearers. Prices range from around $10 to $120,

Feng Shui and Businesses

Furniture arrangements and building shape are thought to affect business. A fish tank on a balcony, for example, it is said can help keep cash flowing in and counteract the affects of drainage ditches that sucks away good fortune. Desks are oriented so employees face each other and work together rather than against each other. Sometimes high profile buildings are built according to feng shui principals.

Businessmen are advised to seal doors and place books in the southeastern corner of their offices and take calls from important clients while orienting themselves toward the northeast corner of their offices. People with a string of bad luck or bad business often consult a feng shui masters to help turn things around.

Men wear ties with lucky feng shui colors. Women wear cosmetics that attract positive energy. Dark, yellowish faces are regarded as manifestations of bad qi. Both men and women wear crystal bracelets to catch qi and stimulate personal energy.

Feng shui has made its way Wall Street and Hollywood. Merrill Lynch, Universal Studios, and Coty Beauty have hired feng shui consultants. Tycoon Donald Trump sought advise from feng shui experts on the building the Trump International Hotel and Tower in New York City. Oracle boss Larry Ellison did the same for his home and offices. Entertainers Sheryl Crow, Annette Benning and Susan Sarandon have been seen wearing chi-oms (bead bracelets) that use feng shui principals to attract qi. Other believers in feng shui include Rob Lowe.

In 2007, a year of “fire sitting on water” inventors were advised to buy oil and avoid metals and not burn their fingers because fire and water are not in harmony the market will soar and create an “illusion of optimism” only to collapse.

Shaman in Japan

Itako shaman
There are still shaman in Japan but they are not as big as they are in Korea. Shaman are people who have visions and perform various deeds while in a trance and are believed to have the power to control spirits in the body and leave everyday existence and travel or fly to other worlds. The word Shaman means "agitated or frenzied person" in the language of the Manchu-Tungus nomads of Siberia.

Shaman are viewed as bridges between their communities and the spiritual world. During their trances, which are usually induced in some kind of ritual, shaman seek the help of spirits to do things like cure illnesses, bring about good weather, predict the future, or communicate with deceased ancestors.

Shaman are generally poor and come from the lower social classes. Sometimes their spiritual power is seen as so great that they need to be separated from society. In the past, it is believed, almost all villages had a shaman and they were members of a caste that passed their traditions down from generation to generation. Some shaman are afraid to reveal their secrets because they believe that after they pass on their secrets they will die.

Shaman can be both men and women. Many are women. Traditionally, they have not chosen to become shaman but rather had shamanism thrust upon them. The process of becoming a shaman usually follows five steps: 1) a break with life as usual; 2) a journey to an "other world;" 3) dying and being reborn: 4) gaining a new vision: 5) and emerging with a deep sense of connectedness and purpose.

Itako Shaman

Itako are shaman or mediums that have traditionally been blind or sight impaired old women that were called upon by bereaved family members to communicate with the dead. They embrace folk religion and animist traditions but also call upon Buddhist and Shinto gods for help. Each itako has her own gods that she calls upon. Some use aids such as beads and stringed bows to call the gods.

Itako have traditionally been looked down upon as little more than beggars. They were persecuted in the Meiji period and they sought refuge in remote places. They often dress in ragged clothes. When other people saw them they threw horse dung at them.

Itako were once common throughout Japan. According to one researcher there may have been 1 million of them roaming the countryside, working as mediums and healers, 150 years ago. They usually traveled with yamabushi (See Buddhism). Only about 20 or so itako remain, they are mostly in Aomori.

Onmyoji are traditional shaman trained in Taoist, Buddhist and Shinto magic. They are sometimes called on to perform exorcisms, which are done by convincing the spirits they should leave rather than forcing them out.

Book: Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan by Carmen Blacker (Japan Library, 1999). The name of the book refers to a single string instruments used by Japanese diviners to communicate with the spiritual world.

Itako, Feminism and Trances

Kohkan Sasaki, professor emeritus of Komazawa University is a researcher of religious anthropology who has studied shamanism in Asia., told the Daily Yomiuri: “While male shamans are common in China and Southeast Asia, female shamans are more prevalent in India, North and South Korea, and Japan, where societies are based on patriarchal values. I think shamans tend to be female in societies where women are suppressed or discriminated against as an inferior gender. By associating themselves with the gods, women are able to balance their power with men in such societies. Japanese used to believe that the gods offered mercy to those in misery, especially Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. She is one of the most commonly believed-in gods among itako. I have seen noseless yuta shamans in Okinawa Prefecture. Such physical defects used to be interpreted as symbolic of supernatural stigmata. The oldest reference to female shamans in Japan appears in the Wei Zhi, a Chinese chronicle of the third century. A woman called Himiko, who is described as a shaman, ruled an early Japanese political federation known as Yamatai using a divine power to converse with the gods.The first reference to female shamans in Japanese writing dates back to the 11th century. [Source: Miki Fujii, Daily Yomiuri]

On the religious beliefs of itako, Sasaki said: “Shamanism is based on animistic folk religions. In the case of itako, they believe in a number of gods from various different beliefs, such as animism, Buddhism and Shinto. Rather than simply mixing these beliefs, they superimpose later religions on top of existing ones, enabling long-running beliefs and gods to maintain strong identities. During an initiation ceremony, each itako will come into contact with the gods that will possess them. They will also learn which god is most powerful in a variety of different circumstances. [Ibid]

On the itako initiation ceremony Sasaki said: “In training for initiation, itako dress in a white kimono 100 days before the ceremony. They pour cold water over themselves from a well, river or pond--usually this takes place in midwinter--and practice chanting. Three weeks before the ceremony they stop taking grain, salt, and avoid artificial heat. This helps to create an extreme state of mind to facilitate their entering a trance. During the ceremony itself, the itako trainee is dressed as a bride to indicate that she will marry a god. Repetitive drum and bell sounds are produced to help raise concentration levels and prepare the mind while older itako sit around to assist the chanting. The session can continue for days and days until the itako finally enters a trance. That is when the master itako determines which god has possessed the trainee itako. During this tough ritual trainees are not allowed to sleep and their consumption of food is kept to a minimum. Because many itako suffer from some kind of visual impairment, trainees must learn by heart various scriptures. In this way, some itako know the scriptures better than some of the less-motivated priests. [Ibid]

On why itako have not garnered the same respect as priests, Sasaki said: The difference between priests and shamans lies in the fact that shamans go into a trance while priests simply ask the gods for mercy. Priests often come from privileged backgrounds while shamans are generally lower-class people or social outcasts. Before Buddhism and Confucianism entered Japan, various emperors made use of the services of shamans. But as doctrinal religions were introduced, animism became vilified as the superstition and heresy of primitive culture. A similar trend can be seen in most civilizations around the world, in which folk religions are eliminated by institutional religions such as Buddhism, Christianity or Islam. Eventually, the religious rituals once performed by female shamans in Japan in ancient times were taken over by men of later, more sophisticated religions. [Ibid]

On How can you verify that an itako has really entered a trance, Sasaki said: “Although this is a crucial point for researchers, you can never be sure that a trance is entirely authentic. I think the important point is that the client believes in the power of the itako and that society accepts the tradition. This is one aspect common in all religions. [Ibid]

On How shamanism can help make up for weaknesses of modern culture, Sasaki said it can provide relief for people in extreme suffering and pain, making fuller use of people's daily lives and keeping society and culture intact. Shamanism fills some of the spaces left open by modern rationalism and science. [Ibid]

Itako Shaman in Aomori

Entsuji, a Buddhist temple near a crater lake in Osorezan, a composite volcano in the middle of Shimokita Peninsula in Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan, hosts a four-day festival in late July that features itako who communicate with the dead.

During the festival the women sit in blue tents and people who want to communicate with dead loved ones form lines to meet with the old women, who charge ¥3,000 per spirit per 30 minute session. Some work at shrines and others work at their homes outside the festival times. Some moonlight as fortunetellers.

Itako Initiation in Aomori

Itako shaman
One itako told the Daily Yomiuri that when she was a child her poor eyesight kept her from attending school and “people thought I was strange because I said strange things.” She started to became aware of her itako powers when she discovered she could predict future events, such as natural disasters and accidents that would affect people and was able to find things people lost.

Itako train as an apprentice for five to seven years and then go through an initiation and series of tough endurance tests. The itako above began learning scripture by ear when she was a teenager from an itako master and stopped eating meat and eggs. She became an itako at the age of 18.

Kokhan Sasaki, a professor at Komazawa University, told the Daily Yomiuri that itako dress for 100 days in white kimono before their initiation ceremony and stop eating grain, salt and avoid artificial heat. As part of their training they pour cold water on themselves in the middle of the winter and memorize scripture, a time-consuming task especially when considering they have difficulty seeing.

During the ceremony itself an itako initiate dresses as a bride and is married to a god in a ceremony that involves chanting to bells and drums, whose sounds induces a trance, Sometimes it takes a long time for the initiate to go into a trance. When she does, the master itako that is present determines which gods has possessed her. During the whole process the new itako is not allowed sleep and is only given minimal amounts of food.

Itako Seances

During a seance with an itako known as Kuchiyose, the itako receives the death date of deceased person and it relation to the customer. She than rattles prayer beads, goes into a trance and sings to call the spirit to possess her. The spirit usually thanks the petitioner, wishes good fortune and life and discusses personal matters.

Itako usually claim they don't know what is said while they are in a trance. They say that while they are in a trance it feels like they have been grabbed by a powerful force and moved to someplace where they can watch themselves.

The seances last about 10 minutes. Through the medium, the spirit usually says something like, "I am very sorry for having died before my parents, but I am glad that you have come here. I am OK, and hope you are too."

Describing Japan’s only male itako, Miki Fuji wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “I ask Narumi to contact my grandmother. He closes his eyes and begins to chant Buddhist scriptures while rubbing black beads in his hands, until his speech suddenly becomes addressed to me...”I rest peacefully on a lotus with grandfather. Your mother may become ill in December and this may develop into pneumonia if she doesn’t take care. But it won’t be serious if she takes precautions early enough.”

Doctors are studying subjects who have participated in Kuchiyose to see if they have had a healing effect from the ritual. In survey of 670 people with chronic diseases in the Aomori area, 35 percent of them said they had taken part in a Kuchiyose ritual. Of those 80 percent said the experience was beneficial. Thirty percent said they felt mentally healed and 27 percent said they felt calm after speaking to the shamans. One doctor involved in the research told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Kuchiyose has an effect of giving people a sense of comfort and encouragement to live thinking about the future.”

Small Town Shaman Fire Ceremony for a Mountain God

Describing s small town shaman fire ceremony in the Kiso area between Nagoya and Nagano, Thomas Swick wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Mr. Ando, the man in the brown cardigan, invited us to a goma (fire) ceremony that evening at his shrine...Mr. Ando was a shaman in a religion that worships the god of Mount Ontake. [Source: Thomas Swick, Smithsonian magazine, October 2010]

That evening “about a dozen similarly garbed celebrants sat cross-legged on pillows before a platform with an open pit in the middle. Behind the pit stood a large wooden statue of Fudo Myo-o, the fanged Wisdom King, who holds a rope in his left hand (for tying up your emotions) and a sword in his right (for cutting through your ignorance). He appeared here as a manifestation of the god of Mount Ontake. [Ibid]

“A priest led everyone in a long series of chants to bring the spirit of the god down from the mountain. Then an assistant placed blocks of wood in the pit and set them ablaze. The people seated around the fire continued chanting as the flames grew, raising their voices in a seemingly agitated state and cutting the air with their hands in motions that seemed mostly arbitrary to me. But Bill told me later that these mudras, as the gestures are called, actually correspond to certain mantras.” [Ibid]

“Each of us was handed a cedar stick to touch to aching body parts, in the belief that the pain would transfer to the wood. One by one, people came up, knelt before the fire and fed it their sticks. The priest took his wand---which, with its bouquet of folded paper, resembled a white feather duster---and touched it to the flames. Then he tapped each supplicant several times with the paper, front and back. Flying sparks accompanied each cleansing. Bill, a Buddhist, went up for a hit.” [Ibid]

Image Sources: 1) Feng shui images, Univrsity of Washington, 2) Qi Qong, Fighting, 3) Itako shaman, Wikipedia and UNESCO

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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