Japanese Studies

Research Project: "'Internet-Shamanism' in Japan – Content and Function of Traditional Religious Elements in the New Media"

go to list of publications

The Project:
On 1 April 2003 a new research project entitled "'Internet-Shamanism' in Japan – Content and Function of Traditional Religious Elements in the New Media" began at Tübingen University's Japanese Department. The project is funded by the Horst- und Käthe- Eliseit-Foundation.

Research methods and results gained during the preceding project on the self-presentation of Japanese religious organisations on the Internet served as a useful base from which to start the new research.

Members of the research team:
Official head of the project is Prof. Dr. Klaus Antoni. Research is conducted by Dr. Birgit Staemmler, who had already studied forms of spirit possession in modern Japan for her doctoral thesis ("Chinkon kishin: Mediated Spirit Possession in Japanese New Religions"; published 2009). Between 2005 and 2007 Hakim Aceval joined the team as research assistant.

The most influential definition of "Shamanism" describes it as a religious tradition in which a shaman undertakes journeys of the soul for the sake of his clients (Mircea Eliade 1951). Newer definitions of Shamanism include also spirit possession, i.e. temporary occupation of a body by some external spirit or soul, as an important element of Shamanism (Jane Atkinson 1992, David Holmberg 1993). Still other definitions call a plethora of phenomena the world over "shamanic" as long as they involve some kind of contact with the supernatural. In this wide use of the term Shamanism may be found in all parts of the world regardless of itslocus classicus with the Tungus in Siberia. One may therefore distinguish between many different kinds of Shamanism, such as classic Shamanism, traditional Shamanism, Neo-Shamanism, urban Shamanism,Core Shamanism, Plastic-Shamanism usw.
In Japan mountain ascetics and blind spirit mediums, among others, may be counted as shamans, even if Japanese scholars initially only applied the term 'Shamanism' to traditions outside of Japan. And although adherents of a narrower definition may not agree, many Japanese scholars currently define any religious practice involving spirit possession, ecstasy or trance as "shamanic" (e.g. Miyake Hitoshi und Tsushiro Hirofumi).

Without analysing more closely the difficulties connected with any definition of "Shamanism" and the ubiquitious use of the term it becomes obvious that the shaman's direct contact with supernatural beings is of essential importance in all definitions. In some, but not all, contexts the role of the shaman versus his or her clients, i.e. a shaman's social or therapeutic function, is the second most important aspect of Shamanism.

Searching the Internet for key words of Japanese Shamanism leads to thousands of results indicating that in a very wide sense "shamanic phenomena" play an important role in the Japanese Internet. However, Shamanism is not only a quantitatively significant element of Japanese Internet culture, it is simultaneously an element of Japanese tradition and present-day life, it is visible in religious as well as in cultural discourses.

Research questions:
The large amount of references to 'shamanic' practices and phenomena on the Japanese Internet leads to many concret questions:

  1. What are the differences between virtual and real Shamanism in present-day Japan? Which elements of traditional shamanic practices have been reproduced on the Internet? Which new aspects have been added?
  2. Through which techniques of computer-mediated communication or virtual interaction are spirit possession, ecstasy or trance presented or even enabled on the Internet?
  3. Which social or therapeutic functions do 'Internet-shamans' hold? Do they hold any such functions or do they practise for themselves only? Do they offer their services online or offline – or both?
  4. How is Shamanism on the Japanese Internet embedded regionally and culturally? Are certain forms of Shamanism on the Internet restricted to the regional or cultural areas of the respective traditions in real life? What are the differences in content, reception and quantity between 'Internet-shamans' based in north Japan as opposed to those based in south Japan, or between those found on the Japanese Internet to those found on the German-language Internet? In how far have the often quoted globalisation and the New Age Movement levelled historical differences between shamanic traditions in various regions?
  5. Which Japanese roughly shamanic traditions are presented on the Internet in which way? Are there self-representations or mainly presentations by others? What are their contexts? Where do they differ? What do they effect? Possible examples here are the use of a blind medium from a popular manga used as mascot for the website of a local police station and elements of mountain asceticism used to advertise various goods used in mountaineering.
  6. Which other terms are used fairly synonymously to 'shaman'? Where do they differ and where not? Are there historical explanations?

Apart from compiling a general overview of the shamanic phenomena, groups and practices on the Japanese Internet this project has two central aims: :

  1. Bearing in mind the ongoing discussion about an adequate definition of "Shamanism" this project aims to collect information about Shamanism and closely related phenomena on the Japanese Internet. Drawing from emic self-representations of 'Internet-shamans' on the one hand and an etic anthropological analysis of relevant websites on the other the project aims to discover whether it is useful or necessary to add yet another definition, of 'Internet-Shamanism', to the many already existing definitions of Shamanism, or whether Shamanism on the Japanese Internet is rather a culture-specific 'Japanese Shamanism'independent of the medium Internet.
    To this aim data has to be collected on how those who practise, discuss or propagate Shamanism on the Japanese Internet define Shamanism. To see whether they follow one – or more – of the definitions already available or whether they set up definitions of their own. What are the differences between those definitions and how do they define Shamanism?
    Additionally, shamanic practices and phenomena on the Japanese Internet have to be described and analysed and to be compared with shamanic practices and phenomena in real life. For this analysis focus is on the questions of contact with supernatural beings, social and therapeutic functions, and regional and cultural roots.
  2. Because the Internet plays an increasingly essential role as a source of information, it is to be presumed that the image of Shamansim presented on the Internet significantly influences the image of Shamanism held by Internet users. Especially for young people who have no first-hand experience with Shamanism and no previous, maybe more scientifically-founded knowledge of Shamanism (there is no religious education in Japanese schools) the images of Shamanism portrayed on the Internet and in other media play an important role (notably Wikipedia and the manga Shaman King). One key aim of this research is, therefore, to study the image of Shamanism drawn up and presented to users by the Internet and, extending from this, to extrapolate the influence various types of media have in shaping the common image of elements of folk belief in an industrialised, affluent information society.

To answer the questions and fulfill the aims described above websites as well as entries in blogs and other social networking sites are analysed:

  1. In a first step an overview over the data has to be gained. To this end a comprehensive search of the Japanese Internet with the four most popular search enginges and 32 search terms is conducted at regular intervals. The 30 first results are saved and sorted according to their prominence, that is their visibility for Internet users, through an indicator developed in this project. Blogs, BBS forums and social networking sites are searched in a similar fashion.
  2. With a modified version of the encoding formular developed during the preceding DFG-Projekt the relevant aspects of the websites, blog entries etc. are described in some detail. The desription includes questions of contents as well as of Internet-specific characteristics, such as structure, interlinking, possibilities of interaction and virtual communication. The use of the encoding formular ensures that no aspects of the websites are overlooked.
  3. The third methodological step is the actual hermeneutical interpretation of the data based on the results of the statistical analysis, the encoding formular and interviews with webmasters and shamanic practitioners.

The results of this project are made public in part on this website and in part in more traditional forms of academic publications.

Please send questions and comments to: staemmler{at}japanologie.uni-tuebingen.de