Miko (巫女)

巫女 (miko) or 神子 (fujo) are women who mainly serve the gods of Yamato (Japan).

In ancient times, their role was to get the messages of the gods (oracles) and convey them to other people, but in the modern age it has changed to a role in shrines served by women. According to Kunio YANAGIDA and Taro NAKAYAMA, miko can be classified into two groups: kannagi, a group of miko who served the Imperial Court; and kuchiyose, a group of miko who served the common people.

This section limits miko to those who are historically famous, having served in shrines, ceremonies and wedding parlors. For more information about miko, please see "Miko's Work, Hobbies and Subculture."

Ancient times

According to the religious services of ancient times, where magic rituals prevailed, people who believed the gods did not reside in one particular place performed invocations by having them possess a human body through the so-called Ritual of Possession. It is thought that women capable of this gave birth to miko. In archaic Japanese, the miko was cited as 巫. Also, note that men who offered similar religious services were referred to as 巫.

According to Japanese myths recorded in "Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters)" and "Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan)," Amenouzume, who is said to have danced in front of Ama no iwato (the rock cave of heaven), is the archetype of miko. According to "Gishi wajinden (Records of the Wa people, Chronicle of Wei)," Himiko confused her people using kido (the act of calling up the devil), although the details of the kido and how she confused her people are not known; however, this shows that in ancient times magic rituals were performed by women. According to "Jogangishiki," the offices of 'mikannagi' and 'Sarumeno kimi,' as undertaken by the descendants of Amenouzume, were set up under jingikan in the Heian period, and presumably the kagura (a Shinto dance and music dedicated to the gods) was performed there. "Shin sarugoki," written by FUJIWARA no Akihira at the end of the Heian period, lists four abilities required of miko: foretelling, kamiasobi (kagura), yotsura (playing Japanese harp) and kuchiyose (invocation); the author who saw kamiasobi wrote that it was "like angels dancing with gods."

Middle Age and Pre-modern Age

In the middle age and onward, the kagura (Shinto dance and music dedicated to the gods) came to be routinely performed by miko at major shrines throughout the country. Over time, the kagura experienced a change so that, in addition to its traditional supernatural element, it came to be performed as a rite of prayer for the earthly wishes of requestors who sought secular benefits. Associated with shugenjas (people who practice shugendo, walking around in the mountains and valleys), a more local and secular type of miko emerged, who performed prayers and invocations outside the shrine. This explains why, even today, the act of invocation or prayer is sometimes referred to as kagura or "performing kagura." Some say that Izumo no okuni, who originated kabuki odori (kabuki dance), which gave birth to kabuki, was a miko of Izumo Taisha Shrine; this reveals how the magic rituals of ancient times have been refined and propagated as the art of public entertainment.

Officially certified, Azusa miko earned her living by performing kuchiyose (invocations), charging 50 to 100 mon each time. They were slaves, such as geigi (geisha) and shogi (prostitutes), whose revenues went to their masters. Such a person would have a bizarre appearance, carrying a dark-stained box wrapped in a furoshiki on her back, and when serving a customer she would place it in front of her. They used green leaves for calling up the spirit of a living thing (like the customer's cat) and koyori (twist of paper) for the soul of the dead. She would place her arms on the box, supporting her chin, shake her rosary beads and chant spells until she descended into a state of half-sleep in order to perform the kuchiyose (invocation). The box held a clay doll in the shape of Tenjin (the god of the heavens), along with gohei (long strips of paper used for Shinto ceremonies) and an azusayumi (bow used for Shinto ceremonies). The modern government banned this type of business, considering it equivalent to human trafficking.

Modern Age

During the Meiji Restoration the government thoroughly revamped the Shinto shrine system and its religious services in a way that would support the restoration of the imperial regime. In 1871, the Ministry of Divinities set up the post of mikannagi (the post of a woman who administrated religious affairs) and designated it as the post of a woman who used to work for the Ministry of the Imperial Household as a toji (a role of taking care of the meals for the Imperial Family). In 1873, the Ministry of Religious Education banned all acts requesting oracles through the invocation conducted by miko outside the shrine. This is called Miko Ban. This ban was imposed partly because there had been an attempt to organize the shrine system through Shintoism--the ideological background of the restoration of the imperial regime--and partly because there had been a movement of Bunmei kaika (cultural enlightenment) that negated local, traditional and secular manners and customs.

This ban deprived work from nearly all the miko who had offered invocations and prayer services outside the shrine, although some continued to operate in various ways through participation in traditional shrines or new schools of Shinto. Some shrines started to hire miko as a role to support Shinto priests. Later, Mitsuyoshi TOMITA (of Kasuga Taisha Shrine) and other miko, who stressed their importance in Shinto, pleaded to preserve the mikomai (dance performed by miko) while committing themselves to restoring their status and dance by elevating it to the realm of art. On the other hand, Tadatomo O, who was a gakushi (musician) of the Ministry of the Imperial Household, emphasized the importance of kaguramai (Shinto dance) in religious services, citing the Japanese mythology, and composed Urayasu no mai, which marked the acceptance of his assertion. This dance was performed simultaneously in all the shrines across the country at Hoshuku rinjisai (occasional festivals) held as part of the Koki celebration of November 10, 1940, which commemorated 2600 years of imperial reign. Training sessions held throughout the country and instructions given to ensure perfect performance on that day promulgated kaguramai (Shinto dance and music) among Shinto shrines. Even after the ceremony, Urayasu no mai continued to be performed in ceremonies and rituals, giving miko official opportunities to serve in the Shinto system, which had been renewed since the Meiji Restoration.

Modern Age

In the modern age, miko are women who work for shrines mainly through the role of routinely supporting priests and occasionally performing kagura (Shinto music) and mai (Shinto dance). They are sometimes called maihime or mikannko. Miko need neither certification nor qualification. However, if you want to work for a shrine belonging to the Association of Shinto Shrines as a priest, you must be certified by the association regardless of whether you are a man or a woman. Also, note that shrines are allowed to recruit miko by specifying "female only," since the Equal Employment Opportunity Law does not apply to the profession.

Professional miko

Because no qualification or certification is required for miko, basically any woman can serve as a miko as long as she is mentally and physically healthy. Since professional miko are mostly the daughters of priests, their relatives or those who have connections to the shrine, shrines do not publicly seek many professional miko (and generally, only large shrines can afford to hire them). As some professional miko are recruited through newspapers, classified ads or Hello Work (job-placement office), these may be practical means by which to land a job if you lack connections to people in shrines. Beside priests, some miko, although few in number, are recruited through educational institutions such as colleges and training schools.

Women who obtain the jobs do not serve as professional miko for a long time, because most of them retire in their late twenties, having started to work upon the end of compulsory schooling (or more practically, after graduating from high school). If one starts serving as miko after graduating from college or university, she can do so for only a few years. Because shrines require people who continue to work after retirement to wear a dark-green or blue hakama (skirt-like trousers) or of a color specified by the shrine, many of them distinguish female employees depending on their jobs; they treat the women who offer religious services as miko and those who do desk work as general workers.

Also, note that some miko capable of performing kagura (Shinto dance and music) and teaching other miko continue to work even after they marry due to the need to pass on their knowledge and expertise to the younger generations.

Part-time miko

Many shrines, regardless of their size, temporarily hire part-time miko during busy periods, such as the New Year holidays. Shrines that hire part-time miko refer to them as "helpers." Part-time miko are recruited directly by shrines or through colleges or high schools. Some female students studying at schools for priests temporarily work for shrines as trainees or apprentice miko. Some shrines distinguish part-time miko from professional ones by requiring them, for example, to either wear or not wear chihaya (half-coats).

Miko at ceremonies and festivals

In large shrines, as discussed earlier, professional miko employed by the shrine perform Urayasu no mai (Shinto dance and music) or more traditional kagura at ceremonies and rituals, whereas in many small shrines children temporarily serve as miko. They are mostly the young girls of ujikos (local residents that worship the god of the shrine). Young female miko sometimes join the proceeding of chigo (young boys) at Shinto feasts. When dedicating kagura to the gods, miko often wear makeup, and for this special occasion it is applied heavily.

Miko's costume

Today, a miko typically wears a white kosode (short-sleeved kimono) and a scarlet hakama. Although the hakama worn by a miko traditionally had a machi (divider that made it look like trousers) in it, a hakama called andon hakama (one without a divider) created by Utako SHIMODA, an educator, during the Meiji period became so popular among women that it has been adopted as the miko garment. These days, scarlet hakama without machi dividers are generally worn by miko, but some shrines have adopted the traditional type having a machi. However, a hakama without a machi might be inconvenient for the miko who must move her legs in time to the music when performing kagura. Additionally, some shrines have adopted koki-colored (red purple) hakama for young ladies.

In an official scene, such as when holding ceremonies or rituals or performing kagura, miko sometimes wear chihaya (half-coats) atop their costumes. Basically, miko tie back their dark hair using the combination of a danshi (quality Japanese paper), mizuhiki (colored string made of paper) and a takenaga (paper for ornament) (this method of tying the hair is called emotoyui), and may wear kamoji (false hair) to make her hair look longer.

Virginity of miko

The great stress on virginity held by modern Japanese society comes from the ideology of the samurai society, where the highest importance was attached to inheriting the family's estate properly, as well as the chastity valued by Christianity, which had spread since the Meiji period. Many people may misunderstand this, but protecting virginity has not always been stressed throughout the country's history from ancient times to the modern day. However, many people today assume that miko have been virgin since ancient times, judging from the value they now have. Historically, we cannot definitively state that miko have been required to be virgins.
(Neither can we say that virginity has not been required at all.)

Today, it is impossible for a recruiting shrine to include a requirement for applicants to be virgin in terms of their freedom to choose their occupation and Equal Employment Opportunity Law.

Miko in Buddhist temples

Some Buddhist temples hire young ladies who look exactly or nearly like miko, and in such cases they wear a white kimono and a scarlet hakama.

At the end of the year and the beginning of the year
Narita-san Shinho-ji Temple (Narita City)
Soshu-ji Temple (Sano City)
Naritasan Yokohama Betsuin Enmei-in Temple (Nishi Ward, Yokohama City)
Myoo-in Temple (Fukushima City, Hiroshima Prefecture)
Normally?
Rinno-ji Temple (Nikko City) (where a miko wears a green hakama)
Buddhist memorial service and Shinto ceremonies
Kado-sai (Japanese flower-arranging ceremony) held at Daikaku-ji Temple (Ukyo Ward, Kyoto City) from April 14 to 16 every year
Kangetsu-kai (moon viewing party) held at Daikaku-ji Temple (Ukyo Ward, Kyoto City) from October 5 to 7 every year
Urayasu no mai performed by girl miko at Shofuku-ji Temple (Higashimurayama City) (intangible cultural heritage designated by the city) on November 3.

Famous miko in history

Himiko (Yamataikoku)

Toyo (Yamataikoku)

Empress Jingu

Iitoyoao no mimemiko (Princess Iitoyoao)

Izumo no okuni

Other miko

Besides the miko of Yamato Shinto discussed in this section, there are people around the world who can be regarded as miko if miko are interpreted as female shamans; they include Noro in Ryukyu (Okinawa), Ang-I in Taiwan, Mudang in Korea, the indigenous peoples of Siberia and the Americas, and the shaman of Africa. In novels, the term "miko" refers to the priests of Western religions.
They are often cited as '神子.'

Sibyls, being female prophets in the legends of ancient Greece and Rome, are also translated as '巫女.'
Shamans are famous for communicating messages from the gods while in a state of trance.

In folklore, is shaman symbolizes a heretic who has eagerly awaited the coming of the Messiah, and in Christian art a shaman would often be depicted as carrying a book. Besides the above, "the Sibyl of Persia" wears a veil over her head; "the Sibyl of Libya" carries a lit candle; "the Sibyl of Cimmeria" holds a cornucopia; "Herophile, from Eritrea," the prophet of the Annunciation, carries a lily; "the Sibyl of Samos," a prophet of the Nativity, carries a manger or a cradle; "the Sibyl of Cumae," another prophet of the Nativity, carries seashells; "the Sibyl of Helespontos," the prophet of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, carries nails; "the Sibyl of Agrippa," the prophet of the Persecution of Christ, carries moss, showing her dark skin; and "the Sibyl of Europa," the prophet of the Book of Exodus, carries a sword of "Massacre of the Innocents." "The Sibyl of Phrygia," the prophet of the Resurrection, carries a crucifix, and "the Sibyl of Tibur" has had one of her hands cut off. Sibyls are depicted as a group, not as individual people.