Home Political science Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty
On a sunny day in October, three schoolgirls were buying paper lottery oracles (omikuji) at Kameido tenmangū, a shinto shrine dedicated to tenjin, the god of scholarship. The oracles are small slips of paper drawn at random, each with a Chinese character denoting different levels of luck. In the past these fortune slips were most often simple papers that might contain a poem and a brief forecast for travel, study, finance, and personal relationships. At this shrine, there are two options for the oracles: a typical one for ¥300 and a more elaborate one for ¥500. The expensive alternative comes tied together with a small origami doll of a girl in a kimono.
I wondered if perhaps a young female shrine attendant (miko) had come up with the idea of using such a variety of divination forms and a cute wrapping in order to appeal to young female visitors. When i asked, however, no one in the shrine kiosk that sells amulets and other goods even knew when these new-style oracles got started. But they did say that these origami-style oracles were proving to be extremely popular, especially with young women and schoolgirls.
The oracle itself, however, is also of interest because it lists several different types of divination forecasts, including Chinese astrology, western astrology, blood typology, and Japanese directional divination (katatagae). The schoolgirls paid for the more expensive oracle, a decision i asked them about. They thought the cheaper one would be just as legitimate, but it was not as cute. One
Paper lottery oracle from Kameido Tenmangū Of them said it would be nice to glue the origami doll into their photo journals, with a shot of the trio standing in front of the shrine. Their divination experience was part of a shrine visit in which they engaged in other typical rituals, such as writing votive plaques and buying amulets. The visit to the shrine itself was rooted in a day-long excursion to the far reaches of tokyo that included shopping and eating out at a new restaurant.
As scholars of Japanese religion have often pointed out, activities at temples and shrines are frequently embedded in touristic sightseeing (nelson 1996; reader and tanabe 1998). Divination as a part of girls' entertainment is most explicit at namco namja town, an indoor theme park complex in northern tokyo. It houses several discrete recreational areas along with alleys that zigzag through them. Most are food-oriented experiences, such as Gyoza stadium, a laneway with retro-style dumpling stalls that sell famous potsticker types from around Japan. One distinct section is named soothsayer street (Uranai-shi sutorīito; see figure 10.2). Here, customers purchase divination forecasts in automated booths for ¥500, with a choice of eleven virtual experts in Chinese astrology, Kabala, tarot, south asian astrology, and other occult sciences.
One of the featured booths is dedicated to a famous street divination provider named Kurihara sumiko. Her booth, labeled “the shinjuku Mother” (shinjuku no Haha), derives from the nickname she earned after reading palms, doing physiognomy, and forecasting Chinese astrology in an area of tokyo known as shinjuku since the 1950s (she was born in 1930). Kurihara has been the subject of intense media attention, including an autobiography, a manga, a television drama series, and a documentary. She also has a web site and an android cell phone application. A young woman who paid for Kurihara's in-person divination service (the shinjuku Mother charges a flat fee of ¥5,000) told me that she felt more optimistic, uplifted, and happier after speaking with the warm and engaging Kurihara, regardless of how “real” or accurate the divination may have been. Younger women and girls who cannot afford the actual service from Kurihara herself think the namco namja town booth falls in the realm of campy retro and hold the opinion that the game complex booth version of the shinjuku Mother is not only affordable, interactive, and fun, but also less time-consuming and more comfortable to visit when one is with friends. Asked if she would like to visit the real-life shinjuku Mother instead of the video booth imposter, a young woman named naoko said, “it would be a little scary. And then there's such a long wait. It's a pain. Coming here is more convenient.” On many visits to namco namja town i observed groups and pairs of girls entering soothsayer street, where they first purchased tokens to use in one of the booths. The area is decorated in shabby faux arabian artifacts and drapery, with tacky lamps and arabesque architectural bits scattered around. Each booth had a bench that might seat two or three people in front of it. I rarely saw a person enter soothsayer street alone, and men and boys seemed to enter only if they were accompanied by a female partner. This was a fun activity that girls appeared to enjoy, and each booth yielded a printed sheet with forecasts on it at the conclusion of the session that customers could take home with them.
Divination is regularly provided as a fun activity at many other venues. Examples include the “butterfly divination” display at the insect Knowledge
Entrance to Soothsayer Street Festival and Carnival at the itami City insect Museum and divination tables at many seasonal outdoor and indoor festivals. In Osaka there was an indoor theme park named Dōtonbori Gokuraku shōtengai (now closed) that featured taishō era (1912–1926) recreations of stylized cafés and restaurants. On the fifth floor there were several retro-style divination booths. There are also “divination tours” from Japan to Hong Kong, taipei, and shanghai. The tour companies pitch the trips as an opportunity to explore the birthplace of Chinese-style divination. For example, the Kinki nippon tourist Company advertised a visit to taipei's teeming divination sector in its July 2008 brochure, which promised to provide translators and guides for a safe and smooth experience.
Walking around tokyo one may easily stumble upon new divination boutiques and shops where girls and women purchase tarot cards, crystals, Chinese divination compasses, amulets, and other goods. During 2008 i visited many of these sites to speak to divination specialists and to observe the type of services and goods being offered, as well as the interactions between providers and clients. I also found many divination booths in chic shopping malls; these are usually called “divination corners.” Most of the booths are operated by corporations that have a stable menu of divination experts who rotate among booths at different malls on different days of the week. One of the better-known companies is Mari Fortune, which has seven booths in upscale malls around tokyo. The schedules are easily accessed online and list multiple types of divination, from the old-fashioned to newer hybrid or new age types. Each booth seats one to three diviners, and there is a standardized price structure based on time. Having uniform and posted fees has made these businesses quite successful and especially attractive to girls and young women, who do not need to worry about being bamboozled. Unlike the street soothsayers maligned by Murata (2012), these clean and bright divination booths never generate complaints about fees or services.
One woman with whom i spoke at a booth in north tokyo said she always went to a nearby Mari Fortune location whenever her favorite divination specialist was doing a rotation there. She told me that Mitsuhana Maya sensei provided a type of tarot card reading called inspiration tarot, which she found especially attractive and meaningful. This variety of tarot incorporates the seeker's affect together with the reader's interpretations to predict the short-term future. Mitsuhana offers other divination services, including Chinese nine star astrology, palm reading, directional divination, and i-Ching tarot readings. There are many divination providers like Mitsuhana who have A solid reputation and a loyal fan following. Their followers always address or refer to these divination specialists with the title sensei (teacher).
In addition to the booths found in malls there are also small divination shops located in office buildings and along busy streets. They sell goods and provide readings and other services. One place that was particularly appealing to schoolgirls and young women was a trendy shop named wiz note. It was later relocated to an office building, but in 2008 it was crammed in among other businesses found on the main pedestrians-only shopping street in the northern section of tokyo called ikebukuro. The shop was always crowded with foot traffic because of its location near a popular store and shopping center. Wiz note offered divination services and carried a variety of occult goods, including crystals, tarot cards, Chinese feng shui compasses, and amulets. The store was owned and managed by two women and was packed with female shoppers every time i visited. I often saw uniform-wearing schoolgirls inside rummaging through the tarot decks and occult goods that crowded the store's shelves. Two women in their twenties who were seated at a very tiny
Wiz Note divination shop in Tokyo Round table, where one of them was preparing to have a tarot card reading, talked to me about what they found most attractive about the shop. They liked that it was a welcoming space for women and that the all-female staff were always there to answer their questions in a warm and kind manner. They also doubted that some of the items they found most intriguing or edgy, such as a deck of Gay tarot cards, would ever be found in more “traditional” retail spaces in Japan (see figure 10.3).
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