Essay

What is a Spirit? / Kokan Sasaki [Contribution Text for Choy Ka Fai]

Photo by Katja Illner Photo by Katja Illner

The word kourei (ghost or spirit) in Japanese is often used interchangeably with hyourei, though the latter literally refers to a spirit that “possesses.” But what does this actually mean?

A standard Japanese dictionary tells us that a spirit is a spiritual entity thought to reside in a physical body or to exist even if separated from a physical body. It is a soul or psyche. Moreover, it is a power that cannot be conjectured. It is an invisible power or the body of such.

I have considered a spirit to be a personality invisible to the regular human eye. Needless to say, this is the case for humans, though do we also need to say the same about animals and fish?

When could we know of spirits? As far as we can tell, is it possible to say it was when animals (that is, apes) evolved into humans?

In short, should we view the discovery or creation of spirits as something that took place simultaneously with the development of a religious culture by human beings?

One of the important functions of religion is offering a way to deal with spirits—something that can be found across Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.

Japanese Buddhism is criticized as a religion that people only turn to for funerals perhaps because it was intended to expand the parameters of faith by using the ancient practices of providing for the spirits of the dead.

A representative example of spirits is the ritual of contact with the dead, kuchiyose, that was once widespread in the Tohoku region of Japan. In it, a type of shrine maiden called an itako is possessed by the spirits of the dead, to which attendees listen tearfully.

Academically, these women are regarded as shamans and their behavior as shamanism. These terms derive from the šaman, a religious figure among the Tungusic peoples who lived in and around Manchuria, passing into Europe via Russian and becoming widely used in the 20th century in English (shaman), German (Schamane), and French (chaman).

There are various types of shaman, but they can be broadly classified into two groups.

In the first, the said person is possessed by a god or the deceased, speaking and acting as if he or she has transformed into the latter. The other type of shaman is one where he or she speaks and performs actions to a god or deceased person.

These kinds of words and actions are generally known as divine possession.

In religious groups in Japan, a guru is divinely possessed, frequently a self-proclaimed kind of god. The examples of Tenrikyo and Oomoto-kyo are well known in this regard.

Kyoto Experiment’s theme this year is “Échos-monde,” but perhaps it would be “Échos-monde des
esprits” if one were to make a title related to shamanism.

This is because the spirit (that is, spirit possession) of the shaman is not possible without incredible sensitivity to the resonances of the spirit world.

Nothing is limited to the shaman. Living in a world of religion is surely premised on first furnishing oneself with the ability to respond robustly to the
spirit world.

Further reading: Kokan Sasaki, Spiritual China (Tokyo: Daizoshuppan, 2019)


Kokan Sasaki
Born in Miyagi Prefecture in 1930, Kokan Sasaki gained his PhD from Tokyo Metropolitan University. He is currently an honorary professor in literature at Komazawa University. A specialist in the anthropology of religion and religious culture studies, he is the author of many books on shamanism, spirit possession, and Buddhism.

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