What Do Miko (Shrine Maiden) Actually Do?

by Justin Sevakis,

Eric asks:

There are some anime series that features miko or shrine maiden that I'd seen it lately like for example Kikyou from Inuyasha, Mokoto Aoyama from Love Hina and Mitsuha Miyamizu from the movie your name. (Kimi no Na wa.). And I know that those miko or shrine maidens are part of the Shinto faith which is the majority and an indigenous religion of Japan, so what's the role for them on that religion and why they're so popular in the anime world?

Miko, or Shrine Maiden/Priestesses, can be found at pretty much every large Shinto shrine in Japan. A Miko is generally an assistant or low level priest, and these days, their role is pretty mundane. They work the gift shops, they answer visitor questions, they participate in traditional Shinto rituals like weddings, funerals, festivals, miyamari (baby's first shrine visit) and such. Being a Miko is usually not much more than a poorly paid part-time job for a college student who has undergone a nominal amount of Shinto training.

Aside from reliably being teenaged girls, Miko are applicable to anime more for their history than their current day reality. In centuries past, Miko were thought of as shaman. In fact, the first ruler of Japan in recorded history was Himiko, a woman who ruled from 189 to 248 AD after decades of brutal conflict. The legend has it that after 80-some years of conflict under male rulers, the people decided on putting a woman in charge. She took the throne at the tender age of 14.

Himiko was said to have practiced magic and sorcery over her people, but it seems that very few people actually saw Himiko in the flesh -- she was constantly surrounded by a thousand maids and kept locked away in the palace, so no commoners ever saw her. Her younger brother apparently helped rule the country.

There is no mention of Himiko in Japanese historical sources, but many Chinese documents from the time have record of her rule. The oldest Japanese history texts weren't written until roughly 500 years later (and are, themselves, shrouded in mystery) so no local account of her exists. Nonetheless, the basis of Shamanistic/Shinto belief and practices among miko are believed to have originated with Himiko.

Those historical shaman Miko either inherited the position from her mother, or would be selected based on having some sort of condition -- hysteria, epilepsy, or hallucinations -- that were thought to be a religious trance. Just after puberty the girl would undergo rigorous training to control her "trance state," study spirits and how to summon them, learn a secret language (required for fortune telling) and many other religious practices. Training would take three to seven years, after which she would have her initiation ceremony -- the girl would still be a virgin, and the ceremony would essentially be a wedding to whatever deity she is to serve.

The miko went through many transformations throughout history, at times being associated with the ruling class, and at times being shut out of society both socially and financially. Eventually, in the Meiji period (late 1800s/early 1900s) many Shamanistic rituals were banned.

The most a modern Miko has to do with such practices today are ceremonial chants and dances. The shamanistic practices are all but gone. The history of the Miko is so rich and fantastic, however, that it does capture the imagination. This is doubtlessly why they still figure so prominently in Japanese fantasy fiction.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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