Itako are blind women who serve as spirit mediums. In ancient Japan, blindness was once considered a sign of spiritual powers, so only young girls who were born blind could become itako. Traditionally, an itako’s training began around the ages of 11 to 13 years old. The girls would endure strict ascetic training and ritualized exposure to cold water. It also involved a ceremony where they would be “wed” to a deity, which would grant the girls the ability to communicate with kami and the dead.
Itako used tools such as charms, artifacts, and even animal skulls during their rituals. These items were typically stored in bamboo cylinders and boxes. Individual itako performed unique roles depending on the kami they were wed to, including communicating with the dead, praying
for a good harvest, and connecting mothers with the spirits of babies who died in childbirth. Each ceremony had its own unique ritual, too.
The origins of itako stretch back hundreds of years, but it’s thought that the tradition arose from the ascetic cult of the male Shugendo practitioners known as yamabushi. These ascetic monks were often encountered during popular pilgrimages through the mountains. Their wives traveled with them, selling amulets and contacting the dead through trances.
During the Edo period, women were expected to contribute to the family, so many parents of blind daughters would pressure their daughters to become itako. At the time, a blind woman would have few other opportunities for marriage or work. However, itako were largely not accepted by Japan’s general populace and placed among the lowest social class despite their abilities.
By the Meiji period, the profession was outlawed. The government tried to discourage itako from practicing in favor of modern medicine, and it was made legal to arrest supposed mediums during rituals. Despite this social and legal discrimination, there are still a few itako practicing today.
In Tale of Ronin, the itako profession is widespread if not necessarily respected. Some characters may be in awe of their abilities, while others may dismiss them as frauds. Either way, players may be driven to seek out an itako for information that can only be gained from the dead.