Divination business thriving, for the foreseeable future

by Rob Gilhooly

Head bowed, eyes closed, silently intoning my birth date and a prayer-like plea for good fortune; I feel a little silly, but I’m doing as I’ve been told.

Sitting in a small, dimly lit cubicle beneath the streets of Harajuku, I could be in a confessional were it not for the Miles Davis blasting from somewhere overhead.

Then my efforts to focus on the great beyond are further distracted by the rap and clatter of 50 long, thin bamboo sticks being shuffled and divided, shuffled and divided, accompanied each time by a short, swift expulsion of breath.

“You can open your eyes now,” says Eisuke Itoh, an ekisha, or practitioner of eki, a form of divination rooted in the ancient Chinese lore of the “I Ching.” With three bundles of eight sticks now separated out and laid on a wooden stand in front of him, Itoh turns to a table on his left and moves around six rectangular blocks of wood while drawing short lines on a piece of paper, incessantly muttering to himself who knows what.

Then the procedure starts over again as Itoh focuses on my prospects two years ahead. His head bowed, eyes closed, silently intoning, Itoh shuffles the sticks he’s holding upright on the palm of his left hand. Then he divides them, clasping a bunch in either hand, raises his head and blows through them before setting one bunch back down on the table. Those he’s still holding he deftly separates into three groups of eight, laying the remainder on the table. Then it’s the blocks, the muttering and those little short lines, before it starts all over again for the third and final time as he casts his mind to my future three years down the road.

After some 10 minutes, the ritual over, Itoh says: “There used to be many ekisha in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong who used these zeichiku sticks and sangi blocks to look into a supplicant’s future and indicate wise courses of action. Now there are none. You’ll find them only in Japan.”

Finally, he turns to the lines he’s drawn, as I sit meekly wondering what my life holds in store. The ekisha scratches his head and frowns. It seems I’m not in line for that hoped-for windfall after all.

“Writing is suited to you . . . ” Damn! I gave him my business card. “You need a way to express yourself . . . ” Don’t we all? “The next few years will be a little stagnant.” Here we go. “Whatever you do, you’ll feel like you’re going round in circles.” Oh, great!

“It’s going to be hard. You’ll have money troubles, and until you decide to do something about it, you’ll suffer some distress.”

Enough already, toss me a noose. “But . . . ” But what? “But . . . you will probably achieve your goal.” What goal? How?

“That’s all it says. I’m not entirely sure, but there is a possibility you’ll come through it OK.”

A possibility? Wow, thanks a lot.

But that’s not all: Next, Itoh asks me to show him my hands, and, taking out a pocket flashlight, he begins to examine my palms.

“You will experience a big change when you are around 37. Any plans?”

Actually, no — but the diviner has evidently noticed the surprise on my face. Just the day before, another fortuneteller told me the same thing. Only she added that I’ll probably get married when I’m 37. Fearing more of the same from Itoh, I quickly change the subject.

I’m curious to learn what the clients of Tarim, this fortunetelling salon and school in Tokyo’s trendy Harajuku, come to find out about.

“There’s a real mix,” says Itoh. “We get girls who want to know what their boyfriend is thinking; others who want to know the meaning of life. Others have mental problems of some sort. Some are completely off their rockers.”

He tells me that one girl he had seen believed she was in communication with SMAP member Takuya Kimura and that they were going to get married.

“For the most part we are just glorified counselors. Of course there are those clients who genuinely need this — people who are really troubled, considering suicide, on drugs, stuff like that. In Japan, it’s not like in the United States or Europe — counseling, psychological treatment and support are not so developed here.”

Leaving the curtained cubicle I can’t help but wonder what the talking points will be for the mass of people at reception awaiting consultations with the dozen or so fortunetellers at Tarim.

“I want to live with my girlfriend, but both our parents are against it,” says 24-year-old Tomohisa Miura. “I’ve never tried this before, but a friend told me the fortunetellers here would help.”

Have you talked to your parents — or hers?

“Both. They just say, ‘If you want to live together, get married.’ We tried to tell them we want to find out about each other before we take the plunge. They won’t listen. They’re so old-fashioned.”

How about your friends? “No, I don’t want to bother them.” Do you believe in fortunetelling?

“I’ll believe the good things, but not the the bad stuff. What else can you do?”

For a person like me who’s just been given a three-year sentence of misery, this seems like a sensible approach. But even so, I can’t help but hope there’s some good fortune for me somewhere.

I don’t have to go far. If you look around, Tokyo is one huge fortunetelling parlor. In addition to cubicle-style halls like Tarim, whose practitioners offer just about every kind of divination there is, many department stores have booths offering similar services — and, who knows, maybe advice about coordinated accessories, too.

More conspicuous in the fortunetelling field, however, are those who set up their little tables at the sides of streets, mostly in entertainment districts such as Kabukicho in Shinjuku. Some of these have dubious reputations or little or no training, and simply sit in the dim light of their lanterns waiting for drunken businessmen or adulterous couples to be drawn to them like troubled moths.

I dropped by one in Shinjuku late on a Friday night — only to be turned away by a flustered-looking woman who claimed not to be able to read the palms of single males. I asked a lone girl in line behind if she would mind being my partner for 10 minutes, but all I got was a wan, sympathetic smile.

After her consultation’s over, I ask the girl about her fortune. “I’m dating this married guy, and my boyfriend’s really mad,” she says. “I wanted to know what will happen.”

You think the fortuneteller can tell you that?

“Hmmm. She was very vague . . . but some of them can be.”

One fortuneteller with a reputation for being anything but vague is Sumiko Kurihara. You can always tell when Kurihara is working by the long line of young women snaking its way from the entrance to Isetan department store in Shinjuku and down the steps into the basement groceries section.

Kurihara greets her clients from under a flowery blue parasol where she reads their palms or features (a divination technique known as physiognomy, used in Japan and China for millennia to diagnose diseases and assess character traits and abilities). She has worked at this same spot for 43 years, long enough to earn the nickname “Shinjuku no haha (Mother of Shinjuku).”

Kurihara, too, has a policy about single men, so I arrange a private consultation at her office in Hatsudai.

“Look at my lifeline,” says the 70-year-old in a role reversal I’d not expected. “It’s as straight as a die. It’s the kind of palm you would have found on Toyotomi Hideyoshi [the warlord who unified Japan in 1590]. If I were a man, I could have ruled the world. But for a woman, it’s not a good sign when it comes to relationships with men. It’s pretty good for business; but not for men.”

Her confidence in her art would seem to be justified. Kurihara’s father died when she was 5, and she lost her only child, a boy, when he was an infant. Shortly after came a divorce.

Yet, the business she subsequently started at age 23 has thrived. During her 43 years outside Isetan, Kurihara estimates she’s read about 100 palms a day — currently at 5,000 yen a throw.

“People often come back to me and say ‘Thank you, you were right,’ ” she says. “But I tell them that’s nonsense: I’m just a medium, a guide. Without their will to act on my guidance, nothing would change.” Kurihara seems more interested in inspecting the contours of my face than the lines on my palms, and mumbles something about my nose and eyebrows before pulling out an assortment of charts and tables replete with strange symbols and characters.

“Hmmmm . . . something major will happen when you are around . . . [long pause] . . . 37. Marriage perhaps.”

Not again.

More generalizations follow, but nothing that really grabs me. Instead I am again offered that self-same nugget of nuptial encouragement my mom has been plugging, increasingly wistfully, for the past 15 years.

Kurihara says most of her clients are females in their teens or early 20s wanting to know but about “affairs of the heart” and other private matters.

“Of course, in recent years there are more men, especially middle-aged ones. With the state of the economy, restructuring and so on . . . it is sad.”

Another thing that has changed is clients’ increasingly individualistic approach to fortunetelling, says Kazuhiko Komatsu, an anthropology professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto, who has written extensively on fortunetelling and magical charms in Japan.

“Rather than being concerned with the welfare of family and friends, most are merely concerned with No. 1. Fortunetelling today reflects our increasingly self-centered society,” he comments.

Nowhere else is this quite so clear as in the booming business of do-it-yourself fortunetelling books and Web sites, which kicked off in 1999 with Shogakukan’s publication of “Ningen Maruwakari no Dobutsu Uranai (Human Nature Through Animal Fortunetelling).” This has spawned a plethora of ever-more bizarre products — from “Keitai Bango Uranai (Mobile Phone Number Fortunetelling)” to “Yamanote-sen Uranai (Yamanote Line Fortunetelling)” — whose unifying feature is the depersonalization they represent.

It wasn’t always so. Fortunetelling was once widely relied on as a means of foreseeing events that could affect not a self-interested individual, but entire communities or nations. In Japan, it dates back thousands of years to an era when burning the bones of deer, a custom known as futomani, and examining the way they cracked was used as a way of predicting future illnesses or drought, Komatsu explains. However, it wasn’t until the influx of Chinese culture into Japan during the seventh century that the first officially recognized forms of divination were developed.

Based on a system of belief known as ommyodo, which in turn was based on the ancient Chinese concepts of yin and yang and the five elements (fire, water, wood, metal, earth), divination techniques were adopted and adapted to suit local tastes. Among them was shichusuimei, which determines a person’s destiny according to date and time of birth, and is analogous to Western forms of astrology. As was the case in China and Europe, for centuries the arts of divination in Japan were secretively guarded by those charged with their practice. Chinese fortunetelling and astrology were both closely connected with the emperor, particularly through Shinto priests, says Shoei Inoue, a fortuneteller in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward and for 30 years a scholar of divination. This, she explains, is the reason why in 702 the government formed a bureau to research the two closely related arts.

“In the Edo Period [1603-1867], there was a huge fortunetelling boom, since when it has come a lot closer to everyday folk — in recent years, maybe too close,” she says. It was these two periods, 1,000 years apart, that laid the foundations for the colorful fortunetelling practices of present-day Japan, which, according to Komatsu, are now an integrated part of the country’s cultural landscape.

Perhaps the most visible example of how embedded that influence is can be found on Japanese calendars. Although the Gregorian calendar has been in use here since the late 1800s, the auspicious and inauspicious days that formed the cornerstone of the old lunar calendar, as drawn up in the seventh century, are still printed on each day’s entry.

It is according to these days that many Japanese schedule the most important of life’s events. Even today, advice is sought on when to hold Imperial weddings, enthronements or other key ceremonies, and politicians often seek fortunetellers’ advice on auspicious days to hold elections or launch campaigns, says Inoue, who counts three Diet members among her clients. “This is not like a Christian society, where destiny and existence is believed to be controlled by God,” Komatsu explains. “For Japanese, religion is not so influential; there is no such absolute.”

Ginza-based fortuneteller Masahito Koishikawa, who has also written on the subject of divination, agrees, adding: “Since industrialization, everything has become so rational. As most Japanese don’t have any definite religious base, many want to play an active part in their own destiny. If fate is predetermined, we want to know what it is. If it isn’t, we want it to be decided.”

I ask Koishikawa, better known as “Ginza Papa,” if perhaps he could determine mine. Through a combination of palmistry, astrological charts and shichusuimei, he calmly and patiently offers his assessment.

I should, he tells me, have been a scientist. Somewhat less surprisingly by now, he also declares that my life is about to change dramatically — when I’m 37, no less.

Though there was little overall similarity between my various diviners’ predictions, it’s strange they all agreed that a life-altering event would occur in my 38th year . . . now only months away.