From the traditional “omikuji” — sacred lots — people draw at shrines and temples to learn their New Year’s fortunes, to the horoscopes displayed on commuter train video screens to distract strap-hangers, Japanese society is immersed in fortunetelling.
Famously accepting of different religions simultaneously — predominantly Shinto and Buddhism — Japanese in general easily fold divination into their worldview, as well.
Kazunori Kawai, publisher of Koiunreki, one of three magazines on the market dedicated to fortunetelling, or “uranai” in Japanese, said he believes such trends are rooted in people’s attitudes toward the concept of God.
“Most of us don’t believe in a single entity like Jesus Christ, but rather commit to a pantheistic view of God — that God is everywhere around us,” Kawai said, adding that such mentality promotes a fatalistic attitude, and thus a great interest in one’s destiny.
Below are some basic questions and answers regarding fortunetelling in Japan:
What methods are used in fortunetelling?
Masakatsu Hayashi, president of Starmark Co., which manages professional fortunetellers and produces fortunetelling programming for Web and mobile platforms, says there are three genres of fortunetelling that must be mastered before one can be considered a professional diviner.
The first, “meisen,” refers to methods of reading fortunes based on birthdays, including various versions of Eastern and Western astrology.
The second, “bokusen,” uses objects to offer divinations for those seeking advice on decision-making. I Ching, Tarot cards and crystal-gazing belong to this genre.
Finally, “sousen” involves divinations based on visual perception, including palmistry, physiognomy, “feng shui” and dream interpretation.
Hayashi, whose mother is a professional fortuneteller, said he felt the occupation often functioned as a casual substitute for psychiatric counselors.
“When someone’s depressed or is beset with troubling issues, in Japan many would rather visit a fortuneteller than a psychiatrist,” he said.
Who are some historically famous diviners?
The third-century Chinese text “Wei Zhi” includes a description of Japan’s shaman Queen Himiko, who was said to have ruled her people through sorcery.
En-no-Gyoja, a legendary mountain sage of the late seventh century and the putative father of Shugendo, an ancient Japanese religion that combines mountain worship with Buddhism, was said to have possessed magical powers.
Abe no Seimei, a Heian Period (794-1185) diviner who frequently pops up even today in works of fiction, was employed by emperors and the government to give advice on a broad range of issues.
How much do fortunetellers earn?
Misono, a diviner working at Tarim, a “fortuneteller’s mansion” on Takeshita Street in Harajuku, Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, said she charges ¥5,000 for a 30-minute session, and reads for eight customers a day on average in a three-day workweek.
A significant portion of her income, however, is handed over to her employer. And she stressed that although she makes enough, with her husband, to support their two children, the job lacks security, bonuses and health insurance.
Hiroshi Takeshita, who operates his own business in Yokohama, said he sees upward of 10 customers a day, charging ¥5,000 for a 45-minute session. Unlike Misono, however, Takeshita can claim a majority of the fees for himself. Business, he said, was brisk, with his schedule fully booked months in advance.
Besides one-on-one readings, some contribute articles on fortunetelling to magazines, or give telephone readings, which cost ¥5,000 to ¥8,000 for 20 minutes in the Tokyo area. Finally, others teach fortunetelling at various schools.
Overall, income varies widely according to the diviner’s skill and popularity, with top-range fortunetellers said to charge up to ¥30,000 for a single reading.
How many fortunetellers are there in Japan?
There are no reliable figures since in theory anybody can be a fortuneteller, and no license is required to go into business.
Masahiro Nakano of the Japan Astrology and New Age Science Association and Kenko Uehara of Toyo Unsei Gakkai (Oriental Fortune Society) — both large fortunetelling associations — stressed the impossibility of determining the number of fortunetellers in Japan, with so many operating on the street — referred to as “gaisen” — and so many amateur-turned-professional fortunetellers practicing individually.
What are recent trends in the industry?
According to Eisuke Ito, a 10-year veteran and another diviner who works in a separate cubicle at Harajuku’s Tarim, the industry is undergoing a “spiritual reading” boom, thanks to the hugely popular television series “The Fountain of Aura,” hosted by self-proclaimed “spiritual counselor” Hiroyuki Ehara.
In the weekly program, guest stars have their previous incarnations recounted by Ehara, who also comments on the colors of their “aura.”
Ito said that although diviners at Tarim were not allowed to conduct similar spiritual readings and had to stick to the orthodox methods, it was widely known that adding the term “spiritual,” or “reikan” in Japanese, to their style of reading is an easy way to bump up the price of a session.
Emi Inoue, a 28-year-old coordinator at a translation agency in Tokyo, said she had a previous incarnation recounted when she and her friend visited a locally known fortuneteller in the city of Fukuoka last year.
The diviner, a middle-aged woman, told Inoue that in her previous life, she was a sister at a convent in the mountains of Switzerland who spent her old age protecting the urn of her lost love.
Although these readings are increasingly popular, opinions are divided on their legitimacy. Many, Hayashi of Starmark included, condemn the method as unreliable because it is less about technique than the diviner’s imagination.
“It should be possible to share the results of readings with customers, but that’s not possible with spiritual readings,” he said. “Professional diviners shouldn’t have to rely on such tactics.”
What other business formats exist?
Thanks to the prevalence of the Internet and cell phones, an increasing amount of online content is dedicated to fortunetelling.
Kumiko Wada, spokeswoman for Zappallas Inc., which operates Japan’s largest network of fortunetelling Web sites and mobile content, said membership on its fortunetelling sites has been steadily increasing over the years, reaching 1.47 million as of January.
Members subscribe to any of the 220 fortunetelling sites Zappallas operates for a fee of ¥300 a month. Wada said their main target is women in their 20s and 30s, and a majority of the content was romance-related.
According to the most recent data supplied by Mobile Content Forum, the mobile fortunetelling market has increased from ¥10.3 billion in 2004 to ¥18.2 billion in 2007, and was expected to continue growing.