"Shamanism and Alternative Medicine"

  An associate professer of physics at Edogawa University
Dr. Hirukawa

Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) took up the issue of spirituality in health management. In recent years, importance has been attached to psychological factors which might have something to do with improvement of illness. We interviewed Mr. Tatsu Hirukawa, a part-time instructor at Kitasato University, for his opinions from the cultural anthropological viewpoint on how shamans in the Amazon view diseases.
――Please tell us about the roles of shamans.

They remedy illness as a part of exchanges with the spiritual world.

Hirukawa: In a simple society, such as the indigenous people of the Amazon, shamans play the role of a general resource, dealing with everything. They heal diseases, listen to people's troubles or help finding a lost article in the society.

In brief, the job of a shaman is to be responsible for communication with the spiritual world. If the job were described simply as that of "a healer", it would narrow the scope to some extent. To be more precise, he "treats illness as a part of exchanges with the spiritual world."

In the Amazon, a shaman is required at one and the same time to be a politician as well as a doctor. He has to behave as an ideal model required by the society. In such a community, death and the world of spirits are in people's immediate surroundings. This is the point which is fundamentally different from our own.

A society in which shamans actively play the main role is described as primitive. Social lives in such a community are totally different from our own urban lives. There is material inconvenience at first glance, but life is free and easy. Of course, there exists the austerity in making a living. But there is no uncalled for stress.

People in the society have a sense that the spirits of the dead and their souls live together in their neighborhood. In that respect, I think that it would be very hard for them to appreciate and value the concept of making a major economic leap. Probably, my guess would be right. We just view the idea as one existing in an under-developed society. If it were looked at from the opposite end, they would wonder why Westerners and Japanese were very busy, working so enegetically. They probably think of us in this way.

――It has been said that most of the illness that modern people suffer are stress-related.

Hirukawa: Yes, there is a considerable number of types of stresses. Our society does not provide us with the aim of a healthy life at all.

To take an example, there are some objectives in our society where a person works hard so that his company can make a big profit or achieve a major development, or he works hard in order to progress his country.

All such tasks could be referred to as development of society. However, there is a question of the purpose for which society has to keep on developing. No one has given a clear answer to it. Economic growth is considered to be very important even now. But, will it help enhance the quality of life? This has not been taken up as a serious issue yet. There has been a value judgement that a person has to win an entrance exam to a school with a good reputation so as to obtain a good position in society or with a company. A silent pressure such as this still exists, becoming a substantial source of stress.

――Would you tell us how shamans view sickness and death.

Hirukawa: If I dare go to an extreme expression, the death of a man is not considered in a negative way at all. The dead only move from this world to the other world. They think of it as just a migration. If we think that there only exists the material world, then death is a total loss, meaning the end. According to the shamans, someone who passed away just died, and it could not be helped for a person to do so when the time came. They would probably think of it in this way. The point then is whether or not the person can die in a good manner, or, whether or not he can shift to another world smoothly. So shamans practice coming and going between the two worlds by experiencing post-death experience through taking various herbs.Thus, the main job of a shaman is to travel between this world and the 'other world'. Healing a disease or giving advice is a by-product of their work.

Talking of travelling to the other world does not mean that he goes to a certain, specific place. It is a world created by his imagination. If he had a bad image, it would be materialized. His mental readiness when he dies is very important. If he had a very nasty and painful feeling, he would go to the world exactly as he had imagined.

Of course, there are cases where shamans prescribe medicines for curing a disease. On the other hand, if a shaman saw death as the fate, he would turn the patient away. So there are both cases, but this idea would not agree with that of modern medicine. Shamans consider whether or not it is really good for a person to live long; is it good for him not to get sick; or, is it good for him not to die, asking these questions again and again. This is their position. But this view would face a severe conflict with that of modern society and modern medicine.

――Does that mean that shamans do not have a notion of curing illness?

Hirukawa: I believe that a time when we also have to think of our death more seriously will come sometime in the future. When we consider it, I do not mean to be malicious by saying, "To die would be an idea that could be placed somewhere in your mind." People have looked at the way how to make mankind live longer alone so far, but that would be an issue to be discussed. We need to know that there is another simple notion which shamans have. Of course, we enjoy our lives within our bodies while we are alive. Meanwhile, we might need to think the end of our life as a contented one, thinking pain or agony no more so as to prepare for the final moment as we felt that the end was near. I believe that considering life and death in this way is a kind of the quality of life in a broader sense. Physicians should not be half-hearted towards this idea. There are an unusual variety of plants and animals in the Amazon. Likewise there are germs which have not been known or identified at all. The people living there live together with risks, feeling that death is always in their neighborhood. They therefore do not have a specific idea of keeping death away from them. If someone close to them died, they would feel that it was an event which could not be helped. There is a long line of a family from parents to children, then children to grandchildren. A family member appears as just a page in the long line. So they do not think that the life of a family member is hard to replace. This perception is also against that of modern medicine. They consider that even if a person dies, someone else will be born. So, that is enough. Each man is not independent, but is merely a page in the rhythm of life in which a man is born and dies in the natural ecosystem. Their idea of life would be like that.

――We have heard that many kinds of herbs are used in an effective way in the Amazon.

Hirukawa: In the region, herbs such as Cat's Claw or Ayahuasca are used for treatment. If these herbs are thought to have some effects in medicine, I think it is good to take and use such herbs for the actual medical therapies in Japan, after adequately studying them.

In America, herbs of these kinds are very popular, being collected from all over the world and sold at ordinary supermarkets. I was surprised to see this. Lately, Kava with a relaxation effect and St. John's Wort as a natural and mild antidepressant have become very popular.

However, I think that it would be a problem if anti-depressants were popular to that extent there. In American society, there is something that requires people to be in a manic state all the time. Everyone has to be in great force, working energetically all the time. People have to fight and win without a break. Their society resembles this. I would rather perceive that a society requiring anti-depressants that much per se is sick than talking about drugs of the kind.

By the way, a herb like Ayahuasca, which has something to do with the spiritual aspect of health, is dangerous if used in the wrong way. It is necessary for a psychiatrist or psychotherapist to give proper guidance on how to use it after accumulating substantial training. It is generally observed that young people are keen and knowledgeable about herbs of this kind, so it is necessary to take some measures about it as early as possible. Once there would be an accident, people tend to prohibit its use because of poor information or lack of the knowledge of such a thing. In that event, something that would have been of help might also be forbidden, causing everything to disapplear, including things we might need. As a result, research is delayed for about 2 to 3 decades. Such examples are seen in Europe and America. Before that happens, it is necessary for medical care providers to have more understanding of it. Instead of banning it indiscriminately, it would be better to discuss its use seriously, a licensing system, for instance.

◆Profile Dr. Hirukawa

After graduating from The Department of Agricultural Biology, Faculty of Agriculture of Kyoto University in 1991, he further studied ethology in the graduate school of Faculty of Science of that university. Then, he engaged in a study of cultural evolution at the doctoral program in the graduate school of the University of Tokyo. Now, he works as a part time instructor in a few universities, including Kitasato University (cultural anthropology), Kokushikan University (cultural anthropology) and Toho University (anthropology).

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