Okinawan Religion

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OKINAWAN RELIGION . Okinawa, one of the prefectures in Japan, was once an independent kingdom called Ryukyu. When it comes to Okinawan religion, it is usually assumed the whole religious tradition of the Ryukyu archipelago was governed by the Ryukyu dynasty. This archipelago is geographically a part of the subtropical islands extending from Kyushu to Taiwan. This area can be divided into four regions: Amami, Okinawa, Miyako, and Yaeyama. While there are some regional differences, they share a common religious tradition formed during the age of the Ryukyu kingdom (14291879). Therefore, the description of Okinawan religion here will combine the greater Ryukyuan cultural area with Amami, notwithstanding Amami has belonged to the Kyushu prefecture since the Meiji era and sometimes is not included in Okinawa.

Okinawan history after the fifteenth century is rather well known from the information gleaned from historical documents of China and Japan as well as the chronicle compiled by the Ryukyuan dynasty; its pre-fourteenth-century history, however, is still wrapped in relative obscurity. Archeological researches, with their continuing new discoveries, report that a foraging culture in Okinawa continued until the eleventh century. Agrarian communities started to emerge in about the twelfth century, and based upon increased productivity with iron a local clan arose in each region. Clan chieftains came to establish polities centered around the fortress called the gusuku. By the early fourteenth century, three kingdomsthe Northern (Hokuzan), Central (Chūzan), and Southern (Nanzan)were consolidated. In 1429 Chūzan unified the others and founded the Ryukyu kingdom with Shuri gusuku, which is now a World Heritage Site. Being a tributary state, Ryukyu conducted a flourishing trade with China, and many Chinese cultural and religious traditions were introduced: the annual cycle of festivals, the lunar calendar, ancestral ceremonies and rites, feng-shui (geomancy), and Confucian thought. While trading with China, Ryukyu came to be a tributary state of Japan as well. In 1609 the Satsuma clan of Kyushu conquered Okinawa and brought a great deal of Japanese culture to Okinawa. In 1879 Ryukyu was annexed to Japan as the Okinawa prefecture. After experiencing the war and being occupied by the United States from 1945 to 1972, Okinawa came to belong to Japan.

There is no doubt that Okinawan religious culture is deeply linked to Japanese culture in light of the archeological data and the fact that Ryukyuan and Japanese have the same linguistic origin and share similar folk beliefs and practices. And since many have assumed that Okinawan culture has archaic cultural patterns of Japan, some scholars tended to see Okinawan religion and culture as an archive or museum of the archaic age of Japan. Religion and culture in Okinawa, however, should be understood in their own right, for Okinawan people have created their own unique tradition under given geographical and historical circumstances, arranging outside cultural influences such as those from China and Japan. Today many Japanese recognize the uniqueness of Okinawan culture, and the Okinawan people maintain a strong sense of identity derived from this uniqueness.

One of the most salient features of Okinawan religion can be seen in the modality of the village space. It is commonly accepted that a prototype of Okinawa's traditional village form is found in villages settled around agricultural society in around the twelfth century. A village modeled after such a typical traditional form usually has a sacred place called utaki (the name differs regionally: uganju, mui, wan ). The utaki is typically located in the sacred grove in a mountain that is behind or near the village, and the core of this sanctuary is the natural stones, rocks, or trees that constitute a primordial altar. It is an important place where a large number of ceremonies and rites are performed. This utaki as a ceremonial center provides an orientation for village space, in some cases with the help of the feng-shui technique. The utaki is a place for kami (divine beings) to descend from the sky or the channel to communicate with diverse kami, including the ancestral god of their community and the god of nirai-kanai (the paradise over the ocean). The utaki also has a historically important role. It functioned as a ceremonial center of the polities in the gusuku era. Furthermore, located in Shuri gusuku (castle), it had become the ceremonial center of the city-state of the Ryukyu dynasty. The utaki has been functioning as the center of the space that continuously expands in its historical process.

Another prominent feature of Okinawan religion is the religious primacy of females. The family of the village founder lives nearest to the utaki, and this household plays an important role in a clan's religious activity. A female of that household attends the utaki and become a priestess to perform ceremonies and rites. This priestess is called nī-gan (literally, root kami ). A male of that household called nī-chu ("root person"), who is the brother of the priestess and deals with the community's political affairs. Along with other priestesses, constituted by females of the village, the nī-gan priestess performs rituals for fertility in crops, rice, and fish as well as for their thanksgiving. Generally in Okinawa the religious activities of the village community are led by females; males, on the other hand, help females, handle mainly secular things, and do not engage in the main activity of communicating with the divine. Males were once forbidden to enter the utaki.

As just described, the female has a primacy in Okinawa's religious context. This primacy is also represented in the onari-gami (sister-kami ) belief that sisters as kami protect and help their brothers with spiritual power. Onari-gami belief is found in the relationship between brothers and sisters; in other words, a female is not a kami for everyone. This belief in the spiritual power of sisters was adapted by the Ryukyu kingdom for its unique hierarchical system in the sixteenth century. In this system the king governed in the political realm while the king's sister (sometimes a female relative of king) called chifījin (kikoeōkimi ) administered the kingdom religiously as she dispatched the state priestesses called nuru (noro ) to each region. Under chifījin, the nuru led the local priestesses such as nī-gan and performed rites to glorify and protect the king and prayed for the prosperity of the kingdom.

Rituals at utaki, the sacred space of the villages, are mainly conducted with sacred songs, which are known as kami-uta, and also with praying verses. The contents of these songs and verses are diverse, ranging from a cosmogonic myth and legends regarding the founding of villages to prospective ritual songs, that is, songs to illustrate various production processes including farming, weaving, and house building. The ritual songs for the various productions in the community tend to sacralize them, many of which are related to mythic events. Priestesses in this prayer are mediators between the divine and human beings, conveying the divine revelation as perfomative through the sacred songs and verses. The priestesses in the Ryukyu dynasty conducted the rituals with sacred songs that were compiled in Omoro-sōshi. Ritual songs of Omoro-sōshi were collected songs of regions around the Okinawa and Amami islands (not including the Miyako and Yaeyama regions) from about the seventeenth to twentieth century. The Miyako and Yaeyama regions have many of their own kami-uta that have been passed down to priestesses by oral tradition.

The veneration of ancestral spirits is also a notable feature of religious tradition of Okinawan. It is said that this belief plays an important role in constructing the self-identity of the people in a kinship and lineage. Almost all the households have altars to revere their ancestors. Traditionally there is a belief in Okinawa that ancestral spirits are the beings that protect the descendant but at the same time bring misfortune if the people fail to revere them. This belief can be seen in ceremonies at the altar of the ancestor. The altar generally consists of three shelves. The upper shelf holds the memorial tablet (tōtōmē ) with the name of ancestors, the middle shelf holds a censer, and the lower shelf is for the offerings. The tablet is treated as the place in which ancestral spirits reside. The oldest female attends this altar and prays to the ancestor for her family's fortune. The succession of the tablet between generations in the family should be carefully conducted with some strict rules and taboos. For example, the successor has to be the eldest son; a daughter may not be the successor.

The ceremonial formation of Okinawan ancestral belief was to some extent influenced by Buddhism, which was introduced from Japan and was further affected by Confucian thought from China. It is said that from the late seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth century, Confucian ethics had a great impact on Okinawa, establishing the class system, the accession system, the ancestor tablet, the clan tomb, and various ceremonies, all of which are based on the patrilineal principle. And soon these cultural influences permeated the lower class of society. Despite these influences, some scholars argue that ancestral belief is based on an indigenous pattern in which people revere ancestral spirits as divine beings.

There is yet another altar in the household in Okinawa. Usually this altar consists of three stones and a censor and sits next to the hearth in the kitchen. This is called hinukan (or finukan, literally, hearth deity) and is also handled by the female. It is said that the hinukan altar was originally the hearth itself. The woman in a house prays to the hinukan deity for fortune and protection of all its inhabitants. To protect them, the deity needs to know important changes in the household, including birth, marriage, and death. Therefore, such changes in the family are recited every time and on a regular basis. Scholars also point out that the hinukan is also a duplicated ceremonial center or a channel to communicate with other deities.

In Okinawa, there are shamanic individuals called yuta (or kankaryā in Miyako, nigēbī in Yaeyama). Most shamans are female and male shamans are very few. Priestesses such as nuru, nīgan, and other lower priestesses are in charge of meeting the religious needs of their community. Yutas, on the other hand, are concerned with individual problems, telling a client's fortune and praying to cure an individual or his or her family's chronic disease through divine revelation or auguring. A person who is able to become a yuta tends to have a strong, innate spiritual power (siji or seji ). Physical and mental anguish as well as auditory hallucination is a part of the initiation (called kamidāri ) to become a yuta. From the Ryukyu dynasty era to the Meiji era, yutas were vigorously suppressed; nonetheless, they did not fade away, and even now many yutas are meeting individuals' religious needs. There have been cases in which a yuta with believers forms a religious group or founds a new religion.

Non-native religions in Okinawa, outside of Confucianism, feng-shui, and Buddhism from China and Japan, in the Ryukyu dynasty era include Christianity and Japanese new religions. Christianity was introduced in the Meiji era and was promulgated by missionaries who entered Okinawa after World War II. It is noted that the number of Christians in Okinawa is twice that of mainland Japan. New religions of mainland Japan have also been introduced to Okinawa and are firmly in place.

There is no doubt that so-called traditional ceremonies of the village communities in Okinawa have increasingly declined because of the decrease of successors resulting from changes in ways of life and the modernization of society. Rites and ceremonies have been simplified and in some cases have vanished. This does not mean, however, that Okinawan religion will disappear in the future, for it is clear that there remains a strong tendency and intention for Okinawan people to identify themselves in their culture derived from religious traditions and to revitalize the festival of each community.

See Also

Japanese Religions, overview article; Kami.


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Okinawan Religion

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