A visit to Ryukyu Village, an enchanting tourist attraction north of Naha, the capital city of Okinawa offers a glimpse of myriad Okinawan cultural traditions, including bingata (painted red patterns and design), orimono (textiles), and toki (pottery). But most delightful are the mischievous shisa lounging on rooftops, lined up in grinning rows, and peeking out of bushes with goofy eyes.
If a single icon could represent the resilient spirit of Okinawa, it would be the mythical lion-dog shisa, which playfully adorn rooftops and entryways, store and home fronts throughout the Okinawan islands.
Usually in pairs, a female shisa's mouth is open to beckon good fortune, and a male shisa's mouth is closed in a quirky snarl-grin to keep the good luck in.
Chigan-san and the legend of how the shisa came to be protectors of Okinawa
The shisa originally came from China, but a mythical story to explain its powers suggests that a long time ago on Okinawa island, there was a young boy named Chiga-san whose village was constantly terrorized by an angry sea dragon.
After one particularly ferocious attack, the king of Okinawa, concerned for the villagers, approached the young Chiga-san and gave him a small statue attached to a piece of rope. He explained to the boy that this shisa statue should be placed at the seaside in front of the village, and that it would protect the people from harm.
Chigan-san accepted the statue, a dull, brownish lion figurine with a fierce snarl on its lips. Chiga-san bowed in respect to the king and placed the shisa as he was told.
The next day, the waves crashed loudly, signalling the approach of the dragon. The villagers ran from their homes, eyes expectantly on the tiny shisa statue perched on the beach. The dragon sprang up from the sea, then froze at the sight of the shisa figure, which had begun to tremble, a loud rumbling coming from deep within.
The statue suddenly burst open and a huge shisa lion roared as it bounded out and attacked the dragon. The two creatures disappeared into the sea, and the villagers feared the shisa had been killed.
Moments later, far off in the ocean, a blast of water shot up and the fighting creatures reemerged, only to sink down into the water again. Much to the surprise of the onlooking villagers, a tiny island suddenly appeared where there had been none before.
Chiga-san kept watching for the shisa lion, which never reappeared, but he gasped when he looked down at the shisa statue on the beach. It was completely intact without even a crack.
Word soon spread of the shisa lion's bravery and the peace that had come to Chiga-san's village. Other villages soon began making their own shisa lions and the shisa came to be known as the guardians of the Okinawan islands.
The shisa later made its way to mainland Japan in the form of kumainu, which are often seen guarding the gates of jinja, or Shinto shrines, but do not have the peculiar omnipresence of the shisa in Okinawa.
Shopping in Naha, a shisa-lover's delight
Shoppers wandering down Kokusai Dori, Naha's "international street," are greeted on all sides by ogling shisa figurines, in all sizes, positions, and range of facial expressions: shisa with wagging tongues and crossed eyes, cartoon-like clay shisa showing the two-fingered peace sign, even companion shisa engaged in sexually adventurous positions. The somewhat spiritual, yet laugh-at-life quality of the shisa, in many ways captures the essence of Okinawa itself.
Okinawan islands a world apart from mainland Japan
South of mainland Japan, the chain of islands once forming the independent Ryukyu Kingdom boast a unique cultural blend of influences not only from Japan, but also from China, Thailand, and as far south as Indonesia. In the Japanese conquest of the islands, they were renamed "Okinawa", but as anyone who has been there can attest, Okinawa is like visiting a different country--culturally and linguistically quite removed from Japan.
The Okinawan islands, in fact, are closer in proximity to Taipei than to Japan's southern port city, Fukuoka. Okinawa's geographical location has strategically poised it for centuries of trade and commerce between Japan and China, and in the present day, it serves as a beacon for international exchange and understanding between Asian nations.
The spirit of Okinawan people fortified in the face of Japanese imperialism
Okinawa-ben, the language of Okinawa, is practically unintelligible to mainland Japanese, and physical characteristics, such as facial features and skin color, more closely resemble those of Malaysian people.
Okinawans are proud of this distinction. For centuries they have struggled to maintain their identity under the yoke of Japan, being treated as second-class citizens, having their women stolen away to the mainland to become wives for Japanese men, and later, during World War II, being forced to serve the Japanese Imperial Army. Okinawa, often considered "dispensable", suffered some of the war's bloodiest battles, and even now Okinawa shares a disproportionate burden of the US military presence in Japan.
Those arriving in Okinawa from the mainland are often struck by its relative shabbiness in contrast to the rest of Japan. A small, cluttered airport, dingy buses, and rundown-looking buildings greet the eye, but it is this very lack of modernity and luster, punctuated by palm trees and bathed in warm breezes, which make it instantly endearing.
Also gone are the stiff, interpersonal encounters customary on the mainland, but instead an outward friendliness and radiant pride Okinawans seem to take in the survival of their culture.
Okinawan culture, despite inevitable "Japanization", has retained its distinctive customs, and most importantly, it is blessed by the genuine smiles and easygoing attitude of the Okinawan people.
Some might say there is more weight, after all, to the story of young Chiga-san and the guardian shisa who saved his village from the fearsome dragon.