Religious perspective of Okinawa
Okinawa has two main religions; Ryukyuan Buddhism and Ryukyuan Shinto.
It’s actually kind of weird to say those words for me, since Okinawan local people never use those words to describe the religions we have. Perhaps most people don’t even know the names of the religions. Most people in Okinawa believe in both of those two religions, and since we don’t go to temples or shrines to pray for, we don’t recognize that they are actually Buddhism and Shinto.
The Ryukyuan Shinto worships the gods and spirits of the natural world, and in Ryukyuan Shinto, religious services are done by women. Men are not allowed to do it.
The most important gods are the fire god and the water god, and there are other gods that we worship.
Hinukan is a hearth god, and usually located in the kitchen at home. It is the fire god, and it also is the guardian of the “family fire”.
We offer sake, salt. rice and some leaves for Hinukan everyday and pray for the well‐being of our families.
Hinukan is the most of most important gods in Okinawa since it’s the guardian of the “family fire”, and we always treat it right. Fire is extremely important in our life. We cook with fire, we need fire to warm up water and take a bath, and in the past it was the lights of our houses.
Restaurants in okinawa have Hinukan too since they cook for many people everyday. Someone from the restaurants pray for Hinukan everyday and wish they won’t get any bad accidents.
Okinawa has small ponds which have clear spring water everywhere.
As the water service has improved, we don’t go to the ponds to get water for our daily lives, but those places are still very important for us.
Those places are called “Kaa” and it’s a place where people go to worship the water god. So if you go to one of them, you can probably find incense burners for religious services.
In Okinawa, water is very important. Because we don’t have big lakes and rivers, water could be in short supply sometimes. Thanks to the water service, that doesn’t happen often now (it still does, but not really serious). Yet it’s pretty easy to imagine that our ancestors had had hard times when they couldn’t get enough water.
Also, water is considered holy (it’s considered holy in Japanese Shinto too).
By the way, when I was a child, my friends and I used to play in the Kaa near my grandparents’ house, and nobody got mad about it. Okinawan gods are kids-friendly, I guess?!
Utaki is an Okinawan term for a sacred place.
Utaki(s) are usually located in the forests on the outskirts of the villages.
It is where you do big religious ceremonies, and since it’s a holy place, only women can go there.
The most famous utaki is Sefa-utaki, meaning “purified place of Utaki”. It is an historical sacred space, overlooking Kudaka Island, and the island is one of the key locations for Ryukyuan Shinto.
The Ryukyuan Buddhism actually doesn’t worship Buddha. It worships our ancestors. I actually don’t know if it’s really OK to call it “Buddhism”, but this is how it’s called.
Okinawan people actually don’t call it “Ryulyuan Buddhism”. We don’t actually call it anything, and I actually learned the word “Ryukyuan Buddhism” before I studied in California when I was a high school student. I thought some people would ask me what religion I had, but I didn’t know the name, so I searched the word.
Praying for our ancestors is part of our daily routine for us, just like cleaning our houses.
The Butsudan or Totome is the primary focus of ancestor worship. The word “Butsudan” literally means “Buddha Shelf” in Japanese and Totome is the Okinawan dialect for that, but in Okinawa, it never houses a statue of Buddha.
It is usually like a small closet, and it is the family altar. Incense, food and alcohol are offered to ancestors at the Butsudan, and we also offer memorial things there sometimes.
In Japan, Buddhist priests chant Buddhist sutra in front of Butsudan. Except for Okinawa!
In Okinawa, family members “talk” to the ancestors in front of it.
We say something like
“Good morning Granpa. Today I have a test. Wish me luck!”
“Hi Granma. My sister is coming back to Okinawa tomorrow. Let’s wish for her safe trip!”
“Hello our ancestors. Thank you for protecting us. It was a great day. Good night!”
As you can see, we “talk” to them.
If you keep having bad lucks, you would probably get “It’s because of Ugan-busoku”.
“Ugan-busoku” means that you haven’t worshiped your ancestors enough and that’s why you get bad lucks.
Shiimii is held on the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar. This makes it the 15th day after the Spring Equinox, either April 4th or 5th in a given year.
On Shiimii day, all the relatives get together and go to the family grave. Then we clean up the grave and have a feast there!
Since Okinawan graves are pretty big (they are often as big as houses), we do have enough space for everyone to sit down and enjoy the food and drinks. So it’s just like going on a picnic with a whole family.
We enjoy the feast with our ancestors and we also “send money” to them.
The money for the heaven is called “uchikabi” and we burn them so that the ancestors won’t be poor.
Eisa is a form of folk dance originating from Okinawa.
Musicians play and sing, and dancers dance to it. When the dancers dance, they also beat the drums and yell at the same time. “Te-odori” girls also dance with eisa dancers. They wear Okinawan short kimono and do pretty dance.
In Okinawa, eisa is danced during bon holidays and that’s the main event for eisa dancers and musicians. Nowadays, we perform eisa all year around, but since the origin of the dance was very religious, we still keep this tradition.
During obon holidays, it is said that our ancestors come back from the heaven.
So, on the first day of obon holidays, eisa is danced to welcome them. And the last they, it is danced to give them a send‐off.
Eisa is really exciting, so everyone enjoys watching it even they don’t perform. And we are very happy to share the joy with the ancestors.
Photo by Masami Fukuda
Photo by Masami Fukuda
We also burn “ucnikabi” on the last day of obon holidays.
Okinawan people are very religious
Okinawan people are very religious. Those religious things and events are very important for them. If you have a chance, please see the religious life of Okinawa people, and I’m pretty sure it’s interesting for you!