Hello friends, in what may be a departure from our normal posts about yakisugi, I would like to instead focus on a cultural peculiarity that I found intriguing during my time spent living in Japan, and tell you about the shiisaa of Okinawa and some history about the island which I was lucky enough to experience in my younger days.
The Island of Okinawa
I lived on the island of Okinawa for over two years. During that time, I discovered many new things: food, culture, ancient ruins, historic battle sites from WWII, beer vending machines and hundreds of other peculiarities that can only be found there. As I adventured all over this island, I continued to see one constant throughout: a set of distinct statues hanging out on rooftops or at the entrance of many homes and businesses. These statues are known as “shi shi dogs.”
Firstly though, we may need some context and background about the island itself. Many of you reading this are no doubt aware of and have interest in Japan and its history, as you have discovered Nakamoto Forestry. But you may not know about the island of Okinawa and her history, unless you grew up in the 80’s as a Karate Kid fan, or you’re a WWII history buff.
Okinawa lies at the midpoint of a chain of volcanic islands known as Ryukyu Islands. Once an independent country, Okinawa was annexed as part of Japan in the early 17th century. Though it remains part of Japan, it has maintained its own distinct culture.
The History and Cultural Significance of Shiisaa
Shi shi dogs (or shiisaa as they are known in Okinawa) are an integral part of Okinawan culture. They were first brought to Okinawa from China in the 14th century. The actual truth of how shi shi dogs arrived in the Ryukyuan kingdom has been lost to time, but there are many folktales that have been told about the shiisaa’s arrival.
As one folk tale goes, the Ryukyu king received a visitor from China who gifted him a necklace that had a small lion-dog pendant. The king kept the necklace and decided to wear it under his robes. In a nearby village, a dragon was terrorizing the locals; destroying their homes and killing families. After hearing about this, the king visits the town and confronts the dragon by lifting the necklace toward it. The shi shi dog lets out a powerful roar. Then a huge boulder fell from the sky and onto the dragon, trapping it. The dragon ended up dying in that spot and eventually became covered with plants and trees, turning into present-day Ganna-mui Woods.
Modern Shiisaa in Japan
The oldest, and largest, shiisaa in Okinawa is known as the Tomori lion. Erected in the late 17th century, it’s thought to protect the area in which it resides, Yaese. It’s stood through the Battle of Okinawa. Today, it sits in a public area in Yaese. Bullet holes and scars from that battle can still be seen.
Today, shi shi dogs are found everywhere on Okinawa. They look like a cross between a dog and a lion, with a big curly mane of fur. Some even think they look like gargoyles. Shi shi dogs can be made out of red clay, plaster or carved stone. They can appear painted in bright colors, or they can be left plain.
Most frequently, shi shi dogs are found in pairs. The male is depicted with an open mouth and is thought to scare off evil spirits. The female of the pair always has a closed mouth to keep in the good spirits. The stories and beliefs differ based on the location but for the most part, the male shisa is used to protect the physical environment, while the female preserves and shares with her a sense of positivity.
So there you have it friends; now we know a bit about the history, myth and folklore behind these very cool statues. Personally I choose to believe that they came to life to ward off the dragons and protect the villages of Okinawa in a time long lost. And now we know why I saw them literally everywhere I went on the island as their purpose is to offer protection to places of importance.
And for more information about Okinawa and Shiisaa please see the works cited below.
“Introduction of Okinawa.” Introduction of Okinawa / Official Website of Okinawa Prefecture, Okinawa Prefecture, 23 December 2013, https://www.pref.okinawa.lg.jp/site/chijiko/kohokoryu/foreign/english/introduction/index.html. Accessed 19 May 2022.
Japan Info,com. “All about the SHISA Lions of Okinawa－the Stone Guardians of Japan.” Japan Info | Genuine information about Japan by the Japanese. Discover great restaurants, amazing places and unique culture!, jpninfo.com, 10 Jan 2020, http://jpninfo.com. Accessed 19 May 2022.
Okinawa Index. “Index > Culture > Myth & Folklore > Shisa.” Okinawa Index, Okinawa Index, http://www.okinawaindex.com/index/?tid=2&cid=290&id=1. Accessed 19 May 2022.