As a child growing up in Okinawa, being alone was impossible. Living on such a small island, we were always surrounded by members of our extended family, friends, animals and yes even ghosts.
I was constantly being reminded by grownups about our ancestors, the natural spirits and the souls of everything around me. I was living with my dead great-grandpa under the same roof and fighting an invisible war with evil spirits at the same time.
As strange as it may sound, this all made sense to me.
Long before the written tradition emerged in the Ryukyu kingdom (old Okinawa) the island had already established a strong indigenous belief system, with worship of ancestors and natural spirits at its centre. This ancient belief is still alive in today’s Okinawa and for the people living on the island, superstitions are just as powerful as science and logic in understanding the world and its inexplicable nature.
Here are some superstations that can still be found in today’s Okinawan culture
When sneezing, say “Kusuke” which literally means “Eat crap!”
I think this is true in many cultures but in Okinawa as well, the people believe that your soul will come out of your mouth when you sneeze. In order to prevent the soul to being devoured by an evil spirit, someone has to say “Kusuke!”(eat crap! in Okinawa`s own language).
Remember to pick up your soul at an accident scene
As you may have already noticed the soul, “Mabui” in Okinawan, is the most essential component of a human being. The soul is immortal and as a consequence of this, your soul can leave a body at anytime. In Okinawa, it is believed that when you encounter a shocking scene such as a car accident, your soul drops out from your body. So you have to go actually back to the scene and pick it up. As you pick up your soul you have to say, “Mabuya mabuya muduimisori” (please my soul come back to me.)
When a cat dies, hang the body
Cats are considered messengers from the netherworld. No one actually does this but when a cat dies, someone will always say “you have to hang the body otherwise an evil spirit will use it to come back to life.”
Can’t fall asleep? Fart as hard as you can
If you can’t move while you are asleep, it is because the tree spirit called Kijimuna is sitting on you. Kijimuna are short red haired spirits of trees living in Okinawa. They are very mischievous but friendly as well. What they like is fish eyes. What they hate is your smelly farts. If some night they come play with you, consider yourself lucky, but if you are too tired for their games, just fart as hard as you can and the Kijimuna will go away.
Benjamin Button might have been from Okinawa, because in Okinawa as you age you get younger and when you die you go back to your mother’s womb. This is the reason why the tombs in Okinawa are shaped like woman’s womb. Also, in traditional age celebrations in Okinawa called “Kajimaya”, the elders are given pinwheels. The pinwheels represent “returning to a child”.
The firstborn son inherits Hinukan, a fire god
A typical Okinawan household has Hinukan, a fire god shrine. The Okinawan people believe that there is a heaven called “Niraikanai” where the sun rises and this Niraikanai brought fire to the island. Fire is one of the most important gods in Okinawa because it protects a house and its family from evil spirits. Hinukan consists of a bowl of salt, water, Awamori (Okinawan alcohol), an evergreen branch, and incense sticks. The house with Hinukan is where all the family gathers and it’s a firstborn son’s obligation to inherit the Hinukan.
When sick, call Yuta
In Okinawa, spiritual rituals are organised by women. Yuta are female mediums and a big part of the life for Okinawan people. They are normally born with special abilities and after long training, they develop the power to communicate with the spiritual world. As an old Okinawan proverb indicates, “half doctor, half Yuta”, in Okinawa a Yuta is as respected as a doctor.
In Okinawa, gods are everywhere. There are even corner gods called Yushin. The north corner (Ninupha) prevents bad energy, the south corner (Umanupha) maintains healthy and family, the east corner (Unupha) is a messenger from the gods in heaven, and the west corner (Thuinupha) brings prosperity to a house. This notion plays out when building a new house. If one corner is missing, it brings bad luck to all who live there.
The evil spirits can only run straight
As mentioned, life in Okinawa is a perpetual war with evil spirits. The culture pays serious attention to these invisible forces and spends a tremendous amount of time and energy to prevent it from destroying people’s lives. But even this notorious evil force has a weakness. It can only run straight. So oftentimes it gets crushed and scattered when it hits a crossroad. This is why, in Okinawa (and I’ve heard that this tradition is true to some regions in China and southeast Asia), every junction has a stone tablet with three Chinese characters 石敢當 (Ishiganto) to exorcise the evil spirit.
As a strongly independent and diverse part of Japan, Okinawa has much to discover. With a unique history, subtropical climate, and the beautiful surrounding ocean it is easy to fall in love with Okinawa.