Okinawa has strong historical links to Chinese culture, and many traditions were brought to the island chain. One such import is Shisa (シーサー) which are guardian lions that protect houses and entrances from evil spirits. These days there are many varieties of Shisa all over the prefecture.
If you take a walk through any residential area in Okinawa, you will soon notice that almost every house and apartment has a pair of Shisa at it’s entrance. The female Shisa is said to have it’s mouth closed, which “keeps in the good” while the male Shisa’s mouth is open to scare away evil spirits. Shisa are also found on most non-residential buildings such as schools, hospitals, businesses and even shopping malls.
In recent years, Shisa have become somewhat of a novelty with many “crazy” designs created with tourists in mind. A short walk down Kokusai Street (the main tourist strip in Naha City) reveals a wide range of trinkets, t-shirts and mini, gift-sized Shisa. Although some of the designs are not the most authentic, they are still very impressive and add to the fun atmosphere of Kokusai Street.
If you are interested in finding some truly authentic Shisa there are plenty still dotted around the island. A stone Shisa on the edge of Madanbashi Village, just south of Naha, is referred to locally as “Iri-nu”.
According to legend, a giant monster used to regularly attack the people of Madanbashi. One day, when the King was visiting the village an attack happened. A local priestess instructed the King to hold his Shisa-figurine-necklace (which he had received from a Chinese diplomat) up to the monster. As he did so, a powerful roar could be heard throughout the village and three boulders fell from the sky pinning the monster down by its tail. The monster was unable to move, and eventually became Gana Forest. The people of Madanbashi placed Iri-nu Shisa facing the forest to protect against any future attacks. Each year, on August 15th of the lunar calendar, people offer fruit, steamed buns and prayers to Iri-nu, asking for the safety and health of Madanbashi residents.
The oldest Shisa in Okinawa is located in Tomimori Village, and has a similar story. Long ago Tomimori experienced many house fires, said to have been caused by the strength of nearby Yaese Mountain. In the 16th Century the Tomimori Shisa was placed at the edge of the village facing the mountain in order to prevent these disasters and protect the local people.
The Shisa has had an active existence and was even caught up in WWII. Japanese soldiers hid behind the Shisa to defend their position and deep bullet holes from crossfire between American and Japanese troops can still be seen today.
So, when you’re in Okinawa, be sure to keep an eye out for these important cultural artifacts! They will pop up in some unexpected places, and the more unusual and interesting Shisa in the markets can make great gifts! Happy Shisa spotting!!