Saturday, March 28, 2009

Seimei: Pronounced "She Me"

There's a strange phenomenon that occurs in everyone's life when they become middle aged. You become nostalgic and start thinking back to the good old days. It always seems that when this happens to me, it's the family things that I remember first and foremost. I come from a large family and there are a lot of advantages to being from a large family. One thing that comes to mind is the many holidays and the associated family traditions.

Holidays almost always meant a gathering of the clan to include members of the extended family. For a few precious hours, the house would become a sea of humanity as Aunts and Uncles spent hours on end catching up on old times as the children played with reckless abandon. As with every family gathering there was always a huge feast, accidents happened, tempers flared and fortunately quickly subsided. There was always the some time taken out for remembrance of those who were no longer with us.

Okinawa doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas or a lot of the same holidays we do in the west. But they do have plenty of their own holidays and traditions to speak of. One of these celebrated throughout much of the month of April is called Seimei. Pronounced "She Me" in the local dialect, Seimei is a gathering of all the family and it is rich with ritual and tradition that goes back for hundreds, maybe even a thousand years. Some of the rituals and traditions associated with it may seem strange to westerners at the onset. But if you take time to examine them, you'll find that there are many similarities as well.

Of all the rituals associated with Seimei, perhaps the one that is most important and seems the strangest to westerners is the gathering of the clan at the family crypt. Here it's a picnic like atmosphere. Everything that takes place seems for the most part to be normal but it's the location that seems most strange. You need only remember that it's a time of remembrance to bring a sense of normality to it. In Japan, the family is very high in order of importance. In Okinawa, it's first and foremost.

Okinawans think of themselves not so much in terms of what they are as in a vocation or profession. Much more important in their culture is their family lineage. Most people from the older generations can tell from the family name, where on the island the family originated. For example they might know that the Oshiro's come from Itoman in the south, the Yonamine's come from the Motobu peninsula in the north and the Tsuhako's come from Chinen in the east and so on. Though not as common as it used to be, in some cases, it's even still possible to tell what a persons profession is based on their family name.

A lot of preparations go into holding a successful Seimei. Because families are extended and attendance is practically mandatory, some scheduling has to be done to insure that daughters and their husbands can attend. After all, they must also attend the husband's side of the family's celebration too. Traditional foods are prepared the night before as well as the morning of. Incense and offerings to the ancestors must be prepared.

On the day of the big event and everyone finally arrives, the area must be cleaned of weeds and debris. The offerings are arranged before the altar and incense is burned. The incense used is a special kind that consists of three individual sticks that are fused together. One stick of three is burned for every living member of the household to include those, like myself, who are related by marriage. Lastly, paper representing money is burned and offered to the ancestors. I guess that's because in Heaven they don't take credit cards.

After all the offerings are made to the ancestors and the incense is finally burned away, the family begins to feast. Traditional foods such as fish tempura, gobo root, daikon radish Kamabokko (fish cake) and San-mai-nikku (pork belly) are consumed. For dessert, mochi is on the menu. Mochi is rice that is cooked, pounded and finely kneaded into a paste. Its then stuffed with something sweet, usually adzuki beans and dusted with confectioner's sugar. The whole ceremony lasts about an hour.

Afterward, everyone usually returns to the head of the clan's home and the feasting and fellowship last well into the evening hours. Include a little beer or sake and it may go on through to the next morning. That's all well and good provided you don't have to work the next day. But in Okinawa, allowances are made for this because Seimei is such an important part of the culture. It's who they are!

Need to get in or keep in touch with your family and friends? Try these genuine Goya Republic Post Cards. This photo was taken of a shaman priestess at work and was originally published in the last issue of Everywhere Magazine.

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