Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Hari Hare Har

As the summer sun begins to warm up, the festivities of the season start to get as hot as the weather. All across the island, numerous local communities will be planning and holding festivals, many of which are rich in tradition and spectacle. Just such a spectacle is held each year during the Golden Week holiday at the Aja Wharf in the Capital city of Naha.

The biggest festival is the Naha Hari, better known to westerners as the “Dragon Boat” Races. Much like Naha’s world famous Tug-o-war which is held each October, the Naha Hari is a world famous event and a traditional rite of spring in Okinawa. If you ever get the chance, you not only want to see it but take part in it and as many as can, do.

Dragon Boat races called (Ha-ri or Ha-re) in the local dialect came to Okinawa from China. Their origin is not certain but locals believe they are responsible for bringing about good fishing and harvests. Hari usually happen in the spring and are held in fishing towns and villages all across the island.

The most famous is in Naha which is held annually each May to coincide with the Golden Week holiday. In this race, teams from across the island, to include teams from the four branches of the U.S. Forces stationed here are invited to compete. The largest competition on Okinawa is held in Itoman on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese calendar which varies from late May till Late June.

The Dragon Boats are large and colorful and decorated with a large Chinese dragon’s face painted on the bow and a long brightly colored tail that rises out of the water at the stern. Teams usually consist of thirty-two oarsmen, a helmsman, and a drummer who pounds out a hectic paced rhythmic beat that the oarsmen try to keep pace with. There are also two or more cheerleaders whose main job seems to be to rally the team.

Crowds of spectators cheer on the participants with all their might as the boats swiftly but gracefully glide past. They are made with lightweight wood and traditional boat building techniques mean no nails or metal of any kind are used in their construction. They are brought out annually for three days of fierce competition and then like a precious family heirloom, carefully stored and preserved for the coming year.

As a sports competition, Hari have also become a very popular with local Corporations who compete against each other to for the coveted title. The races are recognized for the camaraderie and teamwork fostered amongst the teams who compete. Many of these teams have been together for years and the experience often shows. Anyone can put together a team and compete.

In addition to the team building aspects of the competition, one could even say that it offers the opportunity to build and foster a spirit of friendship between the local population and the many Americans stationed here too. Each branch of the American Armed Forces on Okinawa sports a team and each team represents their service well. Often they compete against their Japanese military counterparts.

Usually the weather cooperates, at least a little bit. Typically the Naha Hari coincides with the beginning of the rainy season which lasts about a month. If we’re lucky enough to get some sun, revelers can expect highs in the mid to upper seventies with minimal humidity, perfect for racing. If the rains come early, it can be anywhere from chilly and damp to Sultry.

Races are held rain or shine and competition runs in heats. The teams with the best times return to compete again and again until only three teams remain. The winners hold bragging rights for the year. But based on my experience, if the competition were judged by the smiles on people’s faces, then in reality, everyone who goes, either as a competitor or spectator, is a winner.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Religion in Okinawa

In the center of every Okinawan home is the Butsudan or Family Altar. In most homes it's actually built into the wall of the house in an alcove of the second room or "Nibanza". This is quite unlike their mainland Japanese counterparts where in the Butsudan is, more often than not, a piece of furniture that can be easily packed up and moved with the family. As such, families in Okinawa have more of an affinity with their property. At the same time, they view property, or land, ownership in more of a stewardship light. By that I mean they view property as something that is borrowed from the Gods and must be cared for with all due diligence.

This property to include the house, Butsudan and the family crypt, along with all the accumulated wealth is almost always passed down the family through the eldest son. With this wealth come great responsibilities, not only for himself but also for his wife. He has the responsibility to maintain the family fortune and hopefully build upon it. Together they have the responsibility for maintaining the family reputation and passing it on to their offspring and on and on it goes.

This clan like culture is the glue that has held Okinawan society together through the millennia. Here family name and honor are held in highest regard. It's still proper to ask the head of the clan and getting their blessing before embarking on new ventures. The head of the clan is still involved in settling family disputes. Going to court is the last thing on anyone's mind.

Ancestors are revered and venerated. This is a key tenet of the faith. Where you come from is who you are! Family secrets are buried deep and further damage to the reputation is avoided. All that is good is remembered and passed on to the succeeding generations. More important than where you come from is who you come from and doing all in your power to honor them with your own good behavior!

Throughout the year, families gather together. These are more than just celebrations. Ceremonies honoring the ancestors are held along with prayers for continued family success and consultations of where the family should go into the future are likewise held. Along with the seriousness of this, there is also time for celebration and merriment. As the future generations grow and prosper encouragement is given for continued success in athletic prowess, academic accomplishments, and good citizenship.

Typical family gatherings occur at New Years. This can be for both the calendar and Chinese New Year. Gatherings also occur at "Seimei" in spring and "Obon" in the late summer season. They also occur on the anniversaries of the death of a family member. These occur on specific, usually odd, numbered years after the member has passed and continues for many years. These ceremonies in a small way guarantee remembrance well beyond ones passing to the next world. Also, at least once annually, all the branches of the family will gather in the village where the family name originated too.

In addition to the family gatherings, prayers of thanks are always given annually for the blessings of prosperity and property. At least once a year, the woman of the house will go about the four corners of the family home to perform "Ugami" and offer prayers of thanks for all they have been blessed with. Specific places of worship involve the four corners of the compass on which the property sits, the Genkan "entrance way to the home," the Hinukan "kitchen God," the Butsudan "family altar" and surprisingly enough, the toilet facilities.

Sometimes when the woman of the household is either, too busy with children or work, too naive in the tenets of the faith or if fate has not been kind to the family throughout the previous year, a shaman or "Yuta" may be called in to perform the ceremonies either for her or along side her. Revered for their ability to commune with the spirits of those long past, Yuta's are available to provide guidance in family matters and to appease the spirits for a nominal fee.

These many ceremonies and gatherings of remembrance to pay homage to those who have gone on before are a large part of daily life here on tiny Okinawa. Just as the family altar, located in the center of the family home, is the center point on which the family focuses, so it is that life focuses and revolves around the family and the clan. They are interwoven into the fabric of the society and it is who they are as a people.

Pictures top to bottom:
1. A Butsudan decorated for the Obon celebration.
2. The Butsudan with food offerings prepared for a feast.
3. Incense offerings ar made to the ancestors before the family can enjoy the bounty.
4. A prayer kit is readied for Ohigan. The box contains rice, sake and salt. Fresh fruit offerings are readied for the spirits and the black incense along with the paper representing money is burned as an offering to the ancestors.
5. Prayers are offered for the house "Kamisama" or god. The "little house" is where the spirits that protect the house and its inhabitants dwell.