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.



  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this blog. Seeing life lived in such a different way by these people who are like me, but born in a different place just makes me think of all the things I do during the day and look at my priorities. I am learning to love and appreciate these people. Thank you again.

  2. Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into this blog. It feels almost like taking a little vacation whenever I take a look. Isn't it amazing that we are all brothers and sisters, but that our life experiences can be so totally different even today where we are more interconnected? I am starting to love these people.
    Thank you again.

  3. Linda, Thank you for the kind words, That's what keeps me going at this. To hedge my bet against an uncertain economy, I've taken on a steady job with a local university and as such, posts to this blog may not be as frequent as you're used to.

    That being said, I do have two other blogs, three if you count what I'm doing with the folks at the GaijinPot website. You're welcome to look at those as well.

    I'm in training now but once things settle down a bit, you'll probably find the number of posts getting back on schedule. Again, thanks for the kind words and please, help me spread the word about this wonderful place.