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Superstition and the Spiritual Realm in Okinawa

By: Angelina Esparza

Date Posted: 2000-02-12

She was a phenomenal Okinawan beauty who lived in the village of Futenma. This nameless young girl had the same vision every night. In this vision a voice spoke to her saying, "You are to be the goddess of Futenma." And on a certain day that goddesses were said to be born, she left her home at age 16, and entered the Futenma temple. No one ever saw her again.

Presently, many people, particularly young men, visit the Futenma temple to receive her blessings. This legend is one among many legends that still manifest themselves in Okinawa's polydeistic culture. The island's intensely superstitious rituals have been drowned by the integration of mainland Japanese culture and the spread of Christianity. However, many traditions involving dead spirits and territorial gods have survived.

Confiding in the "Yuta" (mediator priest) is still common among the Uchinaa (Ryukyu descendant) families. The Yuta performs a wide range of duties, which are often in affiliation with the dead. They receive most of their visits during the New Year celebrations and the "Obon" (several days dedicated to dead relatives) seasons, or when death and other significant events occur in the family. Yutas are said to be able to interpret messages from dead relatives and to predict the fates of living family members. It is believed that illnesses and emotional distress could also be resolved through their healing powers. Finally, they are often called to exorcise ghosts or bad spirits from people and places. According to Okinawans who still believe in their powers, the Yutas can bless or curse, and are thought to be essential in the lives of those who wish to attain a safe and healthy lifestyle.

Several western thinkers, especially Christians, may dismiss these beliefs as primitive obsessions for the unknown spiritual realm of life. There is an unspoken occurrence that is still beyond the acceptance or comprehension of many westerners: it is a local taboo subject that is found in the word "leikan." The Kanjis for that word translate into English as "spirit" and "sense." Ridiculous as it may seem, a relatively large fraction of the Uchinaa people are said to have the "sixth sense." Although the movie "Sixth Sense" - starring Bruce Willis - may not accurately describe the "real" encounter, it is said to have some similarities with Okinawan beliefs.

According to what we learnt from separate interviews with two Uchinaa women, unrelated to each other and said to have a sixth sense, it seems that some spirits can be "seen" and others are "felt." The ones that are seen are mostly victims of WWII. At times, they claim, the victims are not "fully contacted." Both women said that the "spirits of the dead" are categorized as "good spirits" and "bad spirits." The "good spirits" are, virtually, inactive and "minding their own business." The "bad spirits" are the ones responsible for destroying businesses and bringing on sickness or injury. There are plenty of empty apartment floors, and unfinished building projects that are blamed on the countless reports of "spirit sightings." One of the ladies claimed, "I have salt hanging all over my house because of this little girl [a ghost] that's been hanging around for two years."

Many new businesses and homes mark their entrances with a container of salt to keep "bad spirits" away. Children are instructed to stay away from cemeteries to avoid chances of becoming host to a roaming spirit. It is thought that spirits stalk children, as opposed to adults, because of the lack of "strong will" in them. Suicide sites, accident sites or any death-related sites are said to be the most common "dwelling places” for such spirits.

Such claims, in the United States or anywhere else in the western world, probably would not be taken too seriously. Yet, many of the Uchinaa people, other Okinawans, and even several Amerasians (in spite of their American fathers), are still very willing to believe in the existence of an active spiritual realm.

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