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Dugong found in Okinawan history from days of the Ryukyu Kingdom

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-02-21

Much attention and media coverage has been given lately to the "Dugong". Called "Jugong" in Japanese, it is one of the shyer mammals found in the warm oceans of the world. Recently, the Jugong has been making headlines here in Okinawa over discoveries of it's presence at the proposed heliport site near Camp Schwab. Last month, aerial photographs were taken of the Jugong by a Nippon television crew, fueling more controversy over the situation.

The Jugong, unknown to most people, has actually been recorded in Okinawan history more than a few times, and has played an important part in local folklore and religion.

Professor Eikichi Hateruma, who teaches Ryukyu literature at the Okinawa Prefectural University of Fine Arts, explained that the earliest recordings of the Jugong here in Okinawa can be traced back to traditional songs. "In these oral accounts of Okinawan history, the Jugong is referred to as Zan," said Professor Hateruma. One such song, tells of local fishermen being chosen to go out and catch the Jugong. "In our nets we shall catch 100 sea turtles and 100 Zan," says one of the lines. The song, which belongs to the main island of Okinawa, is a type of song called omoro in the local language. It was written between the twelfth and seventeenth century, before the introduction of the sanshin. Omoro were often sung to the sound of drums and clapping. During this time, there was no written history of the island, but many omoro have been able to explain different aspects of Okinawan life and customs.

The southern islands of the Ryukyu archipelago also have their fair share of songs, but refer to the Jugong as a very sacred animal, which could not be harmed. These songs are more recent, and are classified as minyo, which are still widely sung today. A song from the very small island of Hatojima, just off the coast of Iriomote, tells the story of a woman that looked out to a calm sea and discovered a Jugong, which she first had mistaken as a floating log. She called the villagers, hoping it could be caught to eat. The villagers however, believed that their small island always had good harvests, because they never killed a Jugong for food, and thus told the woman that it must be left alone.

There is also a folk tale from the island of Miyako, which tells the story of a young fisherman, who catches a Jugong, and begins to cook it on the beach. The Jugong begins to cry for help, asking the god of the ocean to send a big tsunami, so that it can swim away and save itself. The fisherman's wife hears the wish being cried out by the Jugong, so she quickly grabs her baby and makes her way to high ground. They are able to save themselves from a huge wave of water, which kills the fisherman and the rest of the villagers.

The belief that the Jugong was sacred can be traced to other places across the Ryukyu islands. Professor Hateruma went on to explain another minyo song from Panari island. In the song, the young men of the island catch Jugong to give to the King in Shuri as a special tax payment, which was called uwakizei. This form of tax payment was common for many islands that could only pay taxes with commodities. "The Jugong was not used as food, but was given to be used as a special medicine. The meat was cut into thin slices, and boiling water was poured over it. The broth was then drank as a special medicinal soup," explained Professor Hateruma. However, the medicine could not be taken by the average person, and it was reserved only for those with divine power.

In the village of Ogimi, located in north Okinawa, there is yet another song, which gives the Jugong a special spiritual status in Okinawan religion and beliefs. The song belongs to a festival, in which priestesses sing a song to send the gods on a safe journey back to the spiritual world. The gods are said to be returning by Jugong.

Also, on the island of Arugusuku there is a special sacred praying area, which is set aside for the Jugong. The area still exists, giving further documentation of how the Jugong was revered as a very divine animal in the Ryukyu islands.

These songs and folklore present historians with evidence of the Jugong's place in Okinawan culture and traditions. Many cultures held nature and animals as sacred, only killing and taking what was necessary. Today however, we have put humans to far above the rest of the living creatures on our planet. As the old beliefs tell us, it might be a good idea to protect the remaining Jugong of Okinawa.

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