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Okinawans gather at tombs for annual religious celebration

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-04-18

For Christians, last Sunday was a special day to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For others, it was just an average Sunday. Okinawans however, also celebrated the day in a very special way. This year, one of the most important religious ceremonies on Okinawa took place, coincidentally on the same day as Easter Sunday.

Known locally as Shiimi, the day consists of large amounts of food and much celebrating. However, the location for all of this gaiety is at a place that by most western customs, would be anything but joyous. Shiimi is the day that all Okinawans go to the tombs of their dead ancestors to pay their respects, and to celebrate, telling the spirits that everyone is doing fine.

Anyone that ventured out of their homes that same day, probably noticed that picnic style parties were taking place at many of the tombs here on the island. Locals from around the island returned to their hometowns to take part in the happy occasion.

The custom of Shiimi is one of the many cultural influences of China. In the spring, when the weather began to change, Chinese would celebrate the occasion by heading into the country, and enter a river for purification rituals. The rest of the day was spent eating and drinking in celebration of the arrival of warm weather. The custom was brought over to Okinawa, but like a few other borrowed Chinese festivals, it was turned into a ceremony in honor of the spirits of deceased ancestors.

The ceremony starts the day before, when the area of the tomb is cleaned. Overgrown weeds are cut away, and the place is cleared of trash and other refuse. The following day, Shiimi, starts early in the morning with preparation in the kitchen for the making of a big feast. Traditionally, there were five different types of food that were prepared - tofu, kombu, fish, yama imo, and pork. The food was also accompanied by some mochi, which was also made within the household. Nowadays, there are many additions to the traditional foods for Shiimi. Shrimp, shellfish, and sweet cakes are often added.

Once the food has been prepared, everyone will go to the family tomb. In addition to the food, sake, rice, and flowers are also brought to be placed at the tomb. Usually, the oldest male and his oldest son will then each go to a corner of the face of the tomb. In the left corner a special type of paper, which represents money, is burned. At the other corner sake is offered. These rituals are done to ask the "God of the Land" to protect the area and not to let any bad spirits to enter. This is all done while other members relax and talk amongst themselves. A short, silent prayer is then said by everyone. The prayer is done to request that the spirits of the family's dead ancestors watch over everyone, so that no one may come across any bad spirits or any type of negative experience.

After the prayer is completed, the food is put in the center to be eaten. Sake, beer, and soft drinks are also put out. The sanshin is sometimes played, or a small cassette recorder is used to play traditional minyo songs. While the sound of Okinawan music fills the air, everyone eats, drinks, and talks. Friends and neighbors also visit each other, making the atmosphere very jubilant. After a few hours of celebrating, everything is packed up and brought back to the house, where the party often continues into the night.

The religious ceremony of Shiimi is not performed in mainland Japan, making it unique to Okinawa. It is a typical example of the importance placed on ancestor worship, and it is also a good insight into Okinawan social gatherings.

The Okinawans have always been known for big celebrations, and they are always very open to outsiders. Although many customs are being slowly forgotten, Shiimi is one part of Ryukyuan culture that is still very much alive.

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