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Archeologists piece together Okinawa's past

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1999-03-26

An important cultural asset is currently being excavated and restored to its original condition here on Okinawa. The site is a natural spring, which had been constructed of stone for easy access for villagers of the "Chunnaga" area in Ginowan a little over a century ago. Although the location of the spring is known to many, it has been enclosed by a security fence just inside the perimeter of Camp Foster for many years. The actual stone structure itself has also changed, no longer resembling its former shape.

A strong emphasis over the past few years on preserving cultural assets has helped archeologists to learn much more about Okinawa's past. A proposal for the restoration of the "Chunnaga" site was first given to the Central Government of Japan in 1995, and work began on the area in 1997. The project is being primarily funded by the Cultural Agency of the Government of Japan, with other contributions coming from the Okinawa Prefectural Government, Ginowan City Government, and private citizens.

Yoshikatsu Goya, chief archeologist of Ginowan's Culture and Education Division and coordinator of the project, explained the importance of preserving such sites. "Natural springs played a very important part in the daily life and spiritual lives of the Okinawan people. Water was always revered as sacred."

Many of Okinawa's natural springs have a religious significance, and people still visit them to pray. In fact, it's not uncommon to find incense placed beside many of the springs in Okinawa, a sign that it is still considered a religious site. Usually the spring will have a stone face with a small rectangular exit, similar in style to the entrance of a traditional Okinawan tomb. As the water flows out of this man-made doorway, it is met by a holding area, which is also made from stone. It is here where the water collects, before continuing along its natural course.

The "Chunnaga" spring was probably used over many centuries for drinking, washing, and irrigation. Goya added that because of the terrain of the area, it was difficult to dig any wells, which put special reliance on the spring for water. The spring is also divided into two sources, "ufugaa" and "kaguaa", which were used separately by men and women. The water was used for many of the island's religious ceremonies, which included purifying newborn babies and also bringing in the new year. "Yuta" (shaman) visited the spring on many occasions, praying and offering thanks to the god of water.

Work at the site had been delayed for a few months, but archeologists recently resumed the time consuming process of restoration, gradually enabling the structure to appear as it did centuries ago. Excavation is currently taking place at the "ufugaa" side of the spring. One of the archeologists on Goya's team explained that many new items are often found during the work, which makes it important to operate slowly. Careful digging, pieced together with historical accounts of other Okinawan sacred sites, are helping Goya and other archeologists to gain a better understanding of the way the people of Okinawa lived many centuries ago.

The Chunnaga project is one of the many efforts being undertaken by the United States Military to cooperate with the Okinawa Prefectural Government for the purpose of ensuring the preservation of the island's cultural assets. Many locals have shown their appreciation over the restoration, and Ginowan City officials are busy planning future joint efforts. The two sides have openly been sharing information and working together to accomplish this goal. Allowing locals access to these important sites during certain times of the year is another way the US Military is helping to create a better relationship with the Okinawan community.

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