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"The spiritual world," a cross-cultural glance

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-10-30

Halloween creeps upon us with stories of ghosts and witches, which some people listen to with enjoyment, while others may feel the hair on the back of their neck stand up! Whether or not many of these stories are true or not is definitely arguable. It does seem however, that there is a common link that most cultures share with these folk tales - that is their mere existence. Almost every culture, if not all, makes some reference to the spiritual world, and Okinawa is no exception.

Rooted deep in Okinawan religion and folklore are the "Yuta", who are often refered to as local shaman. Their abilities of connecting to the spiritual world to help guide people through life have long been questioned by western religion. Many of their powers can not be logically explained, which has been the cause in some cases by Christians to often regarded them with caution. Recently however, they have been the topic of study among some western academics.

Okinawa's historical connection to the spiritual world actually goes much further back than the "yuta", and it was the "noro" that existed much before them. These priestesses were always women and were revered as very powerful spiritual advisors. During the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom, a daughter or sister of the king was always chosen to become the high priestess, and acted as an intermediary between the king and the spiritual world. Their existence goes well beyond Okinawa's recorded history, and they have played an integral part in the shaping of Okinawan culture. The island of Iheya was actually governed by "noro' at one time, and it is still today seen as a very sacred island. Just as the kings and "noro" themselves did during ancient times, many religious ceremonies begin by facing Iheya to pray. Although the "yuta" has become more common in Okinawan religion, the "noro" can still be found in outlying country areas and in smaller islands.

There are many legends that tell of fierce typhoons or unexpected droughts that have plagued villages because they failed to listen to the advice of the "noro". Many people today still see the "yuta' for advise on important matters, and there are many stories afterwards telling of miraculous recoveries from illnesses.

Putting aside the word legend and telling the story of a more recent incident, there was an American man who traveled back to Okinawa with his Okinawan wife and children to visit for the first time in 24 years. Upon arrival, his wife was whisked away to perform several religious rituals that she was not able to perform after leaving for America. A series of unfortunate accidents had occurred to the woman while in America, which the "yuta" had blamed on her not performing her religious duties, and she was told it was imperative that she make amends. The "yuta" had already known about the woman's hardships, despite her having not ever telling any of her family members in Okinawa.

When her husband was told of her wife's situation, he listened with skepticism, until the "yuta" surprised him by saying that the reason for the constant pain in the man's shoulder was because he had never gone to visit his mother's grave after she had passed away. The man was surprised - how did this person know his mother had passed away, or that he had never visited the site of her grave? Even more so, how did the "yuta" know that he was bothered by constant pain in his shoulder? None of this information was ever shared with the "yuta", nor with anyone living in Okinawa. Yet the "yuta" knew all this and more.

After returning to America the man bought some flowers and visited his mother's grave. Immediately, his shoulder felt much better.

There are many stories like this one, which readers and listeners are left to decide how to explain them. I can only say that the woman and the man mentioned in this story are my own mother and father.

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