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Okinawans honor and remember during "shiimi"

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1999-04-02

This weekend most Okinawans will be visiting ancestral tombs to pay their respects to those family members who have passed away. The day is known locally as "shiimi", and is one of Okinawa's most important religious ceremonies. Like many local customs and traditions, "shiimi" is unique to Okinawa Prefecture and can not be found elsewhere in mainland Japan. Preparation begins a few days prior, when members of the family clean the area around the tomb. Tall weeds are cut, bushes and trees are trimmed, and trash is removed. This part of "shiimi" is just as important as the actual day of celebration, for it helps to appease the spirits of ancestors, whom Okinawans believe are constantly watching over them.

Okinawa's tombs, known in the Japanese language as "haka," can be seen almost everywhere you go on the island. They are made of concrete and resemble "mini-houses." The older tombs are shaped like the back of a turtle and can be very large, while newer ones are much smaller. Along the coastline you can find many ancient "haka", which are actually carved into the cliff sides facing the ocean. A tomb can hold many generations of ancestors. Traditionally a dead body was placed inside for a period of two or three years. The tomb was then reopened, where upon the bones were cleansed and washed with "awamori." They were then put into a burial urn and placed back inside. After thirty three years had passed, the tomb was again reopened, and the bones were removed from the urn and placed on one of the tomb's shelves. Today, however, the bone washing ritual no longer exists, and dead bodies are cremated before entering a tomb. On the day of "shiimi", large quantities of food are prepared. The traditional foods consist of fish, pork, kombu, tofu, and yamaimo. Nowadays, shrimp, shellfish, and other fried foods are also added to the menu. Once the food has been prepared it is brought to the tomb together with some "awamori", rice, and flowers. Every tomb has a small area in front of it called the "maa." The "maa" resembles a patio, and it is where family and relatives gather to celebrate "shiimi." The oldest male of the household and his eldest son will each face the front of the tomb at opposite ends. On the left side a special type of paper, which represents money is burned, while on the right side awamori is offered. Both rituals are done to ask the "tochi no kami" (god of the land) to protect the tomb and to prevent any evil spirits from entering. The whole family will then face the tomb and say a short prayer, asking ancestral spirits to keep everyone safe and healthy. After the prayer is complete, the food is put out in the center. Everyone relaxes, eats, and drinks. The fronts of the tombs become small picnic areas, and many times the "sanshin" is played. The occasion, like many other Okinawan customs, becomes very festive. Friends performing the same rituals at nearby tombs may stop by to exchange greetings, and the day is filled not with sadness but with smiles and laughter. Afterwards, the party is moved back to the house, where it will continue into the night.

Much of ancestor worship revolves around the "chiijiuri" (family curse). It is believed that many illnesses and family problems are "chiijiuri", and usually occur because an important ritual has not been done correctly, displeasing the spirit of a dead family member. The exact cause for "chiijiuri" is often revealed through consultation with a "yuta" (shaman), who can supply advice and help the family affected by "chiijiuri." It is for this reason that great importance is placed on the customs and rituals surrounding ancestor worship. Although the belief in ancestor worship has faded in recent year, it is still strong enough to play a major role in the culture of modern day Okinawa. "Shiimi" is a good example of the continuation in this belief system. If you happen to see many gatherings at Okinawan tombs over the next few weeks, you are most likely witnessing one of Okinawa's most traditional customs of honoring the dead.

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