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Mystical and spiritually powerful - the yuta of Okinawa

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-06-27

The religion of Okinawa was influenced by both Buddhism and Shintoism from mainland Japan and China. Over the centuries it evolved into its own uniqueness, and is still very prevalent in many aspects of the Okinawan culture. It calls for reverence towards one's deceased ancestors through many different rituals and important religious ceremonies. Each household holds a special altar for worshipping the family lineage, with very meaningful placement of the names of passed ancestors written on ancestral tablets, and other ceremonial offerings.

Ancestors worship also places supreme importance on mother nature, which is seen as the ultimate god that all ancestors lead to. Within the realm of nature there are also many special areas that are considered spiritually sacred, such as natural springs and tree groves.

One particular aspect of Okinawan religion that many westerners find fascinating is the "yuta." The "yuta" is a spiritually enlightened person that by western standards would be considered a type of shaman. The yuta has played a significant role in Okinawan culture through spiritual guidance and advice. Usually an illness or an accident in the family can be attributed to some past incident involving a former ancestor, or someone in the current family not realizing their spiritual duties. The yuta has the ability to clarify many of these problems and can lead a person on the correct spiritual path, thus solving whatever personal or family dilemma there may be.

I recently had the privilege to sit amongst students of the University of Maryland, who were studying Ancestors Worship under Dr. Joyce Trafton Ph.D. The class takes place over two Sundays, for eight hours each day. It gives you an excellent insight into the Okinawa religious belief system through both lecture, and visiting various religious sites around the island. On the final Sunday, students meet one of the most renowned yutas in Okinawa, Miyoko Uehara.

Uehara-san is a beautiful, energetic woman in her seventies. She entered our small class with a purple kimono and an infectious smile. Sitting down, she immediately replaced the position of her chair to reach a more spiritual direction. In front of her were the names of the class members, along with their signs relating to the zodiacal year they were born. Uehara-san chose each name by feeling which individuals needed spiritual guidance first. One by one, she had each person she called sit down facing her, and began an open discussion about their past and spiritual relations. Closing her eyes and sometimes mumbling in the Okinawan dialect, Uehara-san put herself into the spiritual world, easily crossing religious and ethnic boundaries. She was able to pinpoint specific things in some of the student's lives, which she had no prior knowledge of. She told each person the name of their ancestral spiritual guardian, describing these people she had never met before. She described the area of one student's home, explaining that it was a very sacred religious area. The student understood that the area she was describing was a nearby Amish settlement. She told another student, that his father's bad dreams were related to the cutting down of a tree in front of their home. The student immediately recalled a large tree in front of the house which his father had cut down many years ago. Uehara-san told the student to tell the father to pay his respects to the spirit of the tree. As she talked to each student you could sense a spiritual connection occurring, some stronger than others. By the end of the class, most students left feeling intrigued and having heard things unexplainable in a "rational' sense. However, almost everyone felt the desire to form stronger family ties.

Born in Saipan before the war, Uehara-san grew up having visions and foresight into future events. However, they were often suppressed by her father. The tragic Pacific War then approached Saipan, and changed Uehara-san's life drastically. "I believed very much in god, so I prayed that the war would not come to our home. It did however, and I completely lost my belief in any god at all," she explained. She eventually came to Okinawa, married and had three daughters. She was elated to finally have a son, but the infant died after only four months and four days. All the while, Uehara-san's childhood spiritual experiences stayed with her. She felt an increasingly strong calling from the "Hi no Kami" (Goddess of fire), a symbol of the hearth and one of the sacred gods of nature. "After my fourth daughter, I became very ill. I was always in the hospital. I thought I would never have a son, so I finally made a promise to the "Hi no Kami," I agreed to follow its path, if the god would give me a son. My request was granted with a strong boy, who is now a teacher," she explained. Uehara-san since has followed the path of the yuta, coming to terms with her special gift. She is also a student of many other religions.

This peaceful woman has helped many troubled lives of people from all over the world. Her smile and good nature again best explained the message she is trying to deliver - finding inner peace with ourselves and family brings happiness to our lives.

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