Tag Archives: Culture

Sacred Objects, Places, and People (Part 2 of 3) . . .

CIMG0788Residing on Tokuno-shima (Japan), every 1st and 15th day of the lunar calendar, she makes the journey from her home to the place where her ancestors are buried offering prayers to black ancestral stones.  To her, once buried in the sand, the ancestors now reside within the black stones with each black stone representing a whole generation of ancestors.

When conversing with the people of Tokuno-shima, one would hear more than once in the local dialect (hogen) the common greeting, “Shitte mute yone ogameera!”6 - Ancestral Stones 3  Translated “let’s worship,” it reinforces the priority to show respect to one’s ancestors by visiting the geographical location of the ancestral black stones.  In fact, showing respect to one’s ancestors is so much a part of the identity of the people, the town hall signboard lists “first respect ancestors” as the first requirement of being a good citizen.

Found throughout the world, sacred places – geographical locations – are seen as places that can heal, rejuvenate, protect, etc.  Near mountains, oceans, lakes, rocks, waterfalls, valleys, and so on, no geographical location escapes becoming a sacred place.  Sometimes they are seen as the origin of creation, the resting place of specific deities, or auspicious places for maintaining balance between secular and sacred space.

Its unique, sculpted “turtleback tombs” (seen below) are sacred places for Okinawans.  They are places for ancestor worship, meant to honor their ancestors in the afterlife. clip_image002These tombs are “a part of the great Chinese cultural influence that once dominated the islands.”  Whole family groups may be interred in them, as they are quite large and owned jointly.

The turtleback shape of the tombs with protruding walls as “legs” represents a woman in childbirth, and burial in them suggests returning to the source where one came, from the mother’s womb. Blood relatives observe a special day called Shiimii at their ancestors’ tombs each April to honor them through ceremony, food and drink in front of their tombs.  The family tomb is normally located in remote parts of towns and villages and prayers are offered only on special occasions as opposed to family altars.  IMG_0947During the Seimei Festival, family members visit the tomb with delicacies and pray to their ancestral spirits.

For Okinawans, other sacred places include utaki groves (seen to the right), kitchen hearths, family altars, tombs, and a utopia called Nirai Kanai.  Nirai Kanai is across the horizon and is the “original nation,” the source of all things bestowed upon Okinawa’s inhabitants.  It is a place of ancestor spirits, a place of fertility and beginning, where children come from, and a place of the end, where the dead return.  Gods live in Nirai Kanai and is the origin of all riches; wealth, fertility and life.  000_5032 forest effectWhen gods visit once a year to bless and then return, rituals remain to mark their appearance.  Fire came from there as did grains.  Nirai Kanai is a source of power and renewal related to the harvest.  While on Okinawa’s main island, the gods from Nirai Kanai are ideological and invisible, in the Yaeyama Islands (south of Okinawa) the gods take on visible, tangible forms, incarnated by community members wearing masks and costumes.

CIMG0663On Yoron island (just north of Okinawa island) the people use urns to bury the dead, and then place the urn in the ground or sometimes in a miniature house with a roof.  During the festival of the souls (Obon), they unlock the door to celebrate the ancestors coming home.  After the festival, they go back to the grave and lock the door.

CIMG0659Sacred places evoke worship and veneration from people and are intended to bring protection, good fortune and bountiful harvests.  Festivals, rites and events are held related to seasons, harvests, farming and fishing, and ancestor worship.  For the vast majority of the Ryukyu-Okinawan peoples, rites and rituals have remained unchanged throughout history.  Even modernization has not changed the belief that spirits lie within the mountains, the sea, the trees and animals.

For examples of other sacred places see the following websites:

Similar to sacred objects, sacred places in a real sense serve as mediators between the secular and the other world, a sacred one.

“To-Do List” for the Holidays . . .

To Do FinishedWe Americans love to keep schedules.  In fact, many of us keep a To-Do list and Calendar.  When I turn on my computer I first look at my Outlook Calendar in order to know the day’s tasks and projects for the coming days.  It is as though without my scheduled To-Do list and filled in Calendar I am not accomplishing anything.  Even more, it is as though I have done nothing today if I have not checked off things on my To-Do list.

However, in some cultures, people do not emphasize tasks nor are they concerned with maintaining a calendar.  Instead, they emphasize people.  Hence, a continuum exists between those people and cultures that are more people oriented versus those who are more task oriented.

Task oriented cultures value results and activities that produce results.  Whereas people oriented cultures value relationships and activities that enhance and build relationships.

Even my writing this post reveals that I come from a task oriented culture.  It is as though writing a blog post will produce some sort of result, a result of people actually reading the post.

Because building rapport is so important, people oriented cultures begin with people and finish with task.  Social relationships, therefore, form the basis on which things are accomplished.  Conversely, task oriented cultures begin with the task wanting to cause things to happen.To Do Finished

It appears that God begins with people. God came and lived among us.  Jesus Christ, Immanuel (God with us), took on the form of humanity (Philippians 2:5-9) visiting us up close.   We too should have the same attitude this Holiday season.  Maybe, our To-Do list could emphasize more people and less tasks this Holiday season.

Once Upon a Time !!!

Children’s fairy tales often begin with the phrase “once upon a time” to emphasize an event that happened at a certain time in the past. Such a phrase usually gives the impression that the event never happened. In Asia Pacific, there are many “once upon a time” stories that inform culture and how the people celebrate their many festivals.

Mr IshigakiI rather recently traveled to Ishigaki, Japan.  While there, I met with Mr. Ishigaki, my cultural informant who proved to be a storehouse of cultural information. Mr. Ishigaki went to university in Naha, Okinawa, and then later studied western oil painting. He had traveled extensively and presently serves as one of the curators for the Ishigaki island museum.

Located between Okinawa and Taiwan, Ishigaki is home to approximately 45 thousand people.  As one approaches the island, one can quickly notice the beutiful beaches and farm land.

Every year on the island of Ishigaki (Japan) in the village of Kabira, the people celebrate the mayungahasi festival. Set according to the lunar calendar and celebrated shortly after the fall harvest festival, this festival means “the god who comes to visit” or the “come visit god” and commemorates the god who comes from across the ocean from “god’s country.”

come visit godFor the festival, men dress with a cloth over their face so people cannot recognize them. They speak in a different voice than normal to disguise their identity. In addition, they carry a long wooden stick, wear a straw skirt outfit with leaves at the bottom, and wear an Asian conical hat in order to receive the “come visit god” when he arrives. According to the local people, this festival has its origin in the following legend:

Once upon a time on the day before the lunar New Year a stranger dressed in a grass skirt, wearing a hat, and holding a wooden staff came from the sea to the northwest side of the island (near Kabira). He was in a shipwreck and went from house to house asking if he could eat with and spend the night with a villager. Every villager rejected the man except for the southernmost house in the village. That villager invited the man in to eat and spend the night. The next morning the man woke and said to the villager that he was not a stranger nor was he shipwrecked. Instead, he was the “come visit god” and because the family had been so gracious to him they would be blessed and gain much wealth. That family later experienced prosperity and other families regretted their lack of welcome to him. The man said he would come back and therefore every year people in the village prepare for his return.

This festival teaches us several lessons. First, it teaches how men and women often play specific roles in festivals and in the culture as a whole. Kabira has two geographic levels: an upper part associated with women, and a lower part associated with men. Years ago these two levels were distinct physical and geographical areas. The part of the village near the ocean is related to men and the part on the mountains is related to the women. The role of men and women has significance pertaining to patriarchal versus matrilineal societies and the roles that each gender should or should not play.

Second, this festival teaches the importance of group solidarity. Outside people cannot come in and participate in this festival. No cameras or recording are allowed. In the past, it was limited to people of the village. For those who have moved away they can go back to their own home.

There are often individual idiosyncrasies in the rituals of festivals. On Ishigaki, each village has its own style for this festival which is done on the same day. It is the same festival with the same story but with different individual preferences. In the past, when the tide was out, people would go to the other villages by walking on the sea bed (low tide).

Festivals originate from legends and myths.People often celebrate festivals without knowing these “once upon a time” stories. Nevertheless, these stories inform how people celebrate their festivals. Whether or not these stories are true is another issue. This is an issue worth discussing in another post.

It is interesting to note how many “once upon a time” legends and myths appear related to Biblical themes. For instance, could it be that the above story is a type of redemptive analogy left behind? Or, could it be that the “come visit god” refers to the coming of Jesus Christ as Immanuel, God with us?