Why are there Shisa statues all over Okinawa

Shisa - protector of Okinawa

They can be found everywhere on Okinawa: the nasty creatures with curly manes and faces ready to fight, in large and small, monochrome and multicolored. But what about these strange creatures?
Anyone who has ever been to Okinawa will not have missed the lion-like figures, some of which can be found on every corner: the creatures with the curly mane and the sometimes open, sometimes closed mouth are Shisa, the local protectors of the island. Some may be reminded of their big brothers, the Komainu, who can be encountered in mainland Japan.

However, there are some differences between the Shisa and the Komainu: Although both variants came to Japan via China (and Korea), they reached Okinawa before 1879, at a time when the Ryukyu Kingdom and the prefecture were not yet officially part of Japan Okinawa so didn't even exist. For this reason, Shisa is only found in Okinawa, as they are strongly connected to the local culture. Another big difference is that Komainu are mainly set up in or in front of Shinto shrines, Buddha temples and aristocratic homes, i.e. in so-called holy places. Shisa, on the other hand, are involved in the everyday life of the islanders and can also be found in schools, hospitals or very simple dwellings. In Okinawa, they are virtually the protector of everyone and not just of the higher-ups.

The Shisa also has its own stories and myths. Probably the most widespread is the one about the sea monster: One day the king of Shuri Castle received a gift from a Chinese ambassador in the form of a chain with a Shisa pendant. At that time said king visited the village of Madanbashi on the Naha Bay, where a sea monster was up to mischief and the villagers were regularly frightened and terrified. At the same time, the local priestess remembered a dream she had recently had, and she instructed the boy Chiga to tell the king this: According to this, the king should face the monster and hold the Shisa pendant high towards him. The king did as he was told and when the sea monster saw the trailer, a tremendous roar went through the whole village that even the monster itself trembled. With this loud roar, a boulder fell from the sky and landed on the dragon's tail, which could no longer move and eventually died. Over time, both the boulder and the dead body were overgrown by plants and trees. Today the supposed remains of the overgrown dragon's body can be found in the Gana-mui forest.

Another legend comes from the village of Tomori: That one was plagued by recurring fires, until at some point they went to the Feng Shui master Saionzui and asked for help. He explained to the villagers that the fire was connected to the nearby Mount Yaese and he advised them to build a large shisa out of stone, which was aligned with the line of sight on said mountain. The villagers followed this instruction and have not been plagued by fires since.

By the way, Shisa statues can be found both individually and as a pair. It is often said that gender depends on whether the mouth is open or closed, but opinions differ widely and are probably also region-dependent. What they all have in common, however, is the protective effect they have been awarded.

The wild-looking mythical creature has also secured its place in pop culture: there is, for example, the demon Shiisaa from the "Shin Megami Tensei" games or the Pokémon Growlithe and Arcanine from the franchise series of the same name. Also Seasarmon from the anime "Digimon". And even the Godzilla series was inspired by the Shisa: we're talking about the figure of King Caesar. The reason for the name choice is based on a misinterpretation in which it was assumed that the Japanese would speak the name Caesar as "shisa".

Anyone who encounters a Shisa in the future can be sure that the creatures with the often nasty face do not pose any danger, in fact the opposite ...!

Author: Kathia Krüss
Editor: Anja Degenhardt
Graphic designer: Kathia Krüss
Date d. Article: 28.07.2018
Image copyright: kadoyatakumi (pixabay.com), aranoo (pixabay.com), merdanata (pixabay.com), Wikimedia Commons