A Yuta is a shaman who channels the spirits and acts as an intermediary between the living and the dead. A young woman who is called by the spirits as a Yuta, but who refuses to obey, will go through a period of suffering which eventually leads to her surrender and servitude to the spirits. Yutas have very high divorce and suicide rates.
Many Okinawans live in fear of angering the spirits, and will pay high fees to the shamans to protect themselves from the anger and retribution of evil forces around them. Often people will hire a Yuta to comb through their religious practices and ensure that they have not done anything to offend the spirits. They believe that this in turn will serve to stave off bad things from happening to them, and encourage good fortune instead.
The festival of Obon, starting on the 15th day of the 7th month in the lunar calendar, is a time set aside for concentrated ancestor worship. During that time, people will return to their ancestral homes, decorate their home shrine, burn incense, clean the family graves, eat special food, and of course pray to and worship their ancestors.
Ancestor worship takes place at two primary locations: the home shrine, and the grave sites of the family’s ancestors. Okinawans believe that worshiping their ancestors will reap their benevolence, but neglecting them will incur their wrath, and thus, misfortune.
Gods and Spirits of Nature
According to the Okinawan religion, the world is filled with countless spirits, including those of ancestors, and those associated with nature. Adherents believe that relations with the well spirit, sea spirit, house spirit, tree spirit, rock spirit, and many others must be handled with care in order to lead a happy life, free of misfortune.
One core belief is that certain places have spirits associated with them. For instance, hauntings are thought to be quite common. In communion with the spirits of the dead and of nature, Yutas will sometimes designate certain places as haunted. People within the community will avoid those places after this.
People will often worship their ancestors at shrines within their homes. When a parent dies, the responsibility for the home shrine falls to the eldest child. Rice and other food are offered at the shrine, accompanied by incense, and prayer.
The fire god is also worshipped within Okinawan homes, specifically at special kitchen hearths. Many believe that he carries messages to the gods in heaven. Rituals to the fire god are carried out twice a month, by the oldest woman in the household.
Charms & Talismans
Knotted grass is used to keep evil spirits from interfering with the health and well-being of the living. People will often place this knotted grass at the four corners of their residences, to make sure that they are protected in every direction.
Stone talisman tablets are sometimes also placed in strategic locations to ward off evil spirits. Houses at the end of a road, or at an intersection, often employ this type. It is said that evil spirits have trouble turning with the sharp corners of the road, so the talisman is believed to prevent evil spirits from entering the houses at intersections.
Shisa dogs are a common sight on top of houses. Stone statues shaped like lion-dogs, they are usually displayed in pairs. Typically the right shisa dog will have an open mouth, to scare evil spirits away; and the left will have a closed mouth, to keep good spirits within the house.
Utaki (“sacred groves”) and Uganji (“honourable praying places”) are typically located in hills and forests, and are some of the most revered places of worship in the Okinawan religion. Certain configurations of rocks can denote sacred places outside of the home; but many times these places are just generally known within the community, after having been declared by a shaman to be sacred.
Tombs are often grouped together in mausoleum parks. Each one looks like a little house, complete with name plate, courtyard, and porch, where offerings are placed. It is considered dangerous to approach a tomb without the accompaniment of someone related to the family. Families will typically go to their ancestors’ tombs to burn incense, offer food, and pray. Afterwards, the living relatives will often eat a picnic together.
© 2016 Peter and Valerie Limmer