Ryukyuan religion is a native belief structure of the Ryukyu Islands. Although various traditions and legends may differ from one Island to the other, the Ryukuans worship their ancestors while respecting the relationship between the spirits, gods, the living, and the dead. Ryukyuan religion has various unique beliefs like the ones about the genius loci spirits among others which are indicative of their ancient animistic roots, but with time their practices were influenced by Japanese Shinto, Buddhism, and various Chinese religions like Confucianism and Taoism.
The ultimate ancestors who are believed to be the source of life are Utin ("heaven," the father), Ryuuguu ("the sea," the birthplace), and Jiichi ("earth," the mother). These ultimate ancestors originated and lived with the gods of this world during the ancient times (Usachi yu). These ancestors are highly respected as the originators of everything and are always worshipped by the community. The ancestors who lived in the past but not during the ancient time (Usachi yu) are said to have lived during Nakaga yu (middle ages). These ancestors lived more 25 generations ago and not with the gods. The people respect all these ancestors as collective spirits referred to as the Futuchi, and they worship them in the Buddhist temples. The other ancestors, who the people worship are the more immediate ancestors who lived less than 25 generations. These ancestors are said to have lived during the present age (ima-ga-yuu). Although they are enshrined within buchidan, these ancestors tend to visit the home and the family tomb during various special occasions.
Performing the Rituals
The Ryukyu religion is family-centered, and the oldest female family member acts as the principal celebrant who performs all the rituals concerning household gods, ancestors, and the other family members who live at home and also the ones living outside the home. The Ryukuans offer Incense offerings daily and deliver prayer reports aloud. The oldest female family member also cleans and takes care of the bathroom god (furugan), ancestors’ altar (buchidan), and the hearth god plus his home of hearth (hinukan). Traditionally, women are believed to be spiritually powerful than the men, in fact, men are considered to be spiritually vulnerable, and this resulted in the most prominent religious figure on the island being priestesses. During the 15th century, the role of the priestesses was formalized by King Sho Shin and introduced to the royal court by the introduction of a new hierarchy of priestesses led by the sister of the king.
Buchidan, also referred to as the butsudan, is the prime focus when it comes to worshiping of the ancestors. Buchidan is the space (a small closet) within the home which is the family altar where the family members offer numerous memorial plaques with names of the ancestors, alcohol, and incense to the ancestors. The family places the buchidan in one of the rooms referred to as Ichibanza which serves as a guest room. The Butsudan does not have the statute of Buddha and Ryukyuans borrow the idea of placing these memorial tablets in the buchidan from Confucianism. This closet is usually passed down from one generation to the next, and the first-born who inherit the family home inherits the Buchidan too. The family members assemble around the Butsudan during all the special occasions like the New Year holiday, and give their offering which includes cooked rice, water, incense, and tea. During different festivals, the oldest female family member decorates the closet using the various offering of tangerines, apples, mango, and pineapple, among other tropical fruits.
The three stones placed in the kitchen represents the Hinukan who is the hearth god. Hinukan is the fire god; more specifically the fire guardian and his adornment are processed by the matriarch in the family. The community hinukan is the protector of communal sacred fire, and his worship is presided over by a priestess of the community. Although the hearth god stays in the home, he does not call the family home as his home, since he always goes to his house to commemorate the New Year of the solar.
Fuuru nu Kami
Fuuru nu kami, also referred to as the toilet god, is the family guardian of the place of waste. A toilet which does not have this god could be influenced by evil spirits, like akaname, who are attracted by the accumulated waste matter. Since this god is considered a prime house god, the oldest female family member cleans his dwelling. Reports of the status of the family are delivered to this god regularly. The pig toilet lacks such benevolent god and therefore could become an area of evil influence.
Where Does the Extended Family Gather to Worship?
Traditionally, the extended family gathers at the family tomb. These tombs look like houses with courtyards and a porch where all the offerings are placed. The family puts the cremated remains of numerous generations inside the horseshoe-shaped tombs. A deceased relative is believed to have taken his place among the ancestors in the 32nd year after their death. During the gatherings, food, incense, and family prayers are offered to the ancestors before having a picnic. Traditionally it is the work of the oldest man in the family to take care of the tombs and building of new tombs.
Other Deities Worshiped in Ryukyu
Although as the gods of the home are the most worshiped, the families also respect other powerful deities. The community prays to the mountain and marine deities who guarantee them success in fishing, agricultural and shipping pursuits. The people also worship the chthonic spirit which inhibits the springs, rocks, trees, and caves. The community respects the ghosts and various old and powerful ancestors who inhibit the sacred place as deities.
The Myth of Creation
According to the legend, the heavenly emperor who lived in Gusuku ordered Amamikyu to create the Ryukyu islands. Later she came down to Earth on the spot of Sefa-Utaki and built the Chinen Castle and Tamagusuku Castle. She later became pregnant by Shinerkyu without sexual intercourse and populated the islands. After several generations, Tentei, a heavenly grandchild, was born who divided the society into five different classes through his two daughters and three sons. The first son was called Tenson who became the first king of the Ryukyu. Aji, the second son, was the ancestor of the nobility in the society. The third son was the first farmer. The first daughter was the first Noro the royal priestess, while the second daughter was the first Noro village priestess.
What is the Ryukyuan Religion?
Ryukyuan religion is a native belief structure of the Ryukyu Islands. The Ryukyuans worship their ancestors while respecting the relationship between the spirits, gods, the living, and the dead.
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
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