Shisa: The Guardian Lions of Okinawa

Okinawa is made up of 160 islands and is located at the southwest tip of Japan. Okinawa is home to the largest minority group in Japan, the indigenous Ryukyuan or Lewchewan people. There are 1.3 million Ryukyuan people living in Okinawa alone with another 300,000 outside of Japan with most of them in Hawaii.

The Ryukyuan religion is the indigenous belief system of the Ryukyu Islands. Some legends and traditions slightly differ from island to island but the Ryukyuan religion is still generally characterized by ancestor worship and the respect of relationships between the living, the dead, and the gods and spirits of the natural world.

Ryukyu Islands. | Uchinanchu

Over the years, Ryukyuan religious practice has been influenced by Chinese religions such as Confucianism, Taoism and folk beliefs as well as Buddhism and Japanese Shinto.

Shisa is a traditional Ryukyuan cultural artifact and decoration adapted from the Chinese guardian lions. Shisa are often resembling a cross between a dog and a lion and they almost always come in pairs, from Okinawan mythology. Magic typology sometimes classifies them as gargoyle beasts.

Shisa on rooftops, Okinawa. | Chris Lewis

Shisa are considered to be wards that protect from evils. People place pairs of shisa flanking the gates to their houses and also on rooftops. The shisa to the left traditionally has a closed mouth while the shisa to the right has an open mouth. Open mouthed shisa is believed to ward off evil spirits and the closed mouth shisa keeps good spirits in. Shisa guardian statues are a familiar sight in most homes and businesses in Okinawa.

Shisa statues are quite common and often mass produced in Japan. Using them for creative expression through colors and design is a wonderful outlet for many aspiring artists or visitors to Okinawa, particularly in Ishigaki Island. Off the 79 highway is the quaint pottery store called Yonekoyaki Craft Center.

Colourful Shisa, Okinawa. | Jr-Peng JANG

Just behind the store is a sculpture garden of a considerable size that houses a number of Shisa statues that are quite unique in designs and colors. The Shisa park aims to draw people to the nearby pottery store where smaller Shisa designs are sold. It’s a great way to learn and appreciate the Ryukyuan culture and traditions.