Buddhism and Okinawa

Okinawa and the Ryukyu Kingdom is the subject of this week’s posts and one subject that interests me in particular is the interaction of Okinawan religion and Buddhism. While reading Kerr’s book, the subject of Buddhism comes up relatively late in Ryukyu history. Okinawa and the surrounding islands already had a native religion with noro priestesses acting as shamans and intermediaries to the gods, and as Okinawa came into contact with Japan, the kami of Shinto religion were readily imported into Okinawan religion given the similar nature.1

But Buddhism came to Okinawa during the golden age of Ryukyu culture, when the kingdom of Chuzan, and then a unified Okinawa island, developed strong ties with Ming Dynasty China and began to import many aspects of the culture. Not to be outdone, the Ashikaga Shogunate sought contact with Okinawa as well, and sent Buddhist priests from major temples in Kyoto as emissaries too. This is when Buddhism begins to establish a concerted presence in OKinawa. According to Kerr, during the reign of king Sho Taikyu, four new Buddhist temples were constructed: Kogenji, Fumonji, Manjuji and Tenryuji.

As Kerr explains:

These temples were not built in response to popular demand nor based on popular support; the king’s resources were squandered in building on a scale unwarranted by the position of Buddhism in Okinawa. Undoubtedly such building stimulated the arts and crafts and brought to Okinawans new concepts of fine workmanship and ceremonial, but there was never the sweeping, popular emotional enthusiasm which so marked the development of evangelical sects in Japan. (pg. 100)

Sho Taikyu’s reckless spending helped to hasten the downfall of the first Sho Dynasty, by the way. Much in the same way as Buddhism in Japan centuries earlier, it first took root among the upper classes, while the population at large was content with more native forms of worship. Later, when Okinawa was a tributary of Satsuma domain in feudal Japan, all forms of Buddhism were proscribed by the Satsuma lord except for Zen and Shingon sects. Populist sects such as Jodo Shinshu and Nichirenshu were seen as incendiary, but as Kerr points out, in reality they were too new to Okinawa and the Ryukyu islands to have taken root anyway. Zen and Shingon however, had been the sects behind the ancient temples founded during the reign of Sho Taikyu and subsequent kings.

But Buddhism did take root in the Ryukyu Islands and Okinawa overtime and can be seen in uniquely Ryukyuan ways. Whereas Okinawa had imported Chinese culture and political thought almost wholesale, Buddhism was patterned off Japan almost exclusively, and you can see the influence today in the home buddhist altar, or butsudan, though in Okinawa this is known as a buchidan. As the Wikipedia article shows, the basic structure is similar to a Japanese altar, but there are subtle differences:

  • Okinawan buchidan do not have a central image, unlike Japanese altars. Instead, the memorial tablets of ancestors are housed instead, because the clan-based culture in Okinawa is still very strong, and what enabled them to survived countless centuries in such a remote and difficult environment.
  • Okinawan buchidan are usually housed behind sliding screen doors, while Japanese altars are built in black-lacquered cabinets, which might be behind a sliding screen door.
  • Alcohol, particular native Okinawan awamori (泡盛) is sometimes offered at buchidan, even though in other Buddhist cultures alcohol as an offering is strongly discouraged.
  • The Okinawan Buchidan also serves as an altar for the local god of the hearth, Hinukan, as fire was so precious in ancient Ryukyu culture. It was critical that the family hearth was kept lit at all times, and this also led to the rise of women priestess, or noro. Thus, unlike Japanese culture, where buddhist altars and shinto altars are separate, though both maintained in the same house, Okinawan culture synthesizes the two.

Many of the basic Buddhist holidays in Japan, Obon for example, are observed in the Ryukyus as well, but of course there are local variations to their observance, just as there is in the rest of Japan.

In any case, the uniquely Ryukyuan spin to the Buddhism reflects much about Okinawan life past and present, but also shows Buddhism’s continued flexibility in adapting to unique cultures with unique constraints and becomes part of the home life for generations to come. For more information, including excellent photography, I highly recommend you check out this blog post, from a blog titled Portraits of an Island People. Who better to explain life in the Ryukyus than someone who actually lives there? :)

1 Something I want to post about later, but haven’t finished reading, is a fascinating study showing how many of the kami in early Japanese shinto were imported from the Korean Peninsula, China and other places long ago. No real surprise really, but the breadth of the importation is fascinating.

About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

3 thoughts on “Buddhism and Okinawa

  1. I have been to Okinawa three or four times. The mood is quite a bit more relaxed than Tokyo. One time, on my way back to the US, I bought a CD by a group called the Nenes, who sing in the traditional style, but doing pops, reggae and other kinds of music. Listening to the CD on the plane and reading the lyric sheet, I was touched by the way they use kanji in their own way. For example, the title of the album is Ashibi–that is the Japanese word ‘asobi’ 遊び in Uchinaguchi. For mainlanders, asobi, or play, has a connotation of wasting time. For the Okinawans, it means taking your sanshin (Jap. 三味線 shamisen) down to the beach for music, dancing, partying in the days before stereos, electric guitars (and shamisens) and iPods. Just very charming. I wouldn’t mind living there.

  2. Hi John,

    Great story actually, I enjoyed it, and I’d love to go visit one of these days. As for the Facebook link, I wasn’t able to see it. Can you post elsewhere?

    P.S. Sorry for the late reply.

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