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Shisa in Okinawa and Beyond (A Brief History)

The iconic shisa lion has become the symbol of Okinawa. Here, we share a bit about it's history in Okinawa and beyond.

As far as symbols of Okinawa goes, there is nothing more iconic than shisa lions (some people call them shisa “dogs”). Found guarding buildings all over the island, shisa lions have a rich history in Okinawa with roots in ancient china. In this article I’ll discuss the history of shisa lions, talk about customs around their placement and design, and tell the story of the specimen that is without doubt the most famous shisa on the island (hint: it’s pictured below).

History of Shisa Lions in China

Though not native to china, real lions (not stone replicas) understandably fascinated the emperors and have been thought to embody power, grace, dignity and ferocity ever since the first lion was introduced to the middle kingdom. The first shisa lions in Okinawa are thought to have arrived in the 14th century from China, around the time when the Ryukyu Kingdom arose from the unification of the three regions of Hokuzan (north), Chuzan (central) and Nanzan (south), but don’t quote me on the timing. However, shisa lions have a much longer and extremely rich history in China. 

Nobody knows for sure when the first lions arrived in China, but historians seem to agree that it was during the Han Dynasty. What they haven’t settled on is whether it was the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 25 CE, with a bit of turmoil after 9 CE) or the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 CE to 220 CE), but for our purposes, it doesn’t matter. What counts is that the Chinese thought lions were awesome enough place sculptures of them as symbolic guardians of important religious and government structures.

Notably, the word ‘shisa’ comes directly from Chinese. Some regional dialects in Okinawa refer to use the word ‘shishi’, the same as the well-known Chinese new years ritual of Shishimai (the dancing dragon portrayed by two performers). The ancient Chinese, apparently, were far more particular about the words they used to denote different kinds of lions than Okinawns. For example, a stone lion in ancient china was called ‘shi-shi,’ whereas a metal lion was ‘tong-shi.’ There are lots of other words, but since this article isn’t a lesson on ancient Chinese, I think I’ll stop here.

A fierce looking shisa guards a traditional home on Ikei Island.

The most common placement of shisa lions is on either side of the front gateway to a house. When placed here, one will often have its mouth open to receive good fortune, while the other will snarl at evil spirits through gnashed teeth. Traditionally, pairs of shisas involve one male and one female lion, a custom adopted during the prosperous Song Dynasty in China (CE 960-1279). This era witnessed the rise of neo-Confucionism, which valued balance and binary oppostion (think Yin and Yang). In Song Dynasty shisas, the female, which is strangely depicted as having a mane, is often identifiable by the cub she holds under her foot. In Chinese tradition, the male will rest one of its feet on a ball. However, just like the female’s cub, this feature is not always present in the Okinawan versions, which range in design from very traditional to outright goofy.

An alternative placement of shisas is on the roof of a house, particularly on the iconic traditional Okinawan roofs made of red clay tiles. Shisas can also be found guarding the entrances of apartment buildings too, and some apartment dwellers even keep smaller shisas indoors

The posture of shisa lions is thought to have specific meaning. Shisas that bend down or crawl (termed ‘hoya’ shisa in some regions) are thought to ward off evil spirits. Shisas that sit tall and proud are thought to invite good fortune into the homes of those who display them. Some homes have one crawling shisa and one sitting shisa (it pays to keep all your bases covered, I suppose). Some believe that shisa lions which hold balls (or cubs) protect family members and their property. In Okinawa there are also some shisas that lay down and smile like dogs about to roll over for a treat.

This goofy shisa in Bise looks more like a dog than a lion.

Regardless of what posture shisa lions take, they always seem to either face each other or face forward, never away from each other. This is understandable if they are protecting a home. There seem to be no hard and fast rules as to the design and posture, and some people take the idea of shisa lions more seriously than others, but given what sitting with their backs together might symbolize about relationships within the home, I can’t imagine too many families wanting to invite that sort of energy.

Shisa are almost always placed in pairs.

What are shisa lions made of in Okinawa?

Shisa lions can be made of any kind of material, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wooden shisa (at least not outdoors). Many are made from stone, some are ceramic, some porcelain and some are shaped from cement. There are even some metal shisas. Of course in the tourist shops, you’ll see all kinds of variations including colorful Ryukyu glass, but the ubiquitous outdoor shisa lions found guarding people’s house are often made of baked clay or porcelain. The chief advantage of porcelain shisa lions is that they stand up to the elements. They are also easy to paint and cleaning is relatively simple. The disadvantage is that they’re easy to break. I haven’t seen many broken shisas, though, which is a good thing, so porcelain would seem to be a good bet.

The Tomori Stone Lion

By far the most famous shisa in Okinawa, if not the whole world, is the Tomori Stone Lion. Originally set in place in the late 1600s (1689 to be precise), it is the subject of a wartime photograph that has become practically synonymous with the Battle of Okinawa. Fortunately, unlike so many other important artifacts from the island’s history that didn’t survive, the Tomori Stone Lion (notwithstanding a few bullet holes) made it through what is arguably the most tragic era in Okinawan history. The stone lion was designated a significant prefectural cultural asset in 1974 by the newly independent Okinawan government.

The Tomori Stone Lion protects villagers from vengeful fire gods.

The original placement of the Tomori Stone Lion came about when villagers in Tomori consulted a local religious leader (some accounts call him a priest, others a feng shui master) about what they should do to stop fires from running rampant through their neighborhoods. His response was that the townspeople should erect a large stone shisa on a hill facing Mt. Yaese, which he believed to be volcano that was home to a local fire god.  In order to provide protection from these evil spirits, he townspeople took his advice and placed the large stone shisa between the village and the mountain. According to legend, the fires ceased.  Personally I suspect the improvement might have arisen from some of the more practical precautions they likely took in addition to placing the lion, but who am I to ruin a good story?

Standing at 175 cm (okay, 175.8) if you measure from the base, the Tomori Stone Lion is the largest stone shisa in Japan, although not the largest shisa altogether. That honor goes to the giant shisa at Cape Zanpa, but since the Zanpa is not made of stone, the Tomori lion retains it’s title. Notably, the lion in Tomari is not the only stone shisa in Okinawa. Another can be found overlooking the ocean from a park in Kitanakagusuku. If you visit this smaller shisa, you should take a walk up the hill to the tomb of the founder of Kishaba hamlet and, if you have time, visit the nearby grave of an Okinawan queen (and be sure to read my article on the queen’s grave, linked above).

Where can you buy shisa in Okinawa?

Asking where to buy shisa in Okinawa is like asking where to find sand at the beach. They’re literally everywhere. If you’re looking for small ones you can place on an end table in your livingroom, you could visit Kokusai Dori in Naha. There you’ll find dozens of shops that sell them in all sizes, shapes, styles, colors. If you’re looking for larger and more upscale items of the kind a collector of exotic trinkets from around the world might buy to place in his house, you’re better to try one of the Chinese furniture shops in Ginowan. If you want a real-deal Okinawan yachimun (traditional pottery) shisa, try one of the shops around Tsuboya in Naha or the Okinawan Pottery Village, known as Yachimun no Sato in the local dialect. There are also lots of places where you and your kids can make your own shisa lions. 

If you’re in Okinawa as a tourist, you pretty well have to buy shisa lions to take home, even if it’s just a tiny keychain or a piece of jewelry. If you live here, I strongly recommend buying a pair to place near the main entrance to your home (ours are inside). Okinawa, as you may know, is teeming with ghosts and you’ll want some ferocious spiritual guardians to keep them at bay. 

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