“Shīsā”: Guardian deities of Okinawa

from Okinawa shīsā are easily recognized by their distinct lion-like appearance. The fierce-looking figures adorn the rooftops of the prefecture and are popular souvenirs for travellers, especially adorable versions designed with large round eyes and gaping mouths. This article reviews the history and characteristics of shīsā and the different roles they play.

House shisa: A modern phenomenon

In Okinawa, shīsā are everywhere. Resembling exotic lions, they adorn entrances to buildings and stand guard atop eaves. Although the figures have long been a part of the unique culture of the Ryūkyū Islands, their status as folk objects is relatively new, with shīsā having been first adopted as home ornaments in the late 19th century.

A ceramic on the roof shīsā ward off evil.

Traditional Okinawan style houses have distinctive red tiled roofs. However, according to Sakai Wakaba, curator at the Okinawa Cultural Center, the rulers of the Ryūkyū Kingdom for generations actually banned tiled roofs. The style only gained popularity after authorities rescinded this regulation in 1889. Builders used leftover tiles and plaster to make shīsā for roofs, leading to their spread on ordinary houses.

The Okinawa Cultural Center is part of the Ryūkyū Kingdom Castle Town area of ​​the Okinawa World tourist theme park in Nanjō. The center presents exhibitions of shīsā made by renowned craftsmen as well as lion statues from abroad which are the ancestors of popular figures. The center is a red-tiled house built over 100 years ago, making it the perfect setting to discover shīsā.

Okinawa Cultural Center, with the Okinawa World theme park.  Three shīsā welcome visitors.
Okinawa Cultural Center, with the Okinawa World theme park. Three shīsā welcome visitors.

The castle town of the Ryūkyū Kingdom includes relocated traditional houses that are registered as Tangible Cultural Properties of Japan.
The castle town of the Ryūkyū Kingdom includes relocated traditional houses that are registered as Tangible Cultural Properties of Japan.

A ceramic shīsā.  Each figurine displays its own character and charm.
A ceramic shīsā. Each figurine displays its own character and charm.

shisaThe Ancient Connections of

shisa They are believed to have their origins in ancient Chinese lion statues. Long ago in Egypt and the Middle East, lions were considered sacred, their strength and ferocity symbolizing the power of rulers. Images of lions decorated palaces and temples. The most famous is the Great Sphinx of Giza, with a lion’s body and a human head.

The lion statues gradually transformed as the images of the beasts moved east along the Silk Road. When the figures spread to places where lions were unknown, they became mythical and sacred creatures or deities to ward off evil. According to Sakai, some Okinawans still don’t know if shīsā are cats or rather their cousins, komainu, the guardian lion-dogs found at Shintō shrines in mainland Japan. Although both originate from China, komainu entered Japan via the Korean Peninsula.

North of Okinawa and the Yaeyama Islands, shīsā are known as shīshī. The word is often described as a corruption of the old Japanese term for lion, shishi. However, the animal name was actually brought to Okinawa directly from China, where it is pronounced “shizi», and it is more likely that this pronunciation evolved into the modern version shīsāor that Chinese characters were simply read that way.

Sakai further explains that if many people emphasize the first syllable, shīsā pronounced without an accent in Okinawa. Tourists often pronounce him “Caesar”, like the ancient Roman general, much to the chagrin of locals.

An exhibition at the Okinawa Cultural Center.
An exhibition at the Okinawa Cultural Center.

Some shīsā display human-like facial expressions.
Some shīsā display human-like facial expressions.

Three types of lions

The tradition of using decorative lion statues began with the Ryūkyū court, which oversaw maritime trade. A carved stone lion adorns the west wing of Urasoe Yōdore, the tomb of the former ruler Eiso (1229-1299). Listed as World Heritage Tamaudun, built in 1501, the mausoleum of the second Shō dynasty (1469-1879), houses three lions, known as miyajishior “shrine lions”, specifically used for royal tombs, temples and castles.

A second category is murajishi, or “city lions”, erected at the entrance to villages and at the top of hills to ward off evil and protect themselves from fires. Oldest recorded murajishi is located in Tomori in Yaese Town on the main island of Okinawa. Legend has it that Tomori was plagued by fires. Perplexed as to the cause, the villagers sought advice from a diviner, who attributed nearby Mount Yaese as the source of the fires and ordered the locals to erect a stone lion facing the mountain. It is claimed that the fires subsequently ceased.

This southern part of Okinawa saw heavy fighting during World War II. In the Okinawa Cultural Center, there is a photo taken during the Battle of Okinawa showing American soldiers hiding behind Tomori’s stone lion and observing the surroundings through binoculars. This stone deity, who protected the village from calamities, also offered invaders protection from gunfire. The statue is riddled with bullets, a testament to both ancient Okinawan culture and the ferocity of war.

A display shows miyajishi, left, and murajishi.
A display shows miyajishito the left and murajishi.

Tomori's Stone Lion stands near the ruins of Jirigusuku Castle.
Tomori’s Stone Lion stands near the ruins of Jirigusuku Castle.

The bullet holes bear witness to the fierce battle that took place there during the Second World War.
The bullet holes bear witness to the fierce battle that took place there during the Second World War.

With the introduction of the village lions, faith in shīsā widespread among the population, leading to the popularization of ieshishi, or “house lions”, in the Meiji period (1868-1912). These are usually placed on rooftops, portal pillars, or near entrances to houses, their scowling faces warding off evil. Now that more people are living in apartment buildings, smaller shīsā for the interior of the house are increasingly popular.

According to Sakai, Okinawa’s tourism boom has led to shīsā be adopted as a mascot character. The angry face of the traditional shīsā is now often replaced by a smile. Figurines are popular keepsakes and come in a range of colors and designs.

Okinawa World sells a wide variety of souvenir shīsā.
Okinawa World sells a wide variety of souvenirs shīsā.

The theme park offers a pottery experience, where visitors can make their own shīsā.
The theme park offers a pottery experience, where visitors can make their own shīsā.

Without sex shisa

Often a pair of shīsā are placed on either side of a walkway, one with its mouth open and the other with its mouth closed. Like with komainu, the beast with an open mouth is supposed to be a male and the closed mouth indicates the female. Additionally, the open mouth pronounces the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, “a“, and the closed last letter, “UN”, together representing the beginning and the end of all things.

However, Sakai explains that shīsā can come individually or in pairs, and they are not necessarily male or female. Lion statues in China are often paired and both usually have their mouths open. Even if you have your mouth closed, in China, the male holds a jewel, representing a treasure, and the female holds her young.

A pair of lion figures from China, both with their mouths open.  The figurine on the left is a male, indicated by the jewel he is holding, and the female is on the right, holding her young.
A pair of lion figures from China, both with their mouths open. The figurine on the left is a male, indicated by the jewel he is holding, and the female is on the right, holding her young.

Ryukyu shīsā originated in China, and the individual figure is usually speechless. Trying to distinguish male and female is often a fruitless task. In the wild, only male lions have a mane, but all shīsā tout this feature, a feature attributable to ancient Okinawans never having seen a real lion. Sakai explains that it’s natural to consider these guardian deities transcend gender.

Modern shīsā pairs often display the open-closed mouth design combined with the jewel-cub pattern.
Modern shīsā pairs often display the open-closed mouth design combined with the jewel-cub pattern.

The giant Tsuboya-ware shīsā near Makishi Station of the Okinawa Yui Rail in Naha is home to a gem.
The giant Tsuboya-ware shīsā near Makishi Station of the Yui Rail from Okinawa to Naha holds a gem.

Visitors to Okinawa can enjoy unique and unusual treasure hunting shīsā, of which there are many. Shishiku-no-Tō, a monument featuring five large lion statues at the entrance to Okinawa World, is one such location.

Another famous shīsā is the giant lion statue in Zanpa, about 35 kilometers north of Naha. It’s the biggest shīsā in Okinawa, measuring 8.75 meters high and 7.8 meters long. Zanpa is also known for its beach and Cape Zanpa Lighthouse, making it a pleasant day trip from the capital.

Shishiku-no-Tō monument.  The middle shīsā was made by the famous potter Tsuboya Arakaki Mitsuo.
Shishiku-no-Tō monument. The middle shīsā was made by famous potter Tsuboya-ware Arakaki Mitsuo.

The woman in the foreground gives an idea of ​​the size of the Zanpa shīsā.
The woman in the foreground gives an idea of ​​the size of the Zanpa shīsā.

(Originally published in Japanese. Report, text and photos by Nippon.com. Banner photo: A cast shīsā adorning the roof of a traditional house in the castle town of the Ryukyu Kingdom.)

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