Meeting The Goddesses of Kunyang, Okinawa

The Goddesses of Kunyang
Note: The recent death of a friend's mother reminded me that our mothers are often remarkable people whose experiences should be remembered, so I got my mother to write about her experience meeting a living goddess.

by Marjorie Watkins

In Kunyang, the northernmost province of Ryukyu, which means Floating Dragon, I found the goddesses of the Kyu Shin Du, the Old God Way.

This is how I found them. It was in 1967 as a US Air Force officer’s wife stationed at Naha, Okinawa.

In the entrance hall of the Culture Center in Naha, hung a picture of several women dressed in white and with white headbands kneeling on banana leaves in a shelter roofed by more banana leaves. I felt an instant, mystic rapport with them.

“They are goddesses of the old religion,” the Center’s director told me. “They will preside as priestesses at their annual religious festival.”

“When? Where?” I asked.

“Why do you want to know?”

At that time I edited a small magazine for Air Force families. I explained that this aspect of Ryukyuan culture would intensely interest my readers and help Americans better understand Okinawans.

She told me the goddesses would meet at Shioya Bay in northern Okinawa, on a weekend coming up. There was—and perhaps still is—a small resort at Okuma few miles north of Shioya Bay where military families could go for a weekend or a few days rest and relaxation.

I made a reservation for our family for that holy weekend and equipped myself with several rolls of film. Parking my husband and children at Okuma, and with a copy of my magazine tucked under my arm to act as my passport, I set forth to seek the goddesses. 

Driving toward Shioya Bay, I picked up a boy in school uniform. He was hitchhiking back to his boarding school in Naha.

“Why are you here, Meiguo gaijin?” He asked politely in Japanese.

I explained, in Japanese, that I was looking for the meeting of the goddesses at Shioya Bay.
“You will never find them by yourself,” he replied. “But I will show you where to turn off.”

He directed me to a one-lane track through tall grasses. I certainly would have missed it had I not picked up that schoolboy. The track led me, in my big green American car, into a tiny village square. That was as far as I could drive. I asked one of the villagers if I might leave my car there. 

He consented, and directed me to a path that led from that village along a waterway to another village on the shore of what looked to me like a lake. It was Shioya Bay, so called. Once it must have been accessible by boat from the East China Sea, but now a road with a low bridge and the growth of vegetation between the road and the Bay walled it and the villages on its shores from sight and sea.

Purely on instinct, feeling the goddesses drawing me, I followed a footpath to and through a couple of villages. I entered the last village, another cluster of unpainted houses, this one on a lakeshore, and began walking uphill between them. A man fell in beside me, greeted me as “ne-san”, sister, and asked why I was there. It was not often, he said, that an American came to Shioya Bay. (Ne-san in Ryukyu was an honorific; in Japan it’s what you called a waitress to summon her to your table, almost an insult. I took it for the honorific he meant it. We were speaking in Japanese, but nowhere near Tokyo.)

I told him I sought the goddesses of the old religion who I’d been told were having their annual high holy meeting.

“That won’t start for hours,” he said. “Please come and rest at my house until then.”
We sat on his porch with his wife and a couple of their children, getting acquainted and eating fingerling tree-ripened bananas from the tree beside the porch. They tasted a lot like strawberries.

His wife produced a photo of the family for me to remember them by. From their house we looked downhill to the bay. We watched narrow dragon boat race, each speeding over the water propelled by many yellow oars and looking like a brightly colored centipede

At last we began to see people singly and in small groups coming up the hill and going on past the last house, and into the woods.

“It is nearly time,” my host said. “Just follow the people. They are going to the matsuri.”

I joined the throng, and we came to an open structure about the size of a carport. Cement block pillars held up its grass thatched roof, and women in kasuri cloth kimonos and white headbands sat in rows on three sides. Each had a small lacquered black table about four inches high in front of her. On it were small rectangular rice-flour buns and saki glasses.

I thought I was the only white woman there, but no! Another white woman approached me, and introduced herself as Rae, the wife of the head of the Voice of America station in northern Okinawa. 

People stood around in little groups talking very quietly or just waiting.

“The ceremony can not start until Shigeko gets here,” Rae said. “She is the Noro priestess. These women in the ashiagi are family priestesses, one from each family in the village.”

At last the noro arrived. Her Japanese name was Shigeko Oshiro, and she worked at the Voice of America radio station when she was not being the high priestess of the area.

Then the people standing around knelt in the grass-thatched shelter before the kneeling goddesses. Some communicants were men. Each in turn received a sip of saki and a bun to take home to their family altar. Not a word was spoken. It was a simple and ancient ritual, similar to a Christian communion service, but silent. 

Shigeko became my friend. She had written a book, and gave me a copy. It was in hiragana script, a 98-characte Japanese syllabary. Back in Naha, I took the to a translator at USCAR, but he could not translate it—too many Rhukyuku words.

Shigeko spoke no English; but we shared a common tongue in Japanese. She taught me a few words of Ryukyuku, the words connected with the Kyu Shin Du, the Old God Way, and about the Family of Seven Gods, Nana nu Yazaku, Seven’s Family.

Noro is a Japanese word. Ryukyuku is such an old language that its words contain no letter ‘o’; Ryukyku speakers say ‘nuru’. A Japanese anthropologist whom I also met at the Shin Du Kyu matsuri told me he was there to learn about the old religion because it was the spiritual ancestor of Shinto.

“All the gods are women,” Shigeko told me. “The highest ‘kami’ is the Ufu nu Amu (high praying mother), the Mother Goddess. She is the daughter of the king of Ryukyu. Only now there is no Ufu nu Amu. Now the only goddesses are the nuru, the wakanuru (young goddess), and negami (sister goddess) also the bi nu gami, the goddess of beauty. And the orange goddess who tosses oranges to the people for their health in winter. ”

To me, coming from a culture in which there is only one god, and that god male, the concept of a family of gods, all female seemed intriguing. The first daughter in each family inherited the position and duty of family priestess. She was not to marry, but to spend all her time praying for her brother who would be out fishing on the China Sea in his black-painted dugout canoe. Storms could come up suddenly bringing high winds and big waves that could swamp his canoe.

(To see what these boats look like, look here.)

Okinawa is about 5 degrees north of Hawaii’s latitude. At Itoman port, I met a fsherman who had been so often sunburned that his skin had turned almost as black as his canoe. He would have nothing to eat while fishing but some of the fish he caught, and eat them raw. He needed all his sister’s prayers to come safely home with a good catch of fish for the family to eat with their rice and greens, and for his wife and sister to sell in the market

In each village, one house, at the uphill edge of the village, was the ‘nun du ruchi’, the “pray girls’ house”. Before each matsuri of the Kyu Shin Du, the nuru, or kami,.of each family would stay for five days of fasting with only an opaque white, low-alcohol rice wine to drink. This would encourage the divine spirit to enter her when she and the other kamis went up the hill to a creek near the ashiagi and baptized themselves by pouring water on their foreheads. Then they were no longer their everyday selves, but incarnations of the goddesses.

I wonder if people living in that northernmost province of Okinawa still call it by its Ryukyuan name, or still worship in the Old God Way.

Shigeko said her niece, who was to have been her successor, didn’t want to be a nuru. She wanted to be a hairdresser. She might even—goddess forbid—have joined the Nichi Ren Buddhists who were then evangelizing the young people of Kunyang.

It’s been over 42 years since the day I met the goddesses. The Ryukyu Islands belong to Japan now. The province is called by its Japanese name, Kumi Gami, as it was then to everyone except the people who lived there.

Buddhism has probably supplanted the old religion, but I hope that somewhere north of Naha, three hot dusty hours by car, goddesses of the Old God Way still live. The Kyu Shin Du produced, a culture in which all women were respected. Our world needs cultures like that.

A map of Okinawa