How would you like to spend a fun Sunday partying on a grave surrounded by hundreds of other tombs in a huge cemetery? Well, if you happen to be in Okinawa in April, shortly after the vernal equinox, you’ll find thousands of families doing just that in high-spirited family outings at the festival time known as Shimi.
Okinawa, formerly the Kingdom of the Ryukyus, was annexed by Meiji Era Japan in 1879. During the previous 500 years, the kingdom had maintained close ties with China, and to this day much of the culture displays a strong Chinese influence. This includes Chinese cooking and clothing, dragon-boat racing and, perhaps most importantly, the lunar calendar and the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac.
Many Okinawan birthday celebrations are tied to that zodiac’s 12-year cycle, beginning with the 13th (12+1) birthday and — since Okinawans have the world’s longest life expectancy and the islands have the highest population percentage of centenarians — reaching a climax with the 97th (12×8+1).
But back to the cemetery. Shimi is on the 15th day of the third month of the Chinese lunar calendar — which in the Western solar calendar usually falls in April — and in Okinawa it is usually celebrated on the Sunday closest to that date. Although Okinawa has absorbed aspects of Buddhism, Chinese Taoism and Japanese Shinto, and has grafted them onto its indigenous animistic/shamanistic traditions, most modern Okinawans are neither Buddhist nor Shinto. Whereas mainland Japanese have weddings performed by Shinto priests and funerals conducted by their Buddhist counterparts, the former at a jinja (shrine) and the latter at a tera (temple), Okinawans prefer utaki (sacred prayer areas) — usually in a forest grove — overseen by a noro (village priestess).
The overriding concept of Okinawan spirituality is respect for — bordering on the worship of — ancestral spirits, and intrinsic to rituals there is a belief that ancestors, although physically and materially “dead,” are spiritually alive and present in the ongoing lives of their descendants.
Therefore, rituals and ceremonies to honor the family ancestors are extremely important in Okinawan culture. This includes the butsudan (ancestral shrine) found in an alcove of a main room in most homes, and ceremonies and festivals throughout the year such as Tanabata (Star Festival), Bon (Buddhist Festival of the Dead) and, of course, Shimi.
Since the ancestors, or at least their spirits, are believed to inhabit the world of the living, they must be honored and appeased so that bad luck does not strike their family. Faithfully practicing the rites of ancestor worship, on the other hand, ensures good luck. And while the eldest son keeps the family altar in his home, and the eldest woman looks after the ceremonies, a yuta (shaman) is employed to facilitate communication between the living and the dead. The eldest son also maintains the haka (family tomb).
Tombs are everywhere across the Okinawan landscape. Originally, the coast or high ground overlooking the ocean was preferred, but today they are found along rural stretches of highway, in urban green spaces — and even adjacent to city shopping centers.
And Okinawan tombs are huge structures, consisting not only of the gravestone itself — a hollowed-out structure with a door so that urns holding the ashes (formerly the bones) of the deceased can be put inside — but also a courtyard fronting the gravestone for the purpose of providing space for family gatherings, especially parties.
There are basically two types of Okinawan tombs. The haka, a house-shaped construction, is by far the most common variety that is found today — but until the end of the 19th century they were restricted to families of the nobility.
The tombs of commoners, which are fairly rare in modern Okinawa, were kamekō-baka (turtle-shaped tombs). These were actually formed to represent the shape of the womb, so that death and being interred there symbolized a return to the sacred spot where life begins — so completing the circle of existence.
This year, April 24 was the closest Sunday to the 15th day of the third month of the old calendar and, along with seemingly thousands of Uchinanchu (Okinawans), this writer visited Shikina Cemetery Park in Naha. As Okinawa’s largest graveyard, this occupies almost 10 hectares in the ancient Shuri area of the city, and contains thousands of family tombs.
Most streets and roads in Naha are narrow, winding and steep, and as there’s only one train line, the Yui Monorail, traffic jams are a daily occurrence. So it was no surprise that the roads to and through Shikina were jammed at several points around the vast cemetery complex. But given the laid-back attitude of most Okinawans, that did little to dampen the party atmosphere fueled with baskets of fruit, coolers of beer and boxes of ready-made food carried by family members amid shouts and laughter from both elders and children.
Even the occasional fender-bender was handled with appropriate levity by the police officer on the scene.
In the good old days, paper money was burned as the first ceremonial act, to aid the ancestor financially in the spirit world. Today, however, special paper replica money called uchikabi is sacrificed instead. Hopefully, spirit-realtors are not as avaricious as their human counterparts.
Next come offerings of colorful fruits, in which the island abounds. Oranges, mangoes, papayas and bananas are laid out on the shelf fronting the opening of the tomb. Then spirits of an alcoholic nature, usually Okinawan awamori, a distilled long-grain indica rice liquor similar to Japanese shōchū, which is distilled from short-grain japonica rice, is presented as an offering.
Then, with the ancestors honored and formally invited, toasts are drunk and the party can begin.