Lions and dragons of Japan’s islands

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

When I arrived at the workshop of Setsuko Oshiro in August, the sky was a clear blue and the heat like the inside of a kiln, but there were storm clouds gathering, dark thunderheads over the East China Sea.

Sheltering from the blistering sun under a trellis of bengaru yahazu, a dazzling violet flower easily mistaken for bougainvillea or allamanda, Oshiro, a voluble woman of slight but muscular build, stepped out to greet me. We stood for a moment outside the Okinawan restaurant owned by Oshiro and run by her daughter, an eatery right next to her Gallery Sakana.

A female potter, a rare thing in the Okinawan ceramic world, Oshiro studied and worked as an apprentice in Tsuboya, a district of Naha that is associated with stone and earthenware of the same name. She opened her present gallery 20 years ago in the village of Ihara on the southern coast of Okinawa’s main island. Adding to Oshiro’s rarity as a female potter in Okinawa is the fact that she specializes almost exclusively in the creation of shīsā, the guardian lion-dog figures that have come, more perhaps than anything, to symbolize Okinawa. Commonly placed on rooftops, where they protect homes from fire, they are also found on gateposts and the steps to public buildings and shrines.

The origin of the more common lion-dogs is said to be the Chinese practice of feng shui, a form of geomancy deriving from Taoism that came to Okinawa with migrants from Fujian Province in 1392. Placing shīsā on tiled roofs is a relatively recent practice, as most ordinary residencies had thatched roofs until the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

“Shīsā, are often displayed in pairs,” Oshiro told me. “The left figure with its mouth closed to hold the good spirits within, the mouth of the right statuette open to ward off evil.”

Oshiro works exclusively in brownish-red terracotta, an age-old earth type used in the creation of statuettes and vases or as ornamental building material. It is also used extensively in the manufacture of the orange-colored roof tiles in the construction of traditional Okinawan homes. Her clientele include homeowners, tourists, and special orders from private companies and local governments.

Although shīsā are typhoon-resistant, the delicacy of their features makes them difficult to dispatch, so items are usually bought direct or personally delivered. From this autumn, her work has been exhibited and sold in Naha Airport.

Chances are that, if you happen to pass a town hall, library, school or museum on the island, the guardian figures at their entrances will be the work of Oshiro. The shīsā she creates for hospitals are voluntary donations. These public commissions are large, imposing figures. A sample of these more ambitious works, with their characteristically ferocious features stands outside Oshiro’s studio.

“I had to send this 100-kg figurine to one of the giant kilns at Tsuboya,” she recalled. “It took three days to be fired.”

An erudite informant on all things Okinawan, Oshiro has spent years researching the history, ethnicity, art and crafts of these sub-tropical islands. In accord with her fondness for tradition and authenticity,she prefers to call Okinawa by its old name, Ryukyu, the term for a formerly independent kingdom unilaterally seized by Japan. She spoke of the customs and practices of Okinawa as if the islands were a completely different cultural and ethnic entity from Japan. In many ways they always have been, a fact reinforced by the recent resurgence of pride in Okinawan identity and culture.

She is also interested in dragons and other mythological creatures from the Asian region, of which she considers Okinawa a firmly integral part. She pointed out to me the differences between Southeast Asian dragons, which have three claws, Chinese ones with five, and the Ryukyu variety with four. The relatively large number of claws attached to Okinawan dragons she explained, relates to the proportions of the sea, the islands surrounded by expansive waters. Fishermen in these parts it seems, known in the Okinawan language as uminchu, depend on the powers and good ministrations of protective dragons. The number of claws on a shīsā, Oshiro added, are optional.

Observing Oshiro using a narrow wooden spatula to incise lines into the body of a statuette and to finesse the facial features, you can appreciate how, unlike the mass-produced shīsā lining the shelves of souvenir shops in Naha, each of her creations has its own identity. Part of this is attributable to the process itself, which is slow and painstaking. When completed, both larger and smaller pieces are placed in her kiln and fired for up to 36 hours. Most of her work is unglazed, helping it retain the earth feel of the original material.

When I showed Oshiro some photos I had taken a few days earlier, images of old rooftop shīsā on the remote island of Iheya, she offered, with the largess and spontaneity that characterizes many Okinawans, to take me to a nearby village where I could see some even older examples. Pointing out the finest pieces, she left me to explore on my own, while she returned to her studio to work on a fresh commission.

There had been talk over the previous days of encroaching typhoons. The steamy air of this coastal village held an extra element of salt, and a more urgent breeze seemed to stir from the ocean as I set off. The islanders would need all the good auspices of their shīsā and dragons they could summon.

Local buses run from Naha to the village of Ihara. Gallery Sakana is beside a car park opposite the Himeyiri-no-to monument. She welcomes visitors and appointments are not usually required.