KUDAKA ISLAND, Okinawa Pref. — When the gods arrived by boat at the Okinawan islands during the fourth and ninth months of the Chinese calendar, they first set foot on the shores of Ishiki Beach, say residents of Kudaka Island.

Far from the shore, beyond the far-reaching shallows, white waves break in what looks like a ring around the island. Beyond lies the deep blue expanse of the sea, and farther out is where the sun rises.

Hana Nishime, 75, points out to the sea. “Nira-hara,” she says. In other parts of Okinawa, they call it “Nirai-kanai,” the faraway utopia where gods live and all things begin.

Much has changed on Kudaka, a small island of 2 sq. km, southeast of Okinawa Island, the main island of Japan’s southernmost prefecture. Ships now make the 15-minute journey between the island and the port of Azama every hour, and younger generations are leaving Kudaka behind while women from the Philippines are marrying into families here.

But Ishiki Beach is proof that much remains the same.

“Don’t take that home with you,” Nishime is quick to warn a visitor who stoops and pockets a piece of coral. “It’s something the gods placed here — you shouldn’t remove it.”

Like other “utaki,” sacred places throughout Okinawa where the gods are thought to alight, no “torii,” or shrine gate, is thought necessary to mark either Ishiki Beach or the nearby clearing where prayers are offered.

These places still preserve pockets of animistic beliefs and rites that were once held by the ancient Japanese, say ethnologists.

Visitors to utaki speak in murmurs, and the sounds of the wind, the sea, and the singing of the birds seem louder there.

The most holy are strictly off-limits for men. The only human sounds are the lighting of a match to burn incense and the low, incessant chanting of a “yuta” — a spiritual counselor claiming the ability to sense the will of the spirits — offering prayers on behalf of a client.

The Okinawa islands, stretching for 1,200 km between Kagoshima in Kyushu and Taiwan, reveal eddies in cultural history where rites that once held true for all of Japan remained unchanged by the forces of history that shaped mainland Japan, they say.

Surrounded by a sea that took weeks to cross, mankind’s oldest religion — the belief that spirits lie within the mountains, the sea, the trees and animals — remained unbroken by Okinawa’s modernization, says Kokan Sasaki, a professor of literature at Komazawa University, where he is at the forefront of research on shamanism in Japan.

“If you want to know the roots of ancient Japan, look at the southwestern islands,” he says.

Speak to Fumiko, a yuta in Tomigusuku village, and you soon learn to see the gods in the trees, in the kitchen stove, in ancestors and in the foam on the waves. “We don’t distinguish between Shinto and Buddhism,” says Fumiko, who asked that her full name be withheld. “They are all gods — and very close to us.”

And serving the gods, many of whom are demanding and jealous, is a dangerous undertaking, she says. One misinterpretation could lead to dire results.

“Yutas fall ill if they make light of what they sense,” she says. Wearing a white robe prior to her rounds to family “monchu,” or graves that resemble windowless houses. Her customary smile disappears as her expression hardens.

“Nobody becomes a yuta because they want to. Little by little, things happen that tell you that the gods aren’t going to let you live or die, and that they will slowly drive you insane rather than let you go,” says Fumiko.

Also called “monoshiri” or “kamikakariya,” yutas can be men or women. Conventionally, they undergo a period of intense personal suffering and are released only after they recognize their calling and declare themselves.

In Fumiko’s case, a senior yuta suggested that she was meant to become a yuta after she was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward when she was 19. Fumiko, who had dropped out of junior high to give birth to a daughter when she was 14, said that since her childhood she was constantly “seeing” things that others couldn’t.

The stream of visitors — the majority of whom are women between 19 and 90 years old — who come for a 10- to 20-minute “seeing” costing from 2,000 yen to 3,000 yen, is proof the power that people feel is behind her.

Their questions vary from marital matters to selecting schools for their children, or even to building new houses or knowing the reasons behind accidents.

They come despite a history of disdain and criticism by intellectuals and acts prohibiting the practice of yutas, dating from 1673, 1732, 1831 and 1900. In 1938, as part of efforts by the government to encourage cultural uniformity throughout Japan, there was a reward of 2 yen — roughly 30,000 yen in today’s economy — for anybody who reported a yuta to authorities.

“Rationalism has its limits,” says Sasaki. “Yutas stand in front of a grave and can tell the living whether the dead are pleased or sad . . . they are here because people believe that the world that can’t be seen is closely intertwined with the world of the living.”

But while animism remains deeply rooted in Okinawan culture on a day-to-day level, it is also true that many of the larger religious rites and institutions are on the verge of extinction.

One such institution is the organization of holy women, or “noro.” Their roots reach far into ancient times, long before they were organized into an official network of seers during the Ryukyu era (1429-1879).

The noro system, a hierarchical network headed by the king’s sisters, was established in 15th century to pray for safe passage of ships carrying taxes and tribute, and to pray for plenty in an era when the amount of rice, barley and wheat harvested was closely related to the well-being of royal coffers.

Powerful enough to force the resignation of kings, noro once attended battles during war, guided kings and presided over festivities during peace.

But villages like Yomitan in Okinawa Island, which has been without a noro for over 30 years, now “borrow” noro from the southern part of the island for major festivals and do without for others.

“Only the appearance, the rites remain now,” says Gisho Nakama, director of the Yomitan Historical and Folkcraft Museum.

Nakama laments that those with the needed spiritual powers and presence are either not being born or refusing to accept the duties of a noro.

Even on Kudaka Island, whose noro were consulted by the Ryukyu kings and where many indigenous religious traditions still remain, the situation is becoming dire.

Here, a ceremony called the Izaiho, held once every 12 years to appoint new noro, was canceled in 1990, due to the declining number of women born and staying on the island staying and the absence of a valid noro to preside over the ceremonies.

Most believe that the Izaiho will not be held again, a severe blow to the continuation of the noro system.

Seiko Gigu has been entrusted with performing the rites of the noro in place of her mother, an appointed noro who is now in a senior citizen’s home.

“There’s so much I don’t understand, it’s really difficult,” Gigu says. Gigu consults her mother, who is the only noro left on the island, on the procedures of the festivals. “There’s not enough people to help — we just have a skeleton of the rituals,” she says.

The debate is whether or not to bring in women not born in Kudaka, but were married into families on the island. Despite the openness shown to visitors, outsiders find they are barred from participating and, sometimes, even observing religious ceremonies.

“The perception is that those who come to Kudaka to become married were unable to find husbands in their own village, and are therefore leftovers,” says Takao Miyagi, a former journalist who covered the three Izaiho ceremonies held since the war.

Miyagi speculates that the festive rites that are easier to understand and that draw tourists will remain, while the more serious and religious ones will fade away with the passage of each generation.

Nishime, who runs an inn on Kudaka, sighs. “It would be lonesome to not continue (these rites) and to remember the gods that we have.”

But if downtown Naha is any indication of how the gods persist in day-to-day life in the face of the changing times, there seems to be hope.

In Keiko Maekawa’s kitchen, like most others in her neighborhood, stand two small pots of ashes where Mihara offers incense and water to the god of fire and the cooking stove.

It is a simple altar, but it is the first thing Maekawa brought into her Naha home when she moved there.

“I saw my mother pray,” Maekawa says as she gets up from lighting the incense. “I just say thanks for the food, for the home, for the health in the family. It’s not complicated, and it feels natural.”

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