“…the same yesterday and today and forever.” ~Hebrews 13:8, attributed as a description of the Battle of Okinawa
“That’s our Lion,” I exclaim as we enjoy an ice cream break at Okinawa’s Peace Prayer Park on New Year’s Day. The book cover picture was exactly where we had ventured earlier in the day, quite by fortunate accident. I had read this very book years ago, and of course the image is familiar, but I failed to make the unlikely connection: the weathered, worn and war-damaged stone Shisa Lion that seems lost to time we visited was also one of the most famous historic icons of Okinawa! For history buffs, this very lion is one of the most recognizable images from the Battle of Okinawa, and remains one of the few icons of Okinawan culture that survived the “Typhoon of Steel” (鋼の台風 tetsu no ame [“rain of steel”] or tetsu no bōfū [“violent wind of steel”]) in-place, and relatively intact.
We were on our way to Okinawa’s Peace Prayer Park, their massive memorial to the war that savaged this island in 1945. It was New Year ’s Day, and the traffic was quite light, making this drive fairly enjoyable for a change (driving on Okinawa can be, well, tedious). Getting off the expressway and taking Highway 507, we were more than halfway there when we passed an old, weathered and worn sign on the road, barely readable, but pointing the way to “Tomori Stone Lion: 0.8 km.” I learned a long time ago that when traveling overseas some of the best experiences are the ones had off the beaten and well-traveled path. Although I had missed the turn, I immediately started to look for a place to turn around – which can be equally as tedious on Okinawa’s country roads…lined with an open gutter on either side!
A Shisa is a lion or “lion dog,” originally from China (Shishi), which serve as powerful talismans to ward off evil, but also are one of the central cultural icons closely associated with Okinawa. These guard dogs can be found just about everywhere you look on Okinawa, from entrances and roofs of homes, to castles, temples, bridges, mausoleums, and, as with the Tomori Lion, as guardians of an entire village (as we this day learned). Having started a collection of Shisa photos on my Flickr account, and since this particular lion had its own tourist sign, we had to go check this one out. Clearly there was some significance here.
We made our turn, and then quickly came to a “T” in the road. No other sign. Which way? We turn right, and proceed down the road, well past 0.8 kilometers. We start taking side roads, which then become cane field roads, and the 4-wheel drive comes on. But no luck finding this “Stone Lion.” We really had no idea what we were looking for…or where to find it!
This part of Okinawa suffered some of the more horrific and desperate fighting in WWII, especially since the Japanese forces were continually being pushed further and further into this southeastern corner of the island. The unstoppable allied forces approaching from the north had the last of the Japanese organized resistance pinned down to the south toward Yaese hill. With their backs to the sea with no hope of victory or rescue, and with surrendering considered dishonorable, the fight was almost always to the death for the Japanese. And not just for the military; many of the locals fell victim of the Japanese military, who thought they were actually doing the populace a favor by sparing their misery at the hands of the Americans. Or, worse, many Okinawans believed the propaganda that Americans were savages who would rape their women and eat their children, and to avoid such horrific fates, opted to commit suicide en masse in the islands many caves or by jumping off what is now known or referred to as “Suicide Cliffs.” For a historically non-confrontational people who traditional shunned weapons (hence Okinawa is the home of karate-jutsu), the war almost sacrificed a whole people and their culture.
We make our way back to that “T” intersection and try the other way. Just when we were ready to give up, we spotted another battered and barely readable sign, this time pointing down the road (in our direction of travel for a change), which specified 0.3 clicks. No joy AGAIN, and, of course (!!), nowhere to turn around on yet another lonely (yet tranquil) country road through the cane fields of southern Okinawa.
Having invested this much time and energy into the search, I became determined to find this Stone Lion. While it would have been easy just to drive away to our known destination, something inside pushed me to stay and continue our search. As we approached the village of Yaese once again, I spotted a man walking alongside the road, someone who appeared to be out for a walk. I slow the car and roll down my window….
“Sumimasen! Eigo??” (“Excuse me! English??”)
The old man smiles, lips still clenched holding a smoke in his mouth. He mimes “a little,” or skoshi in Japanese.
Before I could get out my question, he has removed the cigarette so he could speak. “Shisa??”
“Hai!!” came my excited, yet surprised response (“Yes”). When – and where – in America would this ever happen??
He started to speak to me, with less than skoshi English, and simply pointed in a general direction. With the car stopped on the road, and what I’m sure was a look of complete confusion on my face, he motioned if he could ride in the car with us. He knew there was no way these gaijin were going to find that Shisa on our own!
We hurriedly shift all the scuba diving equipment over to one side of the seat as the man tossed his smoke down into one of those open gutters. He climbs in the car, and points ahead speaking Japanese. So we are off, all three of us now, in search of our elusive lion.
The man pointed the way, leading us up and through a very quiet subdivision with some very narrow and not too straight roads, the kind which are tight and narrow driving a full-size car, complete with more blind corners than I would’ve cared for. We make at least 3 turns – and approach a rather step hill. Here the man’s smile becomes larger and his voice more excited. We are close, I think to myself. But he also wants the car stopped: this is enough of a detour out of this man’s life, especially since non-horizontal ground is now involved. As he departs, he points the way one last time.
“Arigatou gozaimasu,” I reply with the friendliest smile I could muster (“Thank you very much,” the polite and more formal form). “Hai,” came his simply reply, but one given with what I’m sure is his normally friendly smile.
We drive up a steep road, and see a small shrine on the side of the road, alongside a sign point up an even steeper one lane road for the Tomori Stone Lion. The 4-wheel drive comes on again!!
This road ends in an extreme incline, enough for the parking break to be fully set. It also ends at a set of stairs, which we gladly take up to the crest of a wooded hill. And there is our prize: a large, well-worn Stone Lion.
This Shisa faces the Yaese Mountain ridge, which, according to local Okinawa folklore, was encouraged when the villagers of Tomori (then known as Tomimori, the village which existed in the area prior to the war) consulted with a Okinawan Feng Shui master who divined that such an orientation would allow the protective lion-dog to keep the evil spirits of Yaese Mountain in check, allowing for restoration of the natural balance of the physical world and spiritual dimension. Although such folklore lacks accurate timeframes, the Tomori Stone Lion is first mentioned in writing in 1689. However, the Tomori Lion is considered the first such village Shisa built on Okinawa, dating to sometime in the 17th century, and forerunner of all other village Shisa. Since the guardian seemed to work, no doubt other villages sought the same types of protection through their own Shisa of varying shapes and sizes.
Today the historic village of Tomori has been subsumed by Kochinda Town, itself just a suburb of the highly urbanized Naha City. Despite its proximity to the big city, this district amazingly retains a quaint mix of sugar cane fields and quiet suburban single-family dwellings, complete with yards and parking. The prefectural government has designated the Tomori Lion as a “Tangible Prefectural Cultural Asset” and built the park on the tree covered knoll where it sits.
However, it wasn’t until much later in the day when we were taking a refreshment break at one of the Peace Prayer Park’s food vendors that I happened to come across the book that restored my memory and placed the Stone Lion in proper context. It was an exciting, and illuminating find!!
When the fatalities are as high as they were in Okinawa, objectives numbers don’t make much sense and lack the emotional impact that such injury demands. The true toll will never be known, but it most likely lies somewhere between 220,000 and 275,000 people over the 3-month battle. That’s a quarter of a million souls lost, perhaps somewhere between 1/3 to ½ of the Okinawa civilian population. To see Okinawa and its people and culture now compared to the historical WWII photographs shows just how fierce the fighting was…and how Okinawa has not just survived but has recovered from its wounds and prospered in spite of them, as evidenced by our voluntary host-country ad hoc tour guide who so easily could’ve dismissed our requests for help. Chances are he lost family members and relatives from the actions of my family members and relatives. The world can be a very connected – and forgiving place if we just let it be.
The same, yesterday, today and forever, this Stone Shisa remains in its original location, majestic and standing, flashing a sardonic grin and piercing eyes fixed in a resolute gaze. And now serves as the centerpiece of a wooded, quiet park on the knoll of a steep hill, a striking and disparate image to those of 1945. The Tomori Lion remains standing strong in spite of the numerous visible wounds suffered in 1945. And although it fulfilled its duties for well over 250 years, it is unlikely that it alone could’ve stopped the Typhoon of Steel, even if the juggernaut of allied forces approached from Yaese Mountain and into the mouth of the Lion. As one of the last original icons which exists from prior to the war, the proud and tall Shisa continues to echo the past, however, with eyes front always searching for a better, more peaceful Okinawan future. This find, and all it implies, is surely a fitting start for our 2014.
Directions: I would trust what you read online! The stone lion is on the south side of 507, very near the intersection of 507 with 52 in/near the village of Yaese. Look for signage, but it is really tough to get there on your own!