“A tomb now suffices him for whom the whole world was not sufficient.” ~Greek Proverb
“We know little of the things for which we pray.” ~Geoffrey Chaucer
“Tashimoo,” the large white sign, sized and placed to be easily seen from the frequently traveled road on Torii Station, began. “Please pray at this blacksmith’s tomb because he made tools for farmers.”
I had driven by this “tomb” probably at least 50 times, and with each pass, my curiosity grew. Who was this blacksmith, and who was responsible for placing and maintaining this sign on an active United States Army station? And where exactly was his tomb at this site? All it appeared to be was a small rise in the ground, serving as root foundation for a very large shade tree and associated sub-tropical jungle.
Deciding to stop and explore his resting place on foot, I realize that this tomb appears to be very old, and basically has been reclaimed by nature. Oddly situated next to a modern American style gas station where a woman was loudly vacuuming her car, I can find no real trace of what I would consider an Okinawan tomb, at least not like those ubiquitous turtle-back mausoleums seen all over the island.
Turtle-back tombs are exactly one of those things that make Okinawa…oh so Okinawan. They line hillsides along the coasts, prime property for what in essence are neighborhoods of the dead. But they are not seen in other parts of Japan; they were introduced only in the Ryukyus through Okinawa’s long and prosperous seafaring tradition with China.
Turtle-back tombs or turtle shell tombs (Japanese: 亀甲墓, kamekō-baka) are a particular type of tomb commonly found in some coastal areas of China’s Fujian Province and in Japan’s Ryūkyū Islands. In the original Chinese form, the tomb main chamber’s roof is made to look like the carapace of a tortoise. A vertical stone tombstone bearing the name of the deceased is placed where the turtle’s head would be, and serves as the “door” access to the burial vault.
In the Ryūkyūan island chain, the turtle-back tombs are thought to have been introduced from China in the late 17th or early 18th century, but there are academic claims that reach back to their origins in Okinawa to the 15th century. The Ryūkyūan version has the same overall shape and layout, but on a much grander scale. Whereas in China the tombs are for individuals, in Okinawa the enhanced size of the body of the “tortoise” serves most often as a family tomb.
Why a turtle? In China, the turtle has long been considered a sacred animal. The reptile’s shape, with its flat plastron (the belly of the turtle) below and its domed carapace above, is said to represent the universe, at least as it appeared to ancient Chinese. But the interpretation in the Ryukyus has the tomb shaped to resemble a woman’s womb. One of the Eastern Buddhist ideas surrounding death is that it is only another form of rebirth, or a means of returning from whence you came.
By the 20th century, the turtleback tomb became the predominant burial chamber in most of the Ryūkyū Islands. These tombs contain a burial vault, where bones of many generations of a particular family could repose. In the long-standing tradition of burial in Okinawa, a coffin and body are placed in the central part of the tomb and the vault is sealed with a massive stone. The newly deceased remains there for some number of years until wholly decomposed. At that point, the bones would be washed, usually by young female relatives of the deceased, placed into a large earthenware vessel, and stored on shallow tiered shelves lining the back and sides of the vault’s interior based on seniority. Larger tombs offer up to 150 square feet of burial space.
There are large preserved tombs on Kadena AFB, complete with placarded information. Stopping there one day, I find a substantial picturesque tomb and a brief, generalized explanation describing the aged, intriguing structure. Although the signage claimed that the tombs were still being utilized today, a closer inspection of their interiors clearly shows that no one is home, living or dead. I can only imagine, perhaps, that the family was whipped out in totality during the Typhoon of Steel which occurred here back in 1945….
That spring, during the Battle of Okinawa, many Okinawan civilians sought refuge from naval and air bombardment of the island inside their ancestors’ tombs (as they also do for typhoons). Later, many of these tombs were also used by the Imperial Japanese defenders of the islands in essence as reinforced fighting positions. (See Turtle Back Tombs for an excellent overview of the role the tombs played in WWII) Pre-invasion military analysis of Okinawa included instructions on the explosive firepower required to destroy such tombs. When you consider the propensity of the Japanese to use the tombs in military roles, grave danger emanated from the literally thousands of turtlebacks that dotted the island of Okinawa.
Unfortunately, war often presents just such dilemmas: should the destruction of local culturally significant sites be avoided at the risk of increased casualties, or should they be leveled to discourage their use and save as many of the invasion force as possible? The way it went, it is the Okinawan people who suffered most. And doubly so. The Japanese, who cared nothing for the welfare of the Okinawan people, occupied, militarized, and sacrificed this island chain as a way to simply slow the Americans down on their march northward to the Japanese homeland. The Japanese were directly responsible for the destruction of almost every important Okinawan cultural relic, either by their own hand or by placing such sites in the crosshairs of the American invasion force. The desecration of tombs – many which were destroyed on the mere suspicion of being military strongholds or hideouts – was a terrible and lasting affront to the Okinawans.
In Okinawa, where highly superstitious and spiritually attuned people actively engage in ancestor worship, the tomb is not only a place for resting the dead, but a place of tangible joy and transcendent comfort for the living. One such event is known as Shiimii. Each spring at the beginning of the third Lunar month (the Okinawans still use the traditional Chinese measure of time to mark cultural events) Okinawans participate in memorial services of a sort for their ancestors. But these observances are much less solemn that you might think. The practice is, of course, based on Chinese traditions passed along to the Ryukyus with the Chinese tombs. During this festivity, blood relatives gather at tombs in a family reunion, but one which includes both the living and the dead. The entire site is cleaned and neatened; weeds are pulled, trees are trimmed, bushes cut back and debris and trash removed. Irritated forebears, upset at the tidiness of their eternal home, are believed to cause illness or even death when their descendants don’t take good care of the family tomb or participate in important annual ceremonies which take place there. See Banzai for more on the rituals and rites of honoring the dead in Okinawa.
Once the site is presentable, a brief ceremony is held which includes prayers and the burning of imitation paper money for the dead to use in the coming year. Then a picnic is enjoyed at the tomb. Family members unpack special Okinawan ceremonial foods like mochi, fruits and pork, along with beer, saké and awamori. Offerings are made first to the resident ancestors, and then the extended family consumes the rest graveside. Children are seen laughing and playing while the adults appreciate their adult beverages. Often a strummed sanshin, the traditional Okinawa three-string instrument, offers a musical background where time-honored folk songs are sung in hogen, the local dialect. This joyous time, one which strengthens and reaffirms kinship and ancestral ties, is cherished by the Okinawans.
But there’s less and less of the turtleback tombs being constructed on Okinawa. More recent trends, given the exorbitant cost of purchasing land and building large kamekō-baka are to build gables, smaller tombs that more resemble a shrine or small home than animal. And given the reduced floor space available, cremation is now the norm.
Tashimoo, the blacksmith of Yomitan, had neither. His tomb is crudely formed by stacked chunks of ancient coral. Moving up into the manmade elements of his hillside grave, I spy fragments of earthenware and what appears to be bone fragments, possibly animal, but maybe not, scattered in a leveled area immediately against a small coral wall. The site, adjacent to a busy road serving the base’s gas station and across the street from the construction site where the new base headquarters is going to be, is quite shaded and tranquil.
And he still has people stopping to pray. In my few moments of silent contemplation of this man’s life – and death – I focus the very nature of his tomb and the fascinating Okinawan interpretation of the circle of life. And I reach a necessary conclusion.
We all can only hope to be as lucky to be so well-remembered.