Intimidation: Shisa of Okinawa

 “Straightforwardness intimidates people. They prefer the veneer, despite what they claim.”  ~ Donna Lynn Hope 

This is NOT an Intimidating Shisa

This is NOT an Intimidating Shisa

Intimidation,” the artist said upon walking up as he noticed me admiring a large set of traditionally styled and fired clay Okinawan Shisa dogs. “That what I call,” he continued in very broken English, still much better than my skoshi Japanese.

There is a story surrounding both Okinawan Shisa lion-dogs and the ones Jody “owed” me from so poorly mistreating the ones I brought home from Okinawa back in 2001. See The Cat-Dogs of Okinawa for that back-story. Long story short: Jody thought the dogs were rather creepy, and relegated the indoor set I had to the harsh Pensacola outdoors for the 2+ years I lived with her before moving to Okinawa. Needless to say, I have been looking intently for just the right set, without much luck since coming to Okinawa in the summer of 2013.

My dated - and damaged - set of Shisa from 2001

My dated – and damaged – set of Shisa from 2001

Jody, since moving to Okinawa and seeing just how ubiquitous these protectors are in this corner of the Far East, had finally come around to the idea of the lion-dogs as effective spiritual guards of the household. She finally, in the last few months, moved past favoring the “cuter” stylized dogs portrayed in more playful stances, lacking the teeth-filled grimaces of the more frightening lions. And she knew that I really wanted a uniquely Okinawan set, a pair of guardians that we could take with us from the Far East to wherever we happened to hang our hats.

Now to get Jody past her dislike of hats. But that’s for another story….

Jody really does look so cute in hats!

Jody really does look so cute in hats!

Camp Foster, one of the really large Marine Corps bases here on Okinawa, was holding a Spring Festival this past April, where the Marine Corps invited onto base a whole host of Okinawan vendors who could offer a wide variety of wares for perusal and purchase. The Festival started on Friday, and continued over the rest of the weekend at the base’s field house, a huge facility which ended up being filled with more product and crafts then we expected.

We stopped by late Friday afternoon, after attending a rather sad memorial service for one of Jody’s co-worker’s untimely demise. As you might imagine, we weren’t in the best frame of mind to do some serious shopping. However, to ease our troubled spirits, we decided to grab some comfort food and take a slow walk around, taking in all that the vendors had to offer. There was some Tibetan furniture that immediately caught our eye, and we engaged the vendor is some light haggling, something so common in the Far East but almost wholly missing on Okinawa. See Opportunity Knocks for more on our previous purchases from this Korean family.

We continued on and found other interesting Okinawan crafts, and decided that we would return the next day and take a longer gander at the merchandise on offer.

But then we spotted them. The dogs. The ones that immediately caught my eye.

Okinawa Shisa 2015, Shisa purchase intimidation WM

They were large, expensive, and yes, intimidating. And there didn’t appear to be any wiggle room on the price….

We returned the next day, and the two Tibetan items that we were clearly interested in had been sold, and at prices that were offered to us the previous evening. We had learned the hard lesson of Okinawa once again: if you see a unique item of the Far East that speaks to you, get it while you can. We rounded the facility again, where Jody bought some rather large antique kokeshi dolls. And we again stopped by to revisit the Shisa that had so captured my imagination.

Okinawa Shisa 2015, Shisa purchase intimidation face 2 WM

The vendor was, and I’m sure this is a loose translation, Soul (Soulful Handwork Pottery Art). The Potter, Sano Toshio, is one of the more acclaimed on the island which still uses the old traditional Okinawan ways of pottery. He has won numerous awards, including the highest prize at the 2014 Okinawa Prefecture Craft Pubic Exhibition. His work can be seen at his personal website and the shop’s blog.

The dogs are at once intimidating. Their stance is one in which they are ready to fight, ready to pounce with teeth frighteningly displayed along with their fixed stare. They are made in and using traditional Okinawan ways, finished with highly stylized twists and turns, lacking the refined finishing and glazes of what many westerners consider higher-end pottery. Until very recently I had not favored such earthenware, but have come to really appreciate such works as truly and only Okinawan. These examples were actually perfect.

Okinawa Shisa 2015, Shisa purchase intimidation 2 WM

But still that price. I wasn’t ready to spend so much money on something I could see being broken on yet another military move back to the states. We left that Saturday afternoon, and decided to return Sunday to take one last look around.

Unlike the furniture and some other items we were potentially interested in the days prior, the dogs were still there. It appeared Sano-san wasn’t moving much product, so perhaps he would be more willing to drop his price. But I had also had a change of heart. In the last 24 hours I really thought about the idea of value, about what was worth an expenditure of treasure and what wasn’t. For example, we didn’t hesitate to spend large sums on travel. And for specialized scuba diving equipment that allows for deeper and longer explorations of the deep. In such context, the price becomes not just tolerable, but congruent with the valued offered by such works of art.

Okinawa Apr 2015, New Shisa, Shisa purchase intimidation face WM

Intimidation resides safely in our home. As treasured Okinawan customary works of art they are impossible not to admire. But it is only in their physically menacing presence that the moving power of these protectors can be truly felt. It’s hard to put a price on protection.

See more Okinawan Shisa dogs in my Flickr photo-stream here.

The Cat-Dogs of Okinawa: Guardian Shisa

“Time spent with cats is never wasted.”  ~ Sigmund Freud

“There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.”  ~ Bernard Williams

Thankfully, not this kind of Cat-Dog.

Thankfully, not this kind of Cat-Dog.

Sometimes I really want a dog.  These daze (pun intended), maybe even most of the time.  I have been suffering a rather serious (physical) ailment, and a family member who would be ecstatically happy to see me come home, who would be a whore for my love, and who would understand at least a few f-in’ words of English would certainly alleviate my darker moods.

But don’t tell all that to Cleopatra.  Who is certainly not a dog.

A yawn is about as close to a roar as we get out of Cleo.

A yawn is about as close to a roar as we get out of Cleo.

Cleo is a cat.  And I have had many.  Cats I mean, not Cleos.  Although I do adore the right dog, I am also honest with myself:  I, in no way, want the daily duties (and doodies) that caring for a canine involves.  Leaving for a long 3-day weekend?  Just leave dry food and water out for the cat and she’ll slothfully sleep away your absence.  Have a social engagement straight from work?  Don’t worry about the cat pissing on your curtains and leaving you a welcome-home surprise on the living room rug!  Unless you count vomit.

Okinawa Jan 2014, Shisa, rooftop lion-dog at Pizza in the Sky

Okinawa Jan 2014, Shisa, conceptual Shisa Talisman in the Okinawan Prefectural MuseumScuba Diving Okinawa Nov 2013, Maeda Point, Shisa Dog standing watch at the CapeLuckily, Okinawa, along with much of the rest of the Far East of Asia, offers just the right mix…of bothShisa (シーサー Shīsā,), or “lion-dogs,” are perhaps the ubiquitous, most visually recognizable and culturally distinct artifact of the Okinawan culture.  These effigies, large and small and stylized in any number of ways, can be found standing guard on most tiled rooftops, flanking the gates to homes, or gracing the entrances to businesses and shops all over Okinawa, all to help ward off evil.

Alexander and Cleopatra

Alexander and Cleopatra

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hedo, shisa dog in the mountains11165104594_9d07055525_bDon’t get me wrong, I still very much love my cat.  Problem is my cat apparently loves my wife…more.  Cleo was adopted along with her brother by me in 2010 BJE (Before Jody Era) when they were just eight weeks old.  The previous winter Sammy, my favorite cat ever (don’t tell Cleo this, either), went missing.  After somewhat recovering from that mammoth loss, I was ready for more cat-company.  Cleopatra and Alexander grew up as indoor cats, but become indoor-outdoor tabbies since Jody’s house came complete with a small pet-door.  Cleo was always very aloof and distant, letting her brother be the warm, loveable cat.  The very day he went missing, however, her personality underwent a radical metamorphism.  Afterwards a much more vocal and affectionate feline…for a girl-cat…she is still no…well…dog.

Distant Cousins - Gothic Gargoyles of Europe

Distant Cousins – Gothic Gargoyles of Europe

Foo Dogs

Foo Dogs

Okinawa Nov 2013, Shisa, clay lion-dog at Ryukyu Mura

A relative of the Chinese shishi, lion-dogs were first introduced to Okinawa in the 14th century via trade and cultural exchange with the nearby Chinese mainland.  However, shisa and its forerunner shishi both share a common ancestry with the Persian empires of long ago, where they took the form of more traditional (Asiatic) lions, and which traditions moved East with trade on the fabled Silk Road.  Interestingly, they along with European-centric and beasty gargoyles of gothic times all serve very similar roles.  The oldest shisa on Okinawa, dating to 1498, continues to stand guard on a bridge at Shuri, although now certainly worn and weathered.

Jody with the old Tomori Stone Shisa on Okinawa

Jody with the old Tomori Stone Shisa on Okinawa

If you haven’t figured it out, I remain a rather hard-core cat person.  I respect their lofty independence and envy their sleep schedule.  But sometimes it’s very frustrating to talk to your cat, only to be met with vacant, silent contempt.  It’s beyond me that cats just can’t figure out certain words (besides their names), or bring a frickin’ toy back after they bat it all the way under the large love-seat in the corner.


Okinawa Nov 2013, Shisa dog as a fountainOkinawa Nov 2013, Yomitan, cracked and weathered shisa guard dogChinese guardian lions (Chinese: 獅; shī; literally “lion”), often called “Foo Dogs” in the West, date back to roughly the 1st Century BCE, and by the 6th century CE, they were popularly depicted guardian figures.  Pairs of guardian lion statues (hence shi became shishi) are still common decorative and symbolic elements at the entrances to restaurants, hotels, supermarkets and other structures throughout China and in most corners of the globe where Chinese have settled, especially in local “Chinatowns.”

Cleo did use to hang out on our roof.

Cleo did use to hang out on our roof.

Cleo doesn’t do much guarding around our household, except from maybe spiders and roaches.  The mere sound of the doorbell brings on high-alert, and I’m not sure who would be more of a scaredy-cat if an actual ghost were to appear.  All I know is that she fits easily under the bed, which in the feline realm apparently is instinctually employed as a domestic surrogate for cavernous and secret shelter.


My daughter, long ago.

My daughter, long ago.

Okinawa Jan 2014, Shisa, rooftop shisa lion-dog at Peace Prayer Park

One the of primary differences between Chinese shishi and Okinawa shisa is that in the former’s case, the male rests his paw upon a gold-embroidered ball, which in Chinese imperial historical contexts represents worldwide supremacy, while the nurturing female guards a cub with a frightful open-mouth roar.  Okinawan shisa are also displayed in a pairing of the sexes, one with a closed mouth on the left to keep in spirits of virtue, and the other on the right with an open mouth to frighten away the wicked.  Although there is some debate about their sex, it seems that most often the male is considered the closed-mouth lion.  This may or may not have anything to do with how much women like to talk…(wink).

This one is pretty clearly a female....

This one is pretty clearly a female….

Okinawa Nov 2013, Shisas full of color and character in Yomitan 26730672213_38b3305216Although originally fearsome and regal guardians of royal palaces and shrines, today’s Okinawan shisa are found to be much more frolicsome, and sometimes almost cartoonishly humorous, especially like those in tourist gift shops.  Long before Jody actually considered moving to Asia, she banished my old shisa from the inside of her house.  She actually was a little disturbed by their fearsome, foreign appearance.  They sat outside bordering our front door, and since they were made of resin and not designed for outdoor use, they were ravaged by the Florida weather and sub-tropical sun.  Our domicile, however, remained shielded from supernatural things bad, and they continue to stand watch today at the threshold of our condo in Okinawa.  But this time they are just inside the door (wink)!

My well-worn and worthy Shisa still standing watch.

My well-worn and worthy Shisa still standing watch.

Now that Jody understands their fundamental role as protectors, she is at ease with their presence.  And she even wants to replace the ones damaged.  Quite honesty, though, it’s hard to push my shisa aside simply to get “fresher” ones.  It seems at once disloyal and superstitiously unethical, both reasons why I have undoubtedly failed to settle on a replacement pair.  All this much to Jody’s ongoing chagrin and growing guilt.  If she had her way, we would have a whimsically playful pair of protectors.  What good would that do?!?

Our newest Okinawa Shisas from Ishigaki-jima

Our newest Okinawa Shisas from Ishigaki-jima

8278755027_e2e046ce4c_o8520049532_b55d329c7c_bCleo is actually highly regarded by all our friends and cat-sitters.  She is playful, seeks attention, and has a serious and somewhat embarrassing fetish for shoes, socks and feet (the more smelly the better).  But only men’s feet.  Go figure.  I do believe that while she may not have spider-sense about impending earthquakes that happen here – she barely wakes up for them – she does influence our potentially paranormal surrounds.  I’m just not sure which way.


So, do I really want a dog?  Nah, I don’t.  Me and my miniature lion guard get along just swell.  After all, I’m counting on her to help protect me from my illness getting any worse.  And while a puppy’s tongue may be good therapy, a purring cat’s trusting cuddle is sometimes all the security I need.


For more photos of Okinawan Shisa, please see my Flickr collection here:  Shisa

For more reading on Shisa, please see my blog on the Tomori Stone Lion

Finally, to hear about how I almost killed during our move to the Far East, see Nine Lives & Hard Travels