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.

Shinto Shrines & Snake Oils

“Crooked creatures of a thousand dubious trades…sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings.” ~ Stephen Vincent Benet, from John Brown’s Body


Snake Oil. The phrase, for most of us who watched cheesy Western reruns on Saturday afternoons, immediately conjures up images of shabby swindlers exploiting the naïvely unsuspecting public by peddling fake cures. The Oxford English Dictionary defines snake oil as “a quack remedy or panacea,” a characterization that most Americans would not dispute. The OED, however, doesn’t note that the phrase’s genesis is linked inextricably to American flirtations with the Far East.


Makes the FDA not seem so bad….

Snake oil is an expression that, 100 years ago, referred to fraudulent health products or unproven medicines. In more modern times it has come to refer to any product with questionable or unverifiable quality or benefit. By extension, snake oil salesmen are people who knowingly sells fraudulent goods or who are themselves a fraud, quack or charlatan. But why?


Coolies and Our Railroads

During the mid-1800s, America was in the midst of a fantastic building project: the Transcontinental Railroad. To support such a massive and dangerous undertaking, and to do it at minimal cost, thousands of Chinese workers were “imported” to the United States where they basically became indentured laborers, responsible for most of the most dangerous, heavy lifting of the rails. About 180,000 Chinese immigrated to the United States between 1849 and 1882, the vast majority coming from peasant families. In the “New World,” these unskilled Asian laborers came to be known as “Coolies.” See my blog Beauty and Honor Enshrined for another Coolie connection between East and West.


And of course the Chinese brought with them their culture, customs and traditions. Which included various medicines, such as snake oil. Made from the Chinese water snake, the oil actually did help reduce inflammation, and was used primarily to treat joint pain (specifically arthritis and bursitis), from which the Chinese no doubt suffered from their back-breaking daily labors. The Coolies would ingest and or rub the oil on their joints after surviving yet another day toiling across America. And, of course, the Chinese workers began sharing their ointment, used for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years in the far-away Far East, with Americans, many of who marveled at its healing properties.

Snake Oil/Patent Meds We All Could Use!

Snake Oil/Patent Meds We All Could Use!

Too Good to be True

Too Good to be True

Due to the massive lack of government oversight at the time, there was a massive explosion in “patent medicines” at the same time. Sold by shady traveling salesmen, or advertised in the obscure classifieds of questionable newspapers, such tonics promised often an unbelievable wide range of cures, including chronic pain, headaches, “female complaints” and pretty much anything involving the GI track. Over time, as these “cures” became more and more known as false, they came to be known as “snake oil.”

Shinto Sales

Shinto Sales

14725978451_679b92773c_bThe Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples here in Okinawa and Japan have, like most religions, their own versions of snake oil. And, like all other houses of worship in the world, raise a good deal of money from their sale. Now I’m not saying that these talismans are all false or that they don’t offer their sacramental protections or blessings to the buyer. But, like most religiously based claims, little concrete proof of their efficacy can be offered, other than rather subjective spiritually improved prognoses. What is obvious, though, is that the mere promise of help, protection, or just plain good luck leads to their massive popularity here in what is already a highly superstitious culture. And that leads to the “ching-chinging” of cash registers….


For instance, we visit our local Shinto Shrine at Futenma each New Year, and well-attended ritual throughout Japan. Kadomatsu (門松) can be purchased and serve as much more than New Year decorations to the faithful. They are intended to welcome the kami (spirits or gods) of harvest to ensure the coming year’s crops. Other examples of local Shinto Shrine snake oils are described below.



11812222966_3157ccdfc2_bOmikuji (御御籤 or 御神籤) are oracles written on strips of paper, nothing more than a fortune. For the Japanese, their oracles are chosen using the time-honored Chinese method of selecting a fortune-telling stick; for us gaijin (foreigners), we just reach into a box and select one from the thousands found there. These are often found at shrines wrapped around tree branches, a way to either multiply a good fortune, or to leave a bad so it won’t follow you home….


My Omikuji tied at the Shrine

16199643279_80b0af4be5_bOmamori (お守り) are amulets on sale at shrines and temples for particular purposes. And by particular, I mean particular. There are hundreds to be found and purchased, with each Shrine or Temple having a specific focus. For example, there are suction-cup charms designed for car windshield to protect the vehicle’s occupants. Students can purchase trinkets to assist them in studies or test-taking. Businessmen buy trinkets to ensure success and prosperity in the coming year. But the most can be found to support health or fertility!


A Collection of Various Omamori for Sale

Hamaya (破魔矢) is literally an “evil breaking arrow,” sold during the New Year at shrines and kept at home all year to keep evil at bay.

Hamaya For Sale

Hamaya For Sale

16359893076_50ddb00b30_bEma (絵馬) are small wooden plaques on which worshippers write their prayers or wishes, which are then left hanging where kami receive – and hopefully act on them. They bear various pictures, often of animals or other Shinto imagery, and many have the word gan’i (願意, “wish”) written along the side. The ema of today are stand-ins for more traditional offerings to the religious houses of the past, such as animals and food-stuffs. And then there are specific ema which can be purchased, such as for success in work or on exams, marital bliss, to have children, and for good health.

The Futenma Shrine's Ema

The Futenma Shrine’s Ema


Shinto Sales

Shinto Sales

As you might be able to read from between the lines, I’m not a firm believer or supporter of any one type of organized religion. All are a creation of man, and based on highly suspect scriptures, rooted in no longer relevant tradition and practices. And there is simply no escaping the financial aspect of all these talisman for sale, a seemingly rather transparent notion that the faithful everywhere take for granted. But clearly there is a spiritual dimension to our shared human condition. And in embracing and trying to capture that spiritual quality, I have no issue in partaking of the best of each religion that happens to be at hand.

Leaving our Prayers and Wishes in Kyoto

Leaving our Prayers and Wishes in Kyoto

So, yes, we display Kadomatsu for the New Year, and we take great pleasure in getting our Omikuji each year. We purchase various Omamori for help in the coming year, for protection on the roads and to help in insuring our health. We even bought a very nice Hamaya, which remains protectively poised at the threshold of our home, warding off evil on a continual basis. And not only do we collect Ema for their artistic quality, we take great care in crafting our wishes each year so that they will be heard and cared for by the kami.

Brisk Sales!

Brisk Sales!

Because, like for most snake oils of the past, the cure is often times in faith, not whether the ingredients actually work or not. And besides, what is lost other than a few bucks that hopefully are put ultimately to better use? No, there is nothing lost here buying from such sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings, but everything to be gained.


Okinawa Halloween Costume COSPLAY: 50 Shades of Cute

“Clothes make a statement. Costumes tell a story.” ~Mason Cooley

Their Story?  Evil Gingerkids, of course!

Their Story? Evil Gingerkids, of course!

Halloween 2014, Mihama Costume Contest, walking dead women zombies15520835520_408295eeb7_bThe ghosts and ghouls, manga-attired friends and whole families of anime characters all parade down the runway to the excited gasps of the massive crowd assembled for the All Hallows Eve festivities. From Transformers to dead Goth/Emo weddings, the spectators all gawked at the getup gamut on display.  Edward Scissorhands receives approving applause from the audience, a good sign that he would be a finalist.  And so went the pageantry for the next two hours.


We are often asked if the Japanese and the Okinawans celebrate many of the holidays that we in the United States accept as the underpinnings of life. Halloween is one of the more interesting days where the East can mask themselves in costumed celebration of All Hallows Eve.  And paint me paranormal, boy do they ever!

Halloween 2014, Mihama Costume Contest, female ghoul ghost


Zombification:  the danger of listening to too much AFN

Zombification: the danger of listening to too much AFN

The local heavily western-influenced “American Village” and “Carnival Park” at Mihama held their annual Halloween costume contest last week, this year actually on Halloween proper. Compared to the rain and cold of last year (see COSPLAY in Japan), the weather was nearly perfect for such merriment.  So good, in fact, that there were about five times as many people out this year, most of which seemed to be little witches, miniature pumpkins, or young ghouls trick-or-treating throughout the huge commercial complex.  For the contest, Okinawa closes the main road in the area for pedestrian-only traffic.  There a large stage is assembled, funneling down the street transformed into a long runway for costumed contestants to strut their stuff.

Beautiful veiled witch.

Beautifully veiled.  But clearly thinking about her next curse to cast.

It seems we Americans give the day a bad name.

It seems we Americans give the day a bad name.

15086308713_ed15f92dc5_bHalloween, or Hallowe’en (a contraction of “All Hallows’ Evening”), is of course celebrated annually on October 31st, itself also the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day, a liturgical time dedicated to remembering the dead, specifically Saints (“hallows”). A timeless focus of All Hallows’ Eve is the use of humor and ridicule to confront the powerful inevitability of death.  Although origins are debated, and whether your trace them to pagan, Gaelic, or Christian roots, it matters little.  Such connections have long been lost in antiquity.

I'm not sure if this is the typical Ugly American here, or a costume.

I’m not sure if this is the typical Ugly American here, or a costume.

Halloween 2014, Mihama Costume Contest, walking dead women zombiesHalloween 2014, Mihama Costume Contest, masked beautyAnd besides, with the fantasy of spectacular dress and anonymity promised by masks and makeup, such connections are today unimportant in what in Japan is a wholly secular day. But the Okinawan people, and to a lesser extent the Japanese as well, are very superstitious people, well-attuned with death and the afterlife.  Thus, it has been easy for both cultures to integrate Halloween with full force.  Starting in the late afternoon on October 31st, one can spy car loads of Japanese kids in costume being dropped off all along our neighborhood seawall to go trick-or-treating alongside their American counterparts.

Halloween 2014, Mihama Costume Contest, devilish

BUT, it is the vigor and energy the Japanese put into their costumes which truly amazes. There were over 250 costumed-entries for the contest this year, most entries consisting of a group of friends or even whole families.  But what really surprises is the shear variety and number of people just out and about in costume, both to enjoy and participate in the revelries.

Sexy, cute AND shy! A winning combination.

Sexy, cute AND shy! A winning combination.

American Slut:  C'mon, Indians didn't wear heels....

American Sluttiness: C’mon, Indians didn’t wear heels….

American Sluttiness: Barney is a cross-dresser???

American Sluttiness: Barney is a cross-dresser???

But having spent now two recent Halloween’s here in Okinawa, Jody and I have reached an interesting conclusion: while America has taken sexy to slutty extremes, the Japanese (and Okinawans) have taken sexy on an opposite trajectory to cute!  Fifty shades of gray here start with White (innocence), as opposed to our Black (decadence).  It’s a refreshing spin to see that Asian women here continue to walk on the more subdued side of the blurry gray line between sluttiness and seductress.  While the Japanese certainly have their perverted fetishes (as we all do), they manage to continue to hang onto a level of innocence and naivety that is…well…cute.  See Absolute Territory for a seductive take on Japanese sexy cuteness.

The Ultimate American Sluttiness:  sexifying Burt and Ernie.

Ultimate American Sluttiness: giving Burt and Ernie moobs.

Those girls got guns.

Those girls got guns.


They probably would be more successful capturing with their fish-NETs than with their sidearms.

Another obvious theme that bleeds apparent in costumes here is the Japanese fascination with guns and weapons. The uber-violent past of the Japanese people notwithstanding, today it requires permission to even possess a folding knife over 6 cm of blade length (15 cm for fixed blades), and even then they cannot be carried (the penalty is up to two years in prison).  Similarly, almost no one in Japan owns a gun.  Most kinds are point-blank illegal, with onerous restrictions on buying (expensive and administratively hard) and maintaining (they must be stored with government officials) the few that are allowed (mostly for hunting).

Armed...with hot-shorts.

Armed…with hot-shorts.

Now that's a gun!

Now that’s a gun!

Transfixed by this Transformer costume!

Transfixed by this Transformer costume!

Even the country’s infamous, mafia-like Yakuza organized crime “gang” tend to forgo guns, and instead resort to beatings and stabbings. With what result?  In 2006 there were only TWO firearm-related homicides. In ALL of Japan.  And when there were 22 total in 2007, National scandal and embarrassment ensued.  For comparison, in 2008 there were almost 600 Americans killed by guns…that had been accidentally discharged….  Where is our outrage, shame and scandal??  However, with most things made taboo, there is a strong undercurrent in Japan concerning guns.  And nowhere does this show more than in their costumes!  And notice that their guns lack the silly orange-colored barrels and plugs that ruined our toy-guns when we were kids.

I missed these nurses this year!

I missed these nurses this year!


My choice for 1st Runner-up!

My choice for 1st Runner-up!

Of course the Japanese are already into cosplay (costume play), which primarily centers on hugely popular and well-known (and often mega-violent) anime and manga characters. BUT, they certainly have adopted well our Halloween traditions, where I’m happy to report that really, for a change, nothing much was lost in translation.  Although there was a clear absence of sexy-cute Japanese nurses this year, and while he certainly lacks a more refined sex appeal, Edward Scissorhands easily sheared away the competition to get my vote.


I’m not sure who won, but he should’ve!

See Halloween OkiStyle for another local blogger’s take on this year’s Okinawan Halloween Scene.

For more of my photos from this year’s contest, see Mihama 2014 Halloween Costume Contest on Flickr.