While on your trip in Okinawa, you may spot mysterious lion-dog figures on red-tiled rooftops, by the side of the road and in souvenir shops. You can even find them on manholes and on construction barriers. These ubiquitous creatures are called shisa and are deeply revered in Okinawan culture as protectors and a symbol of good fortune.
They are believed to have originated from China in the 15th century and there are many folktales around how they came to Japan. In one story, a Chinese emissary gave the king of Ryukyu a shisa figurine to protect Madanbashi village of Naha Port bay against a monstrous sea dragon. By holding up the shisa towards the sea dragon, the king was able to protect the village. Another legend says a boy was given a Shisa by an Okinawan nobleman. While the exact origin story of shisa is unclear, its role in Okinawan society remains prevalent today.
Shisa are almost alway seen in pairs with the male having its mouth open and the female having its mouth closed. The open-mouth shisa wards off malevolent spirits while the closed-mouth shisa protects goodness, blessings and good luck within the home. The open-mouthed shisa may have a ball beneath its paw, symbolizing power and authority.
Role in Society
Shisa act as protectors against misfortune and evil spirits, so they are found on rooftops, gardens and at the entrances of homes, public buildings and businesses. They help promote a sense of security and well-being in Okinawa among the locals. They are the cousins of the komainu, which you will find outside temples around Japan, especially near torii gates. They have become an iconic symbol of Okinawa found in art, including pottery, sculptures and jewelry, as well as souvenirs like keychains and t-shirts.
Since shisa have become such a ubiquitous item in Okinawa, many tourists leave the islands with their own shish-themed souvenirs. While handmade shisa can cost more than 20,000 yen, you can also find miniature, commercially-made shisa for 200 yen at tourist shops. Instead of being merely a memento of your trip, they serve as a tangible connection to the island’s history, traditions and unique cultural identity.
During your stay at ESTINATE HOTEL NAHA, you will have the chance to spot and purchase your own shisa in neighboring areas like Kokusai-dori and Yachimun-dori. You will also see grand, awe-inspiring shisa at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Shuri Castle if you have the chance to visit. By understanding the history and significance of these cultural artifacts, you will have a deeper appreciation of the enduring and strength and resilience of Okinawan culture.
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