One of the things many Okinawans grow up with is a healthy fear of the spirit world. Many of us (in Okinawa and in the diaspora) are used to hearing hair raising ghost stories. Many of us are also taught to respect the dead–take care of their remains or they will continue to haunt the living. My mom would tell us story after story of ghosts and hauntings, things she had heard, and things she had seen. Like the one about the moving tables in the haunted horse stables for military officers where she worked as a teenager. The officers didn’t believe the Okinawan staff when they reported that they were seeing strange things there but then she said after much exasperation, they sent a couple of GI’s who apparently saw enough to make them believers and confirmed their stories. She said they came back with cameras but were not able to capture the out-of-the-ordinary occurrences. I’ve heard from some family members, a lot of Americans think Okinawans are too superstitious so they don’t heed the sayings about certain areas–or don’t perform the cleansing rites through a yuta or put up the appropriate items like a shisas or ishigantos to ward the bad spirits away. One relative said, they build homes or bases in areas where they shouldn’t. I can recount so many stories as can lots of Okinawans. It’s a conversation favorite in our house-especially at one of my cousin’s place. She’s had scared visitors sleep on the floor overnight because they are too scared to drive home after an evening session of her ghost stories.
Now that I am living here, I am realizing that these stories are still quite present and still retold. I think that the popularity in some of these stories might also be correlated to the “Okinawa boom.” With a heightened interest in all things Okinawa, came a renewed interest in these ghost stories– as if these stories marked a certain authenticity of an “untainted Okinawa.” Perhaps this is a similar to how Kunio Yanagita-san sought Japanese origin markers through Okinawan folktales? I don’t know for sure.
I have even heard some US Americans here retell some old Okinawan stories. I see books in English and websites online on Okinawan ghost stories. They still seem different to me than when told by an Okinawan and sometimes the underlying morals to some of them might be different. For example, one Okinawan friend told me that the kijimuna (a mischievous tree fairy) are known to have bad tempers and love to play naughty tricks on people. She said, “I don’t really believe all these things but sometimes deep down, I think these kijimuna have played terrible tricks on the Americans who cut down so many trees to build the bases, parking lots, and golf courses” In the meantime, the image of the kijimuna remains as a cutesy distinctly Okinawan icon–like the goya or the shisa or even the dog tag. The updated morals may be quite different from the way some Americans understand them or retell them, they’ve lost their bite in the linguistic and cultural translation.
The other night I was driving back from a dinner party at a friend’s home in the Shuri area. I decided to return home a different way than I had come and ended up on a very tiny lane, one ohaka after another. There was no room to even make a u-turn. I’ve never seen anything like it. I admit, I was creeped out. My mom who was in the passenger seat says quietly, “back out, back out…we have to get out of here.” I tell her, “I know, I’m just going to reverse all the way back to the main road because I don’t know how to get out. This is really scary.” She goes, “Shhhhhhhh! Don’t say that. We have food in the car.” I was obviously confused and she says, “I’ll tell you later.”
When we got to the main road, she explained that when you’re driving through a row of ohakas, the spirits sometimes touch your food (we had leftovers in the car) and that it makes your food spoil. We didn’t tie the proper ribbon on it before we left (to keep them at bay). But she also said, this really happens where spirits are neglected and no one has taken care of the bones or done a proper burial and they are restless. When I recount this story to my younger cousins I got these two reactions: My cousins who are halfies like me but grew up here and in their late 30′s said, “Yep! You have to tie the ribbon just like this… And it’s totally true, they touch your food!” My Okinawan cousins who are in their late 40′s said, “Yeah, but we don’t believe that anymore, but this is how you tie the ribbon just in case…” The stories are known or familiar. I wonder what an even younger generation think. I’ll have to ask my younger second cousins.
Okinawa has many spiritual places, some overrun by tourists leading to new restrictions on access to certain sites. I’ve seen folks (unfortunately, many of them American, many military) behaving in ways they shouldn’t in these places. Some can’t read the kanji signs and go past an area they shouldn’t. Some talk too loudly or use it as a gathering site for massive group photo sessions blocking others who may be taking in the place on a more spiritual level.
I think when you are connected to Okinawa deeply–because you have family here buried in an ohaka, a yuta in the family, generations of stories passed down to you — you digest the cautionary tales and police yourself differently. In her book Elsewhere, Within Here, Trinh Minh Ha said, “tales not only condense certain characteriscs of the everyday person and the people’s customs, they often also deal with complex social relations…tales often read like profound strategies of survival.” I think of these Okinawan tales of ghosts, tree fairies, yutas as dealing with incredibly social complexities. They make folks think back to how they might have wronged others, forgotten their family members, kept prolonged secrets only to erupt in a dream that a yuta can interpret… Minh Ha also says that “hope is, however, always kept alive in the tale–hope, and not expectation, for it is through the forces that exceed the lifetime of an individual, that people who knew the lore of survival seek to solve difficult situations and social inequity.” I think this might be why they resonate differently when I hear them retold by non-Okinawans. They’ve lost that edge of hope and the connection to the social complexities that are being grappled with on a short term or long term basis. Like how my friend thinks of the kijimuna tales in terms of contemporary issues related to the base presence/build-up and the retribution they perform for the massive removal of trees.
I know that Hawaiians have some wonderful tales as well and am trying to think more on how Okinawans and Hawaiians deal with hope through tales that are passed from generation in the face of all that is happening in their difficult political situations of incredible inequity and double standards. How is it that they also transform and include new marginalized members? What kind of change can they generate today? In the diaspora and locally? In transnational or hybrid spaces? What do you think?
PS. Wordpress has recently started adding these annoying ads to the bottom of the free blogs. I may be moving sites so stay tuned.