Okinawa Gargoyles

Text: We had gargoyles in front of every house in Okinawa because people claimed that they were the strongest animals and that without them guarding your house, spirits could get in.

Context: KT was born in Okinawa, Japan and lived there with his Japanese mother and British father for the first nine years of his life. Though memories of his time in Japan are fading as KT ages, he still remembers specific things about life in Japan that were ingrained on his young mind during his early years. The folklore above was shared over lunch one afternoon during which I asked KT if he thought he had any folklore he could share with me from Japan. Most of the material he remembers is because he either got in trouble for going against the superstition or his involvement in the practice scared him.

Interpretation: The objects that KT is referring to are called shisa, statues of mythical creatures that are a crosses between lions and dogs. These stone guardians often found placed in pairs outside an area’s entrance and are used to ward off evil spirits. A majority of Okinawan households use the shisa to protect their homes, the gargoyles therefore being a significant part of Okinawan tradition, culture, and identity. However, this type of gargoyle is not specific to Okinawa, but can be seen throughout East Asia. Multiplicity and variations can be seen in the specific designs of the figures. Whether or not the male or female statue sports an open or closed mouth can communicate different functions of the shisa. For example, if the female’s mouth is open, it communicates that she is in charge of spreading goodness. If her mouth is closed, she is in charge of keeping the goodness in the home of who she protects.