The Story of Shisa: The Okinawan Lion
Where did Shisa come from?
The origin of the name Shisa comes from 'Shishi' which comes from the Sanskrit word for lion, सिंह siṃha. In Yaeyama dialect, islands off the coast of Okinawa, the word is 'Shiishii' and Shisa has come to existence through that pronunciation. Around 6000 BC, statues of lions were sculpted as a symbol of strength in countries such as Egypt and India. The statues were brought to China through the silk road around the 14th century and then to Okinawa.
Okinawa was once known as the Kingdom of the Ryukyus before being conquered and fought over for territory by China, Japan, and the USA in recent years. The Kingdom of the Ryukyus was largely influenced by Chinese culture, including Taiwan, and international trade between the countries resulted in many of the Okinawan cultural aspects we see today.
It is likely China was the source that brought the statues of lions to Okinawa, but the meaning and story behind them were left to the imagination of the Okinawans. After many rumors and stories, the Shisa we see and know today were born. Shisa in Okinawan dialect means 'guardian of the house', 'amulet (to fight off bad magic)', and 'call to fortune'.
What do Shisa do?
When you first land in Okinawa, one of the first things you will encounter is a pair of Shisa. Shisa are placed near entrances of almost all buildings in Okinawa whether it be in plain sight or hidden high above. It is believed they have magical abilities to protect the owner and the area the owner resides or any place of importance. Therefore, they were placed in front of temples, castle gates, royal monuments, village entrances, and places that had red-tiled roofs, a sign of significance at that time. Only the rich had red-tiled roofs and could place Shisa on their house as they were not allowed to be placed on thatched roofs. Around the 19th century, commoners were allowed permission to use red tiles for their roofs and, since Shisa were usually placed on buildings with red-tiled roofs, the commoners placed Shisa on their roofs. This made the Shisa statue culture widespread and the norm for most, if not every resident.
One of the most famous legends says in the late 1600s the people of Okinawa were troubled by many fires and natural disasters that damaged and destroyed villages. The people looked to teacher Feng Shui begging for help. He stated it was the fault of 'Yaese-dake' (still present today in Yaese town ⇒) and a Shisa statue should be made as fast as possible, placed to face towards the mountain, and to wait. The legend says the natural disasters ceased afterward and the Okinawans belief in Shisa was solidified. This statue is still standing today and is said to be the largest, protective Shisa on the island.
Shisa was made from leftover clay or plaster by craftsman when making tiles. It was complimentary and made with the wish to 'prevent destruction (fire, landslides etc.) and bring happiness'. Now, Shisa is made by clay or other sculpting materials of the craftsman's choice and made for the purpose of selling to local Okinawan people or tourists. Shisa are everywhere and a main symbol of the island. Many tourists buy small sized Shisa as a souvenir to remember Okinawa and protect their own area wherever they may place it.
Is it a relative of the Sphinx or the Komainu?
Due to the fact Shisa came to Okinawa through the Silk Road, it is believed to be related to other culture's versions of lion statues or 'strong animal' symbols. Each culture has taken its own version of the statues through legends, stories, imagination, and rumors, such as the Sphinx of Egypt, the lion of Africa, Merlion of Singapore, and Komainu of Japan.
Some people believe Shisa is a dog or part dog, however, most people are adamant it is fully lion due to the background and knowledge of its history.
What is the difference between the open and closed mouth Shisa?
When you see Shisa, you see not just one, but two. Shisa come in pairs of one male and one female, while one always has its mouth open and the other has it closed. The male is the one with its mouth open and the female has its mouth closed. There are many reasons for these positions. An open mouth welcomes fortune and sucks up bad magic while a closed mouth does not let fortune pass away. In addition, according to the Feng Shui theory, placing the pair of male and female Shisa by the door brings luck for the home and increases the luck for better finances (more money!).
The pair also follows 'Aun' (Ah-Uhn), 'Ah' (阿) is male and 'Uhn' (吽) is female which corresponds to their positions. The male is on the left and the female is on the right if you are standing behind them and placing them in front of you to look out in front of your home. If you are going to someone's home, the female Shisa will be placed on what you see to be your left and male on the right as you look at their faces. You may be wondering what 'Aun' means. In short, the word means 'beginning' and 'end' in Sanskrit. It is a concept in Buddhism where man-like statues are placed in front of Buddhist temples, one with his mouth open and the other closed. In Buddhism, these statues are seen as 'guardian gods that protect all that is good' and the positioning of their mouths symbolize` the 'beginning' and 'end'. While these statues look entirely different from the lion statues, they still hold the concept of an open and closed mouth protecting an area of significance.
When is Shisa Day?
Shisa day is every year on April 3rd. April is the fourth month and four in Japanese is 'shi' and three is pronounced 'san' or sometimes 'sa'. It is celebrated all over Okinawa where you can see more Shisa decorations and Shisa shaped food or objects.
Shisa made of clay cannot entirely withstand the weathering of forever and fades away or comes to have black marks when placed outside for years and years. However, this is seen as a sign of dignity so the longer you place your Shisa outside, it becomes more dignified and powerful for defending the home.
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