From the article, "Keys to Okinawan Culture"
Published by the Okinawan Prefectural Government (1992)
Animism and Shamanism
Okinawa’s indigenous religion is animistic and shamanistic. But it is believed that Okinawan animism and shamanism have been transformed and influenced by Shintoism, Buddhism, and Taoism, religions transmitted to Okinawa from Japan and China. According to Okinawan animism, the world is inhabited by a myriad of spirits – ancestral spirits, heart spirit, well spirit, spring spirit, house spirit, tree spirit, rock spirit. These spirits, or kami, are considered sacred and supernatural; and the Okinawan people believe that by placating and pleasing the gods through religious rituals, misfortunes are warded off and blessings incurred. Thus, many religious rituals are performed throughout the year in their behalf; rituals are observed before and after a harvest to give thanks for the year’s crop and gratitude are offered to the well and spring gods for the water which sustains life; rites are performed for the mischievous tree and boulder gods that may cause harm; and prayers to the gods for any human concerns, such as good health, a safe journey, and success in an undertaking, are customary. The utaki (sacred grove) and uganju (lit., "honorable praying place"), located in hills and forests, are the most hallowed sites of worship in Okinawan animism.
The kaminchu and yuta are the two principle figures of Okinawan shamanism, which holds that good and evil spirits pervade the world and they can be summoned or heard through mediums. Both roles are assumed by women. In the Okinawan villages, the kaminchu is a priestess in charge of religious rites. As the office of the kaminchu is hereditary, she is selected from a specific family lineage and holds the position, which usually begins in middle age, for life. Originally, the kaminchu was a shaman possessed with supernatural powers, but today shamanism is no longer associated with the kaminchu, her function limited only to the performance of religious rites.
The yuta, or shaman, is an intermediary between the worlds of the spirits and the living. The yuta, with supernatural powers of seeing and hearing, are believed to be able to discern the causes of misfortunes and suggest proper action to be taken. Thus, they are called upon when tragedies strike or when any unusual, ominous events occur. Examples of problems for which they are consulted include ill health, dream analysis, suitability of marriage partner, matters related to the tomb, selection of a house site, economic hardships, and even politics. In Okinawa, where women have traditionally held the predominant role in religion, the yuta and her practices are deeply rooted in the social structure.
Playing a lesser role than the kaminchu and yuta in Okinawan shamanism, the sanjinso is a fortuneteller or diviner who determines personal fortunes. Men have exclusively held this profession. Unlike the yuta who possesses supernatural powers, the sanjinso makes his prognosis from the lunar almanac, I Ching, and other books on Chinese occult lore. The sanjinso is consulted when selecting auspicious days for engagements, marriages, funerals, buying and selling houses, moving, and traveling.
The fire god, or hinukan, is worshipped at the kitchen hearth in every Okinawan home. The fire god is believed to serve as a messenger carrying requests and announcements from the family to the gods in heaven. In the past, the hearth itself, constructed of three large stones placed in a layer of ashes in a box was placed in back of or beside an oil stove and worshipped. Today, a ceramic censer (kouro) is used to offer prayers to the fire god.
Together with the ancestral shrine, the kitchen hearth is an important center of religious activity within the home. But many Okinawan religionists believe that worship of the fire god precedes worship of ancestral spirits. They claim that a house can exist without an ancestral shrine but cannot exist without a hearth and accompanying rites to the fire god. Even today, at important religions functions, prayers are first offered at the hearth, followed by prayers at the ancestral shrine.
Rituals to the fire god at the hearth are always conducted by the oldest woman in the house. (This, however, is not thought to be related to the fact that the god is a female.) She offers prayers on the first and fifteenth of each month and on all other ritual occasions. Men of the house do not usually pray at the hearth. When the oldest woman of the house dies, the old censer is disposed and anew one set up with her successor.
Together with Buddhism, ancestor worship was first transmitted to Okinawa in the fourteenth century from China. But it was not until the seventeenth century that ancestor worship became prevalent throughout Okinawa. The basic tenet of ancestor worship claims that ancestral spirits are always nearby, observing the life of their descendents. Thus, proper performance of religious rituals to the ancestral spirits will elicit their benevolence and compassion, while negligence of rituals will incur their wrath, resulting in misfortunes for the descendents.
In ancestor worship, the center of religious activities is the ancestral shrine. The ancestral shrine is an alcove with sliding doors about one meter from the floor located in one of the main rooms of the house. It consists of three shelves: the top shelf holds the memorial tablets, or ihai, with a flower vase on each side; the middle shelf holds a censer and two cups; and the lowest shelf is reserved for offerings of food and gifts. Within the ancestral shrine, the memorial tablets are considered highly sacred for the spirits of the ancestors are believed to reside in the tablets. The names of ancestors and some biographical data are written on the tablets in silver letters. Encased in a small, lacquered cabinet, the memorial tablets are mounted in two rows, the upper row for the men and the lower row for the women. On festivals, such as the midsummer Bon Festival of the Dead, and on other ceremonial days of the year, the ancestral shrine is decorated with flowers, food, and drinks. On these occasions all members of the family gather together, burn incense, and offer prayers to the ancestral spirits.
The oldest woman in the family, the wife or husband’s mother, is in charge of all religious activities related to the ancestral shrine. It is her duty to watch the lunar calendar and announce upcoming religious rituals, prepare the ceremonial foods and place them on the ancestral shrine, and on minor religious occasions pray for the welfare of the family.
The family tomb is equally important as the ancestral shrine is a place of worship of ancestral spirits. But unlike the ancestral shrine, which is located within the home and is the focus of continual worship throughout the year, the family tomb is located in remote parts of towns and villages and prayers offered only on special occasions. These special occasions include the Seimei Festival when family members visit the tomb with delicacies and pray to their ancestral spirits; Tanabata, or Star Festival, on July 7 of the lunar calendar; and the New Year’s Day of the Dead on January 16 of the lunar calendar.
In conclusion, it might be said that although foreign religious beliefs, such as Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism, and Christianity, have been introduced to Okinawa through the centuries, Okinawa’s indigenous religion remains strong and intact and continues to flourish in society today.