Nirai-kanai and the Holy Women of Kudaka Island
Okinawan awe of the sea is thought to arouse their belief of a paradise called the “Niraikanai”. It is said that many blessings come to earth from this paradise. Festivals which welcome a god of Niraikanai are carried out in Okinawan villages in summer when it becomes June in the lunar calendar. In the Yaeyama Islands they hold a rice festival to pray for the fertility of grain. Many “Miroku Gods” appear. The Miroku God is welcomed as a bringer of happiness.
In the Haterumajima island, there is a myth of a paradise called the “Paipathiroma“ very far in the south from the island. The “Pai” means “South”, the “Pathiroma” means the “Hateruma”. In short, it becomes the “Hateruma”. This “Paipathiroma” is an island of which people had visions. In fact, there are some records that some villagers left this island for the paradise “Paipathiroma” because they couldn’t endure the severe tax.
From the Japan Times July 17, 2000:
When the gods arrived by boat at the Okinawan islands during the fourth and ninth months of the Chinese calendar, they first set foot on the shores of Ishiki Beach, say residents of Kudaka Island. Far from the shore, beyond the far-reaching shallows, white waves break in what looks like a ring around the island. Beyond lies the deep blue expanse of the sea, and farther out is where the sun rises. Hana Nishime, 75, points out to the sea. “Nira-hara,” she says. In other parts of Okinawa, they call it “Nirai-kanai,” the faraway utopia where gods live and all things begin.
Like other “utaki,” sacred places throughout Okinawa where the gods are thought to alight, no “torii,” (shrine gate) is thought necessary to mark either Ishiki Beach or the nearby clearing where prayers are offered. These places still preserve beliefs and rites that were once held by the ancient Japanese. The most holy are strictly off-limits for men. The only human sounds are the low, incessant chanting of a “yuta” (spiritual counselor claiming the ability to sense the will of the spirits) offering prayers on behalf of a client.
Speak to a yuta and you soon learn to see the gods in the trees, in the kitchen stove, in ancestors and in the foam on the waves. They have no distinction between Shinto and Buddhism. And serving the gods, many of whom are demanding and jealous, is a dangerous undertaking. Yutas fall ill if they make light of what they sense. They undergo a period of intense personal suffering and are released only after they recognize their calling and declare themselves. A history of disdain and criticism by intellectuals and acts prohibited the practice of yutas, dating from 1673, 1732, 1831 and 1900. In 1938, as part of efforts by the government to encourage cultural uniformity throughout Japan, there was a reward for anybody who reported a yuta to authorities. Yutas stand in front of a grave and can tell the living whether the dead are pleased or sad. People believe that the world that can’t be seen is closely intertwined with the world of the living.
But while animism remains deeply rooted in Okinawan culture many of the larger religious rites and institutions are on the verge of extinction. The roots of the organization of holy women, or “noro” reach long before they were organized into an official network of seers during the Ryukyu era (1429-1879). The noro system, a hierarchical network headed by the king’s sisters, was established in 15th century to pray for safe passage of ships. Powerful enough to force the resignation of kings, noro once attended battles, guided kings and presided over festivities during peace.
In Yonaguni many festivals are still carried out 46 times per year. Life on this island is deeply and closely connected with faith. August in the lunar calendar is the beginning of the year for festivals, and next June is the end of that year. Some festivals are dedicated to a God of water, in some they wish for children’s health, or they refuse to eat meat for 25 days from October in the lunar calendar. They pray to their Holy lands, and Gods of mythology, who are protected by women priestesses called Tsukasa. On the day of the festival, villagers welcome God from the Holy land with a Tsukasa who serves God, and after praying to God for a fruitful coming year, they send God off again.