Located on the Southern tip of Japan, the Ryukyu islands that make up Okinawa prefecture developed in isolation from the rest of Japan. As a result, Okinawa's culture reflects a mix of traditions and philosophies, and nowhere is this more evident than in the complex religious beliefs of its people.
Prior to the introduction of Buddhism, Okinawans believed in a form of animism characterized by deep reverence for all objects. This belief taught that both animate and inanimate objects had living souls, and followers afforded both the proper respect. This ancient religion provided the foundation for a new form of religion influenced by the introduction of Buddhism to the islands.
Buddhists introduced their religion to the islands in the thirteenth century and was given royal patronage by the Okinawan monarch. Despite their new status, Buddhist priests did not attempt to propagate their faith or convert the local inhabitants. According to "Sacred Groves" by Susan Sered, Buddhism, like Confucianism, became one of many competing religious and philosophical systems in the Ryukyuan island chain. However, when this foreign religion began to combine with the islands' animistic tradition, a new religion sprung up that incorporated elements of both.
Buddhist emphasis on filial loyalty changed the focus of animism from the living souls in objects and people, to the veneration of deceased relatives. Instead of communing with animistic spirits, shamans began to listen to the voices of the dead and interpret them as signs and premonitions for families. Families possess wooden plaques inscribed with the names of relatives. Religious practice consists of praying and making offerings to these plaques daily. Okinawans believe that the dead continue to live amongst the living and afford them protection in return for these observances.
Emigration from Okinawa in recent decades has changed the religious practices of ancestor worship, extending its practice around the world. Prior to World War II, Okinawan families shipped the bodies of the deceased back home, so they could be buried with their relatives. In subsequent decades immigrants from Okinawa have their religion with them, building shrines in their new homes and making trips back to Okinawa to collect the remains of their loved ones and ancestral plaques.
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- Los Angeles Times: Shamans Look to Spirits for Guidance : In Okinawa, Supernatural Is Taken Very Seriously
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- Okinawa's Turbulent 400 Years; Gavan McCormack
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