Ancestor worship has been the hallmark of faith in the Ryukyu Islands for centuries

The term animism is derived from the Latin word anima meaning breath or soul. The belief of animism is probably one of man's oldest beliefs, with its origin most likely dating to the Paleolithic age. From its earliest beginnings it was a belief that a soul or spirit existed in every object, even if it was inanimate. In a future state this soul or spirit would exist as part of an immaterial soul. The spirit, therefore, was thought to be universal.

There have been sharp divisions of thought as to the original concept of animism held by primitive peoples. A British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor in his "Primitive Culture" (1871) defined animism "as a general belief in spiritual beings and considered it 'a minimum definition of religion.'" He stated all religions from the simplest to the most complexed shared some sort of animistic belief. According to him primitive peoples, defined as those without a written tradition, believed the spirits or souls caused life in human beings. They pictured these souls as vapors or shadows going from one body to another. The souls not only passed between human beings but into, plants, animals and inanimate objects as well.

Okinawa’s indigenous religion is animistic and shamanistic. (Shamanism is a practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to encounter and interact with the spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world.) 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.

Ancestor Worship
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 (vessel for burning incense) 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.

photo credit: Ryukyu Life on Facebook

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.

photo credit: Ryukyu Life on Facebook

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.

photo credit: Ryukyu Life on Facebook

These special occasions include the Seimei Festival (shimi, shi-mi) 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.


Animism, by Alan G. Hefner and Virgilio Guimaraes