The Shisa (シーサー Shīsā) is a creature from Okinawan folklore that looks like a cross between a dog and a lion. If you take a walk in Ishigaki, or on any of the Okinawan islands, it is hard not to notice the many Shisa guarding both rooftops and house entrances. There seem to be no rules about their appearance as you can find everything from big statues to small figurines, from traditional to modern ones in an arrange of colors.
Protection Against Evil
Shisa is believed to ward off evil and they are almost always seen in pairs, one with open mouth and one with a closed mouth.One of them is male and one is female but, depending on who you ask, which one is which might differ.
Some believe that the one with an open mouth is male and he is scaring the evil away, but others say that he has the mouth closed to keep evil out of the home. The female with an open mouth is sharing good luck with others, while the one with closed mouth keeps the luck inside the house.
Whichever you choose to believe, the male part is the fierce defender of the house, and the female is associated with protecting and sharing the goodness.
There are many folktales about the Shisa. This is one of the tales:
A Chinese emissary gave the king of Ryukyu (now Okinawa) a Shisa figurine. At the time, the Madanbashi village of Naha Port bay was frequently terrorized by a monstrous sea dragon that ate villages and smashed everything in its way. One day when the king went to visit the village the dragon appeared! All the villages fled in terror. Then, the local Noro (priestess) remembered a dream she had not many days ago. She gave a message to a young boy named Chiga that the king was to stand on the beach with the Shisa figurine held up towards the sea dragon. The king went to the beach and as he held up the Shisa a thunderous roar shook the whole village, it is said even the dragon was startled. A big boulder fell from the sky and crushed the dragon’s tail so it couldn’t move. It died and the body gradually became overgrown with trees and shrubs.
You can still see it today in the “Gana-mui Woods” near Naha Ohashi bridge where the villages also built a large stone Shisa to protect them.
According to another legend, a boy was given a Shisa by an Okinawan nobleman, as with most folktales, there are many different variations told.
The Shisa were brought to Ryukyu (Okinawa) from China sometime in the 14th century. They are a variation of the guardian lions found there and in many other parts of Asia, including mainland Japan where they are called Komainu. All of them are protectors against evil spirits but have become stars of their own local folk tales and have distinctive traits and uses. For example, the Komainu are mostly displayed at Shinto shrines while the Okinawan Shisa can be seen everywhere and in every size — from small souvenirs that you can put in your home to big statues. It is arguable that the Okinawan variant is a much more folksy variation than the other ones and many of the more modern variants look more like cute mascots than fierce guardians.
You can make your own Shisa at a pottery, or buy a pair in one of the many souvenir shops that sell both traditional and more modern interpretations. The wildest ones are probably created by Yonekoyaki Pottery, that is also building a Shisa park behind their studio not far from Yonehara beach.
Shisa park (free entrance)