Crash Course: Shisa

I’m having a bit of Okinawa nostalgia at the moment. No one is more surprised by this than me, as my three years on the island were not necessarily, to quote Dickens, “the best of times”. Never terribly fond of the confines of the sweaty “rock”, I’ve nevertheless been reflecting a lot on Japan’s southernmost prefecture lately. So, to tie in with that, here’s a post on shisa.

Shisa are “lion dogs”, also known as shi shi. Shisa came to Okinawa from China in the 14th century, when the islands were engaged in a trading partnership with the Asian continent. Shisa are used to ward off evil and you’ll usually find them in pairs – an open-mouthed shisa who chases away the bad spirits and a close-mouthed shisa who holds the good spirits in. Shisa guard businesses and residences across the Ryukyu Islands and you’ll often see a pair of shisa standing watch on the front gate or wall of a family home. However, on older homes with traditional tiled roofs, it’s not uncommon to see a single shisa perched on the top of the house, standing watch.

A sole shisa standing guard
A sole shisa standing guard

Shisa come in all shapes and colors and positions. Blue and green shisa, standing and sitting shisa, solemn and silly shisa, you’ll find them all on Okinawa. While Kokusai Street and the shops of Naha offer a wide range of cheaper shisa, the potters of Tsuboya (just off Kokusai Street) and the Yomitan Peninsula (at Yachimun no Sato Pottery Village) offer quality shisa for those with deeper pockets.

Shisa in Yachimun no Sato Pottery Village

While there are several legends surrounding the shisa, in recent years, an American military dependent wrote a clever children’s book featuring a little lion-dog. Stay tuned for the review next week!

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