Ancient Okinawan religious beliefs do not focus on a single, absolute deity. Okinawans believe that people have spirits and are born into this world with physical bodies, but when the body dies, the spirit goes to the other world (the world of spirits). Of those spirits, those that are particularly powerful can influence this world. Okinawans have long paid their respects to the world of spirits, even fearing it.
In Okinawa, prayers are offered in places called utaki; this word means ‘mountain’ as mountains, in ancient times, were believed to be where spirits dwelt or were places that led to the world of spirits. Utaki are not the kind of place where anyone can casually go to pray. Spiritually gifted individuals, known as noro on the Okinawa Main Island and tsukasa on Ishigaki Island, pray there on specific days. Village representatives can also enter utaki during special festivals though the noro act as intermediaries in offering prayers and petitions.
Ishigaki Island is located 400 kilometers southwest of the Okinawa Main Island, and harvest festivals, or hounensai, are held around the sixth month of the lunar calendar across the island. Among these, the two-day harvest festival that takes place in the four villages in the central part of the island is well known for its size.
On the first day of the festival, tsukasa and village representatives pray in the utaki of each village and offer sake made from the rice and millet harvested that year, which they also drink. At this time, a vessel of sake is waved from side to side as the harvest is celebrated in song. Drinking sake with the spirits in the utaki, the villagers come together to give thanks for the bountiful harvest of the year and pray for a bountiful harvest in the following year. This is the extent of the festival as a worship ceremony; this is followed by dancing and other performances, which continue until the sun goes down.
On the second day, people from each village, carrying a flag in front of them, gather at an utaki that is central to the four villages. There are performing arts including the villagers from each village dancing in order, but the most important event of this day is a tug-of-war, in which a male rope and a female rope are joined using a stout rod, a form of which can also be seen in the Republic of Korea. Women first purify the rod with a dance. However, this rod is not actually stout but merely a lightweight rod that acts as a symbol. A flag ten meters high is waved to invite spirits and then is enthusiastically planted; upon this, the male and female ropes are purified by a performance with a naginata and a sickle. Afterward, the ring at the tip of the male rope is inserted into the female rope’s corresponding ring, and the two ropes are fastened with a stout rod; then, the tug-of-war begins. Joining the male and female ropes is a petition for the prosperity of one’s descendants and for a bountiful harvest, and the rope is pulled to bring about a bountiful harvest and happiness for the future.
Hitoshi Mogi, Manager, Research and Training Department, National Theatre Okinawa