Photos by Shoji Kudaka
Photos by Shoji Kudaka

Stones on the watch: The Ishigantou story

by Shoji Kudaka
Stripes Okinawa

Shisa dog-lions are not the only guardians that defend Okinawa from demons and evils.

Ishigantou is a kind of stone slab with the Chinese characters “石敢當” carved onto their surface. “Ishigandou” or “Sekkantou” are other pronunciations for the slabs.

According to the Okinawa Encyclopedia, the stone was originally thought to ward off misfortune, bring happiness, and later became a repellent against evil.

Though some suggest the word “Ishigantou”’s roots come from a member of Ancient China’s military, the Okinawa Encyclopedia denies the theory as a myth.

Each Chinese character has a distinct meaning: “石” means “stone”, “敢” means “daring, brave, bold, sad, tragic, pitiful”, while “當” means “bear, accept, undertake, just” according to web dictionary, JapanDict. So, the etching may then be read as “Brave stone that undertakes (to repel misfortune).”

Although there may still be room for argument over the meaning of its name, Ishigantou remain a familiar icon to locals.

Though not as eye-catching as shisa dog-lions, Ishigantou are just as common. In 2004, Masatou Kodama, then chairman of the Okinawa Foundation, reportedly estimated that there were more than 10,000 of them in Okinawa. The number is presumed to be growing since the stones continue to be manufactured and sold.

While shisa are typically placed on top of gate piers or roofs, Ishigantou are most often found at the ground level and usually at T-intersections in local communities. There is a reason for that placement.

In the old days of Okinawa, it was believed that evil spirits move straight at ground-hugging levels. Due to this, it was thought that an evil spirit would continue straight into a residence at a T-intersection. An Ishigantou, however, could ward off that evil if strategically placed in said intersection. In the past, roads were built in a labyrinth-like manner with many blind corners, requiring many of these talismans. Some of these maze roads still remain in Naha City’s Tsuboya and Shuri.

According to Seiichi Takahashi, a professor at Kansai University, the stone’s origin dates back to as early as 770 during the period of Tang, then China. Imported to Okinawa from Fujian in the mid-15th century, the Ishigantou later spread to mainland Japan and as far as the Tohoku region and to the far north in Hokkaido around the late 16th century. Many still remain on the mainland today and Aomori, home to Misawa Air Base, also has Ishigantou to protect residents from evil spirits.

But, since the stone is closely associated with Okinawa, here there are many Ishigantou souvenirs for tourists to take home. There are even sweets named after the stone slab.

Over time Okinawa’s old-style streets have begun to disappear along with many of the T-intersections, but the Ishsigantou’s power carries on and the stones continue to evolve on the island.

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