The story behind Okinawa's sacrificial cows, stone lions

The story behind Okinawa's sacrificial cows, stone lions

by Michael Lynch
Stripess Okinawa

A guidebook for the Village of Ginoza led to the discovery of three ancient stone carvings, located within the district of Sokei and the legend behind annual rituals performed there.

The statues were placed in the north, south and west boundaries of the settlement to ward off evil.

Known as “Shisa” throughout most of Okinawa, they are referred to as “Ishigantou” in Ginoza.

The printed manual mentioned that cattle were sacrificed at each site on the 5th day of the 9th month, by the Lunar calendar. Off the main road, unheard of events like this, are a cultural explorer's goldmine.

The stone lions were all located within a couple of days but, the rituals wouldn't be witnessed until another Gregorian calendar year passed by. As fate would have it, the statues positions were discovered late in October of 2014.  The village had held the event a month prior.  Believe it or not, the Chinese calendar had a Leap Month that year.  And, the rituals were performed during the ninth month of the first one, which had been September 2014.

That gave a whole year of time, to make liaison with village officials, do research on the history and traditions, and obtain a translator for the event.

Sokei Shimakanka


In this area of Okinawa, cattle are no longer slaughtered, in front of the statues, during the ceremonies.

Each of the three Ishigantou are visited by a procession of men.  Women are not permitted to witness the events, except from a distance. A news reporter and Japanese/English translator, along for this story, were asked to keep themselves at a distance from the scene.  Rituals are conducted, by men only.

The first stone lion visited, rests on a pedestal at a “Y” intersection.
A  box, known as, a binshii is placed on the ground and men squat to pray.

Prayers are led by a village elder, who has learned the words from one of his predecessors and, is probably the only person in town, who has them committed to memory.  Offerings are made, utilizing local sake (awamori), rice and incense, after prayers are uttered.  Sake being poured over each statue's head, adds a distinct scent to the fragrance of burning incense drifting through the country air.

The men travel to each of the Ishigantou, the second one, being along a side street, to perform the rituals.

At each of the three statues, a bit of the awamori is sipped by the attendees and, chunks of beef (not easy to chew) are consumed.  Those desiring a juicy Filet Mignon, should abstain from sampling. The meat has a texture similar to rawhide, only it is boiling hot.


The third stone statue is the smallest and, is located on the outskirts if the district, at the edge of a field.

From this location the Pacific Ocean is visible and, a refreshing breeze from the sea, gives some relief from the blistering hot sun.
Here the rituals are repeated and, as in previous stops, the district mayor first, samples the beef before passing the bowl around.  Spirits are sipped by all in attendance and the entourage walks back into town, to visit the community center.

Females Now Welcome

Everyone assembles inside the Kouminkan (community center) for a meal and some alcoholic spirits.

The district mayor sits at the head of the table and some of the village elders explain the importance of the events which just took place outdoors.

Fortunately, women are invited and questions may be asked, to learn more about the rituals associated with this event called a Shimakanka.  A handout was given to everyone in the room and, it thoroughly explained the legend behind the ceremonies we had just witnessed.

A Grisly Folk Tale

Long before this island became Okinawa, it was Ryukyu and, way before the Ryukyu Kingdom existed as an independent country, the land was ruled by Lords, known as Aji.  They built castles in their territories, to defend the populations and lands, under their control, from other Aji, seeking to increase their power.

One of these Lords had an only daughter.  An epidemic, raging through the islands, took the life of his beautiful young girl.  Heartbroken and grieving, he buried her in a cave along the east coast of the island.

That same day, a young man who had bought a cow was heading home with his animal tied to a rope.

Dark clouds suddenly appeared and, he decided to take shelter from an approaching thunderstorm.  As the rain began to fall, he tied the cow to a nearby tree and took shelter at the entrance to the cave.

From the overhang of the cavern he watched water splash as small streams flowed, carrying leaves and earth away from just outside his shelter.  He shivered and thought how lucky bovines must be.  Their thick hide protects them from the ice cold rain.  The weather didn't seem to phase cattle.  And, he started thinking, how nice some of his grandmother's hot tea, would be, to have right now.

Extremely Chilling Experience


Shaking and coughing from getting wet, he thought he may be catching a cold and wanted to get home.

As the rain slacked off, he decided to get out of the cave, grab the cow and hurry on towards home.

He knew, for sure, grandmother would insist, he change clothes and drink a steaming kettle of hot ocha.

Then something happened to really make him want to hurry out of that shelter.

A voice shouted.  It was a woman's scream from under a pile of stones in the cave.  “Help me.  Please get me out of here!”

Thinking, it was a ghost the boy began to run.  On his first step to leave the cave, a hand grabbed him by the hair on the back of his head.  When he tried to run, the grasp just became tighter.  The voice cried out, “Help me, please.  I'm a young girl who fainted with illness.  My parents thought I died and buried me here.  I am alive; help me!”

Assured that it was a human in need, the young man removed the rocks burying her body and rescued her.  The rain stopped and he carried her outside.  He scooped fresh water from a flowing spring and nourished her.  Leaving the cow behind, he carried the young woman, on his back, to her father's castle.

Exuberance at the Castle

The sentries at the castle announced the miracle of the princesses return.

Everyone was ecstatic, the Lord's only daughter had survived.  This was an occasion for a feast and a big celebration.

The Aji announced to the lad, “As a reward, I will give you anything you desire.”  Without blinking an eye the boy said, “OK.  I'd like to have your daughter as my wife.”

The Lord roared, “Peasant, you can't have this woman of royal blood as a bride!”  That, got everybody shaking.  “Father, I have already been considered dead, once.  Please, let me be this man's wife.”

The daughter's plea, touched the Lord and, he gave the blessing for their marriage.

Slaughter of the Cow

The young man escorted an entourage, from the castle to the cavern, where the girl had been buried.

The grave site in the mountain was cleaned up and the cow was sacrificed near the cavern entrance.

Pampas grass, tied in loops was soaked in the animal's blood and used to shoo away evil spirits.

Today, the loops of grass, known as, “San” may be seen placed as amulets to ward off evil.

The San may be seen at entrances to villages and, at the corners of homeowners properties.

In some locations, they may be soaked in animal's blood but, no blood was seen in Sokei, Ginoza


Photography and text by Michael Lynch

Verbal translation by Mami Sakiyama

Text translation by Alina Rădulescu  (Folklorist)

Sketch by Atsushi Maezato

Michael Lynch website Ryukyu Life

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