August 12, 2022

Lions and dragons of the islands of Japan

When I arrived at Setsuko Oshiro’s workshop in August, the sky was a clear blue and the heat like the inside of an oven, but there were storm clouds gathering, dark thunderstorms over the East China Sea.

Sheltered from the scorching sun under a trellis bengaru yahazu, a dazzling purple flower that is easily mistaken for a bougainvillea or an allamanda, Oshiro, a talkative woman of light but muscular build, came out to greet me. We stood for a while in front of the Okinawa restaurant owned by Oshiro and run by his daughter, a restaurant right next to his Sakana gallery.

A potter, a rare thing in the ceramic world of Okinawa, Oshiro studied and worked as an apprentice in Tsuboya, a district of Naha associated with stone and earthenware of the same name. She opened her current gallery 20 years ago in the village of Ihara on the south coast of the main island of Okinawa. Added to Oshiro’s rarity as a potter in Okinawa is the fact that she specializes almost exclusively in the creation of shÄ«sā, the guardian lion-dog figures that have become, perhaps more than anything, to symbolize Okinawa. Usually placed on roofs, where they protect houses from fire, they are also found on doorposts and steps of public buildings and shrines.

The origin of the most common lion dogs is believed to be the Chinese practice of feng shui, a form of geomancy derived from Taoism that arrived in Okinawa with migrants from Fujian Province in 1392. Placing shīsā on tiled roofs is a relatively recent practice, as most ordinary residences had thatched roofs until the Meiji era (1868-1912).

“ShÄ«sā, are often displayed in pairs,” Oshiro told me. “The figure on the left with its mouth closed to contain the good spirits within, the mouth of the statuette on the right open to ward off evil.”

Oshiro works exclusively with brownish-red terracotta, an age-old type of earth used in the creation of statuettes and vases or as an ornamental building material. It is also widely used in the manufacture of orange colored tiles in the construction of traditional Okinawan houses. Its clientele includes homeowners, tourists and special orders from private companies and local governments.

Although shīsā are resistant to typhoons, the delicacy of their characteristics makes them difficult to ship, so items are usually purchased direct or delivered personally. Since this fall, his work has been exhibited and sold at Naha Airport.

Chances are, if you pass a town hall, library, school, or museum on the island, the guardian figures at their entrances will be the work of Oshiro. The shÄ«sā she creates for hospitals are voluntary donations. These public commissions are great imposing figures. A sample of these more ambitious works, with their characteristic fierce features, can be found outside Oshiro’s studio.

“I had to send this 100 kg figurine to one of Tsuboya’s giant ovens,” she recalls. “It took three days to be fired.

A scholarly informant on all things Okinawa, Oshiro has spent years researching the history, ethnicity, arts and crafts of these subtropical islands. In keeping with her taste for tradition and authenticity, she prefers to call Okinawa by her old name, Ryukyu, a term for a once independent kingdom unilaterally seized by Japan. She spoke about the customs and practices of Okinawa as if the islands were a completely different cultural and ethnic entity from Japan. In many ways they always have been, a fact reinforced by the recent resurgence of pride in Okinawan identity and culture.

She is also interested in dragons and other mythological creatures of the Asian region, of which she considers Okinawa an integral part. She pointed out to me the differences between the Southeast Asian dragons, which have three claws, the Chinese with five, and the Ryukyu variety with four. The relatively large number of claws attached to Okinawan dragons, she explained, is related to the proportions of the sea, of islands surrounded by expansive waters. The fishermen of these regions, it seems, known in the Okinawan language as uminchu, depend on the powers and good care of the protective dragons. The number of claws on a shīsā, Oshiro added, is optional.

Watching Oshiro use a narrow wooden spatula to incise lines in the body of a statuette and to refine facial features, you can appreciate how, unlike the mass-produced shÄ«sā that lines the shelves of Naha’s souvenir shops, each of his creations has its own identity. This is in part due to the process itself, which is slow and laborious. When finished, the larger and smaller pieces are placed in its oven and fired for up to 36 hours. Most of his work is unglazed, which helps him retain the earthy feel of the original material.

When I showed Oshiro photos I had taken a few days earlier, images of old shīsā on the roof of the isolated island of Iheya, she offered me, with the generosity and spontaneity that characterizes many Okinawans, to take me to a nearby village where I could see some even older examples. Highlighting the most beautiful pieces, she let me explore on my own, as she returned to her studio to work on a new commission.

We had spoken the previous days of advancing typhoons. The hazy air of this coastal village contained an additional element of salt, and a more pressing breeze seemed to rise from the ocean as I left. The islanders would need all the good auspices of their shīsā and the dragons they could summon.

Local buses connect Naha to the village of Ihara. The Sakana Gallery is located next to a parking lot in front of the Himeyiri-no-to monument. It welcomes visitors and appointments are generally not necessary.

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