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Utaki

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One of many small utaki on the grounds of Gokoku Shrine, in Naha's Onoyama Park.
The central space at Gana mui, an utaki in Naha's Oroku neighborhood.
  • Okinawan/Yaeyama: 御嶽 (utaki / on)

Utaki are sacred spaces in the indigenous animistic Ryukyuan religion, the sites of religious rituals performed by priestesses known as noro or tsukasa, as well as more private, individual worship. Most were traditionally seen as sites spiritually supporting the local community around them; rituals performed by priestesses there similarly were aimed primarily at ensuring the well-being of the local community.

Often consisting of groves of trees sometimes surrounded with stone walls but with minimal manmade elements otherwise, utaki were frequently maintained within the inner sections of Okinawan gusuku fortresses. They are one of several types of sites known as uganju 拝所 ("places of worship"), along with sacred springs (kaa), household altars, and small roadside altars.[1] Unlike Shinto shrines, which are typically controlled by a priestly family and which are organized nationally by the Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja Honchô), utaki are generally not owned or controlled by any religious authority; noro, yuta, indigenous activists, tour guides, governments, and powerspot tourists each make of the site what they will, (re)defining and using the site according to their own beliefs.[2]

Utaki are known as on in the Yaeyama language.

The most sacred utaki on the island of Okinawa is an ancient site known as Sefa utaki. Other famous sites include Sonohyan utaki and Suimui utaki on the grounds of Shuri castle.

Most utaki are dedicated to the worship of deities or spirits of protection for the village, or to the deities coming from nirai kanai, the spiritual source or land of the gods far across the sea. Utaki in the royal capital of Shuri as well as Sêfa utaki in the southern portion of the island are also dedicated to the protection of the king, or of the kingdom.[3] Unlike Shinto shrines, however, utaki are typically not visited by locals in an everyday manner, to offer personal prayers or to make wishes; rather, utaki historically and today are primarily sites employed by noro to perform set rituals on particular occasions, and by yuta who perform particular rituals there in the course of their activities as spirit mediums and so forth.

Generally, a large stone or tree marks the center of an utaki; small incense burners and platforms for placing offerings are often arranged there. A particular type of sacred tree, called kuba or shuro, is also common within utaki. In many utaki, there is a particularly sacred area called ibi, where men are forbidden from entering; noro priestesses and other women known as kaminchu (lit. "people of the gods") perform rituals at a spot nearby called kami asagi or tun, to call down the spirits.[4] While some utaki today have worship halls or some other form of building-like structure, and/or a torii gate, these are almost exclusively 20th century additions;[1] in most cases, these were constructed as part of a prewar initiative known as utaki saihen (reorganization of utaki), which aimed to bring utaki into the nationwide ideological and political system of State Shinto.[5]

Though there is no comprehensive information, it is estimated that there are several hundred utaki on Okinawa Island today, and perhaps as many as several thousand uganju sites of other types.[6] While many have been destroyed to make way for homes, roads, and development or construction otherwise, scholars and practitioners/worshippers alike stress that the vast majority of utaki are neither the mere "physical remnants of a pre-modern past," nor "relics of a religious system that is about to vanish."[7] To the contrary, these are living sites, still actively respected and used by members of their local communities. In recent years, many utaki have also begun to attract tourists (mainly from mainland Japan) interested in their supposed character as "powerspots," removed in the minds of these tourists from Okinawan religious, historical, and cultural context and significance; some have been exploited by local governments, tourism organizations, and corporations for the purposes of expanding tourism revenues.

References

  • Thompson, Robin. "The Music of Ryukyu." Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2008. pp305-306.
  • Gallery labels, Okinawa Prefectural Museum.[2]
  1. 1.0 1.1 Aike Rots, "Strangers in the Sacred Grove: The Changing Meanings of Okinawan Utaki," Religions 10:298 (2019), 2.
  2. Rots, 12.
  3. "Shuri ma~i" 首里ま~い. Pamphlet. Naha City Board of Education Cultural Properties Division 那覇市教育委員会文化財課, 1989.
  4. Plaques at Ryukyumura.[1]. These kami asagi or tun often also serve as communal sites for spiritual gatherings, unlike the utaki which generally are not. Rots, 5.
  5. Rots, 9.
  6. Rots, 4.
  7. Rots, 3.
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