The Guardian Lions of Okinawa

They were everywhere, and I was intrigued. On the garden wall or gatepost of nearly every house was a pair of grimacing lion-dog figures. I had seen giant lion statues outside the sleek downtown Bank of China back in Suzhou, and for that matter at some American Asian restaurants, but these were as common as mailboxes. I had never seen anything like it; it was so cool and unique but also mystifying. No background knowledge of the area, no language to communicate in, hardly any people on the streets to speak with even if I could have, just me and my chaco sandals and banged-up phone wandering around the tropically overgrown sidewalks taking photos of mysteries.

The lions always come in pairs – one male, one female. The male is always on the right. You can tell he is male because he is the one with his mouth open, baring his teeth to scare away evil spirits. The female is always on the left. You can tell she is female because her mouth is closed (although her teeth are probably still visible) to keep the good spirits in.

These two above are so cute. These Okinawan figurines are not actually lions like the original ones from China, but a hybrid lion-dog with an origin in varied mythology. They’re called Shisa, and they are a phenomenon unique to the Ryukyu islands, of which Okinawa is the largest. The outsides of houses are the most common place to see them, but they can also be found on gateposts to public buildings – sometimes at the entrance to the parking lot!

Like most other small porcelain Shisa that you can find in gift shops, the two figures below prefer to let their bug-eyes do the talking. I just feel like they’ve put the whole force of their eyes into those stares, trying to poke them all the way out of their face if they could. Whatever’s going on here seems very important; I feel bad for looking away from someone trying to so intensely to communicate with me!

The male and female duality here reminds me of the concept of the yin/yang and the interplay between masculine and feminine energies inside everyone. (This has almost nothing to do with your gender identity or outward stereotypical expressions of cultural masculinity/femininity such as clothing, occupation, etc. This is purely a discussion of energy.)

As important as it is to lean into your primary energy in order to flourish, it’s also crucial to be able to access the other. If we were to split hairs and categorize every activity – like planning, listening, creating, striving – into yin/yang or masculine/feminine, we would see that a healthy life requires constantly shifting between the two all day long. Talk and listen. Work and rest. Compete and collaborate. Give and receive.

Both of these energies have a “wounded” or what is more often called “toxic’ version of themselves. The masculine can become warped into dominance and aggression, while the feminine can become warped into insecure people-pleasing and passivity. One takes out its negative emotions on everyone around it; one turns its negative emotions on itself.

Both of these negative extremes make me absolutely furious to see. It’s such a brutal betrayal of an individual’s humanity and well-being, and so destructive to everyone around them. People can turn into caricatures of their worst qualities and it’s a heartbreaking cycle driven by a deep lack of self-acceptance and self-love. Both set a horrible example for children of both sexes who are picking up ideas about how men and women behave. They will have to re-learn what to expect from both themselves and relationships.

(Psst. Please enjoy the photo of whatever the heck this is absolutely losing his shit and yodeling at the sky.)

But wholeness and healing are possible. Decide to make peace with the dualities you find in yourself and to open yourself to being comfortable with the parts that make you uncomfortable. You’ll find yourself with a quieter confidence and acceptance when faced with the aspects of others that you don’t like either. They key is to not be threatened by your own humanity, to not go to war with it but to embrace it. Then you will be able to embrace the humanity in others, because finally you will understand it. You don’t have to be your own enemy.

Ah, these serene porcelain figures with the cool tones and restrained expressions. She is calm and somehow manages to be adorable through lack of facial expression – just a neutral, chilled out lion meeting your gaze with two fangs sticking out to give the whole thing character. He looks like he just saw his kid do a front flip off the top shelf in the garage – Whaaaa?????

These two below are clearly the looniest, most bizarre, specifically featured lions I ever came across. They are true gargoyles indeed – it’s almost uncomfortable to look at them for too long. Whatever weird, obscure emotion or meaning these facial expressions are meant to convey would almost be cheapened by memes…but boy, were they made to be meme-d!!!

Seriously, if you have any ideas for good meme captions for any of the Shisa in these pictures, PLEASE comment with them below!

This has been just a sampling of the dozens of Shisa I saw in Okinawa. At some point I just quit taking pictures because they all blended together. Okinawa is really a unique place, and I’m so lucky that I got the chance to explore part of it on foot as thoroughly as I did.

Published by gracexaris

Explorer, thinker, writer, teacher, woman.

One thought on “The Guardian Lions of Okinawa

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