Worship The Dead

Ancestral worship is said to have been widely followed in ancient China and in Southeast Asian nations such as Thailand before being adopted by the Ryukyuan people many, many years ago. A number of special ceremonies and annual observances, such as Obon, originated from ancestral worship.

One of the basic tenets of ancestral worship is that the departed ones don't die, even though their human bodies fail -- they continue living in the invisible "Kingdom of the Dead," from which they are often able to influence events which occur within the world. That's why many families provide food, awamori, and on certain occasions, kabijin (money-like paper) at the family tomb or family altar in honor of their departed ancestors.

It's said that the ancient custom of offering kabijin to the dead at Obon and anniversary memorial services at family tombs died out about 350 years ago during the reign of King Sho Nei. Then this custom was revived soon after the people hear of a remarkable story that involved Goeku Oyakata, a nobleman from Shuri. And this is how the story is told:

Goeku was widely known throughout Okinawa not only as a nobleman, but also as a man of culture. He was well-versed in the art of ikebana (flower arranging). One hot summer afternoon, after completing some difficult government work at Shuri Castle, he was strolling down a country lane leading out of Shuri. He enjoyed these solitary walks, not only for the exercise and relaxation, but also for the opportunity to gather fresh flowers and tree branches for his ikebana.

As Goeku approached Nakama Village, near old Urasoe Castle, a rainstorm abruptly hit. He took shelter under a ledge close to the front of a tomb. As the rain subsided, Goeku heard two voices carrying on a lively conversation. He looked all over the place, but couldn't see anyone, even though the voices sounded very close.

One voice said, "Hello, are you there?"

The answer came, "I am here. Who is it?"

"I am Machigane, the one who lent you some money several years ago. I am coming to ask you to repay the loan. Can you do it?"

"Machigane-domo, I am really sorry that I cannot pay you back right now. However, if you could be kind enough to wait until tomorrow, I am sure that my son, Yamado, will bring some money with which I can pay you."

Goeku felt the voice of Machigane was coming from the area in front of the tomb, while the other voice seemed to be inside the tomb.

The outside voice asked, "Why do you expect to receive some kabijin tomorrow?"

From the tomb came the statement, "Tomorrow is the first anniversary of my parting from my family. I feel certain my family will bring food, drinks, and money to me on this important occasion."

Then the strange voices disappeared.

Goeku took a careful look around, but was still unable to find anyone there. He checked the name on the tomb and walked to Nakama Village. The village headman showed him the home of Yamado Uehara.

After meeting Yamado, Goeku told him about the voices he heard in the vicinity of the Uehara family tomb.

Yamado nodded gravely and said, "That must have been the voice of my father who died about a year ago, before he had a chance to work out the repayment of a loan from his friend, Machigane, who also died soon afterwards."

Yamado looked so sad that Goeku asked him what was wrong.

"I know my late father expects the family to do what should be done on the first anniversary of his death. However, I am having financial troubles and don't know where to get the money to purchase the food, awamori, and the special kabijin paper for my offering to be placed at the family tomb tomorrow. I am very sad at having to disappoint my dear departed father."

Goeku spoke kind words to the earnest young farmer and handed him some money. "Please consider this a gift in honor of your father. You do not have to repay it."

Yamado graciously thanked the nobleman.

The next afternoon, Yamado and his family visited the family tomb, bringing various gifts. Yamado spoke before the tomb and told his late father how the generosity of the Shuri nobleman made it possible for the impoverished family to bring the customary gifts. As the sun went down, the family returned to their home and soon went to bed. After sleeping for several hours, Yamado had a dream about his dead father, who spoke to him.

"Many thanks, my son, for the food, drinks, and kabijin. I have repaid the loan to my friend and I believe our friendship can now continue indefinitely without strain. Do not forget to express our family's deep appreciation to Goeku Oyakata."

The next day Yamado visited Goeku's mansion in Shuri. He was kindly received by Goeku, who said, "It was my pleasure to help your family perform its duty to its departed ancestor. Those who respect and care for the members of their families, both living and dead, will have full rich lives."

As the news of the Goeku's and Yamado's experience spread throughout the land, more and more families visited their family tombs on special days, paying their respects and offering gifts of food, awamori and kabijin to their departed ancestors. This custom continues to this day.