All About Okinawa
The Shisa

This story appeared in the December 1998 issue of Kidnaround magazine.

Shisa lions (also known as shiisa) can be seen on top of roofs or at the gates of Okinawan homes and businesses, and even on street corners. From small to large, old and new, shisa lion statues help ward off evil. How they came to be used as protectors is a story told and retold over the centuries so often that many different stories resulted.

One of the more popular ones involves. . .well, read on.

Long ago on the Japanese island of Okinawa lived a young boy named Chiga-san. The small village that Chiga-san lived in was terrorized by an angry dragon. The dragon would suddenly appear from the sea to attack the village and its unlucky villagers. One day, after another attack, the king of Okinawa came to the village and approached Chiga-san.

"I saw the dragon and the troubles it is causing you," the king said and pulled out a piece of rope with a small statue attached to it. "Here, take this shisa lion and place it in front of the village. It will protect all of you from now on."

Chiga-san took the small statue and looked at it. It was a boring brown color. The face of the shisa looked like a lion, except much fiercer, with a snarl on its lips. Chiga-san bowed to the king and placed the shisa on the beach in front of the village, then went back to playing with his friends.

The next day the villagers heard huge waves crash on the beach -- the dragon was approaching. They ran out of their homes, their eyes on the beach where the shisa statue sat. The dragon leaped out of the ocean and swung its head from side to side, then stopped. The small statue of the shisa lion began to tremble. A loud sound came from it, like a muffled lion's roar, and suddenly the statue cracked open. A huge shisa lion sprang out and attacked the dragon. They disappeared under the ocean and the villagers feared the shisa lion was dead.

Suddenly, far out in the ocean, what looked like a fountain of water rose into the air. The villagers and Chiga-san held their breath. They heard the roars of the shisa lion and the bellows of the dragon, then all was quiet and the water slowly fell back to the ocean. The villagers gasped in surprise. A small island was now where there had been none.

Chiga-san frantically looked and looked at the ocean for the shisa lion, but it didn't reappear. Then, when he looked down at the sand, Chiga-san jumped back -- the shisa statue was there, all in one piece and not a crack on it.

The village was never bothered by the dragon again. Word soon spread around Okinawa of the shisa lion's bravery and protection of the village. Soon, other villages made their own shisa lions, and the shisa became known as the protector of the islands.

To this day, a home or business will usually display two shisa lions -- one with its mouth open to scare off the evil spirits and the other with its mouth closed to keep the good spirits in.