The Shiisaa Stared Back:
the grinning guardians of Tama-Udun
“I think she just said they’re on top of the tombs.”
This is what Rei whispers to us, and we go silent. We go silent, and even those of us who don’t speak Japanese strain to hear what the spectacled ladies in their floral prints behind the window are now telling Alan. We go silent because at that moment a wall of rain begins to fall behind us. And we go silent because they may have just answered one of the questions the six of us traveled over five thousand miles to answer.
Our story begins with a photo taken in 1952. Two creatures hunch in the immediate foreground. At first, they appear hostile, fierce, protective. The next they are almost crazed, jovial, mocking — like kittens batting at a ball of yarn. Looking closer, it becomes obvious that they are statues. Dappled sunlight accents their rough surface. Mottled shadows give definition to the intricate patterns of fur ornately carved atop their heads. But where are they? Backed by rough wooden planks and tattered curtains, it looks like someone left them in a shed.
One of one hundred fifty-some surviving photographs printed by Capt. Charles Eugene Gail, an American Army dentist, during his one-year tour in Okinawa, the photo itself is a simple one. Dr. Gail’s daughter, Geri, tells us that her father was fond of rambling the countryside searching for artistic inspiration, but that he ruthlessly culled his photographs in the darkroom. She recalls how as a young girl she often sat by his side and watched him toss print after print into a giant trashbag, explaining why these had not made his cut. So why did he keep this one? Unfortunately, Dr. Gail can’t tell us. He passed away in 2003.
At first glance, the photo seems far from artistic in style, documentary, really, and arguably pedestrian. It stands out as unique in a collection of everyday landscapes and people. These statues seem to have uncommon cultural value. But to us, they were a mystery.
Alan, the only team member who had previously visited the island, was able to tell us that they are shiisaa: leonine apotropaic statuary pairs commonly placed atop Okinawan houses and gates to ward off evil spirits. That was all he could say.
In September 2014, we traveled to Okinawa, in part, to see how many of Dr. Gail’s photos we could actually place on a map. While these shiisaa were unusual and their placement in the shed suggested that someone intended to preserve them, we had little hope that we could find these very ones.
The Battle of Okinawa destroyed everything. Seven years later, when Dr. Gail encountered the shiisaa, the landscape was still in ruins and the occupying Americans had just begun to comb the rubble for the traces of an Okinawan heritage they could restore. Were these statues saved by the conquerors for the sake of the conquered? Or were they banal, everyday things any roaming soldier might have seen?
The statues stared back, but refused to tell.
A few months before our trip to Okinawa, we hit a treasure trove of primary sources. We dealt them out, picked our way through. And one overcast morning, anxiously flipping pages in my car before a doctor’s appointment, I found myself gasping, smiling, looking down at the familiar grin of the exact same shiisaa.
The source was nothing more than an aging pamphlet encased in a plain cardboard binding, undated, the title bland: Cultural Assets of the Ryukyus. The contents were haphazardly arranged, composed mostly of disjointed entries full of inconsistencies and typographical errors. But there it was: one of the shiisaa staring right back at me.
We now had clues. A few of them, anyway. According to the guide, one shiisaa was male, the other female; they had been placed atop the Ryukyuan royal tombs in Shuri between 1477 and 1526; one was significantly damaged by U.S. shelling in 1945; and sometime thereafter they were propped in the corner of a shack ostentatiously named the “Ryukyus Government Museum.” Dr. Gail had probably encountered these in Shuri. We thought for sure we would find them in the new Okinawa Prefectural Museum in Naha.
These statues carried significance both for Okinawans and for the U.S. occupying forces — they were “assets,” meant to preserve the mere idea of prewar Okinawa.
The road to Shuri now pulses not with the fire of battle, but with the din of a modern suburb. Traffic lights conduct the ebb and flow of cars, and the glare of brake lights mixes with the alluring glow of shop signs, all of which circumnavigate the dais upon which the restoration of Shuri-jō rests.
Our faithful kei-cars, Kenji and Seizen, snake their way up the hill. We park in a massive garage just beneath the castle grounds, but as we emerge outside, the heaviness of the heat and humidity conjure a familiar hunger. Instead of heading for the castle, we turn west and find ourselves in a charming noodle shop, happily chowing down and sharing Dr. Gail’s photos with the shop owner and her daughter. We finish and, on a whim of Alan’s, head even further west.
Dark, dense clouds are rolling above as Alan yells back, “I think Tama-Udun is this way.” We amble alongside a long stone wall and he says, “If I remember correctly, I was here twenty years ago and it’s worth taking a look.”
We turn down a short stone pathway and come to an unimpressive, nondescript building, where three elderly women sit behind a window waiting to collect our entrance fee. We pass them our coins and they tell us to check out the exhibit room before heading to the tombs. This we do obediently, but it’s not so much a museum as it is a hodgepodge of eclectic items tossed into a dimly-lit basement. But amongst the funeral urns and historical photos, to our surprise, the shiisaa peer out at us from a poster. We rush back upstairs and Alan leans through the window with Dr. Gail’s photo of the shiisaa in hand, and says in Japanese, “We’re looking for these, do you know where they are?”
The Okinawan rainfall forgoes a drum roll, and swiftly and suddenly bursts into a full, symphonic crescendo, and I hear something in Alan’s voice I’ve never heard before.
They reply affirmatively. He presses them again. You can hear it. “Really?” he’s asking. “Really?” I don’t even speak Japanese, and I know this is what he’s demanding to know.
Our umbrellas bloom one by one and we’re practically running down the path, clambering over each other in sheer excitement, wondering, is this possible? Could this really be? And as we turn the corner, blaze through a large stone entrance and skid to a halt in a gravel courtyard, we see, for the first time, the shiisaa grinning at us from atop the tombs.
We had expected to find them inside a glass case in a gleaming new museum and instead we found them standing in the rain perched atop the tombs where they had first been placed nearly five hundred years ago. But now, these two shiisaa were no longer merely guardians of the tombs and the royalty residing within. They had become the guardians of Okinawan culture itself.
[to be continued]
Story by Conner Lowe & Madeline Thompson
With additional contributions from The Gail Project Editorial Board (Alan Christy, Rei Coleman, Daniel Cook, Stella Fronius, Jennifer Lemieux, Conner Lowe, Natanel Miller, Stephen Pearson, Tosh Tanaka and Madeline Thompson)