Hai Sai! Welcome to my Blog.

Hello, my name is Tom Corrao and I am the blogger behind the Okinawaology Blog. I created this blog to share and discuss all things Okinawan. I’m also the Public Relations Officer and Minkan Taishi to the Chicago Okinawa Kenjinkai. My experience with Okinawa is derived from the time I spent there during the 1980's and 90's (10 years) when serving in the United States Air Force. I've also been married to an Okinawan woman for 30 years now and have been immersed in many things Okinawan through both friends and family. I do not claim to be all knowing about everything Okinawan but I try hard and study the history and culture. I welcome everyone that is interested in Okinawa and hope that I can provide useful information to those uchinanchu that may be curious about their culture and heritage. I also welcome those who are not of Okinawan heritage but have experienced, or are experiencing, the islands culture while stationed there with the United States Military. Comments are welcomed and will be published as long as they are in good taste and on track with the purpose of this blog. My hope with this blog is to bring Uchinanchu people around the world a little closer to their cultural roots by expressing information that has started to fade in light of a more modern world. We should never forget our culture or the people who came before us and through the Blog my intentions are to meld the old with the new and implant knowledge that will help maintain the traditions and culture of an island people.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Customs of Dying and Family in Okinawa

Ok, if I’m going to be discussing Okinawan Customs and Rituals on this blog I probably need to base their timing around when they occur during the year. Okinawans do have plenty of their own holidays and traditions throughout the year so it only makes sense. One of the traditions that will be occurring throughout much of the month of April is called Seimei. Pronounced "She Me" in the local dialect, Seimei is a family gathering rich with ritual and tradition that goes back for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years. Some of the rituals and traditions associated with it may seem strange to westerners at the onset. But if you take time to examine them, you'll find that there are many similarities as well.

Traditionally, periodic gatherings of the extended family occur at the family shinju (haka), or "tomb." The tombs resemble small houses, complete with a courtyard which is called the “naa.” There are family name markers, and a sort of "porch" upon which offerings are arranged. Inside the tomb are the cremated remains (funishin) of several generations of family members. Although responsibilities may vary on a case-by-case basis, it’s generally the oldest male of a family who takes on the financial responsibility and upkeep of the existing tombs and establishment of new tombs once the old are full or should they be destroyed.

During a typical extended family gathering at the tomb, incense, food, offerings, and prayers are given to the ancestors, and then there is a picnic that is enjoyed by those in attendance. I first experienced this type of gathering when my father in law passed away a few years back. It was not the time of the Seimei but the experience is the same only there is more expression of ones grief when the death of a loved one has just occurred.

Let me try to address this in the order that I believe it happens when an Okinawan passes away. The body will normally remain in the home of the person who has died. If the person dies at a place other than the home the body is usually returned to the home so that friends and relatives can visit them for a period of 24 hours. During the day people will show up and pay their respects and to leave offerings of money. The body will lie in state until the next day when it is taken to be cremated.

The next day will be the funeral service. The person who has died will be added to the family altar in the home. Their picture will be set out as well as offerings of flowers, food, and money. The urn containing the cremated remains will also be there. Something my wife remembered as a child was that all the pictures in the rooms were turned around so they could not be viewed during the ceremony. Many people show up at this time and will include both immediate and extended family members as well as friends and neighbors.

When a loved one dies in Okinawa the family reverts back to their Buddhist beliefs and has a monk come to the home where a ceremony is performed. This service is not a free service and it is expected that the family will provide the monk with “Ofuse” (a donation equal to $500-1000). Ofuse is placed into a special envelope and given to the monk at the conclusion of the ceremony.

After the ceremony the remains are taken to the tomb with all family members and friends going along. The remains are placed into the tomb and the tomb is sealed up. Offerings are placed on the porch of the tomb in front of the doorway and to both sides of the entrance. Everyone pitches in and cleans the area around the tomb. A goza mat or tarp is then spread out on the ground and prayers are offered.

While the area was being cleaned I observed salt being thrown around the outer perimeter of the tomb area. There were other tombs in close proximity and I was told that the salt prevents other spirits from taking the offerings left for the family member that has died. The Food was placed on banana leaves similar to the way mochi is wrapped. This I was told was for the other spirits in the area whose families may not have visited them for some time. It is offered so that these other spirits could also partake in the process of sending a loved one off.

There is an etiquette associated with visiting the tomb areas and various taboos exist in relation to the tombs. For instance, it is considered very rude to point at a tomb or speak loudly about the dead while around a tomb. You should also never take pictures of a tomb without expressed permission of the family. It is considered dangerous to desecrate a tomb with graffiti, or by disturbing offerings such as flowers, or by damaging the tomb in any way. Remember there are spirits residing in the area. Bad luck may come upon you if you partake in any sort of desecrations. It’s also considered dangerous may be to approach a tomb without proper authority (such as being a relation to the family) or to visit a tomb at night.

Ceremonies performed after the death of a loved one take place at specific intervals. After the funeral the family will visit the haka every day for the first week. Then, visit every week for the next six weeks. Visitors will also attend these gatherings on the odd weeks. (3rd and 5th weeks) The interesting thing that occurred with the death of my father in law was that when he died he did not have seven weeks left in the year so when the last week of the year arrived they celebrated it as if it were the final ceremony on the 49th day. After these more immediate ceremonies the family will gather at the 1, 3, 7, 13, and 33 year marks in commemoration of the loved one at the tomb. There will also be visitors come to the home at these times where food is served and the visitors pay their respects. This lasts until the 33rd year after a relative's death because it is at this point that the deceased individual believed to have taken their place with all his ancestors in the afterlife.

Picture by Keith Graff
Seimei is the yearly gathering that occurs in April and perhaps one of its most important aspects may seem the strangest to western minds. It is the gathering of the clan at the family tomb for the annual commemoration picnic. The atmosphere is not sad at these gatherings and carries genuine picnic atmosphere exuberance. Everything that takes place seems for the most part to be normal picnic activity but it's the location is the thing that makes it seem strange. You need only remember that it's a time of remembrance to bring a sense of normality to it. In Okinawa, the family is first and foremost in order of importance. Okinawans don’t think of themselves so much in terms of what they are but more in the sense of who they are. This is because their culture and their family lineage is much more important to them.

Most people from the older generations can tell from the family name, where on the island a family originated from. For example they might know that the Oshiro's come from Itoman in the south, the Yonamine's come from the Motobu peninsula in the north and the Tsuhako's come from Chinen in the east and so on. Though not as common as it used to be, in some cases, it's even still possible to tell what a persons profession is based on their family name.

A lot of preparation goes into holding a successful Seimei. Because families are extended and attendance is practically mandatory, some scheduling has to be done to insure that daughters and their husbands will be able to attend. After all, they must also attend the husband's side of the family's celebration too. Traditional foods are prepared the night before as well as the morning of the Seimei. Incense and offerings to the ancestors must be prepared.

On the day of the big event and everyone finally arrives, the area must be cleaned of weeds and debris. The offerings are arranged before the altar and incense is burned. The incense used is a special kind that consists of three individual sticks that are fused together. One stick of three is burned for every living member of the household to include those, like myself, who are related by marriage. Lastly, paper representing money is burned and offered to the ancestors.

After all the offerings are made to the ancestors and the incense is finally burned away, the family begins to feast. Traditional foods such as fish tempura, gobo root, daikon radish Kamabokko (fish cake) and San-mai-nikku (pork belly) are consumed. For dessert, mochi is on the menu. Mochi is rice that is cooked, pounded and finely kneaded into a paste. Its then stuffed with something sweet, usually adzuki beans and dusted with confectioner's sugar. The whole ceremony lasts about an hour.

Afterward, everyone usually returns to the head of the clan's home and the feasting and fellowship last well into the evening hours. Include a little beer or Aomori and it may go on through to the next morning. That's all well and good provided you don't have to work the next day. But in Okinawa, allowances are made for this because Seimei is such an important part of the culture. It's who they are!

This posting is a conjoined posting as I used some content offered by my friend Keith Graff who is a photojournalist in Okinawa. I’ve combined his information and mine into the above to give the best overall view of what the customs of dying in okinawan culture are and to show that the strong family connection still exists even after one has passed. I welcome corrections questions and comments about what you see here. Please comment if you feel so inclined and subscribe as a follower if you wish to read my future posts. Mata mensooree tai!


  1. Tom,
    Great post here. This is probably the most through article I've ever seen on the Okinawan shiimi. Well presented and awesome photos.


  2. Thanks, Mike! I can't take all of the credit because I used information from Keith's posting a couple years back but I tried to expound on the the content and take it a little further through my own experiences. Don't you two work together? I welcome any subject materials you guys may want to throw my way. Of course, I'll include you in the credits. Thanks again Tom

  3. why use artificial (paper) flowers and not live flowers?

  4. There are live flowers

  5. what happened to Obon? When I was stationed on Okinawa from 66 to 69 that was a major family holy time in August to honor the spirits of the departed.

    1. Obon is the period of time to invite the deceased, who have already been honored at the time of their death to come back and spend time with family to enjoy the music of Eisa. Shimi is practiced 3-4 times during the year when family members gather at the tombs to pay homage to the family that came before them. Misinterpreted at Ancestor Worship, it is like Americans visiting their deceased family members, placing flowers and offering prayers and well wishes. Okinawan do not worship their ancestors, they pray to them for thanks and for guidance. Same as Americans do, just called by a different name. We just went through this whole process when my wife's father passed away and the mourning period is normally 49 days. However since it will overlap into the new year, it will be stopped prior to the new year as a sign of respect. We will continue to wear black and my wife will take over as head of the family duties as she is the daughter of the oldest son of the clan "Oshiro", two other brothers remain as younger so the family home is passed on to the son or daughter of the oldest living member when they pass. The entire ceremony is tiring but well worth participating in as it differs from customs on the mainland of Japan.

  6. Well they still have Obon in Okinawa but Obon is when the spirits of the ancestors come back to visit. Slightly different than this but a celebration just the same. Think about it like in Ameraca we celebrate Veterans day and memorial day similar but different.

  7. When I was stationed on Okinawan in the 1960s I noticed artificial flowers placed near the tombs. Why artificial when live flowers are available year round?

  8. Informative - not too much on the web with cultural information.
    I will be heading back for this very event and am told that timing is important
    as to when tombs are open and closed.

  9. Tom, thank you for posting this article - it's great! My mother was Okinawan and dad was American; I lived there until I was 18 (left in '84) and grew up participating in the Okinawan customs on my mom's side of the family. I just spoke with my cousins this morning (Sun. night in Okinawa) and they were at various shiimi visits today. I miss it! You have written a wonderful article about the experience, I will share it with my 11-year old son so that he can know some of his family cultural history!

  10. Excellent and informative! My Okinawan uncle just passed away. My mother is there with our family, but the rest of us could not make it. Thank you for enlightening me as to the course of events. My mother, at this time and dealing with grief, can only express exhaustion.
    Thank you again, and I look forward to exploring your blog.

  11. My uncle in Okinawa just passed and today is his funeral. Your article is accurate and I pictured myself attending shimi~ while I was a little girll with all my family & relatives while I was back in Okinawa. Respecting others, especially the elderly is taught in Japan when growing up as a small child. I feel this is lacking in some country. Thank you for sharing.
    By Rika.

  12. Thank you for this. We are not Okinawan but have lived here for some time, and recently had a death in the family and followed many of the customs. We live right next to Shikina O-haka so you could say that we are in the midst of seimei for several weeks every year.

  13. Tom,

    Thanks for writing this. Seimei is not something my wife ever spoke of. Obon yes, shimei no. I met and married my wife while stationed at Kadena from '85 to '88.

    My wife's family is from Miyako. She is there now because her father is in the hospital with cancer. My 13 year old son and I will fly there next week. We suspect my father-in-law will pass while we are there.

    First a comment, in Miyako they bury the deceased rather than the ashes.

    Second a question. I need to buy funeral attire for my son and I to take with us. I am wondering what the current funeral attire is. My wife can't ask that question right now. It would not be proper. Since the daytime temps are currently in the upper 80's and low 90's I am thinking a jacket would make for a quick trip to the hospital, especially coming from Seattle. So, black slacks, black shoes and socks, white shirt and black tie. Short sleeve white shirt with no jacket? My wife thought so, but can't ask. I want to show proper respect for the family and a man I admired.


    1. Steve, sorry for responding so late to your question about attire. The attire you stated is appropriate. Most Okinawans wear long sleeves but short sleeves would be fine considering the temperatures. I hope all went well for you during the trip. I'm sure your relatives were extremely happy that you were able to attend.

  14. Well written as the procedures and rituals here vary only slightly from family to family. I first came to Okinawa in the early 1960s for 3 years during Viet Nam, then met my Okinawan wife in CA., We returned to Okinawa in 2002 for many years until moving her for good in 2010. All of my wife's family is here and although we have attended many rituals of Shimi and Oban, this was the first death my wife has attended and sadly it was for her own father. Perhaps families in other countries go through their own rituals but normally in the USA they are brief and most family members just show up long enough to be seen. Many families are closer so the rituals are different.

    1. The closeness of the family is definitely a factor but many families still honor the time honored traditions passed down through their own families.

    2. I have been enjoying this blog as I help my 1/4 Okinawan son do a heritage project for school. I live in San Diego. My Navy father married an Okinawan, and her maiden name was Oshiro. I noticed you referred to the Okinawan last names as clans. So I assume your wife and my mom are from the same clan?

    3. I have enjoying reading this blog as I help my son with a heritage project for school. My Navy dad married an Okinawan, her maiden name was Oshiro. I noticed you referred to the Oshiro's as a clan? Are there multiple Oshiro clans? It would be interesting to someday investigate my Okinawan family tree.
      Thank you

    4. Oshiro isw a relatively common name in Okinawa like Smith or Jones in the United States.

  15. I visited Okinawa for the first time 12-25-15 stayed a month with my Okinawan daughter in-law and my son. they both work on military base for the US govt. my son is from Ohio, I am from Green Bay Wis.
    While driving on Futenma Base I noticed Tombs! can you tell me how old those could be and what is put in them?
    I will enjoy reading your Blog and and share this site with Mary my daughter in-law.
    love, geri Koslowsky

  16. The Tombs on Futenma contain the ancestors remains from the Okinawan families that originally occupied the land on Futenma. The war dispersed them but their family tombs remained on the land. Families can obtain permission to tend the grave sites and still carry on the traditions. The old style (turtle shell shaped)tombs are the oldest. All of the tombs on military bases are older than 1944. I don't believe the families can build new tombs or add on to existing sites located on US military bases.

  17. Thank you for the great article! Our first experience with this happened after we had first moved to Okinawa in 1982. We were living in a rented house in Ishikawa. Across the small road were several of the "turtle" tombs. One day we looked out and saw a large family having a picnic at the tomb. After a couple of hours, my front door opened. An Okinawan woman came in, gave a small bow, said something I didn't understand, and went to use our bathroom. Several others came later and did the same thing. We didn't mind; to my family, it was just another cultural experience.

  18. I don't know if this is the site to ask about this but I don't know who to ask. My Okinawan mother just past about a month ago. We have her ashes and will be sending them back to Okinawa for burial. Although I was born there, I've been raised in California so I'm not too aware of the customs. My mother had mental illness (probably brought on by the horrors of the war in Okinawa) so she wasn't very interested in teaching us the customs as she was just trying to make it day to day. My mother was a widow at the time she died (even though my parents had split around 1969 but they never divorced). What are the things I should know, do, honor, etc., before sending her ashes back. Please help.