The shiisaa (sometimes spelled shisa) is a traditional decorative icon of Okinawa. The shiisaa resembles a cross between a lion and a dog and usually appears in pairs. It is similar to the Chinese guardian lion or “foo dog,” which is commonly seen at the entryways of buildings in China. Like the Chinese lion, the shiisaa serves as a guardian or sentinel in Okinawan (Uchinanchu) culture.
The Uchinanchu people place the two shiisaas either on their roofs or at the gates to their homes. Doing this is believed to ward off bad spirits. Stories about the pair’s genders can vary, but most people believe that the one on the left is male because his mouth is closed to prevent bad spirits from entering the home, while the one on the right is female and has her mouth open to draw in good spirits and energy.
The shiisaa also appears in Okinawan festival dances. Performed by two people wearing a costume that includes a prominent face and thick, shaggy yellow or brown fur, shiisaa dances are accompanied by traditional folk songs performed with a sanshin, the Uchinanchu cousin of the shamisen (traditional three-stringed Japanese instrument). Shiisaa dances are most commonly seen at Okinawa’s annual Shisa-mai (Lion Dance) Festival.
At JANM’s Free Family Day on July 11, held in conjunction with the opening of the new exhibition Sugar/Islands: Finding Okinawa in Hawai’i—the Art of Laura Kina and Emily Hanako Momohara, children can learn more about these charmed creatures at our two shiisaa-making craft stations. Other Okinawan-themed activities will include Okinawan lei-making, Okinawan pastry sampling, an Okinawan gift raffle, and performances by Okinawan musicians, dancers, and taiko drummers.
This post was written by Alexis Miyake, JANM’s 2015 media arts intern. Alexis is a fourth-generation Okinawan born and raised in Hawaii. She is currently an undergraduate at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).