Entries in Kagoshima (3)



  Walking down a cobbled slope in the Kinjō-chō neighborhood just south of Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa, I spotted a sign usually overlooked by tourists who can't read kanji: 敢當

  Ishigantō are ornamental tablets or engravings placed near or in buildings and other structures to exorcise or ward off evil spirits. Shí gǎn dāng, as they are called in Mandarin Chinese, are, according to Mr. Wiki, "often associated with Mount Tai [north of the city of Tai'an in Shandong province] and are often placed on street intersections or three-way junctions, especiallyin the crossing."

  Ishigantō were introduced to the Ryūkyū Kingdom from China and can be found throughout Okinawa Prefecture, where they are called Ishigantō or Ishigandō and to some extent in Kagoshima Prefecture, where they are called Sekkantō.



   I sometimes tell younger men that if they want to seduce someone, one of the fastest ways to close the deal, so to speak, is to inject a sense of coincidence into their meetings, popping up naturally, nonchalantly where the woman wouldn’t expect to find you. “This can border on stalking,” I warn them, “so be sure not to overdo it.”

   After bumping into each other a few times, say to the woman, “It must be fate,” then ask her out for drinks. If she believes that two of you have en (縁がある), why half the work will have been done for you. If, on the other hand, the relationship doesn’t work out, you can say the two of you simply didn’t have en (縁がなかった). Couples who divorce or break up never to speak to one another again are said to have cut the en (縁を切った).

   When people learn that both my first and second wives hailed from Kagoshima prefecture, one from the Ôsumi peninsula, the other from Satsuma peninsula, they comment that I must have some kind of en with the prefecture. “Yes,” I reply, “in a past life I was Saigô Takamori’s pet dog.”[1]

   In spite of my normal skepticism of “destiny”, there are times when the accumulation of coincidence is far too great to ignore. Take the Japanese princesses Masako and Kiko, wives of Crown Prince Naruhito and Prince Fumhito, respectively.

   Princess Masako's maiden name was Owada Masako (小和田 雅子, おわだまさこ), Kiko's was Kawashima Kiko (川島紀子, かわしまきこ). Line the two princess's maiden names up side by side with Masako's maiden name on the left and Kiko's on the right and you get: 

お o          か ka
わ wa       わ wa
だ da        し shi
ま ma       ま ma
さ sa        き ki
こ ko        こ ko

Now read the boldfaced hiragana. 


お o          か ka
わ wa       わ wa
だ da                     し shi
ま ma       ま ma
さ sa                      き ki
こ ko        こ ko

→ お・わ・だ・ま・さ・こ  おわだまさこ   小和田雅子  Owada Masako

お o          か ka
わ wa                     わ wa
だ da        し shi
ま ma                    ま ma
さ sa        き ki
こ ko                     こ ko

→ か・わ・し・ま・き・こ  かわしままさこ  川島紀子  Kawashima Kiko 


   Whaddya think? Have they got en?


[1] This is rather funny in Japanese. Trust me.


Amami - What's in a name?


   My mind has been on Okinawa a lot since returning from there a few weeks ago. If time permits, I'll try to write down some of my thoughts about the trip in the coming days and post some photos, as well.

    The other day, I was talking to a doctor. Although he was born near Kagoshima city and has been living in Fukuoka prefecture ever since graduating from medical school, his family originally hailed from Amami Ôshima. He told me that unlike most Japanese whose family names are written with two or three (and occasionally four) Chinese characters (e.g. 田中 - Tanaka, 清水 - Shimizu, 西後 - Saigo, 坂本 - Sakamoto, 長谷川 - Hasegawa, 長曽我部 - Chôsokabe etc.), the family names of the people of Amami Ôshima are often written with a single character (e.g. 堺 - Sakae, 中 - Atari, 元 - Hajime).

    This calls for a brief history lesson.

   In the late sixteenth century, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (warrior and unifier of Japan 1537-1598) asked the Ryūkyū Kingdom for help in his ill-faited attempt to conquer Korea. Hideyoshi intended to take his ambitions on to China in the event that he succeeded in Korea, but as the Ryūkyū Kingdom was a tributary state of the Ming Dynasty, Hideyoshi’s request was turned down.

   Having refused demands for aid on a number of occasions, the Ryûkyû Kingdom drew the ire of the newly established Tokugawa shogunate  (1603–1867) and Shimazu clan of southern Kyûshû, and in 1609 the Satsuma feudal domain (present-day Kagoshima prefecture) was given permission to invade the kingdom. While the the Ryûkyû Kingdom was able to regain some autonomy a few years later, Amami Ôshima and other islands north of present-day Okinawa were incorporated into the Satsuma domain. (Incidentally, the islands had been independent before being conquered by the Ryûkyû Kingdom in 1571.) These islands remain part of Kagoshima prefecture to this day although the inhabitants are ethnically, culturally, and linguistically—you name it—closer to Okinawa.

   As was the case for ordinary people in Japan proper, the people of Amami did not have family names until the islands came under the control of the Ryûkyû Kingdom. Family names may have been used in order to keep track of who was entering and leaving the kingdom. During the time that the islands were under the control of the Satsuma han (feudal domain), the residents were classified as farmers under the four occupations social class structure and not permitted to have names. The surnames that survive today were assigned after the fall of the feudal system and Meiji restoration in the late 1860s.

   Now there was an exception to certain residents of Amami who had made great contributions to the Satsuma rule. These people, however, were given family names that consisted of one character. One purpose in doing so was to draw a distinction between people from Satsuma and those from the islands. Another reason was that as a tributary of China, the Ryûkyû Kingdom had used Chinese surnames (known as karana, 唐名), and assigning such surnames was a way of acknowledging the historical connection to Ryûkyû. (Don’t quote me on this as I’m merely summarizing what others have written in Japanese.)

  At the beginning of the Meiji era (1875), all Japanese citizens were required to have family names and the people of Amami tended to choose one-character names that they were familiar with. For a list of these names visit here.