published October 11, 2021
Shibasashi is an event Okinawans have practiced for centuries on Aug. 15 of the lunar calendar to exorcise their homes. Shigeo Tobaru, a curator at Naha's Okinawa Prefectoral Museum, explains that in days of old the Okinawans believed that the devine power of Nature becomes temporarily weakened following the Fall harvest. In response to that belief it became necessary to devise a method of warding off the evil spirits that could emerge during that period of vulnerability.
As you wander around various places on the island you might see sheaths of grass tied in a knot. They will typically be found at the corners of buildings, in the eaves, near doorways, and sometimes in the mouths of shiisaa, the protective "lion-dog" talisman of which we've all become so aware and fond. The bundles of grass may be in two sizes. The larger bundle is called shiba, while the smaller is san.
The shiba bundle is made from susuki (pampas grass) and may be combined with mulberry grass, although sometimes only susuki is used. Susuki and mulberry grass are used because susuki is considered a symbol of high fertility and its shape resembles rice. The susuki leaves are sharp and resemble a sword. That has led people to believe that susuki has power to keep majimun away. Yanagita Kunio, in 1951, wrote that "just like the shichoku (Aucuba japonica), the susuki ... is liked by gods." When handling susuki it is wise to wear gardening gloves to prevent cutting your hands.
Majimun is a term used to describe a group of specific youkai (ghost, phantom, strange apparition) from Okinawa. This group is characterized by the fact that they bring evil to the people. There are many forms of majimun that include Akanguwaa-Majimun, Afiraa-Majimun, Ushi-Majimun, Uwaaguwaa-Majimun, Gannosei, Hichi-Majimun and Mishigee-Majimun. It is unknown why only Gannosei has a completely different name than the rest.
Mulberry is believed to have power to protect against lightning strikes. An old folk tale tells about an event involving a mulberry tree and thunder and lightning. Kaminari-sama, the thunder spirit, fell down from the sky onto a mulberry tree, got stuck and died under that tree. Since then, it is said that Kaminari and his thunderbolts try to avoid the mulberry tree. The tale doesn't explain why Kaminara is even still around since he supposedly "died" under the tree! But then, Okinawan tales don't have to follow any particularly rigid rules of logic.
There is even a spell which people verbalize during a thunderstorm, Kwaagi-nu-shicha, meaning "Let's go under the mulberry tree," to avoid being struck by lightning.
The Shibasashi custom takes place on hachigachi-kashichii when people pray for good health. They cook rice mixed with azuki (red beans) and place a food offering on the family altar. With those offerings and shiba on the four corners of the house, people should be safe from the majimun.
Interestingly, in Shibasashi the susuki is used to drive off evil spirits but in other situations the same grass is employed to invite or summon the maburi (spirit or soul) of the dead. There is a ritual in the Amami Islands called maburiwaashi that is performed by a yuta (shaman) within the first 49 days following a person's death. Typically, the maburi is summoned on the 19th, 29th or 39th day post-mortem. Such beckoning is accomplished when the yuta chants certain incantations while waving a fan fashioned with susuki in circular fashion around her mouth. In so doing, the yuta is inviting the recently departed to fill her own mouth with words that the deceased may have regrettably left unspoken before death. The shaman then, in this situation, becomes the vehicle through which the deceased may communicate those words. Afterwards, in order to then dispose of the spirit that had temporarily occupied her body, the yuta rids herself of the transient soul by scattering black roasted soy beans. The sinificance of the blackened soy beans is that they will be unable to germinate and thus the spirit of the dead will not be able to return.
It is further believed that the soul of the living is apt to depart with the soul of the dead, so in order to prevent that from happening to those in attendance, the yuta will strike their head and shoulders with the susuki.
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